HOW CAN I KNOW? HOW CAN I CARE?
"Affable and forthcoming in casual conversation, Oldham is notoriously antipathetic towards interviews. Long tortured responses are not his style, suffering of fools or their foolish questions not his forte. It is not willful condescension or arrogance, when he says that the music is what it's all about, you know it's true."
Sean Dingle interviews Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
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Seeing Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (aka Will Oldham) perform is an experience never short on epiphanies, but when you have to walk a gangplank in the shadow of a skull-and-cross bones for the privilege you know that you're in for something special. He comes out on stage armed only with his favoured guitar (a slim electric, red in colour) looking tanned and quite healthy -- the prince has apparently spent a few weeks surfing on the Atlantic coast. He plays mostly to the converted, but even greenhorns leave the barge into the Parisian night shaken by the sheer beauty or at least the intensity of his art. Chord-changing scratches, strained vocals tapering into coyote yelps, facial tics as lines are forced out -- things which could be at best banal seem brimful of meaning when it comes to Oldham.
Affable and forthcoming in casual conversation, Oldham is notoriously antipathetic towards interviews. Long tortured responses are not his style, suffering of fools or their foolish questions not his forte. It is not willful condescension or arrogance, when he says that the music is what it's all about, you know it's true.
Essentially, Oldham insists that the relationship between his fans and his songs is possible, but that he remains outside the equation. Under various guises and with or without his band of merry men (Palace, Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers etc.), Oldham has been haunting and troubling fans and critics alike for the past ten years. If you like your genre labels, he is normally found filed under alternative country (with or without dot) or contemporary folk. However, unsurprisingly, he has been steeped in many musical styles and it would be a mistake to imagine that Oldham spent his early days sitting on the porch of some shack in his native Louisville Kentucky, chewing and spitting tobacco to the sounds of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. His eclecticism is evidenced by the fact that when I questioned as to his interest in French music, he cited Charles Aznavour, Fançoise Hardy, Barbara and Serge Gainsbourg as direct influences.
The path to songwriting and performing was not an evident one. After a brief stint as an actor (including a lead role in John Sayles's 1987 film Matewan), and a nomadic few years spent wandering around Europe and the US, he returned to Louisville. Since the release of There is No-One What Will Take Care of You (Palace Brothers) in 1993, his unique voice and song-weaving art have ensured that he has gathered many admirers. He has been championed by such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and Polly Jean Harvey and vaunted by many as the best songwriter to come out of the US in the past ten years. Of the current crop of songwriters, on inquiry Oldham cites Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power), Neil Hagerty (ex Royal Trux), David Berman (erstwhile Pavement collaborator) as being the most talented. His brother Ned is also on the list; it is doubtful that he would include himself.
It would be interesting to see how he would evaluate his latest Bonnie 'Prince' offering, the sublime Master and Everyone, which was released in January of this year. Less obviously jaunty and erotic than 2001's Ease on Down the Road, less somber and menacing than I See a Darkness (1999), Master and Everyone perhaps traces a link going back to Arise Therefore (Palace, 1996) and Days in the Wake (Palace Brothers, 1994).
Oldham famously claimed that he intended to pull a few tracks from it, for the simple reason that when he played them for people, they "liked them too much". Questions on the making of the album or its content are swatted away curtly. What did Lamchop's Mark Nevers, who produced the album, bring to the party? Will replies that he did his job well, adding "he's a good engineer". Ditto for Marty Slayton, the delicious harmonizing voice on five of the album's ten tracks (or "woman singing" as she is credited in the sleeve-notes) -- "she has a good voice". Tantalizingly, Oldham describes the song "Maundering" as an anti-war song during the gig, what does he mean? Once again, it is up to the listener to decipher, a sample of the lyrics will show you how facile an experience that is:
Reading the fragmented and elusive lyrics of this and other albums, one wonders if Oldham is as conscious of their poetic quality. Does he regard himself as a poet? His answer is a flat no. Asked if he thinks posterity will be kind to him and his work, the reply is more forthcoming: "How can I know? How can I care?" From his introspective and highly personal music comes semantic obscurity; the results of his probing are largely hidden from us and you get the feeling that this is how Oldham likes it. As the parting shot of the album, Hard Life, has it:
That was my brush with royalty. If you haven't indulged then his highness is calling, his songs much more so. If you have, then you'll know what I mean …
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sean Dingle lives and works in the French metropolis where he teaches English at the world-famous Sorbonne University. The meagre stipend he receives allows him to indulge in some literary pursuits. He has been published in many journals, most notably The Doudeauville Tribune, which he edits.