Musician Will Oldham – sometimes known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – has in the past decade or so proved to be an unusually prolific and important voice in contemporary music, expanding his audience and cultural impact with each new release. Although maybe not as widely known as some of his contemporaries, his influence is undisputedly great and he seems to be gaining momentum by the year. Therefore, it was pleasing to learn that his current record, ‘The Letting Go’, was being recorded somewhere in the outskirts of Breiðholt, with fabled Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson acting as a producer. Wanting to learn more about what drove him to record in our revered suburbs, and what drives him in general, the Grapevine somehow managed to procure an interview with him, a transcript of which follows.
We start with the sound of a dialing tone, one that marks the travels of untold electrons across the Atlantic and over some hills, from Reykjavík to Louisville, Kentucky, where it has been raining a lot lately.
///Good evening. Is this Mr. Oldham?
Yeah. How are ya?
/// I am a bit stressed out.
Yeah, me too.
///Why are you stressed out?
What do you mean why am I stressed out?
///You just said you were.
Yeah. Well, I got back last night after being out of town and now I am preparing for a tour. It’s hard work. Just now, when I went to answer the phone, I went into a room I haven’t been in since I got back. There’s been a lot of rain lately, and I just discovered that there’s been a leak in this room. There’s lot of plaster on the floor from when the rain flowed through the roof. It’s frustrating because the rain has been so extreme that it’s probably going to be very hard to find a repairman who’s available.
It’s pretty frustrating, I guess. But I appreciate when bad things like this happen, because I know that bad things have to happen to all of us and if that’s the worst bad thing that happens, then I feel safer. When something bad happens, it usually makes me feel safe because I know you can’t have too many bad things happen on a given day. Like a sort of karmic distribution, yeah. It could be a precursor to worse things, but I think that you’re safe as long as you take it as a symbol right away and try to attend to your karmic issues rather than just, say, accepting it as something terrible. The instant you accept things as being terrible, you’re really just asking for more bad things to happen to you.
///Recording an album with Valgeir must have been a new experience to you, as he is a very involved recordist, probably the opposite of people like Steve Albini.
I am very pleased with the results. It’s a different approach for sure, but both of their personalities become so involved. There’s a different quality and quantity of knob turning, but in terms of infusing the experience with their person, it’s not dissimilar. It’s always a different experience. Ideally, it does affect the music in a good way. The reason to work with anyone for a record has to do with the desire for him or her to affect the music in a good way.
///One of the things I noticed from the new record is that in a way it’s reminiscent of some of Valgeir’s past work with Björk and others.
That’s good [laughs]. Well, the goal was to work with the people we had at hand to come up with the record we came up with. I didn’t think about anybody else’s records in relation to this one, sometimes I do but this time I didn’t since I managed to gather a pool of individuals that was collectively so strong. If there’s something there that you recognize as carrying forward some of Valgeir’s past work, then that’s pretty cool. In gathering musicians and recordists for making a record, I’ve always hoped to represent a good example of the work of people I’m collaborating with at a given time.
///Like paying a tribute, or spreading the word about things you like?
And wanting to learn from these things. I think the best opportunity to learn from someone is to have an interaction with them, in the studio for instance. That’s very valuable to me. Could you assume that the people I’ve worked with have inspired me in some way? Yeah, for sure.
///By now, you are probably in the position that anyone would be happy to work with you.
Well, a lot of the people I admire are folks who don’t even know I exist. I like all different kinds of musicians from all over the world that I may never even get the chance to see play, let alone work with. I won’t tell you who they are, however, so I can keep silently praying and hoping that that active movement can draw me to them. If I become pro-active, it might risk the possibility of a positive relationship between us. I am not very good very good at expressing myself in those ways, so if I want something from somebody, I’m pretty much fucked. I don’t know how to ask for anything unless I have some solid way of speaking their language, which takes a lot of effort. The language of individuals who are themselves, in their own way creating and living in their own linguistic system, it’s challenging to find a way to express the desire to collaborate, to find a way of entry.
With Dawn McCarthy from Faun Fables [a prominent voice on ‘The Letting Go’], it took me years of listening to their records and communicating, doing a couple of shows together, spending time with her here and there before I felt we were on strong enough grounds to broach the subject of collaboration. I felt she wouldn’t have understood because I was seeing her do things that I strive for or am perplexed or fascinated by – or even pissed with – it might be difficult for her to understand why I feel there’s a connection between what we do. I want her to know I’am approaching her music with respect. If that doesn’t translate, and you get the collaboration by coercion, then the working relationship probably isn’t going to be a good one. You might as well go for a good working relationship with people that understand your connection rather than pushing limits that can create a negative energy. Pushing limits is great, but not when it creates negative energy. In any case, I have a tremendous respect for Dawn and the whole of Faun Fables. They remind me of how great things can be and how great they are. They help point me in the right direction sometimes when I feel directionless or lost.
///You feel you’ve strayed off course in the past?
Not necessarily. It’s a daily concern, you know, tending to direction. I don’t feel like I’ve severely strayed off course, but that’s because I tend to direction with such persistence. Being on the right track is a lot of work.
///You spoke of a tour. Are there any plans to come to Iceland?
No, nothing planned for now. This tour will take me through Middle America and then the West Coast, that’s it for now. In the beginning of next year, we’ll try to do some shows in Israel and Turkey. I am a little uncomfortable with going to Israel, but yeah, I think it’s a good idea. I feel the opportunity is there and I am into conquering ignorance – that’s among my own principles. It’ll be interesting to see the audience that comes to those shows; you don’t really have a conception of a normal human being on any side of the conflict that’s going on there, which is all we’ve known throughout my lifetime, at least. I am thinking there must be more ways to look at it; I am counting on it in fact.
///It’s all very politicized. As soon as you stop seeing a person as part of something greater, that’s when the trouble happens. Do you plan on visiting Palestine at all?
That’s a question of mine as well. We’re definitely taking a few days off for the visit and I am wondering about the possibilities of where we can go as civilians and also as professionals. What kind of audiences might we try to play to and if it would be too overtly political to attempt to play to different kinds of audiences. I don’t know. It’s all so political in our perception, people yell ‘Oh my God!’ when they hear we’re going over there. There’s a Palestinian guy who works at my corner shop here in Kentucky and I thought I might ask him about a place to play for a Palestinian audience. But I have to wonder; is it stupid of me to think that it might be unfair to my band members in terms of possibly creating a hassle, if not an outright danger. It would for sure be a media event, playing music is a pop culture thing and to do something that is, at least circumstantially political, it might create problems. People will say that it’s just the arts and nobody cares about the arts, but we’re talking about political borders and rights. So there might be concerns if you play music or whom you play it to. I don’t know. I wish I did.
///Has your worldview changed a lot in the past decade. I notice listening to your early records such as ‘Arise Therefore’ that they seem all dark, conveying a certain bleakness even, while the later ones seem more accepting and content in a way. You reference love a lot, and seem to be using it in the universal sense…
Yeah, it’s more of a universal kind of love. It’s about trying to learn from the works of others. Also trying to express a desire to openness and for connection that can only come with something that’s greater than respect. It has to do with acceptance, a kind of harmony.
///Are you then documenting a personal journey, sending out messages to the world?
I can only hope. Doing what can be done. But maybe not. If I said I was documenting something or delivering a message, that sets me up for potential failure. I don’t want to say that there’s a goal and I don’t feel like a goal is something that reveals itself. You know you work at moving towards something, knowing that in the shortest term you’re moving towards the next thing and in the next one you’ll be moving towards your own death, which is an end in itself. After that, you’re heading towards infinity. None of those things are definable or foreseeable; therefore an unreached goal would count as a failure.
Music should of course be a goal in and of itself, but it should also be a goal that has reverberations that continue towards those other ends and everything that is between now and those things. I try and reach for such things because, yeah, that’s what I listen and look out the window for.
///You obviously see yourself more as an artist than an entertainer?
I feel I have a responsibility to fulfill as an entertainer. Here’s more: say an artist has his field, be it painting, sculpture, theatre or music. My goal, then, would be to be an artist whose field was entertainment. I think of entertainment as being very serious and important, from Laurel and Hardy and upward. It has to do with emotions of release, giving up or extreme hilarity and absurdity. What does ‘entertainment’ mean, anyway, and what’s the difference between that and art?
I would say the main, important difference was that art isn’t necessarily funded by the consumer but entertainment always is. In that way, entertainment is a million times more important to me than art and being an entertainer is more important to me than being an artist. The relationship with the audience is so direct, while the government or rich collectors are going to pay for something that is art, rather than the person that is actually going to have a relationship with the piece. That’s what’s most important to me about what I do. I feel the value of my work is determined very precisely by the audience.
///Do you then try and find out what it’s likely to go for?
I think that is important to some extent.
///You really do that?
I think I do. I came at this thing not as a creator, but as an audience member. Before I made things, I was an audience member and a lot of what I’m doing when creating things is about wanting to evolve as such. To develop a richer and more interconnected relationship with the audience member. If I, say, create a record and ask Valgeir, Don, Emmet and Jim to collaborate, it is because me, the audience, wants to hear them work together with these lyrics and chord progressions and melodies.
It’s rewarding when I find a broader audience that doesn’t think I’m too crazy. Trying to make something for that audience to experience, also knowing that at some level I will be sharing that experience. My absolute, purest particular taste would not be something that could be appreciated on a grand scale. It just wouldn’t. That’s why it’s more important to me to make a record that serves itself and serves its audience as well. If I really made a record to just serve myself I would end up alone in a dark, wet room, you know, that’s not really where I want to be tomorrow. I’d rather do more things that are in the light and with the community. A good record of mine should involve my needs, the listeners’ and the other people that worked on the record. If I manage that, then I feel I’ve accomplished something but ultimately it is the audience that holds the lion’s share of determining if a record is worthwhile.
///Kind of like being a selfish lover. You just end up making love to yourself?
Yeah. At the same time, there are inconsiderate lovers that retain their marital union for a lifetime. There are inconsiderate musicians that continue to make music without giving a shit. You know it’s shitty, I know it’s shitty; still they continue to make records and get accolades.
///You want to reach the widest audience possible?
Yeah, but with the understanding that the greatest possible audience might not be that great. I want to reach a wide audience, but I also want to continue to make music that I wouldn’t disdain or resent. You always compromise to a certain extent, but it’s important not to go too far. It happens all the time that Domino asks me to do this and that, like ‘why don’t you want to be on a cover of a magazine or do more press or tour more’. I want to do that for them, and I understand what they are saying, but I would be at a loss to continue afterwards.
For instance, ‘Greatest Palace Music’ [an album where Oldham covered and ‘softened up’ some of his older songs with a selection of Nashville’s finest] wasn’t done to conform to anyone’s standards. It’s still really exciting when something like that happens, that allows for a different group of people to access the music. The same as with ‘The Letting Go’, a couple of days ago there was a review of it on [American] National Public Radio. That was exciting to me, because I feel like a lot of people don’t get to listen to good music or see great movies because of cultural barriers that have arisen between them and that. People will listen and they won’t know how to get it. They’ll sit and ask themselves, ‘How am I supposed to be relating to this?’
There’s nothing you can do about it, really, except to sit and wait, so for instance ‘Greatest Palace Music’ wasn’t a conscious effort to reach anyone, although I will celebrate if it served that purpose. It might sound nice and arranged and everything, but when you listen to it a few times you are going to realize how strange it is. For my entire audience, the only way for them to appreciate the music is if they come to it of their own accord and find something that satisfies them as individuals.The only way for my entire audience to appreciate the music is if they come to it of their own accord and find something in it that satisfies them as individuals. I’ll do what I can do and they’ll do what they can and hopefully, a mutual understanding can be formed.
It’s nice whenever I finish a recording or a tour and I feel like I’ve done something that I could share with someone that I want to have a communication with, if I feel that it could explain to them how I value their listenership, like with that record. I feel with any music there are people who might not be able to access it unless it’s through a specific recording. Big heroes of mine in music, people like country singer Merle Haggard or the R&B giant R Kelly, I don’t know if it will ever happen, but some day I want to do something with them in a recording studio. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to make that happen, rather than continue doing things my way and hoping that some day that weird, magical gateway will open.
I’ll finish a song, and if I could manage to find the address to send it to them, I hope it could make them understand how I admire them. I don’t necessarily think I’ve done anything that Merle Haggard would understand, he’s one of the people that I admire most in the world, but I know that there are weird things with my records that I don’t expect him to even need to extend himself towards because he seems so fulfilled by his own explorations. It’s a huge thing to imagine that he would, but I know he does listen to music and that it’s a possibility. I thought the song ‘I Called You Back’ on ‘The Letting Go’ was something he might have sung, but I don’t think he would even like that recording, even if that recording of that song is my most favourite thing that I’ve been involved with. He probably wouldn’t think it was anything at all, but it doesn’t change the fact that I totally love that song, and it doesn’t change the fact that I totally revere him. It’s a strange predicament, but those are the things that most folks would understand.
///It might not translate to the general population. It’s not necessarily weird music, there is a certain aesthetic you need to tend to in order to be able to get all there is from it. Like adding to your vocabulary.
Yeah, exactly. And you know, a lot of the people that I admire the most, people like Dawn [McCarthy] or Ben [Chasny, of Six Organs of Admittance], Merle Haggard or R Kelly, a lot of them are people that I don’t think necessarily need to expand their vocabulary, because their world seems so huge and fulfilling in itself. Maybe they don’t feel that way, maybe they’re constantly seeking something and I don’t recognize it because they sound so confident and appealing to me.
///Maybe as an artist, you shouldn’t seek to expand your vocabulary, but that’s something that’s necessary to you as an audience?
Yeah, as an artist I don’t want to. Doing something that’s beyond my abilities or vocabulary just for the sake of doing it is not a good idea. However, if you’d pick ten records randomly out of my collection, it would be difficult for you to make the connection, while to me it is both natural and impossible to define. The work is when I know that there’s all this music that exists and I want to pursue that connection, at least so far as I can get without going in over my head. It’s only like five percent of the time that there is going to be a way to make a connection and that’s what has been mind-blowingly fortunate about working with Dawn, for instance. It doesn’t mean I’d be dissatisfied with my life if I didn’t make a connection with Merle Haggard or this Indonesian group called Surosama. It doesn’t mean life sucks. It’s not even a missed opportunity, because it helps me know the limits of what that communication is. Then I can continue making music at the level of other artists and audience members. The bulk of the music I listen to is music that I’m always going to be an audience member for, and that’s great. Ideally, most people who connect to my music are going to do it in relation to their own universe and not mine. That’s why it’s mass produced; so it can have existence in the places that I myself will never reach.
///Would you like to participate in the mainstream to a greater extent, to spread out the impact of your influence?
No, I mean. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be a featured MTV artist, even though there’s a lot of great music on there, but at the end of the day I think the visual takes away from the experience of the music. I like the idea of being in some ways available to the audience, but I ultimately don’t think of it as something I would really want to get involved with at this point.
///Even though you’re pretty good looking…
That shouldn’t have anything to do with the experience of my music, no matter how handsome I am.
///Speaking of vocabularies, do you consider music to be an expansion on the human vocabulary, a different way of speaking about the things that no words manage to encompass.
That’s right. It should maybe be an evolutionary goal to understand how to listen and take in things without reducing their power, to quantify the colour of power or rhythm or musical intervals in relation to syllables. I recently read an interview that musician Alan Licht conducted with Genesis P. Orridge [of Throbbing Gristle fame], at one point he talks about that there have been cultures where quantifiable powers were attached to certain music, harmonies, melodies or rhythms that are healing, for instance. That understanding may be lost to us, but in the pool of music we have access to they are still functioning in their own way, it’s just that we’ve lost the ability to understand exactly what we’re doing. We go about listening to the music without understanding that there’s something even physiological going on.
Another thing is that this summer, I went to the offices of the Alan Lomax archives [American folklorist and music archivist, active for the better part of the 20th century] and I realized that he spent a good deal of the latter part of his life developing a new science that’s has to do with effectively picking music apart using rhythms, melodies and harmonies and also using the lyrical subject matter and song form – just completely taking it apart in order to define cultures from all over the world through their music. If you could find a way to think that forward, there qualities that are part of a culture and maybe if another culture is lacking those qualities you could transfer them using the music. You could introduce new ways of thinking through music.
You could therefore use music almost in a medicinal way, on a grander scale. You could do cultural, political, emotional or physiological prescriptions through music, meditate ideas and possibly create personal, physical or cultural tendencies. This is what capitalists are trying to do, but they’re doing it by following the trend of the buyer as much as possible, rather than attempting to, say, create an audience that is more weaned to this kind of feeling. It’s like, ‘Well, these people are buying this…’ and not realizing that they’re probably doing it because of a deeper need that’s being satisfied.
///You don’t think capitalists are trying to control their audiences?
Well, I think that they are, but they probably don’t understand… they don’t have musicologists on their staff. So it’s more of an accidental control. Is there anything else you’d like to know, I should really start looking into my roof situation…
///Yeah, you should definitely get going. For the sake of our readers, could you maybe spare five minutes to tell how you came to record in Iceland?
Well, years ago I was going to Iceland, for my second visit I think, and my friend Harmony Korine was friends with Björk and suggested I should get together with her. We decided to meet and that was great. A few years later, she invited me to do some shows opening up for her in the States, something I’d always be happy to do since I am a fan of her music and, especially, of her way of doing things all around. So, I went along to watch the performances come together on a musical and logistical level, and on that tour, I met Valgeir. He was super nice, like most of the people who were traveling with Björk. It was always a pleasure to run into him and spend a few minutes talking here and there. One of the things that surfaced in our talks was that we realised we’d sometime like to do some recordings together.
A couple of years later Björk and Matthew Barney contacted me about providing a voice for one of the songs on Drawing Restraint 9, something I was very happy to be asked I might add, and Valgeir was the one recording it. It was great and afterwards, Valgeir said ‘I still think it would be a good idea for us to do something’ and when he reminded me, I figured that it would of course be a perfect way of making the record I’d been writing at that time. Also, it was great to have completed a short recording session with him. It was manifestal seeing him working and choosing the sounds, recording and playback, those are really super important little hints of how a creative dynamic can work.
Now, there were some rough spots, but for the most part, it was a smooth, enjoyable process. When it comes to recording sessions, I am not the most relaxed person in the world. It’s a short amount of time to focus on and realize a year and a half’s worth of ideas. It is a short, expensive amount of time to just try and cram all those ideas together. Communicating with people in terms of the music itself, paying attention to their actions and performances in the recording studio, it’s super tense and demanding. But it’s also very rewarding. I love that part, but it’s really hard.
///How was the experience of staying here in general? And did the darkness affect you a lot [‘The Letting Go’ was recorded in the months of December and January, when the sun is more or less absent from Iceland]?
We started out with the musicians staying in a hotel in downtown Reykjavík. It wasn’t very satisfying, since we lost a bit in traveling time and it was also kind of anonymous and cold, being a hotel. So Valgeir’s brother Míó – who’s presence contributed a lot to our stay – he soon found this wonderful older woman named Svana who rents rooms out of her house just a short while from Greenhouse studios, after we got that it was just magical. We all had our cosy little bedrooms and she would make a little breakfast for us, each day we would feel more a part of where we were, you know. We’d go swimming every day in some of the great pools that are there. I can’t remember the names of my favourite ones, but I liked having a slide. A slide is important, as is hot water. My priorities, when swimming, are having hot water and a big slide.
As for the darkness, I thought I was looking forward to it in a way, to needing to focus on each other, on all of us who were involved in the recording process instead of the sun. Most of the time we were recording it was rainy and gray, even when it was light out it was rainy, gray and cold. We tracked and tracked and at once we had done the tracking, we went away for the weekend, to this little country house that Valgeir’s father has, to listen to all the songs. That was amazing, being in that stormy, isolated, traumatic landscape in a warm little cabin. We had a bunch of whale meat we stir fried, that was great and delicious.
Also, for the whole time we were there, Dawn [McCarthy] was fascinated by your Christmas visitors. That became a running theme for the stay as we’d learn more and more about them. They were really grim, and that’s right up our alley, a part of the attraction.
///Did you learn about the Christmas cat?
Yeah, I think that’s great, saying he’ll eat you if you don’t get new clothes for Christmas. You need that kind of stimulation to be able to accept sucky presents.
At the end of the tracking process, we scheduled a day off where we went driving around the countryside a bit. There was a full moon and when it cleared up it was beautiful. We drove around all day and the whole time we had the moon sitting on one side of the horizon and the sun sitting on the other side. For the whole time we were out it stayed that way, and it was magical, in a way.