Will Oldham has recorded under plenty of different monikers since Drag City released his first record, There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You, under the name of Palace Brothers in 1993. Since then, he's been Palace Music, Palace and, beginning with 1997's minimal and somber I See A Darkness, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, a play on the 18th century Jacobite aristocrat Bonnie "Prince" Charlie, Nat King Cole and, possibly, Billy the Kid. Oldham the man is certainly mercurial - not to mention a little reclusive and withholding, though for reasons he'll explain below - and his music also defies pigeonholing, running from sparse Appalachian ballads to fully orchestrated Countrypolitan and back.
When Oldham, who grew up and still lives in Louisville and whose music falls between the North (Appalachia, Tin Pan Alley) and the South (Nashville, delta blues), recorded 2004's Sings Greatest Palace Music with a group of slick, mainstream country musicians, fans were taken aback, a little unsure of what to make of what sounded like an album-length experiment, maybe a joke. After all, Oldham had always fallen comfortably in an indie-rock, alt-country world, often recording with sparse instrumentation in a log cabin-esque sound environment.
But how quickly things change: After a few years of further experimentation and new directions, Oldham has worked up a new full-length, Beware, released March 17 on Drag City, that synthesizes mainstream country and his alt-country roots, and he hasn't drawn any questions about whether or not he's serious, or if that fiddle or steel guitar is for real. Not that he's getting any less adventurous: The opener "Beware Your Only Friend" is a full-on, string band hoedown, followed by a country swing tune with vibes and more conventional country-rock with a sax solo. Lyrically, Oldham is the same insecure, insightful, uncomfortably honest creature: He tells a woman he wants her to be his only friend, that she wants him to think of her as a daughter and he wants her as his mother. Still, one tune, "My Life's Work" may work as a counterpoint to the moving and depressing "I See a Darkness," recorded early in his career - on it, the speaker sings, "I take this load on / it is my life's work / to bring you into the light / from out of the dark."
When talking with The New Yorker this January, Oldham called Beware "the big record," and he allowed for a photo shoot, a run of singles and a few interviews to help promote it. (Pitchfork reports that a commercial for the album aired during Ellen in the New Orleans market, which, if true, would be the rare TV spot purchased by an independent record label.) While Oldham has never hit the Top 100 Billboard album chart, he's always been on the radar: Johnny Cash and Bjork have covered his songs; he's appeared in videos for Kanye West and R. Kelly; and he's had significant parts in the films Junebug,Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.
NUVO contributor Greg Locke caught up with Oldham last year for an interview broadcast on WBOI 89.1 FM, a public radio station out of Fort Wayne. This is the first time it has seen print.
NUVO: When you were 17, you played a key role in John Sayles' 1987 Oscar-nominated film, Matewan. I guess to the keen eye it would appear that you were an actor before you were known as a musician ...
Will Oldham: From when I was little, I pretty much assumed ... acting was what I wanted to do - this based on my experience from going to the theater here in Louisville, and going to the movies, especially. So I studied that pretty intensely from when I was 8 or 9 until I was about 18. From there, I did that movie, Matewan, and lots of theater here in Louisville and other kinds of jobs. Matewan was really exciting because it maintained the illusion that acting was an interesting profession.
Also during that time, all my friends were involved with music. I wasn't, but all my friends were in bands and playing shows and making records. It was a super exciting time for music because it was a time when popular music was at a low point - at its greatest point of disconnect with people who needed things from their music. Independent music was so exciting then.
I left Louisville at one point and someone said, "You should go to Los Angeles." So I went to L.A. and started to learn what the life of a professional actor was truly like - being in movies and being on television and all that scene. It was very disheartening and I felt completely at a loss at that point because of all this work I put in and ... you know, it was something I just didn't want to be involved with at all.
So there was a couple of years where I didn't know what I wanted to do. I started to play music and, through some rough times, I learned that through acting and writing and putting plays or film shoots together ... I could combine all these things I'd learned firsthand with music. Music audiences were an audience I had a far greater connection with. Music was always very solitary. As a music appreciator I was able to learn the mix of solitary and communal ... back and forth and back and forth.
So I gave up the acting and started gradually working on music. Then one summer I was living in Wilmington with a friend, Todd. He was in the music program there so we had access to the studio. We sent some music to labels - Matador, Homestead, Drag City and Interscope - asking if they wanted to do a 7-inch. Matador and Homestead - even though I knew those guys since I was, whatever, 14 or 15 - they didn't respond, but Drag City responded very positively and Interscope responded with a very kind letter saying that they didn't do seven-inches. I didn't know what Interscope was - I was under a rock.
NUVO: Your music can't be appreciated in full right away. You said something in Surfing Magazine ...
Oldham: Did I? [Laughing.]
NUVO: Yeah, I'm pulling out a weird one here. You said something about how when a person reaches a certain level of notoriety they sort of become public property.
Oldham: Somehow I've worked it out so that I feel pretty much in the dark about my existence, so much so that I know no one else will understand it more than I do. I think part of it has been a subconscious goal: if the danger is to be vivisected, to make that impossible. With that end in mind, the goal is to keep working on music and keep working with people. It would be more of a challenge or just less possible and exciting if everything was an open book - if everything was available and all information and motivation was right there in a huge point font or something. It's kind of self-perpetuating now.
I'm completely mystified by my life most days and surprised by things that happen. That helps me keep going, you know. Like when someone says, "How did you end up in [R. Kelly's music video serial] Trapped in the Closet?" I just thinking, you know, I couldn't really tell you in a way that makes sense. Things like sitting in a room with Johnny Cash and conducting his vocal performance on a song I wrote - the whole time that was happening I was just like, "This isn't the reality that I'm familiar with. This isn't what I understand life to be, but I have to go with it and it becomes reality - but it's not something I understand at all."
NUVO: Yeah, on that note, when I describe you to someone who doesn't know your work, I often find myself using the expression "hardest working." A friend and I were talking about this huge trail of records you've already left behind, wondering, you know, is this guy really going to keep this up for 40 years?
Oldham: [Laughs.] I work under the assumption that "it isn't gonna happen." That there will be some kind of end. Whether it's the end of distributed music, the end of the world, the end of my consciousness and existence or the end of my physical and mental health. And if for some reason Drag City folded I'm not sure that I'd want to make records on a consistent basis with any other label because I've had experiences with other labels and it's just not as rewarding. Really, I don't know when or how, but by applying things in such different ways, I guess ... you know, there are ways of refueling while participating at the same time. Like doing that Kanye thing with Zach Galifianakis [West's video for "Can't Tell Me Nothing"] or doing the record with Tortoise or the covers EP with Meg [Baird] and Greg [Weeks]. It's still getting to play and sing and record and learn from other people while just completely pretending that I'm not involved with writing music at all. That's really freeing, and in a way it kind of allows space and breath into certain kinds of ... into the writing time. For when the writing comes up for whatever reason.
NUVO: In that Todd Haynes film I'm Not There, someone talking about songwriting said "Live your time" to Dylan. Do you try to document your time in your work?
Oldham: Yeah, it's there. I think the goal of documenting your times ... is potentially something that could be useful to people in the future ... because there are things that carry over. I make records more often than a lot of people do, but historically not more often than people have.
There's a tendency to make records on such an infrequent basis, which effectively documents nothing for the audience. You can't get intrigued by an artist who makes a record every two or three years. You can have a relationship with that given record but you can't have a relationship with the way the artist works - their process, their development - becaus"e you don't have access to it. It's super-frustrating and often time it leads me to lose interest in someone who doesn't have interest in fortifying their interest in me as an audience member.
As a member of "these times," I feel like - and I don't impose this responsibility on anyone else - but I feel a responsibility to document a narrative with at the very least my perception of music, not that my perception is special in any other way than that I pay attention. Lots of different kinds of music are very important to me - and lots of musicians.
To get into something specific about politics or religion is to assume that we as citizens or as subjects or whatever have anything resembling fair perspective on those issues, and I don't believe that we do. I don't believe that we do to the extent that we can comment definitively. I'm a firm believer in the exception proving the rule, and sometimes, it gets too strong and you need to make some sort of comment about the state of things morally or politically. But the rule is to fortify the foundation of everyone's belief system, fortify the things that you feel will help people make better decisions in the future, rather than guiding it.
Promotional video for "I Am Goodbye" from Beware, directed by Leif Johnson:And one take on Oldham's mystique: a promotional video for Jeffrey Lewis' "Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror," directed by Mark Locke: