Here's a short list of things Will Oldham, who records as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is up to of late: 1) releasing an album and touring with Bitchin' Bajas 2) promoting (as much as Will Oldham promotes) his new Peel Sessions compilation Pond Scum 3) looking forward to stopping at a perfumery in London called Arabian Oud 4) stopping with Maiden Radio Wednesday at the Buskirk-Chumley with his new band of Louisville musicians. All of those things include a lot of time on the road – and after more than two decades of touring, Oldham's got touring, and all the associated boring long drives and gas station snacks and gross trucker showers totally sorted out.
Here's Oldham on travelin'.
“Say we're traveling with a five-piece group, and maybe there's one other companion or crew member, so there's six of us. Prior to hitting the road, I'll make up six jobs. A couple of those jobs will be related to actively intensifying our experience with wherever we are. The jobs will rotate. So everyone will draw a card, or, we've done different ways of doing the jobs where we'll assign them, or we'll do it alphabetically and we'll switch every couple of ways. So people will be assigned the job of bringing to the table in such a way that everyone can partake some sort of local delicacy. It might be a food item, or baked good, or some sort of local alcoholic beverage. Anything like that.
“Somebody else has to get us out into the environment, specifically to make sure that our bodies are healthy. So they have to find a place for us to walk, or run, or swim, depending on the weather, of course. And another person might have to provide some kind of cultural or historical context to where we are. It could be specific to the venue, say, 'This place was built in here by this, and here are the people who have played here,' or they might say, 'This person was shot around the corner,' or they might say, 'There's more houses of this style of architecture in this neighborhood than in any other part of the United States or America,' or anything like that. Or they might say, 'There's a museum, there's bookstores, there's a this or that, that we can go out and experience, and we're going to do that at 3 p.m. Everybody meet and we're going to go and do that. We will do that.
“If we have a day off, we try and do a day off near a waterpark or maybe near a museum – museums are kind of weird spaces, I think, but maybe near a museum. Anything. It's like trying to create, as if we're on a cruise ship or something. Make sure that everybody's got something to do and that there's an interdependence during the time that we're on the road that it's not just isolated to music and stage time, but crosses over to the other hours of the day because that helps make the stage time interdependence a little more fleshed out.
“In terms of extracurricular activity, there's two specific tours that stand out as being the best. Originally, we just had a couple of jobs, and one of them was Water Marshall. The Water Marshall was responsible for at least providing the opportunity to every member of our traveling party to have the chance to submerge his or herself completely in water that wasn't a bath every 24 hours. The first time we did that was probably early 2000s, we did a tour with a band called Rainy Wood that had been based out of Birmingham, Alabama. We did a couple of weeks just in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. That means the drives weren't too bad, and we had four surfers in our fan and surfboards on the roof. We camped out every night, so it also meant that when we were done with our show we had to get in the van pretty quickly, because everyone wanted to set their tent up. That meant we didn't have to go to any bars of anything like that. We would just go to the beach, wake up and swim, or just go to a campsite if we couldn't find a camping beach. We would try and get in the ocean as much as possible and surf as much as possible. Over there they're blessed with all these great hot springs as well. If we were inland, we would look for a hot spring and/or reservoir. If we were truly desperate, just a swimming pool.
“In 2006, January, there's a woman named Zan who used to live in New Zealand. She's American; now she lives in Portland, Oregon. She put together just the greatest itinerary of all New Zealand shows. I had a British woman singing with us, an American guitar player, an Australian keyboard player and a New Zealand drummer. The Australian keyboard player's 3-year-old daughter was with us and Zan's 6-month-old son was with us. And once again, we stayed in a lot of cabins. Sometimes we would finish a show, drive to a place, and have to walk a mile through the woods to get to where we were sleeping. In New Zealand you're pretty much always close to the coast, always close to some sort of natural beauty. That solidified the understanding that tour can be absolutely during all waking hours as great an experience as any other travel that one does. So why shouldn't it be?”
If there's one trait you don't necessarily expect from your average bearded, road-traveling, cultishly followed folk singer-songwriter, it's delicious smells. And if it's one product you don't expect that beardy road traveler to be slinging, it's a ... signature perfume. Leave that for your Justin Biebers, your Selena Gomezes, your Britney Spearses and J.Los.
Adjust your expectations, friends, and then pocket some Eau de Oldham in the form of the folkie's Sanae Intoxicants' scent Bonnie Billy. Think: Egyptian jasmine, French mimosa, and the rare, exotic oils of Mukhallat and kewda, plus oud, a.k.a. the scent of the Agarwood tree. Here's Oldham:
“One thing that I like most about going to London is that there's a perfume store there called The Arabian Oud, which Matt Sweeney and I wandered into for the first time maybe 10 or 12 years ago because we thought it was a music store. But apparently oud also means wood [in addition to a stringed musical instrument]. There are scents that these folks I think specifically in Arabic culture or countries, they use this oud wood for perfume purposes. We started going in there; that's really when I started to appreciate [perfume]. I never really liked Western perfumes or colognes very much. I never understood why they were considered nice-smelling, really. But these smelled great. So I'm looking forward to having three days in London so I can go to Arabian oud and restock up on crazy perfumes. I like the smells of everything. I'm grateful that I have a functioning olfactory system.”
Oldham, like all people with functioning ears and a heart, loves Prince. Enough that he covered Prince during one of the Peel Sessions released on Pond Scum. I asked about his Prince love.
"I'm guessing that session was from the late '90s. Actually, that might have been the mid-'90s, '96 or so. Just at the time I was trying to do an intensive Prince study. I was listening to a lot of Prince a lot of the time, and even though that I would maybe make a Prince record. That song just struck me as a out of character in some ways, but because that record contextually sits on Sign of the Times, it makes that song — i like the way that that song is a gospel song, essentially. Having it sit among the other songs on Sign of the Times, it's a door. It gives a nice context to how we can approach our Christ."
Our Bonnie Billy is label mates with Bitchin' Bajas, his latest collaborative partners. (You may remember them from their Cataracts appearance.) Here's a bit about their project.
"We did a tour together about two years ago now, a sort of Midwest trip from up in Iowa and St. Louis and Minneapolis, I think maybe we may have played? It's one of things that it felt really good to listen to them in the first place, and the most I interacted with them and the more I interacted with their music, the more solid the connection seemed to become. It was easy to talk about music, and to talk about the way we approach music. When it comes down to it, there's not a lot of people that necessarily share one's methodologies. That's generally the case, I find. We seem to share attitudes and methodologies in a really helpful way. It was a natural thing, I guess, to extend that into trying to build a record together.
"We began talking about it, then started to think about, then actively started to think about scheduling a time to meet up. We started actually recording things here in Louisville, then there was time spent apart listening to mixes. Then I went up to Chicago and we spent another [session]. So it was essentially done in a Kentucky session and a Chicago session, and over the course of a couple of months, the recording parts. Then there were more mixing, editing decisions that had to be made. So I would guess about six months total, maybe [were spent putting the release together.]"
Kelefa Sanneh's 2009 profile of Oldham includes the tantalizing tidbit that our Bonnie Billy maintains two houses: one for working and one for living. I wanted to know — does he still maintain separate residences? What purpose does it serve? When did he establish his homesteads?
"I knew that there was an intense amount of energy around the work that I do and the way that I do it. I originally had been living here in Louisville and I thought, well, it's time for me to go explore other parts of the world again, and move away. I figured that that would help, not being in the space of focused energy would just help the burning open up, and life to be manageable. And as soon as I left town, within three or four weeks, my father completely surprisingly died. So I came back to Louisville, and in order to make it livable, that was when I decided that I need to get a space where I can be quiet, and have to myself. So I moved into a space, and I just decided not to get internet, decided not to get phone lines, decided not to get cable TV or anything like that. I didn't get much furniture at all, at the time. For years, actually, didn't get much furniture. It was just this quiet place. Then, I still had a bunch of stuff in that working space that I could use. So I turned the internet back on there and went back there, and I liked that.
"That's evolved to where now I have this work house, which also has lots of space for guests, whether they're musicians just traveling through town, or musicians who have come to town because I've invited them to do some sort of work together. I can put people up. I have an employee sometimes coming in and out. I like movies, I like to watch movies, and that's harder now, because our local video store closed about nine months ago. I find everyday more and more that I look forward to the time in which I can just not do email anymore, something that resembles a sort of retirement, or I guess a significant shift. I don't know; I'm not a big fan of the internet. I use it fairly minimally I think compared to other people that I spend time with. I don't want it in my house, but I do, as I say, like to watch movies. So that's a challenge.
"Clutter. I can always put clutter in the workspace, and keep it out of the living space. And most people get to go to work. And I don't get to go to work. It's nice to be able to turn on and turn off. It blew my mind as a kid, the models that really stuck with me is from the Warner Brothers cartoon where the coyote and the sheep dog clock in for work. That transition they make when they're clocking in, and crossing into the workspace, the meadow with the sheep. They have to fully become these roles and live them to the fullest, and as soon as they clock out, they can just chill. I think it's valuable for us to be able to have that option if we can, if we can afford it."
Speaking of movies, near the end of our conversation Oldham described something that sounded rather like a fever dream I've had: the opportunity to walk into the Criterion Collection offices and grab anything you want.
"I was just in New York City because I was in a play up there, and the folks from Criterion — I had done a top 10 list for them maybe a year ago — found out I was town, and said, 'Well, if you want to come by the office some time ...' So I came by the office, and they just said to my girlfriend and I, 'Go into that closet and don't come out until your arms are full.' So we just picked them all out. We couldn't fit them in our suitcases, so we are awaiting the package. It was crazy. I kept seeing something and grabbing it, and looking at them shrugging saying, 'This too?' [And they said], 'No problem, take it, take it, go!' It was crazy."