Siobhán Kane talks creativity, authenticity and idiosyncratic voices with Will Oldham.
Will Oldham has gone under many names over his almost twenty year career (which has also taken in acting, and other projects), from Palace Brothers, to his (probably) most widely used moniker Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Over records such as There is No-One What Will Take Care of You (1993), the haunting I See a Darkness (1999), the moving, elegiac The Letting Go (2006), and last year’s intimate, searching Wolfroy Goes to Town, Oldham sketches out the barely-lit nooks of the human condition. His music explores the crevices of the soul, and an explanation of his impulse is possibly best found in the Emily Dickinson poem ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’, which he took as part-inspiration for The Letting Go. Oldham’s own “nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs”, yet there is a huge sense of humour amidst the pathos and sin he often sings of, which will help him be “remembered, if outlived”.
His work is personal, philosophical, radiant and inclusive – the best kind of folk music (loosely termed), taking in the talents of many, like Nashville’s musical community for 2003’s Master and Everyone, Emmett Kelly (who has worked with him on many projects over the years), Valgeir Sigurðsson and Nico Muhly on The Letting Go, and Trembling Bells, with whom he is releasing a collaborative album The Marble Downs, on Honest Jon’s in April. He generosity extends to his musical influences which survey Irish and Scottish traditional, folk, country, punk and rock, and melting them into a raw, unfettered, and emotionally honest sound, which is exactly what a conversation with Will Oldham feels like. He talks to Siobhán Kane.
I once remember you saying that you shouted out a request at a Merle Haggard concert with abandon, because to you, audience is key, and you love the interaction.
[Laughs] Oh yes,that’s true, it is so important.
It creates a sense of unison as well, which I very much think of in relation to you, the way you see the world – whether romantically or creatively.
Yes, definitely. With this new record, I had that particular sense, where I felt, right there in the room- “I can only do it with the help of these people”, and Angel [Olsen’s] power and creativity in that moment on ‘Time to be Clear’ particularly. It was all recorded in a pretty small space in my house, we expanded a little bit from the previous record, which was in a tiny room, but this was expanded to two tiny rooms for Wolfroy.
Emmett Kelly of The Cairo Gang has been a strong and constant collaborator of yours, there is this sense that, by now, you perhaps finish each others musical sentences.
Yes, I guess that’s how it’s been for a number of years now, it’s that great connection. When I am nervous about expressing a creative idea, and think “oh no, this is the moment when our communication fails” the sentence oftentimes just gets finished, and we stand, somehow in agreement.
How was it working with Shahzad Ismaily on this record? Was he a very creative presence as he had been on Lie Down in the Light and The Wonder Show of the World?
On Wolfroy he was more of a recording engineer, a very supportive force, but I was actually expecting there to be a little more creative input on his part, but he focused almost exclusively on the capturing of sounds and observing us as musicians.
Perhaps he is moving more in that direction?
It could be. I think sometimes people have tended to find me an intimidating presence, and I don’t know if he understood the extent to which I was asking for his input. I think he was trying to keep some of his ideas going in a certain direction rather than the guiding, shaping direction I had figured he would do when I invited him into the record.
Around Master and Everyone, something seemed to shift, perhaps it was because it was recorded in Nashville with Mark Nevers, it was a different way of working.
It was, we recorded the songs with my brother Paul live, and then there were a few things we thought could augment the songs, so we turned to Nashville’s professional session community, so many of whom had played on great records we were familiar with.
You have always appreciated idiosyncratic voices, whether collaborating or appreciating, from Scout Niblett to Diamanda Galas, do you feel that there has been a move away from that generally?
I think original performance is rare, it is now a performance of a similar style that might have come from years before. I think a lot about voices and about the way that people use their voices, specifically in the singing of modern popular music, and I would hesitate to make a summary or pretend that I have the perspective necessary to make a generalisation, but once I get beyond the hesitation I would say that the way that systems and progress seems to work is that someone forges a path and other people take advantage of that path, maybe not with the same vision, creativity or drive that the person who initiated it had, and there are a lot of musical styles that seem to follow that very specifically. But they are using the signifiers of emotion and power that we have inherited through decades of recorded music. So rather than understand these people’s performance styles and voices are coming through because of creativity or individuality, it is because of the technique say, of an Aretha Franklin, but the emotion behind it is one of ambition and anxiety, and an attempt to prove oneself and get a spotlight shone on them.
A lack of authenticity?
I think everyone has their own authenticity, or truth, but…. it’s nice to hear good voices, like Polly Harvey or Robert Plant, but there are a lot of people you listen to and think “I could as well have been listening to the person who influenced this person”. I think one of the things that makes a singer special is when you can hear their relationship to the voice that was given to them through genetics. Whereas somebody else will do something different with that voice, or choose not to use it, they have said “well this is the voice I have” and they are constantly circling their own ability and observing it and saying “well I would like to do this, but I am not that kind of singer, so I will do this, and it will get me to the same emotional place” and you are witnessing them explore the song and their voice at the same time, and it is truly awakening.
You have recently used your voice in a different way, doing readings of Rudy Wurlitzers novel Slow Fade, was that more difficult?
It was, because a song is written with a performance built in, but a book or poem is not written
with a performance built in, it feels like so many mistakes get made trying to figure it out, unless it’s Shakespeare or something, which is written in verse, making it easier. Straight narrative prose is difficult!
You have worked on several projects this past year, a new record with Trembling Bells, and the Paolo Sorrentino film This Must Be the Place, with David Byrne, wasn’t it because Sorrentino has a fictional band in mind for the film that is supposed to sound “like Prince Billy”? Then David Byrne had met you a couple of times, and thought it made sense for you to write music for the fictional band.
[Laughs] That’s true. Ultimately my primary job was as lyricist, which was really freeing. With The Trembling Bells my job is as a singer, with David Byrne it was as a lyricist – it was freeing to share the responsibility, like when I wrote a song for the great Candi Staton, it was great, because I didn’t have to imagine myself singing the song, I just visualised her entity, and it takes the burden off to focus on a part of things.
Will Trembling Bells be accompanying you on this tour, as they did your last here?
Not this time. Actually, Susanna Wallumrød [Susanna and The Magical Orchestra] from Norway, will be with us, we have collaborated a lot with her over the past four years, it will be great.