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Will Oldham

by Gary Canino

Performance, reinvention, and alternate realities.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. Photo by Matt Sweeney. Courtesy of Drag City Records.

It might seem mysterious that Singer's Grave a Sea of Tongues, the latest album from the ever-prolific and confounding Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, shares nine of its eleven songs with his 2011 release, Wolfroy Goes To Town. Bonny's eleventh album, released last month by longtime label Drag City, is neither a remake nor a rehash, but more of a recreation, an attempt to build an alternative reality around the framework of this collection of songs, from the ground up.

Reinterpretation is certainly not a new approach for Will Oldham, the singer-songwriter, performer, and occasional actor. Oldham, who went by variations on Palace and Palace Brothers in the ’90s, has been known as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—a sort of manifestation of Oldham’s more performative impulses—since the release of the now-classic I See a Darkness in 1999. In the intervening years, Oldham has made a practice of building complete worlds around each release, and frequently revisits and updates older material. On the 2004 album Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, Oldham revisited, with slicked-up Nashville studio musicians, the “greatest hits” of his lo-fi Palace years. Oldham’s work often foregrounds the layers of character and performance that other artists present as “authenticity,” while never sacrificing a core of emotional truth. In this sense, he follows in the footsteps of American songwriters from W.C. Handy to James Brown to Carol King to Bob Dylan to R. Kelly, investing his work with equal elements of poetry and theater.

Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, produced by Nashville-based Mark Nevers (who has worked with everyone from Billy Ray Cyrus to the Silver Jews) presents an alternate reality view of the Wolfroy material, classic country arrangements and all. The album allows equal space for prominent pedal steel and gospel back-up vocals by the McCrary sisters, but the songs themselves stand out, more than structurally sound enough to handle a rebuild. The album also continues Oldhams’s fruitful collaboration with guitarist Emmet Kelly, who has appeared on almost all of his records since 2006’s The Letting Go. One of the few exceptions was the self-released album Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, a collection of new songs, performed solo with Oldham on voice and guitar. The album is available from Oldham’s Palace Records and was, notably, not released digitally.

The 2012 book-length interview by Alan Licht Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy—modeled on Cassavettes on Cassavettes—explores the development of Oldham’s various personas over the course of his career. It was also meant to ensure that Oldham would never have to do another interview. However, he happily agreed to talk on the phone about this new record, what makes a recording “definitive,” and Dick Cheney, and was a joy to talk to.

Gary Canino You’ve mentioned that Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues record is an alternate-reality version of Wolfroy Goes To Town, that these aren't just re-done versions, but are sort of the same songs in a separate reality. Did you ever watch the ‘90s show Sliders? The whole series is about a group of people travelling through parallel universes, but with no control of it, and they’re all trying to return to their own world.

Will Oldham (laughter) No. Yeah, there was a feeling that after making Lie Down In The Light that I did something right, and then proceeded to unlearn what it was. I was aware that I was unlearning, so I became frustrated with it. So, with the making of Wolfroy Goes To Town, I kept trying to get back to making a record that, at the very least in the making of the record and then ideally looking forward to how the record ended up existing, was an experience that was related to Lie Down In The Light. And that wasn’t happening. There were very different rewards to the records made between those two, but it was nice when I started to live in a reality, for all purposes, that was as good as one could hope. And for some reason I strayed from that reality.

So in this alternate reality, Brian Rich, who’s a close friend that I’ve worked with a lot, helped with the process, to embrace a new reality in addition to the old reality. It was part of the new reality that A Singer's Grave was on the table.

GC With Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, you were revisiting songs that were over a decade old, but this time, the difference in the appearance of new versions is only a couple of years.

WO Well, during Wolfroy, there were final rewrites that weren’t really happening because other things were demanding attention, so a lot of these songs that are significantly older have just a word changed here and there—two or three different words that are significant. When you sing a song live again and again, there are times when you learn to embrace the song fully as it is, or, as time goes on, there will be a word or a line that I just can’t get behind. I have to trust that I will eventually, but here it was possible to change things.

The motivation behind this record was completely different. Sings Greatest Palace was about revisiting, but Singer's Tongue was not revisiting, it was beginning again.

GC In the book Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, you say that you feel a sort of responsibility to satisfy your audience, which is an interesting perspective that not a lot of “underground” artists would express. Here you’re saying that you owe it to yourself to sort of see these Wolfroy songs through and begin anew.

WO I don’t know how to describe understanding a record, but I think there was, in this case, a dual responsibility to fulfill the songs and satisfy the audience. When there is a thing like coldness, or negativity, or discomfort, or discord presented in a record, I think it’s important to understand why it’s there and to know that there is a purpose to any of those insulating, negative qualities. And any of the things that were clinical or awkward in that reality of Wolfroy … I couldn’t get behind saying that I felt justified in those negativities, at least without presenting this new record as a sort of rebuttal to those.

GC You've also said that you don't think definitive versions of songs can really exist, that every appearance of the song is an opportunity for it to breathe and exist in all these different ways, especially when performed live. I agree, and am reminded of Big Star's Third, which doesn't even necessarily have a definitive track list or title.

WO Yeah, I remember the first copy I heard had a certain track list and I fell in love with it, and then the other one was completely jarring, I felt like I didn’t even like the record half as much as the original sequence I had heard.

GC One of your first shows was opening for the reunited Big Star, correct?

WO Yeah, the first real Palace Brothers show after the record came out was the first show of the Big Star reunion tour.

GC I'm always surprised when I see videos of touring members of the band singing songs that were originally sung by Chilton, like when one of the Posies sings "Daisy Glaze."

WO I feel like when a band reforms, ninety-eight percent of the time it’s financially related. I don’t think Big Star was an exception to that, so to talk about that in musical terms is close to pointless. I think they all probably just needed and wanted money and it was easy enough for them to play those songs and get a paycheck, which is what I think most reunions are about. Musically, I think it gets easier and more convenient if you get these guys who are ready to take on certain responsibilities, making it even easier to get on stage and collect the paycheck: “You sing it! I don’t care, I didn’t want to sing the songs. I just want the money.”

GC I was reading a Neil Young biography, and during his rough period in the ’80s, there’s a story about a sort of terrified young engineer coming in the studio, and Neil and his band got there early and ran through a song, and when the engineer was good to go, Neil Young was like “You weren’t fucking recording? I’ve been playing this song for eight years and that was the take right there!”

WO That feeling is so common that Tenacious D even made a joke out of the same situation that you just described. "Always record! You weren't recording?" I think everybody feels that way, it's easy to think that if you weren't recording then of course that was the best version of the song that you could ever hear because nobody can prove you wrong, and the challenge is to do it right when you're actually recording.

I've learned that there are different things that can help. Sometimes, it's playing a song two or three times and then listening back to all three versions, and realizing the third one was the best. You might have felt better playing the first one or felt better playing the second one, but the third one may actually work better. At that point, your body has learned to do this thing, the releasing of the song out into the world, which is not about what the performer feels, but what the listener feels. The performer at some point will feel that they failed to make a point because they are not doing their best to communicate the power of the song, but it might be best when all of the emotional baggage is out of the way and the performer just plays the song. In the same way, a director might make an actor do a scene thirty, forty, or fifty times, if they want them to get the technique out of the way and have it all be second nature.

You can forget the power of it, which is good to forget because if you're carried away by that, you won't be prepared for the next thing that happens in the song or for the next song, if you're still riding on the emotional experience of how you felt earlier in the song.

GC Phil Spector would apparently make horn sections play take after take until they were exhausted, and there was a theory that he would do it so all their lips would get tired and play with less personality and they'd play together more as a unit.

WO The controlling idea, I think, is not supposed to be about the performer, but the listener. The performer is always going to dominate and control the whole experience, but as much as you drain expression out of the performance, it's still going to be completely dominated by the performer. You can get people to sand off those portions of the performance that maybe allow the individual more access and the listening experience to have more to it. If it's all about the performer's idiosyncrasies and emotions, then there is no room for the audience. Some audience members might like that kind of music, but take something hyper-emotive, like Janis Joplin, and I'll think, Ok, Janis, there is no room for me in these songs, so I'll just turn this off and listen to something else.

GC Are you a fan of Humphrey Bogart? You bring him up a couple times in the book.

WO Oh yeah. The TV Guide would come out on Saturdays and it would give a schedule of everything that was going to be on TV for the week and I would go through and circle all of the movies I was going to record on the VCR. I had a particular fondness for 1950s MGM musicals, and war and gangster movies with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. I especially liked movies from the ’40s, and because of their multiple collaborations, I loved imagining a friendship between Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart.

Then a few years later I saw In a Lonely Place. You know that movie? It was one of those moments when, if you followed a musician or a band, and then you get older and that musician or that band makes a record that is phenomenal and in doing so, they have given you this gift that justifies the time you gave them earlier on. That movie feels like somehow, you're watching something happen. You're not just watching Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, you're watching someone move forward in their progress through life. So you see In a Lonely Place years later and it's so intense, it's so complex, it's so fully formed, emotionally charged. When that movie came out he’d been around for years and he still threw his emotions into his work. And that's very respectful to the audience.

GC You've used the novel The Spy Who Loved Me, which is a James Bond novel written in the second person perspective, as a reference point for this album. It reminded me of the Robert Zemeckis Tales from the Crypt episode, where Humphrey Bogart "stars." The entire episode is all first person, as if you're looking through his eyes. And he'll look into a mirror and you'll see him looking back, but it's just re-worked footage from The Big Sleep or something.

WO Yeah, that's great. I've never seen it, but I love stuff like that.

As far as how that book relates to Singer’s Grave … One of the last songs completed for Wolfroy was "Black Captain," and as the years have gone on, I think a lot about the stance of the narrator. It's a complicated position to sing and describe this relationship with a sort of mentor, and mentally he doesn't feel compelled to loyalty. “I had a mentor once, I had a hero, and it was a mutually beneficial relationship, so there is no responsibility towards that relationship”—which may or may not be true. But I love singing "Black Captain", so that's why I eventually wrote a new set of lyrics from the hero/mentor's point of view, which is the last song on the new record, Sailor’s Grave a Sea of Sheep, to sort of absolve the narrator of "Black Captain." It’s sort of if, as a country, we forgave Dick Cheney—he wouldn't give a shit if we forgave him, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't forgive him for being a heathen.

GC I saw Cheney randomly on The View a few years ago, and after years of heart problems, he now has to use a device that pumps blood continuously through his body. It's strange to see someone who is thought to be so evil look so feeble.

WO Yeah. I grew up with this dark sense of humor in Louisville, especially in the music scene, and I think a dark sense of humor is always horrible, and always leads you to this dark perspective on things. And part of me wants to laugh at Dick Cheney, to gloat and say "Ha! He has this black box, he's going to shrivel up and die.” But there are ramifications to that perspective. At the same time, it isn't realistic to think that anybody that you admire will be rewarded, just as it isn’t realistic to think that someone will be punished for doing bad things. For Dick Cheney, being on The View is the height of his power now, being on daytime TV with these middle aged women on TV blathering on. He's a part of that world, I suppose, that world that controls real politics.

Singer's Grave a Sea of Tongues is available now from Drag City.

Gary Canino is a musician and writer based in New York City.

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