Will Oldham: He Who Would Be 'Prince'

As Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, actor turned songwriter Will Oldham has produced a remarkable body of work whilst remaining an elusive figure. Milo McLaughlin talks to him about the release of his latest album and his unique philosophy towards life, the music press and Britney Spears.

Feature by Milo McLaughlin | 03 Mar 2009

With 17 albums recorded over 15 years under various pseudonyms, Kentucky-born Will Oldham has established himself as one of the most prolific and talented songwriters in alternative music today. That's despite starting out as an actor - at the age of 17 he starred in John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan, but found the accompanying pressures unmanageable and instead drifted into making music.

After recording a number of albums under the names Palace Brothers, Palace Music and as himself, he settled on his greatest character role to date, that of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. The first album he recorded under that moniker, 1999's I See a Darkness, is a masterpiece of ragged, lo-fi coal-black country-folk, his unaffected, fragile voice spitting out brutally honest poetry that came from depths rarely mined by other songwriters. It's as if the protection of an alter-ego has afforded him the freedom to express a much deeper side to himself than he would feel comfortable doing under his own identity. The album's title track has even been covered by the late great Johnny Cash (with a little help from Oldham on backing vocals). 

Video: Johnny Cash featuring Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - I See a Darkness

Since then the Bonnie one has forged his own distinctive musical path with follow-up albums such as Ease Down the Road, Master & Everyone and The Letting Go, plus collaborations with Matt Sweeney, Tortoise, Björk and PJ Harvey, and has even appeared in videos for R&B stars Kanye West and R. Kelly. Following his success in music, Oldham has been able to return to acting on his own terms, taking roles in a selection of credible indie films such as Julien Donkey-Boy, Junebug and most recently Wendy and Lucy - out in the UK this month. However for all his critical acclaim, it would seem that Will Oldham is not a fan of the music press. Why else would promotional copies of Beware, the latest Bonnie Prince album (also to be released this month) contain so many excruciating spoken interruptions during each song, rendering the album virtually unlistenable and leading one journalist to recently describe it as "the worst promo CD ever"?

Speaking on the phone from a "very attractive" Hawaiian island where he's due to play a gig the following night, Oldham admits that this wasn't just some evil record company ploy, and that he was complicit in the decision (Oldham is signed to Domino Records in Europe and Drag City in the US). "That's something that we agreed on. I guess it's all well and good for reviewers to complain about something like that, but I think it's partly the reviewer's responsibility to figure out a process by which music can be gotten to reviewers in advance of the release of a record without it being leaked all over the internet, and when reviewers get off their asses and start taking a little responsibility for their jobs then things can go smoothly again."

In fact, he also considers the current process of doing interviews inherently screwed up. "Doing lots of press takes so much time away from playing, writing and listening to music. And I think there's something wrong with this process of soliciting huge numbers of writers to talk to somebody about their work in a solid mass of interviews, rather than doing say, four interviews over the course of a year. It might have something a little bit more to do with the writer's desire to find something out and the musician's ability and desire to express something about what's going on, and that would make for ideally more interesting articles." Oldham's attitude towards promoting his records may seem overly antagonistic to some - and seems to have contributed to his reputation as something of a curmudgeon, with even his own mother describing him as "ornery" in a recent in-depth article in The New Yorker magazine. Whilst on some levels the New Yorker piece fits into Oldham's ideal of how the interview process should work, he also says he considered the author's detailed description of his Kentucky home life including his dinner with his mum to be "a strange invasion of privacy" as he hadn't realised the writer "would be on the clock 24/7."

Video: Horses

This self-protective stance serves to illuminate Oldham’s entire life and career philosophy, helping to explain how he has managed to produce a discography almost as prolific and rewarding - at least to his huge and dedicated fanbase - as Dylan (to whom he is oft compared) or The Fall (who he has revealed are on his ipod).  It also explains his sometimes surprising changes in musical direction, and his preference for recording under multiple names: "I feel strongly about protecting my ability, enthusiasm, energy and desire to continue making music, and it seems, as with every walk of life, there are a lot of forces constantly acting against you to make you feel like it might be better and easier to stop."

Oldham goes on to spell out his strategy for dealing with such forces. "It's a regular checks and balances system, when things do seem stupid or futile or wrong, there’s a need to not necessarily get claustrophobic, but to decide OK, this just means turn left or turn right. Just because you're not moving straight, it doesn’t mean you're not progressing." Leaving the acting profession could be seen to be a case of this philosophy in action - "I didn't get to go to career counselling and choose to play music over acting, it was more that music started to open up. It started to happen." It's a similar open-ended approach to the one Oldham took whilst recording Beware. "I wouldn't say that it was necessarily loose, I definitely was very tense throughout the whole time, but I guess the idea is to spend a lot of energy making sure that things stay open."

Oldham admits that - much like contact with journalists - some engagement with the public has been unavoidable in this pursuit of a musical career. "I understand that things like faces and names help people connect with music, so if that has to happen then there can be some sort of representation of a human being through these photographs." Yet it would seem he's happy to remain elusive, a character trait that has only heightened the fascination of his fans, as if he is a rarely sighted hairy man of the woods, a kind of Bigfoot of American indie. 

Video: Cursed Sleep

But then Oldham believes that such a situation is far better than the kind of ubiquity enjoyed by massive stars these days. "I'm satisfied with the littlest thing - if I love a song by the Greek singer Demis Roussos, I can go on YouTube and watch some strange video - that I can't make head nor tail of, which looks bizarre, ridiculous and frightening - in three minutes and I'm satisfied. Then you get the extreme pinnacle example of somebody like Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, where we find out so much about them and see them so often that both they and the public become fatigued. If Britney Spears just released music and you didn't have to deal with her personality then you might every once in a while be like, ‘oh, I want to listen to that Britney Spears music’." However, despite his love of R. Kelly, who he says "has originality going for him", the Bonnie Prince won't be putting Britney on his turntable in the near future. "I’ve always been kind of mystified and even offended by people's claims to like her - I mean Britney Spears is sort of like the Oasis of America, I don't understand how somebody who likes music can look you in the eye with a straight face and say that this is good."

Realising that I embody the twin evils of both music journalist and Britney apologist, I keep quiet and thank my lucky stars that I had gotten off so easily with this notoriously difficult interviewee. In fact, whilst clearly a complex man, Will Oldham is an affable character, despite what his persona would lead you to believe - unless, of course, this was just another of his many guises.

Beware is released on 16 Mar via Domino.

Wendy and Lucy goes on general release at cinemas from 6 Mar.

To hear more of Oldham's opinions on the press, Britney Spears, R. Kelly and Puff the Magic Dragon, listen to the I Hear a New World podcast here.