Will Oldham scared me.
That is, Will Oldham’s reputation scared me. Or my own image of him. Or whatever.
I was set to interview him Friday, and I barely knew his work before a couple of week ago, and he’s obviously some kind of iconoclastic creative genius. And I’m just some hack from the press. (Iconoclastic creative geniuses historically aren’t, you know, super-fond of the press.)
But Oldham, also known by his stage name Bonnie Prince Billy, was great. I think it’s probably my favorite interview of the year. I ordered three of his albums as soon as I got off the phone with him.
And I have to recommend that you all go see him at The Seasons Performance Hall on Wednesday. He is a rare talent.
What struck me most about him — and it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise given the big, bleeding portions of humanity that come through in his songs — is that he’s a real person. Bonnie Prince Billy, to a certain extent, is a character. But Oldham is a human being. He’s not the Appalachian mountain-man songwriting-savant outsider-art hermit you might think he is. He’s an erudite, funny, down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-with human damn being.
Here’s some of what was said.
• On being alone on stage for this show, something he says he hasn’t done for five or six years: “The reason I’ve been involved in making music is partly — beyond making a living at it — is for the opportunity to collaborate and connect with other human beings. ... This trip I’m trying to recognize the collaborative quality that an audience brings to any given performance and see if I can handle it. ... Certain people have been vocal about appreciating the connection that’s possible when the performer is by his or herself. So I guess I want to try to wrap my head around that. There’s a tendency to feel alone or exposed when I’m by myself.”
• On the idea of Oldham creating distance from an audience by adopting the Bonnie Prince Billy persona, rather than writing under his own name: “It’s to encourage people to acknowledge that everything is a performance. The songs are all creations. It’s all constructed realities that have been created.
• On his history with acting in films and how that relates to the idea of “constructed realities”: “It’s what interested me at first about theater and movies. There are certain people who get into music or performing arts because they like performing — or because they like attention. I want to go to another planet or go to another time.”
• On the intersection of his (Oldham’s) actual life and his (Bonnie Prince Billy’s) songwriting: “It has to be influenced by personal experience, but then built into something that has a narrative flow. My personal experience does not lend itself to harmony the way the lyric of a song does. It has to be taken apart and reconstructed.”
• On whether he actively tries to subvert expectations (as with the uptempo re-imagining of his classic 2000 “I See A Darkness” that he did on an EP last year.): “Expectations get us into a lot of trouble. I guess part of it is, if you buy a record you can more or less count on that record to deliver a certain number of expectations. ... Three weeks or six months later, the whole expectation would likely be different. ... It’s different pretty much every time it gets played.”
• On how inspiring it was to help Johnny Cash record “I See a Darkness” for Cash’s album “American III: Solitary Man”: “I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to meet Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. ... I thought it would be tedious and boring. ... But instead it was inspiring — watching somebody being completely engaged.”
• On some kind of underlying humanity being the common thread linking the music and films that he likes (works cited include the classic film “The Misfits,” early Thin Lizzy albums, pop cover songs done by The Ramones): “When the process of a record is too complex, I’m not that interested in listening to the record. ... It’s nice to hear something that is about the relationship of one human being to another coming through on the record.”
• On the idea that there’s something about that sort of music (and here he was again referencing those Ramones covers, such as “Let’s Dance,” “California Sun” and “Do You Wanna Dance?”) that is indefinable, like seeing a great work of art: “It feels great, and it feels powerful. It gives you permission to say, ‘I don’t understand this. And it feels great.’”