Talented Bonnie 'Prince' Billy embraces constant change
Singer/songwriter/prolific beard-grower Will Oldham is in the strange position of having written more good songs than almost anybody he could possibly cover. But that probably won't stop him.
It's safe to say that he should probably be the one getting covered, not the other way around. Even the great Johnny Cash, for instance, covered Oldham's “I See A Darkness” in 2000, and it was one of the highlights of his fruitful late-in-life revival.
Oldham doesn't see it that way. His covers have ranged from the obvious (Bruce Springsteen, The Minutemen) to the inexplicable (R. Kelly). He has an entire album of Everly Brothers songs, “What the Brothers Sang,” with collaborator Dawn McCarthy, coming out in February. They will probably be singing a few of those Saturday night at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.
“I've listened to (the Everly Brothers) my entire life,” Oldham says. “I listened to a lot of their well-known songs, for the most part, as a kid. In my 20s, I found some of their later recordings from the late '60s and '70s, and felt this intense connection with their approach to music-making. Then, I head these intense songs from later in their lives. It was a thrill to hear how they'd gone even deeper into exploring composition and performance. I hadn't realized how underappreciated and kind of completely unknown this 10 years of their recordings was.”
Despite his rare talent, the ever-eccentric Oldham has seemingly done everything possible to remain as obscure and unmarketable as possible. He hasn't even performed under a consistent name over the years — going by monikers like Palace Brothers and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, in addition to his given name.
“I grew up wanting to be an actor,” says Oldham, who acted in “Matewan” (1987) and “Old Joy” (2006), among others. “That's what I was working toward. ... I never wanted to be a professional musician. I never looked at bands and said, ‘That's the life.' It seemed foreign, alien, unattractive. Each record felt more like I was making something different, like a play or a movie. Having a constant identifier (a consistent band name) didn't make sense to me.
“It took me a number of years to realize that the medium I was working in, no matter what you do, people look for the continuum — they look for a ‘voice,' the voice of authority that is the singer. I thought I'd meet them halfway by identifying the singer as Bonnie. That was in, like, 1998. Pretty much every vocal recording since then has been a Bonnie recording.”
By now, Oldham has grown into his Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona, even if he sees it, on some level, as a character. His creative output also seems to be ramping up at the moment, after a few years of relative quiet.
“My musical practices have been a little diluted in the past few year, because of this new skill set I've had to learn, in regards to taking care of a member of my family. I feel like I've made a few crucial logistical mistakes in the past few years, but ... the end rule is always the same, to simplify.”
Oldham is coming to town in conjunction with the exhibition “Cory Arcangel: Masters” at the Carnegie Museum of Art, part of the Warhol Museum's Sound Series. The band Title TK, which features Arcangel and writer Alan Licht, is the opening act.
Expect to hear a few songs that the Everly Brothers have written, or covered. Oldham just released a single, “Christmas Eve Can Kill You,” that the Everly Brothers wrote, with a song they covered, Rufus Thomas' “Walking the Dog,” on the B-side.
“Their ‘Walking the Dog' is just insane,” Oldham says. “They're so soulful and so deeply country at the same time. In the '60s, they were getting all over the place and using Middle Eastern modalities in their singing.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.