Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Billy, aka Palace, etc., will surely be remembered as the Bob Dylan of the algebra generations (the Xs, Ys, Zs and all that).
Like Dylan, Oldham has a haunting, tremulous voice that's known more for its qualities than its quality. Like Dylan, Oldham's lyrics demand and command the attentive listener with their gorgeously cryptic poetry and multiplicity. Like Dylan, Oldham is able to puzzle together the scattered shards of the traditional folk genie lamp while turning around and smashing them again all in the same sitting. And like Dylan, Oldham has built his musical career on a sturdy foundation of elusiveness, mystery and constant change.
But if he were just like Dylan, Oldham's music wouldn't be whatever "it" that it is. And that "it" has garnered him a near cultlike following among indie-rock devotees, country lovers and the literati alike. From his first LP, Days in the Wake, through Arise Therefore, I See a Darkness and his latest, Master and Everyone (among many others), Oldham has delivered a steady output of constantly reinvented selves for his fans.
While he has never enjoyed (or suffered, as it may be) the icon status that Dylan has shouldered, Oldham's music has slowly bubbled up into a revered place in the cultural imagination. Most recently, Johnny Cash covered "I See a Darkness" and Oldham sang backup vocals on Cash's hugely popular American III: Solitary Man.
The Independent recently spoke with Oldham via phone from his home in Louisville, Ky.
Indy: There are lots of poets and writers who are really into your music. Do you consider yourself a poet?
Will Oldham: I don't write poems per se. I like words a whole lot. I like to listen to words and read them over and over until they've meant something four different times in four different ways over months and weeks and days. I look at them again and in different ways ... I've always been interested in language. More often than not I could get into a book that isn't just straightforward Modern English. Just in terms of getting into an alternate space that's more fulfilling ... Poetry is one of the more difficult art forms to have a daily enjoyment of. It's once every couple of months that you come across a new book of poetry. There's no ads for it, no billboards, no one talking about it on the streets.
Indy: I've frequently heard that your role as the child preacher Danny in John Sayles' movie Matewan [about the West Virginia coal miners' struggle to unionize in 1920] when you were only 16 years old has been hugely influential on your song writing.
WO: Actually, being in that movie had a huge influence on touring and putting records together because of the extreme attention to detail. The whole approach to putting that movie together was extremely influential. The life outside of the product is easily as important as the thing itself.
Indy: Why do you so frequently change the name of your band, and of yourself? Your albums have been done under the names Palace, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Bonnie Prince Billy, etc.
WO: The name Bonnie Prince Billy had a million cultural references, and it was different too. Bonnie Prince Charlie, Nat King Cole, Prince. The name exists, and yes, it's connected to this music and to so many other references. When I first started making records I was asking myself, "Why do you have to call records something?" OK, I understand this now -- now I understand; this is part of the medium itself. And if possible you have a name that people recognize. But that name can also be a character. It won't be a group name, but it'll be an individual who's the singer of the song. It'll all be fine. He can live his life and I can live my life.
-- Noel Black