MFD Interview with Bonnie "Prince" Billy


Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, has carved out a luminous niche in American popular song by melding elements of folk, country, punk, and rock and roll into a roughhewn testament that could be at home in any era. On albums like There is No One What Will Take Care of You, I See a Darkness, Ease On Down the Road, and his new Lie Down in the Light, Oldham's incisive lyrics, sung in a voice of surpassing tenderness and strength, are featured in musical settings that feel both fresh and timeless, the "old weird America" of Harry Smith's classic Folkways anthology updated for the ways we live and endure now. Oldham spoke to MFD in email. 

Steve Silberman:  I grew up in a left-wing household, and as a kid, my first superheroes were the characters in songs on an album called Talking Union by the Almanac Singers, a folk group featuring Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others.  One of these characters was the Union Maid, an indominable woman "who never was afraid of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raids," and another was a guy who told his boss, "I don't want your millions, mister, I don't want your diamond ring.  All I want is the right to live, mister."  Can you remember music that touched you when you were young and instilled you with a sense of rebellion, subversion, or social justice?

Will Oldham:  I think I am still learning what "social justice" is; I always liked the sentiment behind powerful songs with powerful viewpoints, and yet many of those songs still seem like fictions to me.  Was it rebellious or subversive of me to listen to the Everly Brothers or the soundtrack to the Broadway musical HAIR?  I think what I listened to planted the seeds for a questioning mind.  The lyrical content is not the most important part of a song in the shaping or changing of a mind.

Silberman: There are ways music can have political resonances without being a laundry list of this month's liberal grievances. Miles Davis made the controversial decision to hire Bill Evans, a white pianist, for the Kind of Blue recording sessions, though that pissed off some black musicians. Punk bands launched their own indie labels, and democratized music-making and encouraged DIY culture in an age of slick commercial crap.  Do you see the music you make with your friends as "political" in this broad sense of the word?

Oldham:  Everything we do has political connotations.  And religious connotations. Those who speak the overt and superficial language of politics and religion are as much slaves to those of us who do not as we are to them (you?).  The more ensconced in the language the speaker is, the less he or she truly applies.

Silberman: Have digital technology and the Internet given you an extra measure of creative freedom as a musician and recording artist?

Oldham: Not me, no, I don't think so.  Or I haven't noticed it.  Maybe we can make our videos and commercials with greater confidence that an audience will see them.

Silberman:  Do you think the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, YouTube, and all that other annoying fascinating stuff is having an effect on politics?

Oldham:  I'm sure these things are affecting politics.  Surely they must inspire either deeper honesty or deeper deception (in different people).

Silberman: If you were invited to perform one tune at the upcoming Democratic convention in Denver, and one at the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, what songs would you choose?

Oldham: At the Democratic convention, I would sing "Democracy" by Leonard Cohen, and at the Republican convention, I would sing "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley.

Silberman:  Do you have a favored candidate in the upcoming presidential election?

Oldham:  I like winners because they win; because they are our future.  That's on a narrative level.  On a personal level, I must say am thrilled with Barack Obama's bringing a mastery of the English language back into Big Politics.

Silberman: A lot of folks who are just coming of voting age now grew up in the Bush Era, when the political landscape was dominated by lying politicians, bloviating gasbags on the right and left, trivial gossip about candidates'  sex lives and flag pins, and a sense that America was drifting with a crew of WMD-obsessed Captain Ahabs at the wheel. Is there any reason for young people to feel personally invested in the electoral process?

Oldham:  There are all of those reasons you have listed.  I am sure I am not alone in thinking that one of the greatest things the current administration has given to the USA (and, to some extent, the world at large) is that apathy and passive acceptance are no longer the options that they were.

Silberman:  Can you remember a time when you heard a politician speak and it made an impression on you, either positive or negative?

Oldham:  I saw George H.W. Bush speak with Vaclav Havel in Prague during the Gulf Crisis.  We were preparing for war, and he did not even allude to it.  This was awful.  The best political speech i remember hearing was Jesse Jackson at a rally for the homeless on the Mall in D.C. in 1989 or so.  It was very moving, and in the end he morphed the energy into an intro for the next act... Stevie Wonder.

Silberman:  Johnny Cash played at the White House at President Nixon's request, and Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie jammed on the White House lawn for President Carter at the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival.  If the next president invited you to play and then took you aside and said, "Hey Will, what's on your mind these days," what would you tell him?

Oldham:  I would say "I'll only answer that question if you are willing to follow up on it with a 5-7 minute conversation once a month for the next year."

Silberman:   What does the word "democracy" mean in America in 2008?

Oldham:  Like all words, different things to every person that hears or utters it.

Silberman:  You have a great new album out now, Lie Down in the Light. What moment or subtle thing on that recording are you particularly happy about that critics and even fans might not notice?

Oldham:  As with most Bonny records, the basic tracking, including singing, was all done live and together.  For the first time, I did not play the guitar during this initial tracking, and on most songs I did not play guitar at all.  I am very happy about this, because sometimes I feel that the singing is tethered by the necessity of relegating part of the brain to the mechanics of playing.

Silberman:  What have you ever gotten from either listening to or performing music that made you think in a new way about politics?

Oldham:  I think I have learned that in both mediums it is vital to try to maintain an understanding of what is or could be or should be important to the audience/public.  To listen as often as possible to the words of, or to experience the actions of, the public as opposed to only hearing the voices of colleagues.

Silberman:  What do you think are the most pressing issues this country is facing in the upcoming election?

Oldham:  I hope that race is not an issue; and it frightens me that it might be in the hearts of some Americans.

Silberman: Growing up in the South, did you ever think you'd see a viable black candidate for president in your lifetime?

Oldham:  I don't bet on the future.  I try to contribute to it with the knowledge that it will never resemble something I could have imagined.

Silberman:  If you could propose a song by another musician as the real National Anthem -- the song that tells a real honest story of America and gets at its dark essence, the shadow National Anthem -- what would it be?

Oldham:  I would put Merle Haggard's catalog on shuffle.