Will Oldham was in Oahu when I called him from my home in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “I brought my mother here for the harshest month of February,” he explained. I heard the coo of exotic-sounding birds in the background, which made for an awkward juxtaposition against the buzzing chorus of chainsaws outside my window.
I was nervous because Oldham, or Bonnie “Prince” Billy as he’s been calling himself recently, is one of my favorite living musicians. I’d also read many reports of his unabashed disdain for journalists, and was even warned by his publicist about two items that I should not, in any form, mention if I didn’t want to get hung up on.
Recently Oldham and I had both endured a severe ice storm—hence the tree crew wielding chainsaws in my yard—which left us, and more than half a million others, without power for days, or in some cases weeks. The storm that first devastated Northwest Arkansas ravaged Kentucky, particularly Oldham’s hometown of Louisville, days later. I decided this was a safe and easy opening topic.
“I didn’t have any time to do any contemplating,” he remarked. Turns out, as I hunkered under blankets trying to keep warm while listening to branches crashing to the ground like glass chandeliers and watching trees split down the middle from the weight of an inch layer of ice, Oldham was busy running around Lexington making sure his family and friends were taken care of.
When he found out where I was calling from he immediately asked, pleasantly surprised, “You’re in Northwest Arkansas right now?” Like Oldham, I’d lived in New York City, and, as a recent defector, I was curious why he’d chosen to return to the Kentucky hills and leave behind the energy, the thrill, and the constant culture of the city.
“It’s like being on a university campus,” he said. “You do have all the access to art and music, but art and music—unless you are a full-time, employed, career artist or musician—it isn’t really life. Everyone’s struggling to afford to live there and juggling all the cultural activities and, at a certain point, aren’t all the cultural activities supposed to be a fraction of our existence and enrich our existence, but not to be our existence?
“So, you find a place like Louisville,” he continued, “where peoples’ existences are dominated by necessities, not by how to afford frivolities. How do you work to afford to go all to all these musical and cultural events? That’s not really what life is all about in most parts of the world.”
It was in Brooklyn in 1989 that Oldham first recorded music. A couple of friends who shared a loft with him wanted to record an album and knew he had a couple of songs to add. That’s when he fell in love with making records.
“I’m a record man—I like the art of recording,” he said. “[Playing] live to me is a way of practicing for recording more than anything else. And I think that it’s something you can build upon. With a recording you can layer the levels of expression. You can have two live events occurring simultaneously on a recording, because you can do one live take and then throw a musician into that recording and force them to play live against it. Right then you’ve got two live events occurring simultaneously. Then a third level of that is when you’re mixing. That’s kind of a performance in and of itself, an interpretation, so that’s three things. So your brain is hearing three different musical, emotional, artistic moments, and they’re interrelating to each other, and it can provide for years and years and years of listening.”
A year after making his first recording, Oldham played at an open mic night with a friend at a local Louisville bar called Uncle Pleasant’s. It was there where he first covered British singer-songwriter Sally Timm’s song “Horses.”
“That was the first song I ever played live,” he said, and continued with an explanation of what he called “the thrill of confinement.” “You’re bound to the music and you’re bound to the stage for a period of time, so you have to find your joy in that time, which is a really unpleasant time. I don’t like being on stage in front of people, but knowing that that’s a restriction, well, I’m one who says ‘This is your lot—deal with it.’ So now you’re on stage, there’s a bunch of people standing there, or three people standing there, or however many people, and the only way to make it into a great thing is to disappear into the song as much as possible. And that’s something I began to learn right then at that open mic at Uncle Pleasant’s.”
Oldham’s involvement in the arts when he was younger was as a friend and fan in the DIY punk scene in Louisville and in the theater arts. “In the theatrical training there were definitely voice lessons, and there was madrigal singing, but I was never part of a church choir or anything like that,” Oldham said. As he tells it, he kind of stumbled into life as a musician in his late teens. After he left home he traveled a lot, and friends saw him as lost and recommended music. “They thought it would give me something to do, you know, like go play in the sandbox, but they’d say to me, ‘Why don’t you go write a song or something like that?’”
Oldham’s first proper full-length came in 1993 with the album There Is No One Who Will Take Care of You. The record was released under the name Palace Brothers for the Chicago label Drag City, which has remained his constant home through his musical incarnations, although Oldham famously records and releases rarities on all sorts of boutique labels.
What has always drawn listeners in most of all is Oldham’s warbly voice, which has a timeless essence to it. (He’s the first to admit that he still struggles with playing the guitar.) From his earliest recordings to his latest—Beware, just out on Drag City—and throughout all his experimentation into lo-fi, country, folk, rock, and other-worldliness, his remarkable voice has remained a constant. Whether in his early twenties or at his current 39, Oldham’s vocals come from somewhere ancient; he seems at once an old man and an innocent boy. Complementing his singing are his singular songwriting skills, which convey an appreciation of all sorts of musical forms ranging from madrigals to gospel to early R&B, and stem from a deep admiration for the craft.
“One thing that makes me listen to music again and again and again is that sometimes I just wish I could live in the world of that song,” Oldham said. “There’ve been a few times in my life where that has become a crazy part of reality, at least for a moment, where I just got to live in this world that normally we don’t have access to. We’ll never go to Mordor, but it’s that kind of feeling, where all of a sudden it’s like a dream, just like you can dream yourself into the greatest places and then all of a sudden you wake up, but you’re like, ‘Wait a second, I can play this record again and again and again, and re-enter this world.’”
My worries were for naught. Will Oldham was gracious, generous, and even curious about me. He passionately discussed his music and love of music, and forty-five minutes soon passed.
I asked him what he was going to do next, imagining him hitting the waves on a surfboard. “I’m going to the library,” he said earnestly. Then he wished me well, telling me to “go enjoy the Arkansas winter.” I told him it was actually one of those weirdly warm February days that felt more like April, much like a day he recounted earlier when describing Louisville.
“Recently I was riding a bike on one of those crazy, unseasonably warm winter days where it was maybe seventy-three or seventy-four, but all the trees were bare,” he said. “I was riding through the main park and realizing that I never really get views like that. You could see deep into the hillsides and cliff faces and you could see where caves are that you never see because usually when there’s no leaves on the trees you’re in a car going fast, whereas on a bike the trees are all just jam-packed with foliage and you can’t see into the hills. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s just like seeing an X-ray of the Louisville park system.’”
I told him to enjoy the library, and he said, “Thanks, Katy,” before hanging up. Outside my window the chainsaws were still all abuzz and a five-foot-high, ten-foot-long pile of broken branches and debris was amassing in my front yard.
It’s now March, and there are still high piles of branches across the city. The downtown cemetery hasn’t been cleaned up at all, as if the ice just melted yesterday, with broken trees straddled across gravestones. I’m missing Brooklyn—the corner bar, the abandoned factories, the late nights spent with good friends on rooftops—and all the trees that used to frame my house. Time to go escape, put on a record, and, as Oldham put it, “go live in that world for a while.”
KATY HENRIKSEN posts regularly at helloloretta.tumblr.com and twitter.com/helloloretta.