My question has stumped Will Oldham.
Or rather, Will Oldham’s question has stumped Will Oldham. In preparing for our short interview, I came across an interview he did with R. Kelly for Interview magazine. Oldham asked Kelly, “Has there been a time, like, in the last 12 months, where you’ve felt, like, ‘Oh, I just learned something specific about myself?’”
The same question catches Oldham off guard. He stammers for a few minutes about different truths in musical ideas, but finally gives up and says, “Huh. I can’t believe I had the gall to ask R. Kelly that question.”
However, the sentiment of “I don’t know” is perfectly consistent—integral, even—with Oldham’s art. He has been making mysterious, confounding, but usually touching music for close to 20 years. Oldham, who records most often now as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, says he often tries to work out life’s big questions in song, knowing the effort is doomed to fail.
“The songs more often than not are trying to put into words, melody, and rhythm—rather than having to turn away or admit defeat or be crushed—that there is no understanding,” Oldham says. “Simply by putting it into song, maybe that implies there’s just enough understanding.”
He started recording under the moniker Palace Brothers, releasing There is No-One What Will Take Care of You, a collection of Appalachian-styled folk tunes, in 1993. Alt-country was just emerging then, and Oldham seemed to belong to that movement, but some critics couldn’t help wondering if it was all just a put-on.
The guy just seemed both really smart and a little weird, singing about incest, drunken preachers, and adultery. The songs toyed with parody. And the weirdness kept coming, as Oldham regularly altered his band name and continued writing songs that went for the gut, with no subject seeming off limits. His lyrics touched on rape, murder, and even eating babies.
But despite the oddness—which is part of his hipster charm—Oldham became one of his generation’s best songwriters, garnering a cult following. He’s been covered by Johnny Cash, and others have written songs about him. He appeared in the epic R. Kelly video, “Trapped in the Closet,” another slice of bizarro American art. He also has a side career as an actor, including a lead role in Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed 2006 film Old Joy.
Oldham is ponderous in conversation, prone to long run-on sentences that clarify, digress, and circle back. He says the cult status he’s obtained can be disconcerting at times, but in other ways it makes life easier. He doesn’t have to engage in the commercial side of the business much because of it. He quotes the late Minutemen guitarist D. Boon, who sang, “Let the products sell themselves.”
“The idea of the cult status means that D. Boon-ism is functioning, and there’s a good feeling knowing that people are finding the music and listening to it in the first place,” Oldham says. “With limited resources, the music is getting heard. That idea is encouraging.”
Oldham’s music is thoughtful and probing, but doesn’t offer any answers. He has a knack for reflecting on everyday actions—eating, for example—in profound ways. “Quail and Dumplings,” from the forthcoming Wolfroy Goes to Town (to be released on Oct. 4), is vintage Oldham. The song seems perfectly suited to the great recession we find ourselves in. The opening lines are about hard times: “Holes in our ceiling, holes in our roof/Hope that we’ve got it made have gone in a poof/When we going to be turning the tide?”
The song is about yearning for better times, but it also celebrates enjoying life and seizing possibility. It continues, “We’ve got empty tummies but it won’t always be/One day it’s going to be quail and dumplings for we.”
The song, Oldham says, is about both craving something rich and claiming it. On the bridge, Angel Olson sings: “Why wait for some day?/Why make a plane?/F--k birds in the bushes?/Let’s take them and....” The music makes the final word indecipherable.
“I eat meat,” Oldham says. “I’ll eat a quail now and then and there’s this sense that why not, why not engage with possibility in that way? It’s the act of making a lyric and a song [with] the image of being sated by something wild and wonderful. Making something in the arts is creating a representation of something and that representation is many times better than the actual thing.”
This hints at what is so powerful about Oldham’s music. Though it can’t offer any explanations, it taps into the mystery of being alive. Oldham sees this same impulse in religion.
“The idea of creating the concept of heaven and yearning for it, maybe that’s all there is,” he says. “But for many millions of people that’s enough.”
“Quail and dumplings,” he explains, “is pretty much having it.”