He might not be well known to the masses — he is included in the Rough Guides book The Best Music You’ve Never Heard, after all. But he is beloved by those “in the know,” garnering critical acclaim, including his 1999 album I See a Darkness being ranked as the ninth best album of the 1990s by the influential indie-arbiters Pitchfork.com, which says it “confirm(s) that Oldham is indie’s detached and brilliant (Robert) De Niro.” That the late Johnny Cash covered that album’s title track certainly is quite an honor as well.
Oldham’s latest album, The Wonder Show of the World, is credited to Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Cairo Gang, which will be playing at The Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez on Oct. 27 as part of the Tales From the Tavern series. Co-billed are Peter Mulvey and Jeffrey Foucault.
The following is adapted from an extensive phone conversation with Oldham, who was talking from his work/rehearsal space in Louisville, Ky. Click here to read the full interview.
Jeff Moehlis: I’ve noticed several Oldhams on the credits of your albums. I was curious: How would you characterize how your family has contributed to your music and career?
Will Oldham: Characterize it? I guess it’s just been essential, as with many friends. I can be, I guess, a bit introverted. So one way that I try to ensure that I get to interact with friends and family at all is by inviting them to participate and collaborate on the music work that I’m involved with. That ensures that I get some face time [laughs], because otherwise I might just get holed up somewhere.
JM: You are touring with Emmett Kelly, and the two of you released an album recently. How has playing with him influenced your music?
WO: Well, to give a good answer would probably take a perspective that a greater length of time would provide. Overall, Emmett is a positive and curious and proactive force in making music, and making it expand and feel good to play, and feel good to write, and feel good to record.
Emmett, just overall, brings more joy into the process from beginning to end than many folks that I have played with. He’s got an intense fluency with music, and an ability to translate language into music and back again, which helps us cut to the chase and get to where we want to go with the song or the performance.
Then we’ve written these songs together, and he challenges me rhythmically and melodically as a singer, and helps me to become a better singer, which at the end of the day is one of my driving forces in life.
JM: I’ve heard your music described many different ways. I’m wondering, as far as a genre for your music, how do you perceive it? Or does it matter? Should we put a label on these things?
WO: [slowly] I don’t think that it matters. Of course, people ask me that question all the time. Everybody asks it. You know, people at customs when you go into a foreign country to play music, they’ll say, “You play music? What kind of music do you play?” And usually I try to think of the thing that relates best to my perception of whoever is asking the question. So I could say it’s underground music, it’s country music, it’s folk music, it’s R&B, it’s jazz, it’s gospel music, it’s experimental music, or innovative music — that’s one that we’ve been joking about lately. But it just kind of depends on who’s asking and why. Why are they asking, why does anyone ask? It’s just what it is.
JM: Do you have a personal favorite album among those you have released?
WO: Arise Therefore has always been a very important record for me. And Joya, Ease Down the Road ... it’s just different for different things. One thing that I love about Ease Down the Road and Greatest Palace Music is the amount of people that play on both of those records. That meant I got to spend — you know as I was talking about at the beginning of the conversation — quality time with people that I love, like and/or respect, and make music with them and interact with them.
JM: Many people have come to know your music through Johnny Cash’s cover of “I See a Darkness,” and that is probably your best-known song, in part for that reason. Do you have any reflections on that song in particular?
WO: Sure. Fortunately, for the most part, it’s a relatively interesting song to play and to sing. It can creep into the set without stomping on any of our buzz onstage. At the same time, each time we play it we’ll probably play it a little bit differently, and each time I think about it as it’s being sung, I think about the lyrics a little bit differently.
Sometimes it’s frightening, and I wonder if it’s how ... I don’t know, sometimes, the chorus [pause] ... I don’t know if it has a subliminal effect, like if I keep singing it, and if there’s a reward, meaning a reward even of energy from the audience for singing that, is this sort of dark vision, to dumbly paraphrase, being rewarded [laughs] and does that feed itself and make for a dark or darker vision as days
go by? When maybe we get to age 40, any light that we can grab should be grabbed. I love the song, and sometimes it’s a little troubling. My relationship to the song is a little troubling.
JM: What is your motivation for doing music?
WO: You know, I think some people are like, ah, I’d like to be onstage, ah, I would like it if people look at me, or I could write a better song than that. Or whatever. I’ve never been able to relate to the term “rock star,” or to these video games, or even to the love of the audience. None of that makes any sense to me at all.
I feel like it’s my trade, and part of the trade is having a relationship to the audience, but it’s not necessarily their attention or their approval. It’s more, have we established a strong enough communication and can we continue with that? And if we can’t, it either has to be fixed or abandoned. And if it’s abandoned, hopefully that’s at the point of retirement and/or death.
I don’t have anything else to do. I don’t have any other well to draw on.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?
WO: I’d love to record a few singles, you know seven inches, before the end of the year. And then we have these three Bonnie Billy and the Cairo Gang trips this year, in 2010. And then I’m also working on some songs in collaboration with somebody, which should be done in the next few days, I think.
And then I’m trying to do something that I can’t remember ever doing before, which is that at the present time, by Christmas or by New Year’s, there are no plans after that. And I’m going to see how long I can go without making any. Usually at this point I’ll have a recording session booked, or a tour booked in February, March even May by this time of the year. I’m trying to see what happens if things are open.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.