This is a rare audience. Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is hailed as one of the few singer-songwriters today to bear comparison with Bob Dylan. He seldom consents to interviews and is only doing so now “out of gratitude” to his labels. Reflecting on the commercial “bullshit” involved in bringing his records to a small but devoted, worldwide fanbase, he stops just short of berating “the Man” – yet those labels, Drag City in America and Domino in Britain, are two of the most credible indie operations around. His own mother describes him as “ornery”; Beware, the title of his forthcoming album, would seem to be good advice.
In the upstairs room of a plush west London pub, there’s certainly something of the artistic puritan behind his mammoth beard, tied in bunches with elastic bands. His quiet politesse in sipping a pint of ale, however, suggests a troubadour General Custer in the parlour of his billet: if he’d rather be riding the plains, he knows how to behave indoors. Do I call him “Bonnie”, “Mr Billy” or “Will”? It’s “Will” but ambiguity about whether I’m talking to the organ grinder or the monkey, Faust or his familiar, hovers over our conversation like an in-joke. Until, that is, it’s apparent how much Oldham’s “health as a musician and as a human being” depends on that distance.
It’s 10 years since Oldham unveiled his most brilliant disguise with I See a Darkness (whose title track was later covered by Johnny Cash), having juggled aliases – Palace, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs – at the start of his career. As a recent New Yorker profile of him put it, his songs have always “sounded like old standards rewritten as fever dreams or, occasionally, as inscrutable dirty jokes”, but he found a voice and a vocation on that first Bonnie LP. His facility for recasting his material, especially live, is one reason why he’s mentioned in the same breath as Dylan; his mission, however, hasn’t changed on Beware, Bonnie’s fifth studio release. “I take this load on/ it is my life’s work/ to bring you the light/ out of the dark,” he sings.
“With Bonnie, I have the opportunity to inhabit every song,” he says. “Because if Will thought it was always him inhabiting them, he’d be f***ed up and destroy lots of relationships or whatever. As long as there’s this knowledge that there’s this other thing, this parallel universe, it has to be OK on some level …If you’re working really intensely, pulling stuff from inside, you think like, ‘Woah, I’m not sure if and when I’m crossing the line here, and if and when this is fit for public consumption.’ But Bonnie could be an expander or a magnifier; he could be granting licence too.”
Part of Bonnie’s genius as a mouthpiece, of course, is that the myth gets elaborated by the epithets people give him: “backwoods philosopher”, “literate hillbilly”, “sex machine of the new wave folk”. Is there an ounce of truth in any of them at home in Louisville? “Yeah, exactly,” he replies. “It’s all in the eye of the beholder. There would be easily an army of hillbillies that could make mincemeat of me but to people from England, California, Germany, Maine …[such phrases] might say, ‘Kentucky.’ I like the sex machine, though.”
Beware is Bonnie’s most complete band record yet. Oldham made it with musicians drawn from Chicago’s experimental jazz scene, who he had just finished touring with. Relaxed, sinuous, sonically layered country-rock, it contains some of his warmest melodies. “I thought I knew what to expect from the inventiveness and improvisation of those tours but I didn’t,” he says. “I was blown away by what they brought to the songs. All of a sudden, there were these, like, new growths. Jennifer Hutt’s violin parts took my breath away.”
A lightness in the music – a winking backing vocal, say, or a cheeky marimba – counterpoints the heavier subject matter, which could be glossed as a wariness about love’s transformative power, about carnal needs and compromise. “Sometimes, the lyrics go to places you don’t necessarily want someone to get stuck in,” Oldham says.
Bonnie’s vocals, formerly crabby and spartan, are now a richer, almost suave croon. “Bonnie’s a good singer,” says Oldham, proudly. “It’s like he’s Sinatra: ‘Do you love Sinatra or do you hate Sinatra?’ People have strong opinions about the fact he was a major tyrant, asshole, dictator, mafioso …but Bonnie’s also a nice guy.”
Whatever he hides behind it, Oldham obviously relishes playing the part. That he’s an occasional movie actor (he made his debut in John Sayles’ Matewan as a teenager, and next month appears opposite Michelle Williams in the low budget Wendy and Lucy), should ward us off identifying particular tracks too closely with Oldham – if we hadn’t already got the message – but how does he regard them?
“At a certain point,” he offers. “I disturbingly found that, rather than an accounting of the time leading up to the recording, the albums can strangely be more like a map of what’s to come afterwards.” It is, he adds, like Scrooge’s ghosts – Christmases past, present and future – turning up en masse.
The opening song on Beware admits “we flail too much” (“flailing is like a distorted version of self-preservation rather than actual self-preservation,” he explains) to ever settle down and commit.
Elsewhere, there are cryptic references to fatherhood. It might be a bit much to imply that Oldham, childless and 40 next year, is feeling broody but surely there’s enough here to venture, warily, that Bonnie may be through with cussing and fighting, and that the time for loving, even living together, is nigh?
“I don’t know,” he says. “But that’s a nice observation. Taken with my remark that records can be maps of the future, it makes me hopeful about the road ahead.”
‘Beware’ is out on Domino in the UK on March 16; ‘Wendy and Lucy’ is released in selected UK cinemas on March 6
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