The teen star of John Sayles' Matewan, Will Oldham could have ended up like Macauley Culkin - home alone, something of a charicature. Instead he became a model for, one imagines, Jenny Lewis -- as well as, in some ways, members of a freak-folk/out-folk/whatever-folk movement, folks that go their own way in a somehow communal spirit. And perhaps that’s because Oldham is so in touch with a spirit -- call it synchronicity or divine providence -- that allows him to thread together Old Joy, his 1997 Will Oldham album, Joya (Drag City), Madonna, Emily Dickinson, and latest Bonnie "Prince" Billy full-length, The Letting Go.
I spoke to Oldham about The Letting Go and his new film, Old Joy, and wrote about it in "Sonic Reducer." Here's the rest of the interview.
Bay Guardian: How did The Letting Go come about?
Will Oldham: I met the man who recorded it, Valgeir [Sigurosson] when I toured with Bjork a few years ago, and ran into him again last summer, and we just discussed doing something together, and at the time I was finishing up this set of songs. Every set of songs are a little bit special, but these had, I guess, a little bit more drama and gothic horror than in the past.
I also started to speak with Paul [Oldham] and Dawn McCarthy about doing some work on the rcord. And Valgeir had some experience with capturing beautiful, dramatic experiences on record.
BG: Why did the songs turn out to be so dark and dramatic? Were they based on anything that was going on in your own life?
WO: No, it's music. It's whatever you want to call it -- uh, it's some kind of signification. Like, it represents all different kinds of realities woven in, and you might see one section of thread that’s on the surface part, and another that's been buried. One of them has to do with a shared objective, concrete reality, another one might have to do with a shared subjective, intangible reality, but then you use all those threads to make a song with.
But, yeah, I don’t know why this particular group of songs was so…. I mean there's always some kind of intrigue meant to go on in 'em. But this time they seemed to have settings that were a little more windswept, I guess.
BG: Where were you when you were writing them?
WO: I was in Kentucky sometimes. I was in the Northwest sometimes. I was on the island of Molokai, in the state of Hawaii, for some time. And in Mexico and New Mexico toward the end of it all, at the end of polishing the songs. That's what these years are like - it seems like. playing music or not playing music, constantly doing thigns that happen to occurrrrrrr...in seperate geographic locations.
BG: What are you doing besides making music and movies?
WO: I guess when I was in Mexico I was traveling with my friend Bob Arellano, who I have played a bunch of music with, but at this point, he allowed me to join him and a bunch of visual artists that he was working with on a story that was going to be illustrated. It was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez.
BG: What were you doing in Molokai?
WO: I went there actually to go to a yoga retreat. Heh heh. And it was pretty low-key. like Molokai itself. It was pretty rough around the edges, but it was great, because ultimately I ended up having eight to 10 hours a day to do whatever, to take a boat out, to swim, or write.
BG: Do you always work on the songs initially by yourself? Did that change working with McCarthy?
WO: Definitely everybody and maybe especially Dawn altered the songs, but basically they just, like, added huge dimensions to what was strucuturally and lyrically already there. I work on the basics of the song, melodies and progressions and words are myself, and when I feel like I have something that I have some degree of confidence in, then I'll present it to the other people like Dawn and Jim [White, Dirty Three drummer] and Valgeir and my brother Paul.
Dawn was the only one that very quickly came back with ideas already just flowing and sent recordings of ideas. and so theres a song called "The Letting Go," which was one thing.... It's funny because me and my brother recorded it.
Y'know have you heard of these Burn to Shine DVDs? A guy chooses a city and finds an organizer there to collect a representative group of local bands, and then he'll find a house that’s doomed to be destroyed, take a condemned property. arrange a date, and then everybody goes in to play a song on that date. He shoots it and then he also shoots the destruction of the house and talks about the story of the house in the course of the DVD.
He did one in Louisville. It was sort of lame because they actually did it in Southern Indiana and called it Louisville. And then the house coudn't be burned down, they had to knock it down - part of it is the house is supposed to be burned down. So Paul and I did a version of that song, and somehow I got Dawn's notes. So If you were to watch that performance and either hear Dawn's annotated version of what's there and how it's been fleshed out... it's pretty significantly different. It's significantly different while all the ingredients aren’t lost but things are added that just add dimensions to it. The players help create a world. That’s the idea about that’s working with these people, knowing they're just going to bring universes of musical - and human - ideas to the recording.
BG: Why did you title the album The Letting Go?
WO: Well, the title for the year and a half prior to the very end of the recording had been the name of the third song. which is "Wai" or vai-ee, which is Hawaiian for water. Then I thought that's just going to be a pain in the ass because no one is going to pronounce it right.
Then while we were mixing that song that was called, up to that point, "Letting Go of a Little Girl," and I hated that title and I had been retitling it over the next six months or so. Then while we were mixing, while Valgeir and I were sitting there mixing - I was sitting there reading because he would just spend long times just messing with compressors or twiddling knobs and so I was sitting there reading a book that I had bought a couple weeks before, randomly, off a remainder table in a bookstore, during the holiday shopping season in Kentucky. It was a book called Good Morning Midnight. It's by a guy named Chip Brown and it's about a guy named Guy Waterman who ended his life in 2001 or 2002 by hiking up a mountain that he was very familiar with, in the middle of winter and intentionally dying of exposure.
I just picked up the book sort of randomly, but it was just filled with really, really weird coincidences that related to actually what we were involved in at that very moment, mixing that song. Part of the story has to do with Guy Waterman losing two sons into the wilderness - they disappear. In course of song that we're mixing, the singer's children go out into the outerworld, into the snow and disappear and don’t come back. And then there's this concept of freezing to death toward the very end of the song or not freezing to death, how you keep from freezing to death by pulling on the skin of another human being.
But Guy Waterman freezes to death, and he was married to daughter of Emily Dickinson's principle editor, revisor of the 20th century, the guy who went over all her stuff and found original copies amd revised them so the eccentric punctuation and indentation and capitalization was restored where they hadn't been prior. So Chip Brown brings in a few Emily Dickinson refefnces and the title itself, Good Morning Midnight, comes from a Emily Dickinson poem. And in there, there's this little poem that Emily Dickinson wrote that compares an emotion or experience to that which is felt by those that freeze to death, which is first the something, then the something, then the letting go. Like I said, we were mixing the song at the time and I thought what the hell, that's probably a better title.
BG: You let go and found it.
WO: Exactly, exactly, exactly.
BG: Do you often work that way, using synchronicity or coincidence or...?
WO: I just sit back and marvel at it. That was pretty weird. and then a friend said, "Well, what about all the other Emily Dickinson references?" And I was like, what are you talking about? And she says, "For example, the last song, 'I Called You Back' - that's what's writtten on her gravestone, "Called back." And I didn't know that at all. So y'know that’s pretty funny, right? Dont want to be silly and say there's weird coincidences where there aren't weird coincidences but that did seem pretty weird. Eerie, yeah. I definitely don’t look for them and I try to doubt them as much as possible, because once you become engrossed in them, where do you stop? Where do you stop looking at the interconnectedness of everything, every action? I wouldnt know where to stop. Heh.
It's knowing, say, if I have some potentially obsessive personality, then part of the war every day is being on guard against being consumed by a concept or practice that becomes the obsessive behavior.
BG: You've been amazingly productive when it comes to making music. Do you ever trash projects or - let go?
WO: Yeah, that happens a lot as well. Everything seems impossible at some stage in its undertaking. Anything from a meal to a makeout session to a record and to dealing with grief or anything like that. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tryng to count how many moments in a given process when it seemed impossible versus how many moments when it seemed possible and figuring when it seemed to go over half the moments where it seems impossible, then maybe that's the thing where you should somehow bow politely out of, or bring to a close, before it becomes destructive.
BG: Did you feel that way about making films, at one point?
WO: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It just seems like there were too many things that would make me into someone that was not recognizable to me. To some extent, that can be exciting. You figure there's a certain degree of transformation in the person's life. But when you feel like you have some idea that that transformation could be something that could be, at this stage in your life, something you deem undesireable, or even hideous, you try not to go there.
BG: Did you see yourself becoming a hideous child star?
WO: Or even Just like being in Los Angeles and meeting some peoplel who seemed like truly great people whose company I enjoyed but seeing maybe a certain kind of sadness or unused potential in their faces. They may be older people who had just been there and tried too long, y'know, to work what I deem superhumanity, to make that work in what was an inhuman system out there, and thinking, I like myself and I like my friends and I like my family. And I don't want to fall away from them because I'm pursung something that isn't justifiable. Just all the weird superficiality and just waiting and going to auditions and waiting. And doing so many things that are , uh, just difficult to justify. Say, I went back to Louisville and had dinner with a friend and realized my day-to-day activities were repulsive. Some people are lucky enough to be good at compartamentalizing, but I'm not very good at compartamentalizing in that way.
BG: Did you consider yourself a musician before an actor?
WO: No. It was just acting, acting, acting, and then nothing, and then it started to become music, and then over the years, after that, it was like, oh, well, a lot of the things that I dreamed I could do in an acting kind of way are a million times more plausible in this musical kind of way.
BG: Why have you recorded under so many names?
WO: For the first four or five years, it was just making records, and because I think, maybe because I thought of things more in terms of acting or maybe in terms of plays and movies easily as much as records, and I thought it represented more if everything was named differently because movies aren't named the same, besides the James Bond series, they're not. They don't call it Alfred Hitchcock 1, 2, and 3. So I thought it was a way that people would know what you're talking about. I thought it would be a way of focusing things on each record. Sort of like how people would say I like this record rather than say, I like the music of this.
I didnt realize that it was sort of a...definitely a pointless battle. To see about maybe trying to make people focus on records as independent entities, rather than representations of an individual's or group's work. And it became so much energy expended to always explain this name thing. i was finally just like, this is just bullshit. Y'know, the opposite. Totally the opposite of what this was supposed to be. So I didn't know what to do for a couple years. I made one record that doesn't have a name on it and then one record with Will Oldham on it because I still hadn't thought of a name. And then all of a sudden Bonnie "Prince" Billy came around, and from then on, it's just been what it is.
BG: What do you like about that name?
WO: I liked how it was a little bit silly and a little bit boastful, but at the same time, it had some hardcore, y'know.... The things I thought about right away was how it related to Nat King Cole and Bonnie Prince Charlie. and everything fun and funny and beautiful and adventursome about those things. Since then someone else said, "Of course, it’s a Billy the Kid reference," and I thought maybe it is!
And there's a guy William Boniface Bonnie, and he's an American Indian musician in the Southwest. It seemed like it could both represent something that's like a human being but also doomed to be abstract as well. But it didn't recall anything specifically musical or anything specifically atmospheric. It had an alliterative charm as well. It served so many purposes that i thought that would be a fine thing to put records out under.
BG: And you recorded Joya under the Will Oldham. Interesting considering Old Joy.
WO: Yeah, yeah, omigod. Yeah, they just don’t stop. They really don’t stop. The thing about that is there's a song on there called "Open Your Heart." I sort of named it after the Madonna song. There's maybe one other lyric from her song in that song but otherwise they're not related at all. And the first song on the record is "Oh Let It Be." And I just got Confessions on a Dancefloor and there's a song on there where she sings, "Oh let it be," to the same tune I sing, "Oh Let It Be," and her song is called "Let It Will Be."
WO: I'm just telling ya! It just keeps going. It really doesn’t stop!
And another thing, either with Joya or Rise, we put out a free EP with some music I'd done for a movie that was called Broken Giant. On the face of the CD we put a reading from the Book of Job. The movie opens with a preacher reading from the Book of Job and drawing a lesson from the Book of Job and on the back of the CD we used a still from the movie, which, I can't even remember why he did this, it was a still of the guy's hand and he had fire coming out of his hand. The actor was Will Arnette who plays Job in Arrested Development -- that's the magician who has fire coming out of his hands.
BG: What's that on the cover of The Letting Go?
WO: That's Makapuu on Oahu.
BG: Would you say this is an island album?
WO: Yeah, yeah, it could be. My mom was born [in Hawaii] back in '42. Her mom was a military nurse and her dad was a pilot. So she was a military baby there then they got stationed someplace else a couple years later. She would talk about it because her mom would talk about it a lot. I started going there, maybe about six years ago. I went there the first time just to see what it was. I liked Oahu very much.
BG: Why did you take on Old Joy?
WO: It was just Kelly Reichardt. I had done music for a movie for hers called Ode a while back, maybe four years or so ago. Then she called me and said this movie has a hot spring in it and she was thinking about shooting it in North Carolina even though the story was originally set in Oregan. She called me to ask if I knew of any good hot springs because she knew it was something I liked to find while on tour, good places to swim and, if possible, good hot soaks especially if they're free.
We brainstormed, and I was like, "I don't know if we have anything you're looking for. Why don't you just do it in Oregan?" In the course of that she asked me if I was interested in playing one of the parts. I said I would, especially because it felt.... Another problem I have with acting is the way it works in general. Actors are just the last thing that is thrown into the mix. There was one part I had in the Baby Jessica story where I played Baby Jessica's dad - I think I got the part maybe 48 hours before we started shooting. You just walk in and say your lines, and no one gives a shit. They don’t care who you are or how you say things.
But this, I was already cognizant of location scouting - and then was there throughout the whole casting process. I had a chance to understand where it was coming from. I also knew Kelly was going to be working in a way I like to work, which is just like a full immersion process. Everybody goes there. Everybody's basically on call. No rules. Most movie sets, you pick up a piece of equipment to carry it down the hill they say, "No, no, no, you don't need to do that. Whereas with this it was, "Can you get that for me?" Do ya think you could back that vehicle over here." That's good. Thats cool. ** The line between tasks is a semipermeable membrane. That's how I like making records, too. Bringing people into a location, and just figuring, well, we'll just see what happens there. There isn't anything necessarily that any of us have done before that necessarily applies here. We just need to make sure we're respectful of each other and there are some boundaries but also that those boundaries could be, y'know, discussed.
I'll never be able to say acting wasn't important to me because it was just crucial for so long in terms of how I thought about the world, I guess.
BG: Were there any changes to the script?
WO: No, everything seemed pretty much word for word, except for the long
monologue at the tub. Kelly wasn’t satisfied with the way it was written. She didn’t like
the story itself, so for the week prior to shooting that, we just kept brainstorming stories, and that’s a story I came up with, the bulk of it. I had to tell it to her and retell it to her and she would tell me to emphasize this part or not. That was the only thing that wasn’t written down. Kelly and John Raymond, whose short story it came from, wrote
BG: Could you relate to the characters?
WO: Yeah, I felt I knew both of those characters to some extent, fairly well. It’s something that I see in a lot of people I know. But I can imagine it being a story that really could have happened anytime in the 20th century -- or anytime before
that as well. There’s a certain timelessness to it. It’s about the degree to which or how we define what our direction is, how much we give in…
BG: What kind of lineup will you have when you play here?
WO: We'll play in Big Sur and Eureka with Faun Fables. I think Dawn might be joining us for singing in San Francisco proper – it’s her birthday. This band will be a drummer Alex Neilson from Scotland, who I met through a musician named Alistair Roberts. [Neilson] played drums on a record I worked on a couple years ago. We started playing and a few tours overseas but never here. Then an old friend and colleague, Aram Stith, will be playing bass, though he usually plays guitar. Emmett Kelly, who played guitar on The Letting Go, will be playing guitar, and then Azita [Youssefi] will be play some kind of keyboard machine. We’ve toured some together. I can’t wait to travel more with her.
BG: What would you say your relationship to Joanna Newsom and other out-folkies is, at this point? Do you feel even vaguely responsible for exposing the music or even making that kind of music long before any of them did?
WO: It does seem like one of the main things about making music is learning about music and trying to some extent pass on that knowledge without doing it in a heavy-handed or propaganda-style way. If I hear something that I really like to be more part of the public consciousness than some of the music that’s part of the public consciousness.… When it’s possible and when it can coincide in some way to
have people hear things…
It’s so nice to walk into somebody’s house in Missoula or Omaha or Austin, and have them put on some music that you love deeply. It’s so much infinitely nicer than for them to put on music that just makes you just wanna…vomit. Most of it is, when is there’s great music, the only reason people don’t listen to it is because they can’t hear it. Either they can’t find it or even if they can, sometimes it’s hard for people if they have busy lives and important lives to understand what their potential connection could be
to that music. Part of it is to reveal how interconnected things could be if you want them to be. Part of it is also there’s a sense of, if the world isn’t going your way and there’s a certain amount always of loneliness to do battle with….and sometimes you realize it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to be this solitary figure in the world. But
sometimes people don’t remind you of that or they don’t help you to see how unalone you are. There are very few individuals on this planet that deserve, through evil or insanity to actually be, uh, solitary figures.
[Newsom] had given some of her music to a friend who plays as Bobby Birdman, who
had just been on tour with me. And they’re both from Nevada City. We had just played Nevada City and as we were leaving the next day, he said my friend Joanna wants you to hear this, and so I listened to it and I listened to it for a long time. And then when we played shows the following year, I asked if she could play some with us, and those were
really fun, really good shows. and as usual with music that I hear that I like, the first people that I try to get interested in it are Drag City. Most of the time it’s an uphill battle – I’m always shocked to find....how unshared my tastes are. I’ll love something and people will just be like, “Oh.” I might have even played Joanna for a couple people and they were just like, “OK, whatever! A booking agent who I totally love and have been working with for a long time was like, uh. I said, “I promise, I played shows with her and the shows were really good, and the audiences really liked her.” And he passed.
That easily happens more often than not. Most things I like, I don’t even try to play music for my friends usually. I just find people have to come to things on their own. Part of that is more showing through association why somebody might find value in this. Like Faun Fables - their records are amazing, their shows are completely spectacular, and then I’ll try to play their records for people sometimes and they’ll be just like, “I just don’t get it.” So I think when Dawn and I working together helps to introduce people or for some reason show the merits that I see in the Faun Fables music, ideally. And then they’re like, “Oh, OK! You’re right - these are better than your records.”
It seems like anytime there’s a scene that shares lots of stylistic qualities…it’s in some
ways like saying, do you like vegetables? They all take seeds and are green and take water and sunlight to grow. It’s like any given style of music. There’s only certain individuals who are gonna end up being able to communicate something to a specific listener. So as far as a scene in general, I couldn’t say. I understand there’s supposed to be a certain zeitgeist.
BG: Considering the Louisville music scene you came out of, would you consider yourself a child of hardcore?
WO: To a greater extent just the general experimentation and industrious and creative ambition of the bands and record labels that I grew up in Louisville and between Chicago, Louisville, and New York and the things that were happening somehow in spite of the musical landscape at large in this country and the world. Things that were
happening then - they took musical history into mind. Record companies like Homestead and Touch and Go and Dischord and Blast First in England. These labels were doing things in order to ensure that the music that they liked was heard by other people. The Minutemen didn’t share anything with Misfits, Minor Threat, or the Meatmen, other
than the first consonant. Or Sonic Youth or the Birthday Party or the Bad Seeds at that time or the Volcano Suns or Antietam - all this music was seen as defeatist, shockingly unique and shockingly energetic, and they were all being created by the musician themselves and the scenes they were in, and no one above them. There was no one was telling anybody what to do, and yet they were these huge, coherent artistic visions that were deeply fun, deeply satisfying, and deeply challenging.
That made that a good time to grow up. It just made you think, why not? Why would you ever have to settle or why would you have to listen to anybody else tell you how to do things? If something doesn’t seem right, all you have to do is set up your own show or all you have to do is set up your own record label. or all you have to do is not buy the record that everyone tells you is bad and buy the good record - and just use your own judgment. That was definitely pretty great to grow up around, even getting to see the way some of the bands like Husker Du and Replacements changed or didn’t change and Sonic Youth and Dinosaur changed or didn’t change. And to see that, hmm, I can see where that
can work or doesn’t work or why that doesn’t work. You’d have to think, why did that record suck when the last record was so good. You had to find a reason. You couldn’t just be satisfied.
BG: What are you up to next?
WO: There are some fun shows I think in the beginning of the year, ideally, in Israel and Turkey, I hope. Then starting to talk about recordings for, I dunno, spring or summer, maybe. Hopefully try and make a record with my brothers and then another record with
Oldham, a.k.a., Bonnie "Prince" Billy, performs with Faun Fables on Oct. 28 at the Henry Miller Library, Big Sur; a few more tickets might be available. www.henrymiller.org Otherwise, he plays with Dark Hand and Lamplight and Sir Richard Bishop Oct. 30-Oct. 31, 8 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF. Tickets are $18. Call (415) 885-0750.