Four weeks ago, on the night before I drove 2,500 miles west to begin studying poetry at the University of Oregon, I was fortunate enough to interview Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) for a second time. At the moment the phone rang, I had no idea that our discussion would dissolve all of my remaining apprehension and uncertainty concerning the changes before me. Mr. Oldham has always been an artist for whom I've had a great deal of respect, and as a musician I believe his lyric insight is unmatched in contemporary songwriting, but I had never heard him speak like this before. In this candid and inspiring conversation, Mr. Oldham talks in-depth about what drives him, some of the tenets he lives by, and his experience with The New Yorker. If you haven't listened to Mr. Oldham's albums, I strongly recommend it. If you have, enjoy this interview, the complete audio of which can be found on Fogged Clarity.
Ben Evans: Well, over the past couple of months I've found myself going back to a lot of your older work. And perhaps it's where I am in my own life right now, but a couple of your past album titles have just now struck me as particularly resonant. The first is: There is No-One What Will Take Care of You, and I know one could interpret this as a suggestion to seek a truth outside of the divine. But I guess I've come to view the title as an assertion of the spirit of self-reliance you seem to embody. Can you talk about the title a little bit, and am I even close?
Will Oldham: I believe so, say the song "(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit"--and the title of that record is something that I get worried about every now and again, just in terms of: where did it come from and where did it take a person to have that stated so clearly? On some levels its sort of the braggart's version of the already bragging phrase: "If you want something done right you have to do it yourself." At the end of the day, you don't have to want something done at all, there are not eyes watching over you, but there are not really eyes watching you either.
Ben Evans: So, so the compulsion to act and to do something great, if I might, must come from within, and no one's expecting it; or, you have no obligation outside of yourself, you have that obligation, perhaps, to yourself?
Will Oldham: You make the world--with enough strength and enough luck you make the world that you live in. If you accept that there's participation to be done and an existence to be had--I tend to think there is only one way I want to go through this existence and that's with my eyes open and my chest out. That's how I'd like to.
BE: I could not agree more, and this ties into the other album title I've thought a lot about, The Letting Go. It seems to me that every man or woman has to come to a point in their own life where they must learn to let go of guilt or anguish or triviality in order to progress and to move forward. I don't know if that's where that title came from?
WO: It seems like there's a crucial time, which for some people can come way too early and can throw shit way out of whack, but there's a crucial time in which you feel like your paying attention to the rules of others so much and, which is important because there is a lot of existence to get through and it would be stupid to try to get through it without some sense of cooperation and some sense of community, but at a certain point it's letting go of learning what other people do and saying: From now on I'm going to take everything I've learned up to this point and go, and go forward with it. It's kind of a turning inward with ideally some degree of faith and respect still to the outer world, but saying: You know, I've spent so much time looking out, now I'm going to sorta fly blind for as long as possible with the idea that I've been in training to live.
BE: Absolutely. I find one of my own weaknesses is that I'm too impressionable, something someone says to me can circulate in my head for days and prove to be an impediment in my own life, and I'm only now learning to shut that out. I wonder if you ever experience that, or if at times in your life there are certain books or films or music that you try to avoid because your not prepared or you don't necessarily want to go into that state of mind, or that place, or where that piece of media will take you?
WO: Oh for sure, all of the time. All of the time. But I don't like the idea that that's a willful ignorance, I like the idea that that's not denying any kind of engagement. And so sometimes that means if I'm going to say no to this experience, if I'm going to say no to this book, then my defense mechanisms go into overdrive and I'll say: Well, if I have to say no to this book then I'm going to read these two books, or if I have to say no to listening to this musician, this artist, this record, this set of songs, than I'm going to listen to twice as many others to prove to myself that I'm not denying; because I don't know the reasons why something is intimidating to me or disgusting to me and I don't like feeling that way, either. I don't like it when something turns me off, on any level. So, its a matter of saying: Well, I can either sit here and reject, or I can do double-time embracing of something else just to reassure myself that I'm not against the world.
BE: Yeah, and I don't view it as a weakness in ourselves. I view it as if we are curating our moods, but that's a dangerous game too.
WO: It's very dangerous because, as far as implying that we know what we're doing for example, that we have perspective enough--by diving fully into something it requires a lot of denial, and denial is always dangerous even if all of your intentions are good and all your preparations are good. When you make a choice you're denying an infinite number of other choices.
BE: We've touched on it, but... Your longevity impresses me as much as anything. What keeps you hungry, what keeps you pushing, why do you want to keep making music?
WO: Hmm, its the twin motivations of... Fear is definitely a big one all the time, but also, it's reward as well. The sense of waking up in the morning and knowing that there is music ahead of me in the day is such an incredible feeling. If you have two choices: To wake up and have fear in front of you in the day or to have music in front of you in the day--and the more I engage with music the more days I wake up and know that that's what's going to be there, as opposed to fear. And the things that come with music, because of the people, and because of--I don't know whatever it is in music itself-- because of melody and harmony and lyric. I am thrilled at most corners that I turn walking down the street, I'm thrilled by most pages I turn when I'm reading a book thinking of what it's going to show and what it's going to make possible for tomorrow. Its wondrous, I guess.
BE: That's really nice. Well, as someone who writes poetry, one of my greatest ambitions is to have a piece appear in The New Yorker; the publication that did a feature story on you a couple years ago. Can you talk about your experience with the magazine, and the interviewer, and how you thought the piece turned out?
WO: Yeah, the piece turned out--You know it was one of those things where, and it may even be in the content of the article, I don't really know how... Because I dropped out of school for example...
BE: Didn't you go to Brown or Dartmouth?
WO: Yeah, I went to Brown for a few semesters.
And dropped out of school and decided to make my own way, I guess, and that was disappointing to my folks. And so I don't know how to, you know, I haven't known how to do things for my folks that reflect the appreciation or anything, any sort of respect, and that was something that I knew that they valued. And at the same time, once again, it's a fairly simple story because a lot of it is in that article; one of the few interesting and satisfying pieces of writing on a musician that I'd ever read was in The New Yorker and it was about Merle Haggard from about 1992 or '93 or something like that. And so when this guy contacted us to talk about doing a story, I thought, you know I don't really like... Especially the story he was proposing was going to be super in-depth and he was going to do this research over the course of six months and it was very intimidating, especially because, I don't know, I like to engage with the people that I'm involved with, and I was thinking like: this is going to be really dangerous if I'm around this guy whose intelligent and I can't ignore him and so I'm going to engage with him but than also he's going to leave and go do his thing and that will also leave this gaping hole in my existence and why would I, you know, if I'm making a piece of music one day and he's there, what part will he play in the making of that music? I mean, its not like he is negligible, he'd be a human force who ideally is a creative and intelligent person, but do I want that in the making of this music or in any of the things that I'm involved with over the course of the six months?
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