Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bonnie Prince Billy – Tuesday, June 12th - The Business, Anacortes - June 12, 2012

Will Oldham in Bellingham
Photo by Ashley Berger

Bonnie Prince Billy - The Business, Anacortes

Tuesday, June 12th

Tried to make it to Bonne Prince Billy at the in-store at Everyday Music here in Bellingham but could not get away from work. So I headed down to Anacortes to The Business to catch him down there. A small shop on the corner in the historic part of downtown, packed with real record albums, CDs, books. You can feel the Pulse of all things relevant to music and the arts everywhere you turn: posters of past and future shows, Vince Carmody, Scott Campbell, copies of Craphound. Vinyl records presented as rare and beautiful objects. 

Bonne Prince Billy is set up in a corner of the shop in front of an old iron door to a vault. Above him is a convex mirror straight out of a Parmigianino painting. He is wearing a green trucker hat, fussing with cables, tuning up, ambient strums, washing over the capacity crowd. Strikes me as unassuming, like a farmer who just wandered in, Wendell Berry, tired from the day’s work, picking up a guitar. 

Then the first words of the first song bring it all back to Will Oldham: “There is no God.” The voice seems weary and tired at its core, giving weight to the oblique lyricism in an almost prayer-like tone at times before rising into upper registers that quiver with a felt presence of pain. The authenticity there connects him to the crowd immediately. There is a sort of skillful unpracticed beauty that makes it seems as if he is singing the song for the first time. In the pauses and the shivers of the drawn out vowels. His playing is deceptively simple and plaintive., in the strings slow strum sounding from the interior of the song. In Willow Trees Bend, the voice breaks beautiful with quiet implorations honoring the simple presence of being: “when faced with your fire I will surrender to you.” 

He invites the audience to ask him anything, request any song. Plays Madeleine Mary. Stops mid-song to tall a story about being on a boat the night before that was headed to the Arctic, that he wanted to stay on it and see narwhals and polar bears, but had fears of being trapped on the boat at sea. There is a subtle sense of humor in his delivery. Returns to the song now resonate with water. 

Wolf Among Wolves is requested. The beauty of a simple song played slowly. The ghost of religion seems to haunt “Ease Down the Road.” He has the amazing ability to scatter the pieces of a song in the space between himself and the audience, like a shaman emptying a medicine bag of its bones, and then reassemble them mid-song into something more powerful and strange. In this manner, with “I See A Darkness” there is a sense that you are listening to a Holy Language. He closed out with “I Am A Cinematographer” showing a mastery of the silent spaces inside of songs, leaving the audience breathless and still, each of us deeply satisfied to have experienced something rich and strange. 

Will Oldham at The Business in Anacortes
Photo by Ashley Berger

Interview with Will Oldham 

The interview took place upstairs at The Business in Anacortes after an in-store performance by Bonnie Prince Billy. The interview was conducted by Scot Casey and Ashley Berger.

Scot Casey: Thanks very much for sitting down with us. That was a great set.

Will Oldham: Thank you.

SC: Listening to you, there is a sense that your music is immediately accessible but there is also of something being hidden or occluded, an idiosyncratic private language. Curiously, everybody, when they hear it, feels like it is part of their own world. You connect with people in a very individual way like this. Do you write songs with this in mind, hyper-specific to your own biography?

WO: I try to scour the world for codes that translate from an outer experience to an inner experience but that are shared. That is what I use for singing. Not things that are specific but things that already exist as shared images or phrases. Because the whole point is to have a communication with somebody else, not to express something that is specific and individual but something that is shared.

SC: I was reminded of a monk singing Psalms.

WO: Yeah, we just recorded three Psalms in Australia two months ago.

SC: Do you believe your music is religious?

WO: I don’t think my songs are religious.

SC: I wonder about the way you address the idea of God. I loved the way you started off the set earlier with “There is no god.”

WO: Yeah, it’s language and it seems our relationships are based on these looming figures and to outright deny them is to cut out such a huge part of meaning in our communication that to do so would seem a waste of time. Unless you have something very quickly to replace it that someone else can understand and share with you. But why not? An organized religion, regardless of its tyranny or whatever, still allows you to take from it, appropriate, something good.

AB: But some of your music must be personal, your own stories, like you are working through something with the song.

WO: You can’t work through something because you have to sing the song again. And if you work through it, then the song would have no value anymore – if that was the point of the song.

AB: So how much of it do you think would be a good song for others to hear and how much is something that you yearn to express, that you have to get out?

WO: Well, the reason that the song exists is, ideally, for someone else.

SC: You have the ability to take a song and break it into all of these beautiful fragments. Then you throw them out as you are singing and pick them up and rearrange them in a new formation as you are singing. Is that something you feel that you do?

WO: Yeah, especially when I am playing on my own. It is always trying to stay ready within the song, to be surprised by the next part of what the song has to deliver.

SC: What comes through on the recordings is a rawness, an authenticity. And to see you do it live, to see you reconstructing the music in the process of playing it was beautiful. The emotion that I heard didn’t seem as if it were a well-practiced thing, even though it is well-practiced, so it came across as with a rare honesty. That has always been one of the aspects of your music that has impressed me, that honesty.

WO: Yeah, it is what is happening. It could be a song that I have performed any number of times and spent a long time writing in preparation for it to be accessible in that way. It is a manner of discovering the song.

AB: Are you satisfied after you write a song? Do you feel fulfilled?

WO: Every once in a while, yeah. Mostly no. But usually that’s the idea. It’s a really good feeling when it happens.

AB: You sound very free and fearless. I don’t know if that is your experience or not. Your voice sounds very fearless.

WO: Well, with a lot of re-writing you could go beyond what you feel comfortable with and then rewrite it, pulling it back to something, to start to know where you really don’t feel comfortable. But, you know, you should have some guilty pleasures as you are making things. I really would like to put in this thing, even though it’s really stupid, but then you put it in and it actually isn’t stupid. It feels really good to do that. Makes you feel good about it.

SC: Are you familiar with Wendell Berry at all?

WO: Yeah. I was in a one-act play that he wrote when I was a teenager. I think it was one of the first or one of the only attempts he made at drama. I don’t think he was all that pleased with it but it was a nice experience.

SC: He has a book called Standing By Words where he discusses the idea of what binds people together in a community are words, to give one’s word, the idea of a vow, that contract between two people in marriage, agreements between friends or a singer and an audience. The integrity of those words, that you stand by your words, is what creates the ground for authentic language. There is a sense of rural honesty, of living your words, saying what you mean. Do you feel that is something you strive to do in your writing? Or is that just putting too much weight on everything?

WO: Well, it would be nice to not put that much weight on everything but I don’t feel that’s an option. For some reason, it seems like words, spoken words, written words, are too strong.

AB: Does that every give you fear, that weight?

WO: It gets heavy, heavy, heavy. I am sure that causes stress and anxiety.

SC: Listening to you, I hear things come out as heavy as in “I See A Darkness.”  Then there is a lighter element that kind of give you a breath as a listener.

AB: A balance. It feels really good when you hear those strong and light moments. That is what structures the music so beautifully, the balance between those soft fragile moments and those that are super powerful. You do that well.

WO: I try to depend as much as possible on, usually, other musicians. But tonight, in these instances, it works. It is a great feeling to know that the words can stay the same every time and song can be completely different.

AB: Did you ever do any voice training? Because it sounds at times so technically perfect and other times so not…

WO [laughter]: Yeah.

AB: That’s what I like about it.

WO: Well I know a lot of what my voice can do. I know what it can’t do. But rather than feel like that means I can’t do things it means that, well, this type of expression is reserved for this aspect of my voice.

AB: I think it comes across as trusting.

WO: It is trying to find the best way to express the song. Listening to other records, other people’s music, finding when a voice, when a genetic quality of somebody’s voice or their ability to navigate a song, when it works with their style or their timbre and think, ok, if they can do that with that with that thin warbly thing and move me, then that means that is valid and I can see if I can use that. But, you know, some people will use that same thing and have it not work. Why doesn’t it work? Because, I don’t know, their commitment wasn’t right or because they were a half-step off in the key that they should have been singing in.

AB: Your voice sounds so comforting because you sound like you trust it.

WO: I know at this point, at any moment in a song, there’s got to be someplace I can go with my voice. Then it is a matter of thinking really quickly where is that going to be?

AB: Because sometimes it is surprising.

WO [laughter]: Oh yeah, yeah, always surprising. To me it is always surprising.

SC: Will, thank you for your time. We appreciated being able to hear you perform and talk to you. Enjoy your time in Anacortes.

AB: Yeah, thank you so much.

WO: Thank you.

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