Taking the road less travelled

Will Oldham has achieved success on his own terms, performing under the alias Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He tells Ed Power about his love of Irish trad

WILL Oldham is perplexed. Several reviews of his latest album, Wolfroy Goes To Town, praise the record’s spontaneity and off-the-cuff charm. It’s nice to be liked, but the LP is probably the least spontaneous he has recorded.

“We played all of the songs in concert as a six-piece band,” says the cult Kentucky singer, who goes by the stage name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. “Which is not something I have ever tried before. If anything I would say it was one of my least spontaneous records. We thought the whole thing through to a significant extent.”

In alternative music circles, Oldham is a legendary, practically mythic, figure, a source of unending fascination to media and fans. He rarely grants interviews, his lyrics are torturously vague and, onstage, he projects a gruffness that verges on intimidating (he has been known to reduce hecklers to a quivering heap simply by fixing his chilling blue eyes on them). When the New Yorker sent its pop writer on assignment with Oldham in Kentucky three years ago, he spent several days in his company and returned seemingly no wiser about the singer’s inner life either as individual or artist.

Musically, he is difficult to pin down too. Wrong-footing critics would appear to be a favourite pursuit. Early on, Oldham specialised in baroque ‘new’ country dirges, juxtaposing sweet melodies and harrowing lyrics. As he grew into his style, the Americana undertones dwindled. By the time he released his first record as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, 1999’s I See A Darkness, a strain of super-black humour permeated the work. Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether he was writing truly despondent songs or crafting elaborate, very dark jokes.

Through it all he has continued to live in the greater Louisville, Kentucky area. Oldham doesn’t think his output is particularly influenced by his environment. He feels it is probably easier to record at such a prolific clip — on average he puts out a fresh patch of songs every 10 months or so — in rural American than anywhere else.

“I’m not sure if location is high up in the category of things that influence an album,” he muses.

“I don’t know whether the country or the city or the building itself is the most important thing. The simple truth is I would prefer to make a record in Kentucky than, say, Chicago, or New York, or London, or Dublin. It is nice to feel you have some kind of monopoly on the energy and intensity. It is difficult to do that in a big city. Where I am, it works.”

Oldham was born in Louisville in 1970. A teenage actor, in 1987 he played a baptist preacher in the John Sayles’ jazz-era social drama Matewan. As his music career took off he drifted away from acting.

However, in the last decade he has tentatively returned. In 2006 he impressed as a middle-aged lost soul in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy; last year he played an Iraq war veteran in Ike Evan’s New Jerusalem. One of his most high profile recent parts was as an arts dealer in the Oscar-nominated Junebug, featuring a breakout performance by Amy Adams.

Scowling from beneath his fearsome beard, Oldham has a reputation as a chilly interviewee.

More than a few journalists have walked away from monosyllabic encounters wondering why he consented to consort with them in the first place. Speaking from his hotel room in Amsterdam, he does not live up to his reputation. While in no danger of being mistaken for garrulous, he is polite and considered, not at all the quasi-autistic hermit he’s often painted as.

A subject upon which he is especially forthcoming is his love of Irish folk and its enduring influence on his work. In his late teens, as Oldham was finding his way as an artist, it dawned on him that the roots music of Kentucky owed a great deal to Ireland and Scotland. On a trip across the Atlantic he sought to educate himself in traditional music. It was an undertaking that would forever change his outlook on songwriting.

“I was in Scotland and I met a person who was into music. I asked if he could help me figure out Celtic music. I had a very basic knowledge of what it was. I knew it was a vast area, a lot of which would appeal to me. He sent me five 90-minute mix-tapes with extensive notes. I remember there was a tape of new compositions, another tape of Uilleann and Scottish pipes. It was my first introduction as a record buyer. I threw myself into that music.

“This came at a crucial moment for me – it was a major building block.”

Seductively dark and mysterious, Wolfroy Goes To Town has been hailed by Oldham fans as perhaps his finest — certainly his most accessible — moment since I See A Darkness. Ask him about this and he is lost for words. Passing judgement on his own work doesn’t come naturally.

“I don’t understand why people would say that,” he says. “Maybe the two records sound exactly the same. I don’t know. My relationship with the music obviously comes from a different place. I can’t really speak for it. That is for others to say.”

Oldham initially recorded under a variety of aliases, most featuring the word ‘palace’: Palace Songs, Palace Music, Palace Brothers. In 1999, he became Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Assuming a permanent stage name was not done lightly. He felt it was time to take his career seriously, rather than teasing his fanbase with ever-changing monikers.

“Changing the name was kind of a big deal. Not in the greater scheme of things, obviously. At a personal level it undoubtedly was. Instead of having an antagonistic relationship with the need to give artistic credit, I thought, well, let’s give it a name, revel in it — and move on. Which is what I did.”

* Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy plays Vicar Street, Dublin Tuesday, Jan 31, Cork Opera House, Wednesday, Feb 1

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up