Bonnie 'Prince' Billy: Prince of perversity

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, the artist formerly known as Will Oldham, is perhaps the most uniquely gifted songwriter of his generation. And, as Andy Gill discovers, remarkably easy-going for a singer whose dark and lyrically rich songs deal with sex and death
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The Independent Culture

There's something about Billy. As well there might be of someone who is perhaps the most singularly gifted songwriter of his generation, blessed - if that's exactly the right word - with a unique voice, both lyrically and vocally, one that seems to have existed for ever, yet manages to sound quite unlike anything or anyone else. His singing voice is a fluttering, uncertain warble, pathetic by most technical standards, but perfectly adapted to Oldham's needs; his lyrical voice is, if anything, even less reducible to the usual critical forms, poking as it does into largely uncharted areas of human relations.

Most songwriters, when musing upon love and sex, slip into an emotional shorthand that seeks to soothe the listener and encourage warm, furry feelings. Not so Oldham. His songs deal directly, often bawdily, with the sweat and sinews of sexual congress - one song concludes with the radio-unfriendly couplet, "I lick you dry until you're laughing/ My fingers in your behind" - and with the way desire can prompt the most unforgiveable of deceits as well as the most selfless of devotions. Not that he's about to judge anyone: he treats both those imposters with equal disdain, and occasionally even indulges a certain spiteful glee, which in the traditional folk and country settings he employs comes across rather like one of those modern period novels that view a previous social system through the refracting lens of 21st-century attitudes.

In general, he seems to write cheerful songs about death, and miserable songs about love and sex - a peculiar, even perverse, approach to matters of heart and health. But then, perversity seems to come naturally to Oldham, a man who would just as soon articulate the thoughts of a murderer as he would those of a saint, and whose cheeriest song, "Riding", offers a celebration of sibling incest unmarked by even the slightest trace of shame. Hardly surprising, then, that with his unkempt, whiskery appearance and antique musical style, he is often depicted as some inbred backwoods mountain man, despite being a city boy brought up on American punk rock. Not that he's bothered by the misconception.

"If it helps sell records, that's great," he says, adding sardonically, "but I guess that being from the backwoods wouldn't necessarily be a tradition that you would have much choice in following."

For all the attention-grabbing idiosyncrasies of his work, however, Oldham remains a deeply shy, insular fellow, ill- equipped to withstand the rigours of celebrity. For years, he changed identity from album to album, as if to elude his growing band of devotees. Several variations on the Palace theme - Palace Music, Palace Brothers, plain old Palace - were followed by one album under his real name, before he plumped for the pseudonym Bonnie "Prince" Billy, which has stood him in good stead for five albums and a couple of EPs.

A conflation of romantic outlaw spirits Bonnie Prince Charlie and Billy the Kid (Billy Bonney), it sent off different signals in Northern Ireland, where it could easily be taken as a sacrilegious conjoining of Bonnie Prince Charlie and King Billy, guaranteed to rouse ire on both sides of the religious divide. "That's what I'm about: bringing people together!" smiles Oldham. He can joke about it now, but when he first started using the name, his Belfast promoter flatly refused to put on a show. "But we have played in Belfast since then, and it went fine," he reassures me.

His evasiveness reaches its apogee in the hurly-burly of the promotional arena. To read most accounts of his interviews, you'd be forgiven for expecting him to curl up in a small foetal ball of anxiety, or take ill at the very prospect. Which, on one occasion, he did, receiving journalists at his sick-bed. At the very least, one expects a certain tongue-tied manner. Certainly not the polite, attentive interviewee Oldham turns out to be, mulling over questions from the protective cover of a bushy moustache.

What he has developed, though, is a disarming way of answering abstract queries with bathetically oblique metaphors that ultimately offer scant insight into the matter at hand - as when he responds to an enquiry about his knack for lyrically "ambushing" the unsuspecting listener, with a reference to the nautical movie Master & Commander. Or, more perverse still, when I ask him whether he considers himself part of a tradition or one of a kind, and after umming and ahhing non-committally for a while, he decides that "I would consider myself part of a tradition in the sense that I hope this record shares some qualities with True Romance, the Tony Scott movie. Like, you might say, 'Oh, this is cool!', like you do with that movie."

Well, it's nice to have cleared that up.

He's in town to promote two new releases, one a set of old Palace material re-recorded with top country session musicians, Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, which comes out this Monday, and a forthcoming EP of instrumentals, Seafarers Music, written to accompany a documentary about merchant seamen. Having made the original Palace albums with friends and family for just a few hundred dollars apiece, the $30,000 he spent recording the new anthology represents a steep increase in outlay. What, I ask, was the intention behind the new versions of these songs; was it like buying new clothes for your kids, sprucing them up?

"Totally," he nods. "Bringing songs that maybe had a life to an audience that has listened to the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy albums, but maybe it would be difficult for them to either find - in themselves or in the record shops - the older records, or to appreciate the way they sounded."

He's referring to the famously ramshackle nature of his earlier Palace recordings, which conform to only the most basic of instrumental standards. "I was trying to think of a way of doing this kind of a recording session, but I didn't want to trust new songs to this kind of experimental situation, so I thought, well, I know these songs backwards, forwards and inside-out, so I could deal with them with confidence in this really strange environment."

This is typical of the delicacy with which Oldham customarily approaches his songs, as if they were fragile things that might break if he treated them too roughly.

"That's the way it is when I'm making a record for the first time," he affirms. "I do feel like I have to be very careful with the songs; there's so many places where you could go wrong, and you have to be sure that if you're gonna make the wrong decision, that it's the right wrong decision. It should always be that I know there's something wrong, but I can stand by this defect."

One of the most distinctive aspects of Oldham's songwriting is his fearlessness as regards unsympathetic sentiments. Most songwriters like to present themselves as upright citizens, moral arbiters self-righteously commenting on things in a way that reflects well upon themselves. Oldham, by contrast, doesn't seem to care what we think of him. Brutally so, in some cases.

"It's a defence, probably, like preparing for criticism. Because I know what a cocksucker I am, how loathsome I am, and how loathsome most people are. And rather than have someone hate the record because they have discovered it's not what they thought it was, I'd rather go ahead and be, like, 'OK, go ahead and listen to this, but be aware that it's not a clean situation you're getting into; don't cry to me that you're disappointed, because I'm telling you now, it's a nasty business. But enjoy it, please!'"

You want to avoid overt hypocrisy?

"Exactly. Hopefully, I can be disgust- ing on many levels, but not on a hypo- critical level!"

Oldham started writing songs at college, where he studied "French and Italian and birds and writing and movies", augmenting this already varied curriculum with scuba-diving and ballroom-dancing lessons in his spare time. He was only an intermittent student, attending an occasional semester here and there, and even spending several months in the early Nineties rebuilding churches in Russia and Czechoslovakia. Upon his return, he persuaded the head of the music department to let him write songs as part of his course work.

"So I got to work on the songs for the first Palace Brothers record, which we recorded over December and January," he explains. "And then I thought, there's no reason for me to go back to school - this is hard enough work, it's an education, and if I can make a living at it..." He dropped out of college.

It wasn't the first time he'd changed horses in midstream. A few years earlier, he had made a promising start as an actor with a prominent part as a young preacher in Matewan, John Sayles's 1987 movie about labour disputes in a 1920s mining community in Oldham's native Kentucky. Though that shoot was, he says, a completely enriching experience, subsequent film projects proved less satisfying. "Acting didn't exercise all the muscles that I expected it to," he explains. "I thought somehow it was going to approximate to the movie-going experience. I was under the impression that making the movie would have a portion of the emotion given off by watching the movie, but it wasn't that way at all." So he gave up acting. But the Matewan experience had some influence on his songwriting career, in that the archaic religious language used by his character in the film is also employed in many of Oldham's songs, whose deliberately anachronistic locutions reinforce their connection to the old American folk-music traditions.

"That comes from trying to reinforce the separation of art and life," he says. "The song is a construct, it's not supposed to be a representation of real life. Everything's supposed to connect, but through long strings or shadows, or whatever: no sentence or interaction or line of dialogue is meant to be pinpointable in a real concrete timeline - that would make it exclusive."

His desire to avoid specific one-to-one correspondences between life and art has meant there are few overtly political songs in Oldham's catalogue. When he was working on the songs for last year's superb Master & Everyone album, however, someone wrote to him implying that it was incumbent upon him to comment on the geopolitical situation, which then involved the invasion of Afghanistan. "The best I could do was throw some lines into one of my favourite songs, 'Maundering', where there were a few lines about evil," he says. "I thought I might respond to our great President's declaration of who the Axis of Evil in this world is - thinking that it's great he has the authority to do that, and that it takes evil to know evil. I appreciate the fact that he identified evil for us all."

Very public-spirited of him, I agree, and rather ironic that he should be looking so accusingly at foreigners, only to find them looking straight back at him. Not Oldham, though.

"I was looking at myself," he says.


Palace Brothers/Days in the Wake

Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, first caused a stir with the release of Palace Brothers (later retitled Days in the Wake) in 1994, the follow-up to the splendidly titled There is No-One What Will Take Care of You. Its largely solo, acoustic, lo-fi country sound at a stroke announced the end of the grunge era. A collection of mysterious, beautiful songs of stark simplicity, its high point was "No More Workhorse Blues", with its bleak, surrealistic lyric and ominous rolls of thunder. The silhouette of the artist on the sleeve established his masked attitude to a public persona.

Viva Last Blues

For his 1995 follow-up, Oldham changed tack and enlisted the support of former members of the Southern indie legends Slint, and embarked on the Loopapalooza tour. The result was a raw, Neil Young-influenced rocking record that showcased Oldham's increasing mastery of musical registers, from the lilting "New Partner" to the joyously roustabout "Work Hard, Play Hard". It proved difficult to surpass, and Oldham's next effort, Arise Therefore, was a mordant, dispiriting affair.

I See a Darkness

Released in 1999, it marked Oldham's musical rebirth in a "career" that had meandered somewhat since Arise Therefore. It was also the introduction of his Bonnie "Prince" Billy persona, a part-blueblood-backwoodsman, part-cowboy character, who allowed him to dodge his new and unloved rock celebrity, and to further mimic the protean Bob Dylan's public manoeuvrings. The cover image was a startlingly momento mori of a human skull on a black background, appropriate for a record concerned with the twin delights of sex and death, .

Master and Everyone

Oldham consolidated his success with 2001's hymns to the joys of an adulterous relationship, Ease Down the Road. For the cover of Master and Everyone, released in January 2003, the "Prince" looked ready to assume his place on the face of Mount Rushmore. The album's polished production risked alienating listeners more attuned to the former rough-hewn sound. Happily, the lyrics retained their sharp edges.

'Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music' is released on Domino on Monday