Let the shuffle gods decide: Will Oldham lets his iPod do the talking

We have a date with destiny but Will Oldham is walking out of his central London hotel just as I'm going in. "Gonna get a better cup of coffee than they serve here and I'll be right back," he says, strolling out on to Tottenham Court Road. Twenty-five minutes later, Oldham returns. He is not, it seems, a man to take his beverages lightly.

This is hardly surprising. If one thing has characterised the 38-year-old's life till now it is a wilfulness bordering on the abstruse. He quit high school in Louisville, Kentucky, to study drama and bagged the part of a boy-preacher in John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan. He went back to studying, dropped out of the Ivy League Brown University in New England, and then landed a plum part in the made-for-TV drama Everybody's Baby, the story of Jessica McClure, the little girl who fell down a well. (He played her dad.) A handful of minor roles later, Oldham was already heading off in a whole new direction.

He had always had connections to the Louisville music scene. His older brother Ned had played in local bands, and a photograph Oldham had taken had been used as the cover shot for Slint's 1991 album Spiderland. Still in his early twenties, Oldham picked up a guitar and, because he had grown up around the DIY punk ethos, started making records with his friends. At first, these records were released by acts with names such as Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs and, sometimes, plain Palace. One – 1996's Arise, Therefore – was put out with no name on the packaging at all. The idea was that Oldham could disappear into a musical persona: a country-outlaw troubadour with a face to grace Mount Rushmore.

Since 1999, he has settled and grown into the name Bonnie "Prince" Billy. But while it's now easier to find and listen to his music, there is no more logic in the way it is released. Records come out whenever Oldham feels like it: there have been two recent live albums, one guitar-heavy and abrasive, the other with the Scottish folk troupe Harem Scarem. In 2004, he released Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, a collection of his favourite Palace songs rerecorded with a group of polished Nashville session musicians.

He still acts occasionally too: Junebug and Old Joy are recent high points. And, slowly, Oldham has grown into the sort of artist that, as it did last month, The New Yorker would devote six pages to. (His mother, when asked for an opinion on her middle son for that piece, chose "ornery" [stubborn] as the word to best describe him.) Johnny Cash covered him. Björk has collaborated. The anti-folk singer Jeffrey Lewis has a song about a hallucinatory meeting with Oldham on the New York subway (it's called "Williamsburg Will Oldham Massacre" and the video on YouTube can't be recommended highly enough).

But what was that about a date with destiny? It goes without saying Oldham doesn't much like interviews. In fact, he is threatening to never give them again and is only doing so now because his new record is as approachable, warm and inclusive as he is ever likely to make. Perversely, and therefore naturally, it's called Beware, and so we have decided to throw caution to the wind and let the fates decide what we will talk about today. Oldham's knowledge and love of music runs deep. So, armed only with the 10,461 files on his 80GB iPod –the stuff that he is "most into, most wants to be into, or most wants to learn from" – we plan to put our conversational destiny into the hands of the "shuffle" gods and see what happens. Think The Dice Man – only with songs in place of sinister possibilities...

John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey

BPB: "Let's hit the button. Well, the first song that comes up is 'City of No Sun' from the 1996 album Dance Hall at Louse Point. When this came out I thought it was a really great record. I still think so. Vocally, it's one of the most exciting records in the past decade. There's whispers and sometimes there's screaming. [Sings] 'Love me tenderly my darling/...In the city of light and truth'. I've never tried to figure out why she sings the way she does or the intent behind it, but I guess there's a villainous aspect to it."

The Pipil Indians of El Salvador

"This next song is called 'El Barrenar'. The Smithsonian library has a website and you can order anything from the archives. Someone will then burn you a CD. I was going to El Salvador a year ago and I wanted to hear some music in the months leading up to my trip there. This is vocal, rustic and is in Spanish, when I was hoping it would be in an American-Indian dialect. It's probably from some time in the 1960s. The truth is I'm not all that happy with this purchase."

Unknown artist

"This is better. It's called 'Wexford Mummer's Song' and it's from a record called As I Roved Out, a compilation of Irish field recordings collected by Jean Ritchie and George Pickow. The principal appeal of this song is being able to hear what Ritchie was into and collecting. You can hear people talking and laughing in the background. Though I've been to Dublin many times, I don't much like cities. I don't like the idea of being surrounded by hidden things; people you can't see in buildings and cars. Cities are made for enemies to destroy."

Pupu Himene

"This next song is Tahitian. It's from a record called Polynesian Polyphonies that features a choral music called himene. It's Polynesian hymns, probably Christian in theme. Whenever I see something that looks like it could be good – whether it's on vinyl, CD or cassette – if it's not too expensive, I'll take a chance."

Timbaland

"We now come to 'Boardmeeting', one word, by Timbaland featuring Magoo from his 2007 record Shock Value. I have never listened to this song. I was on tour and I watched a Timbaland video with Nelly Furtado late one night on the hotel TV. I liked it and thought, OK, I must listen to the rest of the record. But I don't like the rest of the record, though I should at this point confess a weakness for Nelly Furtado records in general."

Joe Walsh

"This is 'Midnight Visitor' from Joe Walsh's 1972 record Barnstorm. It's a recommendation from a friend who randomly called and said he thought I'd love it. He'd never recommended music to me before. It's like psychedelic folk and I like Walsh's voice a lot."

Roy Acuff

"Here's another singer I love. This is 'Wreck on the Highway', it's a pretty standard American folk-country number sung by a man with an incredibly expressive and unique voice. It's a cool story song; a factual, pretty violent and gory telling of a wreck on the highway. The refrain is [sings] 'All that blood... all that blood/ But I didn't hear nobody pray, I didn't hear nobody pray.' It's a classic, for sure."

Cat Stevens

"This last one is 'Randy'. It's from Back to Earth [1978], Cat Stevens' last record as Cat Stevens, which has a really beautiful cover of a waterfall – like a long exposure, so the water looks like a solid white stream. On the back it already had, I think, the name of god in Arabic. After a couple of strange and unsatisfying records I felt like this was super-great, although 'Randy' is not one of my favourite songs on it. What's it about? An elephant? A woman? A dog? A boy?"

With that mystery hanging in the air, Oldham mutters something about being able to do this all day. Next up on what may or may not be his last-ever round of UK press, is a journalist from the NME. Then, Oldham will go back to Kentucky to do whatever he pleases. Just before he left, I asked about the title of his new record. Of what, specifically, should one beware? He answered: "Not liking this record very much." And you can make of that – and everything else Will Oldham-related, for that matter – what you will.

'Beware' is out on Domino tomorrow. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy plays the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, on 20 April (0871 663 2500)

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
    Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

    Escape from Everest base camp

    Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
    Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

    What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

    Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
    Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

    Gossip girl comes of age

    Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
    Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

    Goat cuisine

    It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
    14 best coat hooks

    Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

    Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?