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All Contradictions are Created Equal; an Interview with Will Oldham

April 21, 2011

Tags: Will Oldham, Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace, writing

One of my favorite writers is not a writer. It’s Will Oldham, the voice and force behind the band Palace, The Palace Brothers, Palace Music and Bonnie Prince Billy. I listened to very little else when I was writing So Much Pretty and I feel his sound and sensibility and voice haunt many of the pages.

I am hesitant to describe Will Oldham’s sound, but I am confident that his words are some of the best and most honest and frightening I’ve heard in song.

I was lucky enough to talk to him about his work and what he reads.

I think of your work as a kind of literature and for me listening to Palace and Bonnie Prince Billy is more like reading or thinking than the experience I get from listening. There’s something sinisterly clear and pastoral (in the true sense of the word—like a reprieve from war writing) and also funny in your music, that alludes to some larger and inaccessible body of work. How have you managed to carry that weight so lightly in sound while making it so grounded and deep through language? Do you think about this balance?

Cara sometimes I can't take it; sometimes I can't stay ahead of everything rolling hard up against me. Today was one of those days. If the weight were addressed weightily, though, I'm sure that I would break. Treating the music--the writing of it, the performing of it, the participation in its existence in every way-- as if it were something in between a life-preserver and a utopian world where all contradictions are created equal and all forces work towards the fulfillment of our being...treating the music like that, and at the same time like there is a crew of editors and producers waiting to count the laughs, or add the laugh track... BALANCE!

When you are singing what are you imagining?
It depends on the song. Songs with long open deliberate passages that are difficult to sing...during such songs the imagination goes wild, because imagery and action is good for the mind when the throat is looking for hand- and foot-holds. Often times the songs deliver images, interactions, memories, hopes; I am caught off guard far more often than not. I found that when I began to anticipate an image, that image would shy away.

There is an enormous other world behind the stripped down sound you produce that is only partly carried in your lyrics. How do you think –I guess the question would be what is your process when you are putting these things (sound and voice and language) together?
Right. I'm glad that you say that; I feel like I try to minimize the interface in the hope that the worlds on either side of the song have the space then to expand. The process? I don't know how to describe it.

What is your work day like?
Every day is a "work" day, and most days are different.

What are the books that that have influenced you? What are you currently reading?

Right now I am reading THE LONG SHIPS by Frank Bengtsson and it is influencing me. Fiction writers over the past decade or two: Charles Willeford, Knut Hamsun, Mohammed Mrabet. A recent book that was important to me was I LOVED YOU FOR YOUR VOICE by Selim Nassib. I really got a lot out of Greg Noll's autobiography, DA BULL. Also Dave Eggers'S ZEITOUN and WHAT IS THE WHAT, and Tracy Kidder's last couple of books, among the more popular titles. One book that was big for me was Chip Brown's GOOD MORNING MIDNIGHT. I just read a good Gershwin bio by Walter Rimler, and an interesting book about Billie Holiday called WITH BILLIE. I liked Frank Capra's autobiography too. Olaf Stapledon's SIRIUS, and, to a lesser extent, ODD JOHN. I also just read Somerset Maugham's THE NARROW CORNER. I like his writing, and that of Graham Greene. I like Robert Louis Stevenson very much. I know my reading tends heavily towards male writers. Hugh Nissenson, Ian MacMillan (who wrote stories and novels about modern Hawaii). A friend gave me Marilynne Robinson's GILEAD but I haven't found myself able to start it yet.

I like to read some every day. When I am touring it is next to impossible to do so.

Writing happens, more often than not; I look at a stack of papers or at a notebook and realize that writing has been happening for months without my being aware of it.

Comments

  1. April 23, 2011 1:44 AM EDT
    I love Palace, and Bonnie Prince Billy, and Will's various configurations. "sinisterly clear and pastoral" hits it on the head. Just reading your mini-interview (and Will's modest response to your question about depth) makes me want to do a comprehensive analysis of his work (and similar work) and figure out what is going on. It's rare to get depth like that with such simplicity of expression. I always feel like I've been out to sea after listening to his music.
    - Joe