Will Oldham has been singing and composing under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy for twenty-five years. In a new book, he discusses his highly individualistic approach to music making and the music industry, one that cherishes intimacy, community, mystery, and spontaneity.
Do you think a song is ever really finished?
I feel like a song is completed when the writing is done and I present it to a friend, partner, or group of musicians. Then it’s completed when we record together and finish mixing. Then it’s completed each and every time someone listens. I think that a song, for the most part, is completed by the listening experience. It enters into people’s brains and mutates and then might get completed again—in their dreams, in mix tapes that they make, or in new listening experiences that they have. So it isn’t ever finished because there’s never going to be a definitive listening experience. I guess the idea is that I listen to certain favorite songs over and over because for some reason I just haven’t finished listening to them. But in terms of concentrating on the bones of the song, that ends with the recording; in rare cases there will be arrangement modifications, but from that point on the skeleton is always going to stay the same. From then on, playing live, for me, is more like an exercise to stay in shape for writing and recording.
There’s the way a song can sound when you’re just playing it in a room to somebody that’s going to perform it with you, and then the way it sounds in the rehearsal room when you’re playing it with a band, and then there’s the way it sounds when you go into a studio and the engineer is listening to it; there’s an evolution of the song’s identity from when it’s something that you’re creating on your own to where it ultimately ends up.
Yes. Anybody who’s a big music fan and plays music for people experiences this, but if you work with recorded music you can point to the differences in instrumentation or preparedness or arrangement. And you can play the same recording of the same song and have vastly different feelings about it. You could be listening to a song in your car and not enjoying it, and then someone could get in the car and all of a sudden the song becomes good, or the reverse. It seems to me that the ears that are listening make more difference than the way the music sounds. ‘Cause you can also tell when you see people who are absolutely 100 percent enthralled and enjoying inarguably terrible music, and they’re smart human beings; you see it happening and you realize it doesn’t have anything, or far less, to do with the music itself than the listening done by the listener and the situation.
It could have something to do with the social atmosphere or where the music fits into that group of people’s shared consciousness, whatever that is, at that particular time.
Yeah. And I don’t know if that will ever be measurable, so that you could say, “This song is a great song when I’m with my mother; this song is a bad song when I’m with my friend Jack.” ‘Cause someone could convince you, even by their presence, that it’s a great record, you know? I could hear a song on the radio with you in the car, and just your shift of energy could make me realize, “That’s actually a really good song, I never thought of it before,” and you might not even say anything about it. I like that.
Whenever you’re with a group of people that love the music that’s playing, it’s exciting; if you’re in a Mexican bar or a Jimmy Buffett concert, when people are loving the music, the music is great. In 1985 there was a group of exchange students from Massachusetts that came to our high school for a week. I remember sitting in the back of someone’s car, and the Thompson Twins song “Hold Me Now” came on the radio. Everyone in the car was really excited and happy and listening to the song, and there were tons of us, so we were all pressed up against each other. They seemed to know it and love it, because they came from a normal school, whereas coming from the Brown School it was something that you might hear every once in a while, but for the most part we didn’t listen to the radio or watch MTV that much. It was such a powerful feeling that for years I always had a positive association with that song, cherishing it. I’ve heard it in the last few years and it doesn’t do anything for me whatsoever, but it’s a different song that I have in my brain now than actually exists in the real world.
Overall, what effect do you think the audience has on your work?
I feel the value of my work is determined very precisely by the audience. What does entertainment mean, anyway, and what’s the difference between that and art? I would say the main difference is that art isn’t necessarily funded by the consumer, but entertainment always is. In that way, entertainment is a million times more important to me than art, and being an entertainer is more important to me than being an artist. The relationship with the audience is so direct, while the government or rich collectors are going to pay for something that is art rather than the person who is actually going to have a relationship with the piece. That’s what’s most important to me about what I do. I think of entertainment as being very serious and important, from Laurel and Hardy upward. It has to do with emotions of release, giving up, or extreme hilarity and absurdity.
It’s rewarding when I find a broader audience that doesn’t think I’m too crazy. [I’m] trying to make something for that audience to experience, also knowing that at some level I will be sharing the experience. My absolute, purest particular taste would not be something that could be appreciated on a grand scale. It just wouldn’t. If I really made a record just to serve myself I would end up alone in a dark, wet room, you know? That’s not really where I want to be. That’s why it’s more important to me to make a record that serves itself and its audience well. A good record should involve my needs, the listeners’ needs, and the needs of the other people who worked on the record. If I manage that, I feel I’ve accomplished something; but ultimately it is the audience that holds the lion’s share of determining if a record is worthwhile. The only way for my entire audience to appreciate the music is if they come to it of their own accord and find something in it that satisfies them as individuals. I’ll do what I can do, and they’ll do what they can do, and hopefully a mutual understanding can be formed.
The Palace records were sung to an imagined audience, based on a knowledge of myself as an audience member. And then, of course, I got to know the audience better, so the imagined—audience concept was no longer feasible. That’s where the Palace records ended.
Do you have a sense of how your audience has changed over the years?
No. Because again, most of the music that I listen to I have zero relationship or contact or communication with the people who made it. Most of the music that I love the most is that way, because the people who are responsible for those musics are dead or they’re foreign or they’re too rich and famous. So I’m gonna assume that it’s the same, that I’ll never know who the audience is that is really into the music … I’ll never know who they are or why they’re into it. I listen to enough music from different times and places that it’s always my hope that any records I am involved with have a chance of finding an individual or five people somewhere else in the world: they’re most likely not gonna ever find the bulk of their audience here in Louisville, Kentucky. I wouldn’t release a song that I don’t have some love for, and I also know that if I have love for it then someone else will, but I never know who it’s going to be.
Excerpted from Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, edited by Alan Licht. Copyright © 2012 by Will Oldham. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.