Interview: Will Oldham Talks Songs of Love and Horror

Oldham chats about his methodology, “objective truth” in songwriting, and politics in music.

Interview: Will Oldham Talks Songs of Love and Horror
Photo: Ryo Mitamura/Drag City

Listening to Songs of Love and Horror, the latest album from Will Oldham—better known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy—one feels very much alone with the songs. They’re spare, with minimal instrumentation, and Oldham’s vocal performances are intimate and close. A mix of old and new songs, covers, and outtakes, the album is a companion to a book of the same name released in October. The songs are about interaction, either with oneself or others, and they all have a winding interrogative quality, seemingly straightforward but also in defiance of the outer structures they present—at one moment bluesy, at another almost prayer-like, and at another gently rollicking.

I recently chatted with Oldham about his methodology, “objective truth” in songwriting, and politics in music. Our conversation was every bit as complex and surprising as Songs of Love and Horror.

The book is a large volume, and the album is fairly brief. How do you see them relating to each other?

The record was made when we were figuring that [book publisher] W. W. Norton was going to have a different kind of exposure, different kind of reach, than the record companies that I’ve worked with. It just seemed practical to put out a little volume that was a kind of musical sampler, just in case, for someone who saw the book or heard about the book and didn’t really have a concept of what it was referring to. And because the book is a Will Oldham book, we figured we’d put out a Will Oldham record again to sort of grease the wheel, clear the path for those readers who were curious.

What does the title signify for you?

It came from a conversation with my editor at Norton. We were speaking about the book in general, maybe a year or two ago, and at one point I described the contents as songs of love and horror, and he said, “You know what, that wouldn’t be a bad title for the book!”

Did that at all shape what songs you chose for the record?

No. Not at all. I mean, they all fit under that, they’re all songs of love and/or horror, so any of the songs would have fit. Songs for the record were chosen based on things I felt I had a specific kind of access to.

How do you feel your writing process has changed over time? Have there been shifts in the way you approach songs?

I’m still trying to write, you know, hits for the kids. I think one goes in and out of focus, in terms of taking in information from the outside world about what a song needs to be or ought to be, and at the phase I’m in now, more is coming from the inside as opposed to the outside. I’m not considering what’s happening musically on a grand scheme, but more taking stock of what’s been piled up and what’s been decomposing in a positive way, while creating potential organic energy that ought to come out on the page and into a song.

Do you have a lot of backup material, like a backlog or filing system?

I don’t think of it as such, but recently an old friend of my wife’s who is an archivist came and stayed with us for a while. He went through things that have accumulated, including old notebooks with song lyrics in them. And we tried together to arrange them chronologically. And when I got into them, and some of these would be from maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I would see that putting these notebooks into some kind of chronological order was more difficult than I had thought, because I figured that all the songs from a given record would be found in one notebook. And sometimes they would be, but sometimes they would be spread across three or four notebooks, and they might exist sometimes in fragments. I would think, this song must have sort of come together all at once, and then I would find, no, the bridge for the song is two notebooks away from the rest of the song. And so I must have been keeping a well or a trove of material that is constantly being dipped into and dug into in order to complete songs. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the songs sort of make themselves known, you know? They sort of pull their head above the surface, and then it feels like it’s just very focused and direct work, but it may be much less so. At least, from the outside looking in, you might look at it and say it was a completely random process. But it doesn’t feel like it at the time, it feels like pulling a figure out of a piece of stone. You see the figure and just cut the excess away in order to reveal it.

Do you feel that the songs transform a lot when you’re recording them?

The recording studio is often the last real rewrite of what a song objectively is. We’ll re-approach things based on how they end up in the recording: the structure, the chords, the lyrics. But until the take that is the take, there are certain things that tend to be up in the air. A line here, or a line there, or the key for a song, or often in the recording studio I will gradually simplify a song, get it down to an essence, simply because recording studios are such high-pressure laboratories that it feels safest to eliminate the frills and just go with what I know is crucial to the life of any given song.

While I was listening to the album, my first response was that a lot of the songs have a feeling of real honesty to them, and I was wondering what honesty means to you, as far as composition goes, given that you’ve done so many albums in different personae and with different names.

Yeah, it is an interesting question that gets raised sometimes. I wonder how a question like that applies to such classics as say, “Jingle Bells,” which is a song that I love, or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” How to apply a question of honesty or authenticity to either of those songs—I wouldn’t know where to begin. I think when it becomes a question, it becomes a medium that I don’t relate to anymore, because the question of honesty or truth is as much the listener’s responsibility as that of the singer and/or originator of the material of the song. It’s important to me that the idea of honesty works on the smallest of levels— between the material, the singer, and the listener. There should be an understanding that nobody is trying to fleece somebody else, or no one is trying to be dishonest with somebody else. So, if Moe Bandy sings about being Bandy the Rodeo Clown, he’s not trying to fool people into thinking he’s a rodeo clown. He’s a country singer. But immediately we understand the level of literal honesty you’re dealing with, and you can then give yourself over to the song, knowing that this is a professional singer who created a character, and you can identify with the character in the same way that the singer is identifying with the character, even though he’s also creating a product that he’s hoping is gonna climb the charts. Which it did.

One of the first things you learn when you’re reading poetry seriously is that you shouldn’t assume that poets are speaking for themselves when they express an opinion or a feeling. They’re actually speaking for a persona. Is that something you’re thinking about a lot when you’re writing these songs or is that sort of under the surface?

I don’t think it’s under the surface. I think it’s evident. I believe that it’s an understanding. It isn’t something that needs to be thought about, unless you do veer intentionally or passively into things that connect to what we might call objective facts or objective truths. Then there’s another layer of performance awareness that comes with the songs. You know, if you sing about an actual person publicly known or privately known, or an actual event, publicly experienced or privately experienced, that opens things up to new realities that need to be dealt with.

I was talking to a performance artist recently who said that she felt over the last couple of years she’d been “called to serve,” in terms of awareness of what’s going on around her in the world. Is that something you’ve ever considered or that you’re intellectually involved with?

Well, my form of engagement has more to do with practice and process than with lyrical content. The words that are sung are intended to be content that’s shared between creator and audience, and then the practice and process are things that start to get into what you might call political. And those decisions govern everything when it comes to making records, playing shows, interacting with musicians, interacting with audiences, interacting with record companies or distributors or other musicians. It does seem like there’s nothing I can do to stray from that calling. Rather than have a song that’s about local accountability, I would distill that into my practice and then have the song be about something else.

Now when you say “practice” and “process,” what specifically do you mean?

Well, it depends on which aspect of this work we’d be talking about.

If we’re talking about referencing the present, or the world, and you’re saying you address it through practice and process, how do you mean that?

Okay, for example, right now I’m in a days-long—maybe over a week—email exchange with somebody in Ireland, who wants to buy a t-shirt. And we could have, at this point, put in place a page where you push a button and you get your t-shirt, right? But we aren’t doing that. Instead, rather than farming out jobs or responsibilities to other people, it’s important for me to, within reason, retain a degree of connectivity to the audience, or to other musicians and to not move into a bubble—a musical, political, or social bubble.

When we play shows, and we show up at a venue, and there’s a barrier placed in front of the stage, we will ask that that barrier be removed. Or if my booking agent says it’s a venue where I know that there will be 300-pound men frisking people, I’ll say, let’s not play that venue, let’s play a different venue. Any artist can do that, but most artists for some reason don’t seem to care where they play. They’ll say, it’s not my job, it’s not my responsibility to pay attention to something like that. Which is just lazy, bordering on evil.

It’s passively saying, all I’m supposed to do is show up and collect the money. How much money? Oh, I don’t care, somebody else decided that. And that’s lazy bordering on evil. Because what is your responsibility? If it’s not your responsibility how much money is being charged at these forums, what is your responsibility? If it’s not your responsibility that you play at a venue owned by a multinational corporation that employs potentially violent people to search your audience for nobody’s safety, but just because it’s an accepted practice that helps cover the venue owner or the corporation’s assets because they have insurance policies that require them to have evidence that they’re protecting their assets, whose responsibility is that? It is the performer’s responsibility. If you have the power to make something happen, then you have the responsibility to make it happen.

So you’re addressing the world around you through the form, but the content might well be something different? Would that be an oversimplification?

Everything is content, right? At the same time, I’m creating something that, on a smaller scale, is content, which is songs, and includes lyrics and melody and involves an interpersonal, intermusical dynamic that usually goes universally unrecognized or uncommented upon by most listeners. Because, you know, a song is a song is a song is a song. But beyond that, what people are unaware of is that the way that the song gets from the maker/creator/producer to the outside world is also content. But people don’t realize that it’s content because, if someone keeps something hidden from you, we’re trained to say, okay, that must be hidden for a reason—like the inner workings of a social media website, or how or why a record is reviewed the way it’s reviewed.

You could just say, well, I’m receiving these words from this reviewer. That’s straightforward. Obviously, this reviewer, plainly and clearly, with no agenda, thinks this is a really good record. And you and I know that that’s not true. So that is content. A magazine can say, well, we didn’t say that there was no agenda, we assumed you knew. But because this record company paid for an ad on the back cover on our magazine, we’re going to give four or five stars to this record in our review section. And we assumed that you knew that.

But no, people don’t know that. And the more that you hide from people, you’re just hiding. That’s content. You know, the absence of content is content. And it’s a $10 ticket versus a $20 ticket versus a $150 ticket, that’s content too. If the Who are playing, and they’re charging $150 for a list-price ticket, not counting what people actually end up paying for it, that’s part of the content of the show. The content is defined in the audience, and it creates new meaning for the lyrics based on the monetary value of any individual, and the monetary value represented by a full house. It re-contextualizes everything.

Max Winter

Max Winter's reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and elsewhere. He is a frequent illustrator for The Rumpus and Cosmonauts Avenue.

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