An Interview with Will Oldham - Believer Magazine
Photograph by Ryo Mitamura

For years, I’ve turned to Will Oldham for a nice emotional beating. Across his sundry musical incarnations: Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, etc. his music has carried me through whispering darkness and strumming, joyful light.

Over time, I’ve done my best to keep up with his Dylan-paced output, with twenty-four albums since 1993. He seems to be building his own American songbook in the pursuit of a robust, whole song for the people.

Oldham’s work as an actor is equally saturated in rich feeling.  I often think about his role in the John Sayles’s film, Matewan when he was sixteen years old, playing a fiery aspiring preacher, shooting guns, scowling with youthful devotion. About twenty years later, he appeared in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy as an earthy hippy, a performance as effortless as his music.

I reached out to Oldham, knowing that he’s generally resistant to interviews, but for some reason, he agreed. He requested an email correspondence, rather than phone, so we communicated  over ten days via email. We sent a few messages back and forth every day as Oldham negotiated parenthood and spent his days in the attic writing songs.

In this period, Oldham was generous with me: he bought some of my music, read my novel, and recommended another in response, The Song of the Earth by Hugh Nissenson, which I enjoyed deeply. As we wrote, I followed him on Instagram, where he performed songs with the direct gaze that is always at the center of his art. 

—Ross Simonini

I. AGITPROP

THE BELIEVER: Hi Will.

WILL OLDHAM: Hi Ross. I’m grateful that you are game for this multi-media approach to conversation. I know that I can speak, but I never know if the Lord will bless me with a nimble tongue or not when such a tongue is called for.  It occurred to me yesterday that I ought to think of my most rewarding conversation partner and speak with that person for an hour or so immediately prior to giving an interview, just to get up to speed. I just can’t think of that person right now.

THE BELIEVER: I’m listening to your new track, “New Memory Box right now” as I write. A lot of elements of this album, I Made A Place feel related to your new status as a parent to me. Has parenthood affected you as a songwriter?

WO: I am so thin-skinned, everything affects my songwriting.

BLVR: Would you say there was any kind of primary intention for this record?

WO: Nathan Salsburg and I worked on many projects together in 2021.  One of them was putting to music some abstract poetry by Max Porter.  I complained at one point about the willful senselessness of the lyrics (we were deep in the turmoil surrounding the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd). Nathan brought up the term “agitprop” to describe the kind of work I was after. And indeed, other than the records I’ve put together around the songs of others, I Made A Place is the most purposeful, agitprop record I’ve built (if I understand the term correctly).

BLVR: Agitprop is propaganda in art, right?

WO: Yes, propaganda in art.  Getting ideas across.  Influencing action. “Protest song” is too broad a term, like “Italian food.”

BLVR: Do you think music is good at influencing action? I mean, has any music ever done this for you?

WO: I live in music so almost every piece of music that I run into influences my action. I’m sure I hurt my physical self more than once under the influence of Jonathan Richman’s “Double Chocolate Malted.” A friendly reminder that the push doesn’t have to come from the lyric… the beat can lift us up, the power is there. Propaganda can be gently persistent. Don’t we listen to certain musics again and again because there is something about that music that we want to integrate more completely into ourselves?

BLVR: That makes sense: listening to music is actually a way of sculpting ourselves over time with sound. It reminds me of religious music and the way it uses chants to embed something into the body. Do you construct songs to influence action in this way? Is, say, a blues going to influence action in a certain way? Will a bridge?

WO: Right, chants. In today’s world, since the dawn of mass-produced music, we have in all of our hands the ability to repeat-play, which is what holy folk have dedicated good portions of their time to forever.  You try to engineer an ear-worm or two, to raise a provocative image, to present an interplay among musicians that will intrigue and then reward. And not fully from scratch, in fact hardly from scratch at all, all of the elements are repurposed from somewhere before.

BLVR: What about watching films? Does that ever inspire you to action?

WO: Yes, Jack Reacher inspires me to fold my clothes all the neater, and Love Streams inspires me to once again dedicate myself to the integration of music into every day life.

BLVR: Do you usually think pretty consciously and purposefully about what action you are trying to inspire in people?

WO: It is slow and deliberate. Earning trust. Encouraging listening. Contrasting one thing with another. I Made a Place in its entirety has much to do with storytelling, with accountability and sustainability, with “localism.” I value listening and loyalty; commitment. Trading today’s easy fix for tomorrow’s grace.  I try to work with artists who demonstrate excellence and compassion, and then together we record something and present it with minimal modification.  If it’s good enough, it will be taken like a tincture by the listener.

BLVR: Since you want to get ideas across, would you say you are an idea-based artist? Will you just sit in a chair and think and daydream for a while? Do you need thinking time?

WO: When I have time, I like to sit and think. Brainstorming can be hella fun. 

BLVR: Do you write songs in your head?

WO: I have to get an idea out of my head before I can understand that it is anything.  I’ve got to sing it, play it, hear it, see it. Watch it be heard.

BLVR: Would you call yourself philosophical?

WO: Philosophy has always stymied me.  Feels like one can always play the “it is what it is” card and win the round. Of course everything is pre-determined. Free will is a part of what is written. It would be wonderful, still, if more folks embraced their nominal power to act. My toes itch. I’ve always loved puns.

BLVR: Does intellectualism generally rub you the wrong way? 

WO: I can see the necessity for philosophical thinking in a concentration camp context. Intellectualism meaning thinking (or talking) about thinking? Or trying to get as far away from the subject at hand as is humanly possible and still pretend to be speaking about it? It’s painful to see brilliance interact strictly with brilliance, or depths explored and not shared or applied. Worse, not to see it, but just to know it’s going on somewhere, inaccessed.

BLVR: Do you read much?

WO: I am in a precarious position as far as reading goes.  I had two books going, and got through reading them both yesterday.  As it happened, I loved both books and so feel at loose ends finishing both at once. One is Mary Oppen’s autobiography Meaning A Life and the other is Taro Yashima’s Horizon is Calling (also autobiography). Egad what will I do now.

BLVR: I’ve heard you talk about songwriting as a kind of sampling. When you’re repurposing music and lyrics, does it just happen intuitively?

WO: It happens intuitively. Once I become aware of it happening, I attempt to embrace what’s going on. There may come a time, soon, when, rather than use someone else’s material to make a record, I will paraphrase someone else’s record completely.

BLVR: When you say you are “thin-skinned” and that everything affects you, does this make being a public, touring musician difficult?

WO: Yes.

BLVR: Has the pandemic felt like a respite from that?

WO: Yes.

BLVR: Has the pandemic altered your sense of what you want your life as a musician to be?

WO: Three records to which I am a significant contributor will have come out in the past year and a half: BPB’s I Made a Place, the serial record Blind Date Party, with Bill Callahan, and then Superwolves with Matt Sweeney.  Each is fairly unique in its demands on me as a contributor.  In addition, during this past year I have sung on many others’ recordings, written free-standing songs, and helped bring musical life to sundry materials presented. The pandemic, at this point, makes me not wish to record anything further that might be considered a “cover” (strange concept; the assumption being that we all record original material when singers for much of the 20th century would more often record songs written by other folks), and further makes me want to more actively address the layers of a composition even as I’m less and less certain that there can be an audience for atypical musical constructions. My desire is to blow-up the song, or deconstruct it, but for the benefit of listeners, to keep them engaged and critical in their listening. The socio-political upheaval that has coincided with the pandemic has made me question even deeper the practices in which I engage and the content (literal and structural) of what I make. How far may I reach and still provide pleasure? How pleasing might I be and still connect my position of privilege with the rest of humanity?  I’m stating this in big bold questions with the idea that I’ve got to reduce it down into somethings as “simple” as songs.

BLVR: You once said “to get paid and not have an audience, that is my fantasy.” Why would you prefer to have no audience? 

WO: I’ve often wished to be more of a songwriter than a recording artist (whose persona is integral to the project). I don’t see that as viable, now, and I try to minimize the trappings of publicity to a manageable level so that I may continue making songs. My mother died a year ago and left some money so, for now, making a living has lost some of its urgency. The apparent need to make songs continues.

BLVR: But you clearly see music as a kind of communication.

WO: I do! Though I don’t see it utilized as such as often as I’d like!  Algorithm-generated playlists squander and squelch music’s capacity as a means of communication.  I feel communicated to by the music I listen to, and by the music I hear.  And I try to communicate many things, but since I’m not always explicit the messages go unheard mostly.

BLVR: Has this change in finances altered affected you as an artist in any other way? Is comfort seeping into the music?

WO: It was jarring at first to have money in the bank that I hadn’t earned.  My wife points out that it won’t last forever. The way that I approach making music has enough momentum that the effect of this windfall may never be felt in what I do. It’s also serendipitous to come at this time, when royalty revenues and live show income are seriously challenged.  Thanks, Mom (and Pop, who stashed the savings for his impending retirement and his and my mother’s golden years, neither of which came to be).

II. BANANA STICKER INTACT

BLVR: Do you also write songs to purposely change yourself in some way?

WO: By the time we record, I need to have a grasp on the song.  But just a grasp. I used to be intimidated by the idea of knowing a song too well and gradually I learned that songs can be made that are unknowable and still of use.  The music I like to listen to is music that I understand some small thing about, and each time I hear it or think about it I know more but the music will likely maintain its unknowability forever. And the lyrics I put into songs are meant to help me on my way and not highlight an occurrence or revelation.

BLVR: How would less traditional, experimental song structures change you?

WO: They would free me. Even white boys want to be freeee, in our pathetic way.

The unattainable goal is to become music. Letting go of structures and definitions and getting closer to a clearer understanding of what music really is leads one to a more unified relationship to music. It is a time machine, the closest thing to a time machine we have. The moments or hours or days leading up to any stage of any given song are effectively the overture to that song.

BLVR: Yea, It’s funny how “experimental” has become a genre. It’s true, and the innovation in that genre seems to have ended a while back. It’s been codified, and the experimentation these days seem to live outside of that genre. 

WO: And I do love a lot of music that is understood to exist within that classification!

BLVR: Anything in particular?

WO: Susanna and the Magical Orchestra’s List of Lights and Buoys. You can hear the world of speech from where she sings on these records, and it is a world left behind.

BLVR: Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos is a gorgeous record. Do you see traditional forms as a kind of conservativism in art?

WO: A song should sound like itself, like the sum of its parts, and the way a song works should reflect its uniqueness. These ideas you describe, what held the painters back from thinking this way before 2020, or before 2016 even? It’s nice that they are thinking this way now, but where have they been? We ought to be careful about what we call tradition. Conservatism can be represented at times by a necktie. And a necktie is traditional menswear that’s evolved from some kind of scarf meant to hold the collar closed. Eventually collars were designed with buttons that held themselves closed without the need for a tie, but the tie remained.  The tie is a stupid piece of cloth tied around mens’ necks.  It’s, in many ways, a big sign saying “I’m an idiot.”  

BLVR: In previous stages of your career, have you thought about yourself as upholding a tradition?

WO: There are traditions of exploration, of experimentation, and also of repeating things that bear repeating because they are elusive or continue to be ignored; and I try to uphold these! We record in Nashville often, with musicians who work within a tradition. We don’t do this to repeat something done in the past, but because these methods are still quite powerful. Clarinet solos aren’t over. Nor is recording without a click.

BLVR: You’ve been playing different songs on Instagram over the last year. Do you select these for any reason, relating to the state of the world, the state of your mind?

WO: It was my intention to step away from the IG account and the Twitter account after we finished telling the world about the release of I Made a Place. Then the pandemic became the monster behavior modifier that it is, and IG specifically was an obvious tool for reaching out (and being reached-out to). The songs I chose to perform came from a variety of sources. I recorded Prine’s “Mexican Home” because I’d heard that his wife had the Corona virus (and perhaps he had it as well by that point). “Mexican Home” is one of the first songs of someone else’s that I learned to play and I performed live back around 1991 or so (with the Palace Flophouse band). We rocked it out a la Dinosaur’s “The Lung.” Nathan Bowles and I engaged in a covers challenge, where we each assigned the other three songs to arrange and perform and release on IG. A big inspiration came from my friend Heather Summers, who recorded a song a day for the first hundred days or so of lockdown. 

BLVR: You released that song twenty-seven years ago and performed it with a different voice and period in your life.

WO: I don’t understand what you mean.  It is one life, and one voice. The chorus of that song was invented by my friend Bryan Rich, and I sang it because I love and admire him. So that’s still in there, every time I sing it I can wonder (and/or conclude) what he meant by that. I didn’t know much about building a song back then, so I continue to learn from those older songs things about my own ignorance, or anyone’s ignorance, and how ignorance/innocence has a power worth tending.

BLVR: I suppose I meant that you were playing the same material under a different set of life circumstances. I also think that the quality of your voice has changed, as has your playing, the level of production of recordings, etc. And I wondered if this different context altered the music for you?

WO: A changed voice, yes. But the same voice.  A changed life, definitely, but the same life. And so the music changes. Everything changes as we change. I try to be careful when building songs and records, when  assembling music groups and mounting performances, to include building blocks of some degree of substance, knowing that I’m going to be better off working with my past rather than ignoring it. Life’s too short for reinvention. I was a devoted Madonna fan growing up and I don’t know what she is anymore. But yes, AGE. It’s one of the greatest tools we have to work with. I can absolutely make things now that I couldn’t imagine decades ago.  It’s funny, someone sold me a pile of Velvet Underground records a month or so ago. They’re beautiful, near-mint copies of original pressings, banana-sticker intact and all.  And I do love to listen to them, it’s fun and fascinating.  But I can’t help but think “These are children making this music.”  It’s solid to a point, and then it stops. Superwolves is a strong record, and I could not have approached these strengths even ten years ago, in composition or performance.

BLVR: Is that the capitalist cynic in you speaking?

WO: No. I am not a cynic.  It’s actually a rosy realism. If we don’t accept the ugly we don’t deserve the beauty.

BLVR: You resist a sense of ownership over your music, right?

WO: The songs are mine to collect the royalties on, and to learn from, but ownership is a bullshit construct. I like owning a house mainly because I don’t have to deal with the whims or tyranny of some freak landlord. We own things for the same reason that there are contracts of any sort: we have proved ourselves untrustworthy and incapable of sharing.

BLVR: Why did you want to step away from Instagram and Twitter?

WO: Newspapers are unrecognizable and widely unusable as sources of anything. Twitter works for news. It works for humor. And it works for other forms of perspective-gaining cultural information and education. IG works for the sharing of certain kinds of information, primarily artistic and visual. I’ve learned about music, new and “old,” far too often to track.  Using either as a form of interpersonal back-and-forth is wrong-headed, doomed.  I really appreciated my experience on both platforms prior to folks becoming aware that these accounts are associated with me.  Since then, I’ve tried to figure out how to use them.  I don’t appreciate using email or social media to communicate (in back-and-forth) with people to whom I am vitally connected (friends, family, colleagues). There is too much lost.  It isn’t worth the “convenience.”  In my experience, people are generally believing the untruth that virtual life is real; that direct-messaging has anywhere near the value or power of direct conversation, either in-person or even over the telephone.  That this is unhealthy and dangerous seems wildly apparent. As rule, I “follow” very few people I actually know, and when I do it’s because their posts reflect the potential of the medium; their posts would not work in any other context than on Twitter or on Instagram.  Brief, fleeting, superficial, and lacking follow-up. 

III.  “THE DISHWASHER IS SOME OF MY BEST WORK.”

BLVR: Do you think people can get a sense of who you are, your personality, your life experiences, from your music?

WO: I’m not so sure that I know who I am.  Every listener’s experience will be different, and what she picks up from the songs will usually have far more to do with her life than mine, I would venture.

BLVR: How important is it to you that you enjoy the music you make? 

WO: I can’t think of another standard by which to work. A large part of my occupation is about curating the boundaries of my enjoyments so that when such standards get imposed onto a song or collection of songs, the song is better for it.

BLVR: Have you released any music that you disliked at the time of release?

WO: Um, no.  Why would I do that??

BLVR: As someone who rejects the idea of owning your music, I thought you might also reject the authority of your personal taste. I know many artists who don’t particularly love what they make. They see it more like their voice or face: “it is what it is,” which, I suppose, is quoting you from earlier on free will. I also know other artists who purposely release things they dislike or feel unsure about, as a way of actively relinquishing their ownership of the thing.

WO: There is a part of me that envies someone with such an approach to their music.  It could be wonderful if it were simply a job, and I could take off the uniform and truly be me. I build songs in order to interact and communicate, at first and crucially with collaborators.  I work on something until it is a wild and exciting representation of creative forces working for and against each other.  I’m thrilled about the music that gets released because I’m so chuffed to be a part of having made something together. And in the case of a record like the self-titled Bonny Billy record, the absence of others is the big signifier: something is missing, and something missing is its own thing.  I would guess that many artists who release shit they don’t actually stand behind either have a contractual relationship with a record label that pays them advances, or they feel disdain for their audience or, as likely, themselves.

BLVR: Could making music outside of your own taste is also a way to be vulnerable and raw in the work?

WO: How would you feel if your plumber said, after completing the work on your house, “The sink in the upstairs bathroom, it’s iffy, it might spray.  The hot water heater… I don’t know, I’ve never installed something like that before. I’m curious to see what you think. The dishwasher is some of my best work, though, totally worth the money you are about to pay me!”  Should an artist not try to know what s/he is doing?  But I will fuck around, say, on a track for a compilation; do something I’ve never done before to see if it works. 

BLVR: I know you generally dislike interviews. Does this relate to the whole illusion of authorship? 

WO: Yes. But I do caretake the music.

BLVR: Outside of songwriting, do you write?

WO: Letters, cards and emails… yes, bundles.  I don’t write prose or poetry as such, if that’s what you mean.  Writing lyrics serves the tendencies of my brain.  I can hack away at the detritus and flotsam and then bring the remains together with a melodic and rhythmic structure. My prose tends to be dense and messy.

BLVR: For me, the quantity of your album releases has always been a significant part of your work. For you, is it important to release music at the rate you do? Is the regularity part of songwriting? Or is this simply the natural rate at which you write songs?

WO: This is what I do. I’ve been frustrated and befuddled by the sparsity of most recording artists’ output during my lifetime.  It’s a quantity defined by the industry and business of music rather than by the natural flow of a maker’s creativity. I mean, this is what I do! Many musicians seem to wait for their labels, their managers, their booking agents, to give them permission to write and/or record. If you look at the model of recording artists of the 1950s, 1960s, and even into the 1970s… a period which in many ways helped us define what greatness can be in popular music… those artists were encouraged and/or allowed to make a couple of full-length records a year! With singles squeezed-in between LPs. If you make songs, if that’s what you do, and you aren’t working on songs with some degree of discipline and regularity, then what in god’s name are you doing?

IV. PET PROCLIVITY

BLVR: Does acting in films inspire you to action in the way songs do?

WO: When I work as an actor, I put myself into the hands of the filmmakers. It’s a release and there has to be trust.  It would be wonderful to work with actors who pay more attention to the rhythms and melodies of speech, but that is not common at all.

BLVR: I’d imagine that’s more common in theater, right? I guess I’m thinking of Mamet… 

WO: It’s been a long time since I worked in theater. Mamet’s known for his rhythm, absolutely.  Even the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is rife with exciting rhythms. 

BLVR: Do you remember the films that inspired you to be an actor?

WO: Singin’ in the Rain; The Maltese Falcon; Hair; Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings; Arsenic and Old Lace; Follow Me, Boys; The Man Who Would Be King; Julia; Silver Streak… these are early exciters.  James Earl Jones, James Mason, Holly Hunter (on stage). I was more inspired by stage actors than film actors when it came to forming the idea that an actor’s life was for me. Their work was more real. I sensed that film acting was related, but it didn’t seem as connected to real life, or as vital.  My idols were the big kids at the theater where I trained, and the actors who performed, either as part of the established company or as visiting artists, at Actors Theatre of Louisville. 

BLVR: Earlier you had this line “white boys want to be free too, in their own pathetic way.” We are both white boys and I wonder to what degree you see your music as being white boy music. Do you think about a lineage of so-called “white music”? Do you think your music expresses a kind of whiteness? Is that important to the music? Should it be? Is there a way to investigate that whiteness as a musician without it feeling dangerous to other people? As someone working with agitprop, I’d be interested to know to what degree you address this. 

WO: 2020 should help us know ourselves. I will always be learning, usually too slowly, about being white and about being not-Black. I’m not going to ever approach understanding what it is to be Black in the USA. I think about a lineage of white music at times with the distance of an ethnomusicologist and the presence of a practicing music-maker as I wonder where, truly, we could look for the roots of the music of Magic Sam or James Brown or Chuck Berry or, for that matter, Jerry Lee. Or Junior Kimbrough, Mdou Moctar, and Nick Drake. Where (and this is many places and times) the music I’ve been involved with demonstrates an obliviousness, it is not a willful one.  Same with heartlessness. Where there is heartlessness in the music, there is pain.  I’m not ready to address whiteness head-on in the music because I don’t know how to make it musical. I’m willing to be schooled! The best that I can do at this moment, within the scope of my work, is to make money from my whiteness and give it to (best case) Black-run music schools for the empowerment and education of young Black musicians.

BLVR: Do you think about the race of your audience? Or is this just beyond your control to a certain degree?

WO: Yes I think about it and yes it’s beyond my control. I can hope that what we do is inclusive. Given my own tastes, I figure that there’s a tiny subset of any given group of people (age, era, nationality, color, height, disfigurement, pet-proclivity, occupation, gamer/non-gamer) who might possibly truly connect with what I’m up to.

BLVR: Do you have a longview of being an artist at this point? Do you have an idea of what kind of artist you want to be at sixty or seventy?

WO: All I know is that I frequently have to check myself against the world and vice-versa in order to re-align.

BLVR: Are there any artists who you think aged well and who you regard as good models for making late work?

WO: In music? Ronald Isley, Jonathan Richman, Leonard Cohen, Susan Alcorn, Don Williams, Merle Haggard, Edith Kanaka’ole, Shirley Collins, Laraaji, the Mekons, Yusuf/Cat Stevens, Wanda Jackson, Psarantonis.  People who continue to do their thing regardless of failures and successes, who wake up (or did until they didn’t), seemingly unable to not face the possibilities and responsibilities inherent in their relationships to how and why music is made in this time.  

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