Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy brings his quirky, beautiful music and persona to town
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Given his affinity for pop culture, it’s no surprise that Will Oldham coins a rather mainstream comparison for the relationship between himself and his alter-ego, Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
As the latter, he’s something of an alternative-folk cult figure, a guy whose prolific output and penchant for collaboration are mind-boggling. As the former, he’s interviewed R&B singer/rapper R. Kelly and appeared in a video by Kanye West. And while the Bonnie “Prince” Billy persona was invented to cloak the artist in mystery so that the focus might fall instead on the art itself, one might argue that his creation is itself a work of art.
“It depends on what’s going on — at the best of times, they’re completely separate; and then there are the necessary times they co-exist, like Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear in (the comedy film) ‘Stuck on You,’” Oldham told The Daily Times during a recent interview. “I like to think that the thing that draws my person partly or fully to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is the romance of it, in the way that there is a three- or four-dimensional entity or being that is kind of dreamlike or intangible, yet fully relatable to. It’s certainly true that I seem to occupy multiple realities at any given period of time.
“It feels less like multitasking sometimes than it does multiple personality. For example, last month I was working on a record of duets with (Scottish four-piece band) Trembling Bells out of Glasgow. They’d written a set of duets for me to sing with their female singer, and I was fully engrossed with that. It was all I was listening to and definitely all I was singing. But that stage of that work is done, and as I’m talking now, I don’t even recognize the person who was doing that.
“But we’ll get back together and perform all these songs next year, and I’ll pick up where I left off,” he added.
Given his lengthy dossier of albums, it’s impossible to tell where Oldham stops and BPB begins, and vice-versa. What’s documented is this — as part of the Palace Music project (performing under various names, including Palace Brothers, Palace Songs and Palace Music) he was the featured singer before going solo in 1998. In 1999, the first Bonnie “Prince” Billy record appeared — “I See a Darkness,” an album that received a perfect 10 out of 10 rating from Pitchfork and came in at No. 9 on the Top 100 albums of the 1990s by that publication. Johnny Cash would record the title track for his “American III” album, and “I See a Darkness” is generally seen as a landmark record in the neo-folk movement.
Other acclaimed albums (“Ease Down the Road,” “The Letting Go,” “Master and Everyone”) followed, all on the Drag City label and accompanied by world-hopping tours that have taken him to the far corners of the planet. He’s opened for Bjork, collaborated with Andrew Bird and recorded EPs and albums with other indie acts he respects, like Tortoise and Matt Sweeney. Perusing his list of recorded works is a task in and of itself — and Oldham, in fact, would rather you wouldn’t go to such trouble.
“Not to be a big pooh-pooh’er or naysayer, but if it weren’t for the Internet, you wouldn’t have the headache-inducing list in front of you,” Oldham said. “It would be something gradually discovered by you or not. It’s just musical activity occurring during the course of time marching on, and usually always, the collaborations happen as a result of some kind of relationship, anything from being friends to being an audience member.”
As often as a new EP or CD comes out with Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s name on it, one could be forgiven for thinking that Oldham races from project to project like some sort of hyperactive, compulsive maniac. In reality, he said, compulsion is a beautiful trait — but it doesn’t drive his creative process.
“Compulsion is important, because by definition it’s something that’s fleeting and instantaneous and super-valuable and super-powerful,” he said. “If there’s a way of incorporating compulsion into the musical process in a meaningful way, then it should be done. But very rarely does an idea go from compulsion to execution in a short period of time. It’s important to me that when one reality fades momentarily to have another musical place to go, and that’s not hard, because I like to listen to music so much, there’s always music in my life. I can be as hyper and carried away and involved listening to a recording as I can performing.”