Since the dawn of the new millennium, the actor and singer-songwriter Will Oldham has been releasing music under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy, drawing on a range of musical styles but more often folk traditions with a bent toward the literary, crafting austere and enchanting songs. As a prolific songwriter, Oldham has been compared to Charley Patton, Tom Waits and, perhaps most fittingly, Michael Hurley, an icon of outsider folk.
Oldham’s 2023 album as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, overflows with hard-won wisdom, the kind of clarity that comes from careful thinking about living, loving, losing and winning. But if it’s an instruction manual, it’s certainly an entertaining one, the stories bending as they pass through the prism of Oldham’s wily, singular view of the world around him.
For the latest edition of Liner Notes, I talked to Oldham about the many insights he put to music on his new album. Listen to an edited version of the interview above.
- The transcript below has been edited for content and clarity.
Leading up to Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, your recent releases have been collaborative affairs – you made a record with Bill Callahan and one with Matt Sweeney. Can you tell me a bit about your writing process on this more-solitary record? Do you keep journals and kind of pillage those pages for lyrics? Or do you start a project as kind of like, “OK, time to write songs”?
I think it’s the latter. I think, “It’s time to write songs.” And time to write songs usually means that I witness that there is something foreseeably predictable to the days to come for for at least weeks, if not months. And that’s the only time it feels like there can be just kind of a centeredness or a focus. And I know that I respond well to, when it comes to try to make up songs, those kinds of circumstances. So if I see I’ve got at least a month ahead of me, where I can kind of get up at the same time every day, for example, for a month, then I think this is the time to begin working on songs and collecting.
Usually, for me, that’s primarily lyrics. So devoting specific times every day to putting things down on paper. And then after those periods of time, a couple of months, maybe there’s something amassed, and I can sort through and find the things that I want to return to. There’s a record I’m working on now that’s very different [from Keeping Secrets] in many ways. But the similar thing is that I’m doing something in these recent years that I’ve never done before, which is to just have a couple of times a day where I sit down for an hour or two and go over the songs and do it for months. Once I get down to a number of songs, 15-16 songs, I just go back to them every day, a couple times a day and play through three to seven songs a day and find the holes and try to plug the holes, basically.
It does seem like that process lends itself to refinement, or finding clarity. And that title, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, could be read as advice or a warning or just a statement of fact. It does seem to foreshadow some of these nuggets of wisdom that kind of pervade the record.
Yeah. Doing different kinds of collaborations make certain things more viable or easier or freer. We were finishing up the Superwolves record [with Matt Sweeney]. That was a long writing process. A shorter recording process. We’d recorded it and then lockdown happened and we still had to mix it. Mixing is a different part of your brain than coming up with songs. And it’s rich and thick and dense and thorough — the thoughts that go into thinking about mixing and sequencing and other things. But it’s a totally different part of the brain, it seems like than coming up with songs.
And then going straight into, once lockdown happened, and trying to think of survival practices to to get through that unknown, challenging, traumatic period, Bill Callahan and myself came up with this Blind Date Party idea. And once again, completely different from coming up with songs because we’re addressing other people’s songs. We’re addressing collaborative practices. And so my brain and my body, my song-making wheels were greased and fueled up and turning. And it made for a really great time to be putting lyrics down. The things that were being thrown at us collectively had the brain definitely turning in new ways. It felt like an important time to put things down on paper, because it was hopefully something that we wouldn’t experience again, and it was definitely something I hadn’t experienced before.
It doesn’t mean that, as far as I can tell — and I’ve sung these songs hundreds of times at this point already — that there’s anything in [Keeping Secrets] that seems to speak to a global pandemic. If anything it might speak a little bit more to socio-political upheaval, and the openings of minds and hearts to be a little more aware of open wounds, I guess.
You talked about putting things down on paper, and I always find that, just sitting there and writing forces more clarity into my thoughts. And I want to talk about the song “Sing Them Down Together,” which uses the term clarity. It makes me think about our current political divide and lack of shared agreed upon facts — the othering of people who don’t agree with us. You say in the song “Come with us, we’ll change your tune. Yes, we’ll sing them down together.” There’s this Pete-Seeger, folk-music-as-a-catalyst-for-change notion to those lines.
“Sing Them Down Together” began in one of the early, tentative gatherings of friends in our community here in Louisville. We decided to meet down by a park down by the river. And everyone was instructed to write a potential song title down on a little slip of paper, like the size of a fortune-cookie fortune. And put it into a hat and then everybody would draw. And then the idea was you were supposed to try to write a song based on the title that you were given. The one I picked, was — very unhelpfully — corporatocracy. And I just thought, like, “Oh, well, that’s the worst word you can think of to try to put into a song to sing or for anyone to listen to.” And so the best way I could think of bringing it into the context of a song was, because I was doing this with a couple of other things at the time, to just write “corporatocracy” down the left hand side of the page and then have each lyric start with a different letter from the word. And that became “Sing Them Down Together.” So it spells corporatocracy line for line.
And then then to use kind of the concept as a springboard: I’m somebody who thinks differently from a lot of people I know. And for whatever reason, I think that I questioned things more than — and don’t accept things the same as — most people. I know seem to accept terrible things, just by habit. And I know there are incalculable quantities of unacceptable things that we do accept on a daily basis, at least subconsciously. So the song is trying to make something lilting and comforting and even beautiful, while at the same time addressing or asking harrowing questions about our horrific shared reality, I guess.
Also, there’s a song on The Wonder Show of the World record I made with Emmett Kelly, where there’s a line that says, “Always end the day in singing.” That’s one of my greatest solutions is to sing. And to sing using structures and melodies and, ideally, harmonies when we you’re actively interacting with somebody else — using melodies that imply that you are in collaboration with untold numbers of people who have sung before you and taught you to sing and created rules for this kind of communication and this kind of communion.
So every time you sing, if you’re singing anything at all, the implication is that you’re trying to communicate. And you communicate using skills and tools that have been formulated since the beginning, since the evolution of vocal cords and the appreciation of rhythm.
The song “Rise and Rule [She Was Born in Honolulu]” paints a really vivid picture of the main character. I really connected with the way that the song bestows this epicness or mythological power to motherhood. As a father myself, have watched, often from the sidelines, in awe of that sort of relationship developing between mother and child. I just thought that was such a beautiful sentiment. Was there a specific person that you were thinking about that inspired that song?
It’s easily the most explicitly and specifically autobiographical lyric that I may have ever sung. My mother had a wild existence. She was born Honolulu. Her parents were in the military. Her dad was from Kentucky, her mom was from San Antonio, Texas. They were stationed in Honolulu. On December 7, 1941 my grandmother was a nurse in Honolulu. And when Pearl Harbor was attacked, my mother was three months in utero in my grandmother’s belly. Meanwhile, my grandmother was, by her stories, mopping up, on her hands and knees, blood in the hallways and attending to the wounded and the dying. Mom was born in May. And that was part of her existence right away.
Her dad then died in 1948, when she was six years old, in Roswell, New Mexico in a plane crash. His plane was transporting fuel and it was overloaded. And so it crashed upon takeoff with the most flammable cargo you can imagine and his body was burned beyond recognition. And then she had two brothers who died in their teens.
And then, as well, she was a woman growing up in western civilization, post-World-War-II, when there was this concept of a nuclear family imposed upon American society that left a lot of women confused about, well, “I’m a human being. I’m more than a mother and a wife, but you’re telling me that the best thing I can be is a mother and a wife. Well, I want to be the best thing I can be.” She was one of countless women who realized that, or who slowly realized that, there was more to who she needed to be, I guess. She had artistic instincts that were abnormal for a woman in Louisville, Kentucky, who was a mother, you know. And yet, she didn’t grow up in a community of artists or anything like that. But she was definitely an artist. She began to explore these things and explore her relationship to trauma and the loss of these people in her life and her own depression.
And then, in 2006, her husband — my dad — suddenly and surprisingly died. And it’s just as she had gotten a graduate degree in creative nonfiction writing. And she was also just beginning to exhibit symptoms of early onset dementia. And her dementia journey, whatever you call that BS word “journey,” began around 2006, and finally, came to its bodily conclusion in 2020. So a good 14-15 years of that.
And so during that time, I was very close with her at least bodily and emotionally, even spiritually. And it gave me a lot of time to think about our relationship, you know, as I’m sitting there being berated by her. Or, you know, cleaning her diapers or whatever. It makes you think about the relationship between yourself and your mother.
She had done so much great art she’s done lots of art for different Bonnie “Prince” Billy records. She had this amazing body of work. And she did it all very privately, like she never had a show or anything that, or even told people. I think most people didn’t really know that she did this stuff.
There’s a video for the song. The artist Sai Selvarajan made this amazing music video for the song using lots of mom’s collages and drawings. I think is like the best visual piece that’s ever been involved with any sort of music that I’ve been involved with. It’s a really lovely video.
Will Oldham’s latest as Bonnie “Prince” Billy is Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, out now on Drag City Records (Listen here). Bonnie “Prince” Billy performs at Intuition Ale Works on Thursday, January 18th. Tickets here.