Be Especially Careful: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the Art of Immersive Songwriting

Photo by Admiral Wiley Balls Photo by Admiral Wiley Balls

When Will Oldham went into the studio to record an impromptu album with the Chicago experimental band Bitchin’ Bajas, he made a point not to take any songs with him. Instead, he made up lyrics on the spot using fortune cookie fortunes. As the band fiddled nobs to create wobbly psychedelic backdrops, Oldham turned those minor prophecies into pop mantras. “I wanted to be able to improvise musically,” he says, “but I wasn’t necessarily excited about the idea of improvising lyrically.” The result, Epic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties, is one of the strangest, trippiest, most weirdly enticing chapters in his mammoth catalog.

As unpredictable as it may sound, the improvisational approach offered an escape from the rigors of songwriting. Oldham’s songs — whether under his own name, his now-obsolete Palace aliases, or his long-standing Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy persona — tend to be austere yet elaborate: spare country and blues married to rich character details and off-kilter syntax. It’s a style that distinguished him from the alt-country movement of the 1990s and from the Americana scene in the 2000s, establishing him as a one-man scene: an utterly unique American singer-songwriter.

He may be prolific, but Oldham’s catalog is anything but tossed off. His albums, EPs, live releases and collaborations all bear the marks of deep thought and hard labor, revealing an artist who works diligently to make everything sound natural. While the Bitchin’ Bajas session... Sign In to Keep Reading

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