BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY: Now He Sees a Darkness (Again)

As an artist with a deep catalog of terrifying and troubled songs-a musty canon soaked with death, lust, and desperation that seemed to cling to his quavering vocals like a consumptive cough-Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy seemed like an unlikely candidate to take a wistful turn.

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As an artist with a deep catalog of terrifying and troubled songs-a musty canon soaked with death, lust, and desperation that seemed to cling to his quavering vocals like a consumptive cough-Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy seemed like an unlikely candidate to take a wistful turn. Yet 2008’s Lie Down in the Light was just that, a decidedly pleasant set of songs that captured him reflecting on the pleasures of friends, family, and places where “dancing goes on in the kitchen until dawn.” But the former Will Oldham couldn’t bask in the unfiltered light for long, and as that album was hitting store shelves, he was doing a three-month artist in residency at the Marin Headlands National Seashore, living with only his songs and a few chosen records for company. Emerging from the process, he found that he not only had wandered back toward the themes of sin and grief that had informed his past work, but he had also sunken even deeper into despair, jealousy, and frustration. For anyone who thinks the Bonnie ‘Prince’ has gone soft, he’s back to offer a warning. Beware: things are even worse than you imagined.

As you were writing them, did they seem like a bleak set of songs?
Definitely, a couple of the songs did. But at the same time, probably more consciously than any other set of songs, I was trying to be influenced in the writing of these songs by other songs. So I could take comfort in the success of a song coming together, and in that way, I could not focus on it lyrically being harsh or bleak. You don’t want to wake up the next day going, “OK, I’m going to work on that f@#$ing harsh and bleak song.” No. You want to wake up saying, “OK, I’m going to work on that song that has that strange little chord in it that I’m trying to write in such a way that someday the great June Tabor might sing this song.” I can then look at the song with anticipation and excitement instead of like I’m punishing myself.

When you say you take inspiration from other songs, do you mean other songs that you’ve written?
No. Songs that other people have written and performed. Every day that I was at this place, I had a lot of time to myself, and I would listen to a lot of music, mostly music that I knew fairly well and had a relationship with. And I’d think, well, what is it that I’ve never been able to do that this person or people are able to do with this song? Why haven’t I been able to do it, and what can they do that I wish that I could do? And then I’d try to do that. I’d start each day getting into the songs, and I’d think about how I might get closer to this music that I love, but haven’t been able to make before.

Do you often think about what your material might sound like in the hands of another artist?
No. Not that often. And another different thing about this record is that I’ve always wanted to spend time working on songs in the morning, and I never have, because once my eyes open, the day hits like an avalanche. But in the last three months of this year of not playing shows, I was away from everything. I was away from my friends, away from family, and I was just in a kind of wilderness where I could wake up and nothing attacked me, and I could let music be the first thing that happened in the day. And part of what that did was allow this open space to think ahead about the songs as opposed to letting certain things happen and then figuring out “Why is this song being written this way?” This record was more “What if I tried to write a song this way?” I was thinking in advance.

Since you wrote this album in isolation, do you think you can hear that isolation in the writing?
I might be able to hear some of the isolation in the writing. Like I was saying, on some level, there was this surreal community that I was among, which was all the singers and writers from the history of recorded music that I was gallivanting with everyday. In that way, it didn’t feel isolated, but the songs don’t feel like they were molded by my normal existence, which is different for every other record. For me, I can hear it. The negative word would be “lack of attachment,” and the positive one would be “freedom.” But I can’t tell if that’s completely my perspective or if anyone else will hear that.

Do your songs tend to change a lot from their demos?
The demos are super barebones always. It’s basically I’m sending the lyrics and some semblance of a melody and the essential skeletal chord structure to the musicians. It would be like the difference between seeing Barbara Bush’s skeleton and seeing her decked out in her evening wear with muscles and skin and makeup and everything. It’s a pretty significant difference, of course.

What inspired the title of the record?
Beware? Many things, not least among them, the great and elusive Misfits EP from 1981 or ’82 called Beware, which has always been a Holy Grail for me. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a legal, non-bootleg copy of it. It’s a record that I’ve wanted my whole life. The tracks that I had were only a cassette dub of cassette dub of cassette dub of the song “Last Caress,” which was the exclusive song on that EP. But also I felt like I was trying to be aggressively relaxed and positive with Lie Down in the Light, and I guess Beware, on some levels, is saying that maybe that doesn’t work for the world [laughs]. The dream would be to not have a harrowing set of songs, but, unfortunately, that is what this is, to me, at least. I probably would have rather made another set of songs like Lie Down in the Light, which is not harrowing in the least, I don’t think. It’s just a caveat, saying, “Buyer, watch the f@#$ out.”

Do you care how your songs are interpreted?
I care that they are interpreted, but I have to release control over that kind of thing. The fact is that I’m interpreting them alongside any given listener. There is the writing process and there is the recording process, but every single time that I sing these songs live, they are something different. I’m guessing that I can relate to a lot of different interpretations of the songs on any given performance or just when I’m thinking about one of the songs. I’ll sit down and get to working on a song, but at a certain point, I’ll shift over from providing content to actively trying to consciously blank out the content. Then it’s all about form, and I know I understand the English language and these sentences mean something to me, but I try to let that be a subconscious factor in how the song in shaped from then on. And it stays that way until it’s done and I start singing it again, and that’s when I start learning more things about what the song is made of.

While you’re in the middle of writing a batch of songs, do you disappear into the writing of them?
Well, for a time each day, I do, yes.

Is that escapism in a sense?
Well…I’m not sure. It’s definitely part escapism, and like for most people, whether they love their work or hate it, they can get engrossed in it to the point that much of the outside world disappears, for better or worse. But there’s also escapism because it is music and part of its intention is to provide for an escape, and I think that with most music that I like, and ideally, with the music that I make, I don’t think of it as a simple escapism. There’s escaping because you hate things or you need to get away, like a vacation. And then there’s escapism like, “I’m too entrenched in all these things in my life to know how to operate, and I need a place to go to figure things out and not feel so overwhelmed.” I like to listen to a song that I can disappear into but that is related to the things that I love or that I worry about and that might help me feel like I’m in company. You escape also because the harshness of physical is sometimes confusing. It’s like, “Wait a second. At night I go to bed and I dream, and then I wake up. What’s the difference between these two things? Why can’t I just have one of these two existences? Why can’t one share more with the other?” I feel like music is halfway between waking and dreaming.

In your mind, is a song ever really completed? Or does it continue to spiral out?
Well… I think every time it’s listened to and every time it’s performed, it has a new completion. And when it’s done playing, then it’s completed. But in writing a song and in making a record, and in performing the songs, part of the idea in making a record is to freeze lots of moments of learning and discovery so that it really is like every time you press “play,” you are opening up this experiment again and this coming together of people. The cool thing is that technology is not yet at that crazy futuristic point where we can understand human action and emotion. On exciting records to me, you’re hearing these mysteries, like, “Whoa! Why did he just go from that note to that note?” “Why did she choose that harmony?” And you’re never going to get the answer as to why we do what we do.

Does it seem mysterious that the same objective text can take on new meanings every time that it’s experienced?
Yeah, of course it’s mysterious. But there are certain songs that I don’t like. I’ve never understood the value of what is universally regarded as the great Hank Williams’ song “Hey Good Lookin’.” Actually, about a third of Hank Williams’ most popular greatest hits, I don’t understand them, because I’ve never heard anyone pull anything new out of them. They seem kind of completed. I know I could be very wrong in that, though, because I remember one of my great moments of musical discovery was driving around in Virginia once and picking up Charlottesville’s radio station and hearing someone covering a Hank Williams song. And I was like, “What the f@#$ is going on?” and was feeling my mind quietly being blown open. And this was before the internet, and I was calling friends and asking people in conversation, “Do you know who does this Hank Williams’ song?” And it turned out that it was a Cat Power song on her Myra Lee record. It was her cover of “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” and she did something that I would have thought was impossible, making something that I thought was finite and showing me that it wasn’t necessarily so.

Overall, what would you like your listener to take from this batch of songs?
[long pause] I always wish that the songs that I am a part of or write or record might share some of the qualities that become a positive and lasting presence in my thinking and sub-conscious. I’m now at age 38, and there are certain songs that I’ll hear on the radio or on someone’s iPod or in my mind when it resurfaces in my brain, and I’ll be glad that they’ve come back to me in whatever way they’ve come back to me. Sometimes I’ll find that there might have been a song that I heard 20 years ago that my brain memorized but I never thought about the lyrics, and it didn’t resonate or make sense. But for some reason, my brain decided to keep it, and 20 years later, all of a sudden that lyric will resurface, and it will be like, “Oh, I need that lyric right now!” That’s what I wish for the songs on this record or the songs on any of the records that I’ve worked on, that there might be parts of the songs that could be put aside for a rainy day.

Is the recording process fairly collaborative?
It’s fairly collaborative, definitely. But the songs aren’t really torn apart. The song that comes in there is the skeleton, so it’s not an option for anyone to say, “I think this arm should go down here.” But that’s all it is-a skeleton. Everybody has to start from the same spot, and there’s no deconstruction element that goes on. It’s all adding to and building and twisting and shaping. It’s difficult on some levels to witness what happens, but for the most part, that’s why we’re there. And that’s why I asked this particular group of musicians to be there with me, because I wanted to see how they contribute to this recording.

Did it turn out the way you were expecting?
My joy in life is to not have expectations. My joy in life is to try to take everything that I’ve learned and throw away the shit and then push the good stuff forward in hopes that good stuff begets good stuff. The idea was to put this process and these musicians in this Petri dish and count on the fact that the odds were stacked for us and not against us at that point.

You wrote a few duets to do with Jennifer Hutt. Do you think there’s any reason that you’re drifting toward doing more male-female duets?
Yes. It’s because I travel so much and work so much and have such antisocial tendencies that if I write a song that a man and a woman have to sing together, at least I get that much intimacy with a female. Vocal entwining.

When people cover your songs do you get that same experience?
I have had that experience for sure, yeah. I think that a lot of people think of recorded music-people that don’t play music, especially-think there’s an authoritative version of a song. Even a lot of musicians think that way, and it’s only when you get into a jazz perspective, when they hear a composition they’re like, “Oh, those are the changes? OK, now we can do whatever we want.” I like it when people from outside the jazz world approach music that way. A lot of people do, but a lot of people don’t, too, and they yield to the authority of a packaged document.

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ALISON KRAUSS > A Hundred Miles or More