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

Photo by Admiral Wiley Balls

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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 were certainly no cakewalk, he tells American Songwriter that they were rejuvenating.

How were you using the fortunes in the studio?

When I was 16, I was in a movie called Matewan that was about coal miners in West Virginia and the attempts to form unions there in the 1920s. It was shot outside of Beckley, West Virginia, and one of the many memories I have from being there is eating at this Chinese restaurant with different cast and different crew members. And there was one cast member — an actor named Joe Grifasi, who was playing one of the Italian miners — and at the end of the meal he took his fortune and he folded it into two or four and took out his wallet and put it in his wallet. I asked him why he did that, if that was a fortune of particular significance, and he said, “No, I just save all my fortunes from fortune cookies.”

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And that seemed like an interesting project. So starting then, in 1986, I started saving all of my fortune cookie fortunes. At a certain point, I started wondering, “Well, what am I doing with all these fortunes,” because I had hundreds of them. When I started talking with the Bitchin’ Bajas about making music together, I thought, “Oh, this could be very useful.” I spread the fortunes all out on a copy machine. I could fit maybe 33 fortunes on a page, and I had nine pages of them. Then I began to color-code the ones that seemed to have a relationship to each other thematically or structurally. A lot of them will be advice or they’ll be a declaration or they’ll be about health. As we would begin new pieces, I would have a map of directions to go in lyrically. It’s a way to improvise vocally using lines that have a kind of a beauty to them and can be repeated. They can function as mantras if you try to force them into this situation.

It’s almost like a found sound or a found lyric.

Exactly. Sometimes you can be aware of the author’s voice in a fortune, in a beautiful way. I think one of my favorite fortunes that I ever got, it says, “Be especially careful tonight.” You just think, “Whoa, who is that person? Did they have a devilish grin, or are they genuinely concerned with the recipient’s well-being?”

I would imagine it would be very freeing, just to get in there and not have this burden of having to come up with the structured, carefully-crafted song.

You’re finally in a place where it’s about beginning and carrying forward. It’s about the present and the future, whereas most recording of songs is about the past and the present, and the future isn’t an active participant. When you’re recording a song that is really relying on all the work — the months or years that went into building that song — you’re always aware of that. And here, all of a sudden, we were bringing our past into the room, but everything we did was about what was happening from now and moving forward. It’s not about the past at all, which was a very nice feeling.

I’m fascinated by how people just live with songs and how they change and they sort of reveal new meanings. Do you find that to be the case, that your songs are living things?

Absolutely. I find that my songs are. And the songs that began from other people but have become a part of me — those are living things that are developing alongside my consciousness or my psyche. The way I look at things grows with the songs that I know from other people, and the songs that I am responsible for constructing and releasing upon the world definitely change, especially in the act of re-performing, re-arranging, and re-presenting. It’s nice now to have a large enough well of songs that any given show or tour can have distinctly different content by just picking and choosing songs that can have new relationships to other songs. It feels good.   

Your songs seem to be rooted in characters. Do these character grow along with the songs in a similar way?

I was reading today in a book about a guy who had polio as a kid in the ’50s. He had been a charismatic, strong, potentially overachieving athlete, but then he got polio and he began to explore reading. He discovered that experience of reading that we have had since books were readily available: that reading wasn’t something done in a public space, that it was something an individual could do. And so, it becomes this intensely private thing where you open a book, and all of a sudden you’re in a different world. You’re able to sit quietly, you’re able to stop and think, you’re able to occupy the lives of characters in this really personal way.

I started consciously choosing music and how I listened to it in the late ’70s and early ’80s, around the time when Sony introduced the Walkman. Of course there were records and headphones, but all of a sudden listening to music became something that was more personal. I always associate music — both as a listener and ultimately as someone who is making up songs — as something that’s really personal and intimate and subjective. So I try to build the songs in such a way where by the time I’m finished and ready to record or perform the song, the characters have become invisible to me. When I’m singing, I can have the freedom to personify this story, this character, or this issue. Then, as you change and as there are things to celebrate in your life or things to grieve in your life, you start to notice that the characters get to benefit from that experience as well. You might be singing a song that’s about love or about the relationship between a mentor and his or her student, and things have happened to you that turn that song on its head. That can be a pretty special occurrence when you realize that’s happening. So the songs get to mature along with you, I guess is what I’m saying.

It sounds like a form of acting, but also a literary endeavor, where you’re writing these parts and acting these parts in the song.

It is like that. I just participated in the production of a play; I occupied a space in the play that wasn’t quite playing a role, but I was present onstage for the short run of this play up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s called The Glory Of The World, by a guy named Charles Mee, and it’s outlandish and wild and surreal. One thing that struck me and helped me remember why I moved away from the theater 25 years ago was that in this play you’re working with a text. You’re interpreting the text with your body, with your voice, with blocking and set design and costumes. The director shapes the play along with every other creative contributor, and after it opens it’s meant to hold that shape for the duration of the run. There’s no modification whatsoever.

One thing that I love about doing music is that you’re taking a text, you’re taking a structure that a writer — sometimes myself — is responsible for, and then you get to interpret it and reinterpret it and reinterpret it. You can go as crazy as you want, and as long as you’re sticking to the integrity of the original composition on some level, you always feel safe. I like the idea of a wilder potential dynamic in the interpretation of the text. You can stop it, you can slow it down, whisper it, wail it, you could get rid of all the original melodies and just sing a harmony, and it’s acceptable. Not necessarily to every audience, but that doesn’t matter. There’s no authority that’s going to say, “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

There’s something about the syntax in your songs that suggests something old, so I think of these characters as older characters, almost like they’re in a period piece.

The great listening experiences and the great reading experiences for me come from writers who, oftentimes as invisibly as possible but sometimes overly, show you right away that there are different rules, in saying that the syntax is arcane or incorrect. This is not something that happens in speech. This is not someone talking. Your brain is allowed to move away from the normal, the potentially mundane, but it also means that the listener or the reader has to yield authority to the song. I’m not seeking that kind of control, but I am seeking a way of allowing the listener to feel like, “Okay, I can give up here. I can give myself over to this. I need to allow myself to let go and enter into this song.” Using odd sentence structures or words that are either nonexistent or archaic can help somebody remember to forget what they already know about themselves.

It’s that immersive thing. As I’m realizing it more and more as I get older, the music I enjoy the most is essentially immersive music, as opposed to music that accompanies an experience. It’s something that you need to give a significant portion of your conscious mind over to in order to get the most out of it. I get kind of resentful about music that I don’t feel creates a rich enough space for me to lose myself in. It’s like a movie set: it might be evocative and dramatic, but once you open the door, you’re just seeing plywood.

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