He’s the artist formerly known as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs and Palace Music, a series of monikers attached to a list of critically praised records released since 1993. Today, the much more widely acclaimed artist known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy (his real name: Will Oldham) assumes yet another identity in a New York hotel room, courtesy of a pair of spooky, deadening novelty contact lenses.
“The lenses make your entire eye appear solid black, like a shiny black marble. I’ve been popping them in so they don’t dry out,” says Oldham, searching intently around the room for a case to hold his recent purchase. When I suggest that the visage of a black-eyed, heavily bearded Oldham might be unsettling to the general public, he shrugs and says, “Well, you gotta keep things interesting.”
It’s an oddly fitting introduction to a man who is often regarded as one of America’s finest and most confounding songwriters. He’s one of the few non-major-label recording artists to have been covered by Johnny Cash. He’s also dueted with Björk, and starred in music videos with both Kanye West and R. Kelly. This spring, Oldham releases Beware, the sixth proper Bonnie “Prince” Billy studio album (not counting various live recordings and singles) and arguably his most forthright project to date. Even though he has a reputation as a reticent, media-shy contrarian, today Oldham is friendly, funny and seemingly happy to talk about the new record despite an admission five minutes into the interview that, “I do hate doing this stuff, you know.”
“This is probably the most premeditated record I’ve ever made,” says Oldham of Beware. While the record’s title might sound like an implied threat, its tone is more cautionary than aggressive. Even though the song titles alone suggest Oldham is plumbing familiar depths — “You Don’t Love Me,” “You Can’t Hurt Me Now,” “Beware Your Only Friend” — Beware is actually a rollicking and tentatively optimistic affair. With the same kind of warm, big-room production that imbued many of the great country albums of the 1970s — “I play with the same kind of guitar setup as Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe,” he says — the album is a measured step forward for Oldham.
“I got an artists’ residency at this place in Sausalito, California. I could work all day, every day, by myself,” recalls Oldham. “I wrote all the songs for Beware while I was there. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have a chance to work that way again, and I’ve certainly never had that before — time to completely focus with no distractions. I used to fantasize about being one of those people who can wake up and write music in the morning, but for me it’s hard to do. I find that the world starts fucking with you the minute you open your eyes.”
For someone long mislabeled as a kind of iconoclastic loner, Oldham has a genuine love of collaboration and a profoundly wicked sense of humor. His back catalog may conjure visions of a troubled troubadour, but he is as likely to be biking, spending time with his mom or listening to hip-hop as he is to be hanging out in the woods strumming on a guitar. “I get really frustrated by the lack of cross-pollination happening in music,” he says. “I know people typically associate me with country and Americana and folk music, but I don’t. It’s frustrating that people won’t allow you to feel the same — or justified — by enjoying wildly different kinds of things.”
When reminded of the notoriety he has cultivated after nearly two decades of releasing music, Oldham can only shrug. “When you are home and by yourself, all of that stuff — all of this stuff — doesn’t really exist,” he says. “Most of the time, I just assume that no one is listening to my music. That’s just my natural, go-to spot in my brain. I don’t think about the fact that I have fans or listeners. To know that all those records I’ve made continue to have a life out there is so, so, so nice. When we play shows and people actually come up and talk to me about the music… it can only be severely awesome.”
Photo by Simona Dalla Valle