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It's a good thing the folks who handle Will Oldham--the songwriting savant known as Bonnie Prince Billy and Palace and Palace Songs and Palace Brothers and The Palace Drawbridge Is Closing Let's Storm the Castle (OK, just kidding about that one)--are on the ball about providing a copy of his most recent disc, Ease Down the Road. That way, the yearlong process of digesting Oldham's 12 new songs, mostly barbed-wire-on-the-low-plains dirges that grow like little tumors, can begin right away.
"I totally value other people's opinions," Oldham says from Baltimore. "But I don't value the opinions of people who get a free copy of my album and write a review after playing it a few times. If someone wanted to write a review a year later because he was responding to the record on his own, that would be fine. Publicly, I haven't been very respectful of music writing. I reject the institution of critical music writing."
You've gotta hand it to Oldham for being true to his vision in this area, true to the belief that if records don't come easily to him, they shouldn't play easily to listeners; in fact, critics have been almost universally supportive of Oldham's oddly metered rustic songwriting. But Oldham is by nature suspicious of--or at least analytic toward--process; he's not a first-impression guy.
"I don't think the listening really stops," Oldham explains. He has said before that he believes the experience of listening--specifically, the experience of an audience's listening to his songs--begins as soon as he starts writing. "If you really spend time with a recording as a listener, it becomes part of the cerebral fabric. For example, I recently gave away a record I owned. I still love the record, but I've listened to it so much that I won't need to hear it again. For good and bad, they're permanent for me."
Oldham has a point: There's something beautifully Zen in the notion of expressing the highest praise for an album by refusing to listen to it anymore, refusing to disturb its carefully laid nest in your brain. The tails side of that philosophy, Oldham says, is his golden rule of remuneration: "Someone sent me a CD-R of Thalia Zedek's new album, and I like it. So now I'm waiting for it to come out so I can buy it. I've gotten so much out of it that I need to pay it back." The likelihood that he won't keep it forever doesn't concern him. "I recognize that an audience member can't always afford to buy something he loves. That shouldn't be the reason he doesn't own it."
As if to prove his point, Oldham pauses for a short shouting conversation with neighbors about some discs he tossed their way. "There are all these hippies living across the street," he explains, adding that they "follow Phish or something. They seem really into music. If they're serious about a group, no matter who it is, I can't argue with that."
Naturally, the subject of downloading songs comes up when discussing music as property versus music as beautiful thing. "I talk to people who say they've downloaded 300 records, and to me, it's like they just said, 'house, pickle, jelly, knife.' It doesn't translate into something I understand. I don't think they've really taken it in. The knee-jerk reaction [about Napster, et al.] is to disdain those who are overreacting. It doesn't stress me out. I understand and appreciate that some people are working hard to be sure everyone gets paid, and I'm sure I'll benefit from that. But it's really unpleasant to be judgmental. A principal reason for the kind of distance I keep is so that my time and music don't get obsessed with being negative or judgmental about things.
"I can think of a couple of big rappers who have made excellent and positive first albums, but in the course of being successful, they get defensive and hostile, and their next record is full of bile," Oldham continues. "In my own teeny, tiny way compared to those massive proportions, I can relate to that. I don't want to live like that. I don't want to be at war and make decisions based on defensiveness. A record is something that in mortal terms lasts forever. I think there's time in the recording and mixing process to say no to things that will poison the record."
Now is a good time to mention that Oldham has a reputation for being a difficult interview subject: quiet, unforthcoming, a squeezebox of audible pauses, mmm-uhhh-umming to signal his discomfort with answering questions at all. Some reference to Oldham's distance is included in most of what has been written about him, no matter how positive. But that distance probably has to do with Oldham's desire to avoid that aforementioned bitterness. He has reason to suspect that his interviewers know little and care nothing about his work; why should he play along?
During this conversation, there are moments when Oldham begins to close off, but he recovers each time, offering lucid, articulate responses so polite that having asked the question at all feels silly. The determination in Oldham's work is evident in conversation, making redundant any effort to question it verbally.
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