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.
"For a human being, whether they're an artist or not, thinking too much spoils things," Oldham says. "I don't always know why I make a big decision. The names on the albums were not small decisions, but it was never a matter of considering why. I'm in the dark about it. I think at some point in my teens, someone told me that we know what we know, and we don't know what we don't know. I don't pretend to know what my motivations are. Some things I know have to be a certain way without knowing why."
If that sounds like the petty rationalization of someone who just likes to play with his fans' heads, consider Carl Jung's explanation of the artistic mind, written decades before Sting co-opted Jung's theory of synchronicity to sing about the Loch Ness monster: "An artist is the instrument of his work and subordinate to it. The artist is not one endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its ends through him."
"I do question my motivation inasmuch as I hope that I have control over it," Oldham says. As for the rock press' demonization of his relatively taciturn ways, he admits, "I sometimes get the same comments privately about obtuseness. I try hard in my songs to combat the desire to stay still and quiet. There are times when you forget to speak, and silence reverberates so consistently."
The name-changing Oldham does a good job of not staying still. ("There's enough to do in life that if it's not time to make music, I can stay busy," he says.) Now on tour with a full band, he tends to put something out every year, and his list of potential collaborators grows all the time. For instance, if all goes as he hopes, Oldham will record an album of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn duet covers with Polly Harvey sometime soon. "In the course of my everyday listening to records, there are musicians who are always on my mind to work with," Oldham says.
He worries less about how such pairings will be negotiated, though he says that his talent as a negotiator might have been considerable had he chosen not to pursue music. "But I try not to make decisions based on deals," he says. "There are other kinds of equity besides financial that might hold you in greater stead in old age." Currently, Oldham is wrestling with an offer to spend serious money in the studio making an album with a couple of musicians on his list. "But I don't want to put it out with this label," he says. "It's a terrible feeling when that figure has been put on the table and I know that I'm not going to accept it. It might have been very useful.
"Negotiating can be frustrating," he continues. "It often leads me to be blunt in a way that people take offense at." He doesn't hide behind the inevitable perception on the other side of the table that he's a typically temperamental artist. "I feel it all balances out because there are enough people I've worked with where the transactions have been joyful ones."
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