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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
As told to Dave Simpson

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: ‘I can’t regret working with R Kelly – it made me better able to judge my behaviour and that of others’

Will Oldham, aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
‘Bodysurfing makes my brain and body feel good.’ Will Oldham, aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. Photograph: Elsa Hansen Oldham

Your work is often considered to be bleak, dark and mostly for grownups. Given your young offspring, what children’s songs do you find yourself singing? Grimpeurs

One of the earliest Sesame Street characters is a fellow called Grover, who is blue with a big pink nose. Last week, in the children’s section of a record store, I found a record called Grover Sings the Blues. I hadn’t heard What Do I Do When I’m Alone? or Has Anyone Seen My Dog? in 45 years but my daughter has been playing them over and over again. It’s so gratifying that she likes the songs I liked as a child in the 1970s. I still know every word and note.

What drew you to cover Mariah Carey’s Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme)? ChanteuseV

Around the time of that record she had a very public breakdown that had to do with the demands of having a very public persona. It almost destroyed her and she cried out for help. We allow terrible things to be done to people we admire or the planet and tend to look the other way, but it’s such a powerful song. A friend of mine had been in jail with a rapper who knew the Wu-Tang Clan producer Buddha Monk, so we went to his apartment and did that song with Buddha’s brilliant production.

Will Oldham with beard
Will Oldham … ‘I don’t listen to R Kelly now.’ Photograph: -

Do you regret associating with R Kelly after the first abuse allegations against him? CaptainShabby

When I did the Mariah Carey song at Buddha’s, the TV had news about the first R Kelly scandals coming out. They were serious allegations, yet R Kelly’s 2003 album Chocolate Factory was No 1. I bought it and thought it was tremendous. I listened to more of his music, covered one of his songs, then I was brought to Texas to potentially make music for the film of the food industry book Fast Food Nation. In one of the scenes an R Kelly video was playing in the background. It turned out a woman on the film worked with R Kelly and she asked if I’d like to be in the Trapped in the Closet video. They flew me to Chicago, we rehearsed at his house and I interviewed him for Interview magazine. I live covered Ignition Part 1, and recorded his song The World’s Greatest for the movie Ali. So I had multiple associations. I can’t regret them because, ideally, the closer I was to that man, his music and his world – and even the horrific and tragic complications that have since come to light – would make me a stronger person, better able to make judgments on my behaviour and the behaviour of others. You know, as a child Bill Cosby conned me because he presented his work through the lens of morality. R Kelly never did. But I don’t listen to R Kelly now.

During the infamous 9/11 jam session, who was most shaken by the day’s events – Jason Molina, Alasdair Roberts or yourself? FizzyGua

We were recording at my brother’s old farmhouse in Kentucky and were already in unfamiliar territory, exploring each other’s ways of working. My brother got a phone call and it was obvious something very significant was happening. We were able to watch the second plane hit the building live, but we didn’t know what to do. So we got back to work. I’d say Molina’s reaction was the most interesting because of his ability to spontaneously improvise lyrics. He came up with the song September 11 on the spot.

The cover of Slint’s 1991 album Spiderland with the photograph taken by Will Oldham.
The cover of Slint’s 1991 album Spiderland with the photograph taken by Will Oldham. Photograph: Touch & Go

How do you end up taking the photograph that became the front cover of Slint’s seminal album Spiderland? Clewballs

We were super-close friends and when they started the band I was invited to join. I’d never played music, but was so touched and honoured it felt like a suitable challenge. At their first show under the name Small Dirty Tight Tufts of Hair: BEADS, in a Unitarian church, I just sat down in front of Brett Walford’s kick drum to stop it sliding. Eventually I dropped out, but for the cover of their first record, Tweez, they used a picture of me that my father took. Then they asked me to take the one for Spiderland. A couple of years ago, we went back to the abandoned limestone quarry where we took it and took pictures of ourselves swimming in the water like we had when we were teenagers.

Why did you decide to take all your solo work off Spotify? phil2282

I am offended by Spotify’s existence and people’s passive acceptance of it as a dominant form of musical consumption. They treat musicians like garbage. When people go “it’s just so easy”, I think: “So you don’t want musicians to continue to try to make the best music they can?” Because it’s unsustainable. When I play a song, I want to be reminded of where I heard it or who recommended it, not that my algorithm told me.

What do you recall of the fantastic film Matewan? How did you get the part and are you annoyed that you never got to play a Jason Bourne bad guy, like your fellow cast members, Chris Cooper and David Strathairn? Haigin88

I love those Jason Bourne movies, but by the time they were made I’d realised the movie business was not conducive to my temperament or vice versa. I got the part because I’d done a lot of regional theatre. I was 16 years old and just tried to follow actors like Ken Jenkins, Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell. The film is about the Matewan mining massacre in the Appalachian hills and to this day I get college professors say: “I teach that movie in my labour history class.” It’s impossible to list all the ways the making of it influenced the way I make records. The director, John Sayles, is in the video for a song on my new album called Crazy Blue Bells. He’s uncredited but if you know what he looks like you can’t miss him. He’s almost seven feet tall and very handsome.

Watch the video for Crazy Blue Bells.

Sinéad O’Connor’s death reminded me that you used to cover All Babies from her Universal Mother album. With songs you cover, do you dig deep on an artist or simply hear something and want to sing it? icyberg

Mostly you hear a song that you wish you could have written. With that song, it’s her voice, the way it makes me feel, a connection with some or all of the lyrics. Then you want to deepen your relationship with the song and learn how it was created, to strengthen your own practice.

Is it true you like to bodyboard? Thepuffpastryhangman

I actually like to bodysurf – surfing without the board. It just makes my brain and body feel good. My favourite wave is a dangerous and slightly daunting wave at Makapu‘u Beach on the island of O‘ahu in Hawaii. There’s a similarly frightening wave nearby in Sandy Beach – there’s a famous photo of Barack Obama bodysurfing there.

Your latest album, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, features volcanic imagery on the opener Like It or Not, and closes with a song entitled Good Morning, Popocatépetl (“smoking mountain”). You were also writer in residence at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 2018. Are you drawn to volcanoes? VerulamiumParkRanger

I’m grateful for such a beautiful question. I think volcanoes are such a dramatic, traumatic, greatest example of the way the planet we live on is a living, breathing thing. They are beautiful and horrific to witness. In January 2018, my wife and I spent a month in Hawaii living on an active volcano and you could trek out to where lava was popping out of the ground. Three months later that volcano erupted and destroyed wonderful places. They are beautiful role models for the way, as artists or human beings in general, we are creating and destroying, and are microbacteria compared with the planet we live on.

Will Oldham with his wife, Elsa, and their dogs.
Will Oldham with his wife, Elsa, and their dogs. Photograph: Alamy

Who is Birdman, the guitarist on your 2022 album High and High and Mighty Parts 1 and 2? FizzyGua

I made that album for my friend Emmett Kelly’s primarily cassette-only label, Haha. It’s a piece of work I feel most strongly about but I’m not at liberty to say who Birdman was. He’s an incredible musician, but also an academic who researches gun ownership. Even though we only made 100 copies, he was concerned that if he was identified his family might be in danger. I was devastated because I’d been looking forward to years of collaboration, but we agreed on a pseudonym. Fortunately, he didn’t say: “Don’t put it out.”

Your Merle Haggard tribute album, Best Troubadour, led me to discover and now love his music. How did that record come about? graham627

I’ve explored his music for decades and think that in the last 20 years of his life he made some of the greatest work in country music. Sometimes I’d even write songs thinking of him – a specific one is I Called You Back – and hoping that one day he’d hear them. His live shows were dominated by his earlier work, so I wanted to make a record to highlight his later brilliance. Then in 2016 he died. I didn’t know what to do about the album, but read that he’d made Roots, Volume 1 for the indie label Anti- by recording live to two-track. I spoke to his engineer for advice and we did Best Troubadour the same way. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Unlike most artists, Merle Haggard continued to develop. His only formula was to continually challenge himself.

Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You is out now on Domino.

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