Interview: Bonnie “Prince” Billy

by Brian Howe on December 3, 2010

Will Oldham (photo: Susan Jean Schofield)

Will Oldham, the man behind Bonnie “Prince” Billy, doesn’t grant very many interviews, as befits the many-veiled nature of his public persona. So The Thread was especially pleased that Oldham agreed to answer a few of our questions via email in advance of Bonnie “Prince” Billy & the Cairo Gang’s Duke Performances show on December 4. We learned about Oldham’s relationship with the Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly, the retirement of the “Palace” moniker, his reasons for remaking his own songs on Sings Greatest Palace Music, and what Duke Performances audiences can expect to see on Saturday night. We also learned a little about The Babblers—sort of. Check The Thread later today to find out more about this enigmatic opening act.

The Thread: The Wonder Show of the World is your first official album with the Cairo Gang, though I believe you’ve often collaborated with Emmett Kelly. Can you talk about why you wanted to collaborate with him specifically, and what attracts you to certain collaborators in general?

Will Oldham: Well, to give a good answer would probably take a perspective that a greater length of time would provide. Overall, Emmett is a positive and curious and proactive force in making music, and making it expand and feel good to play, and feel good to write, and feel good to record.

Will Oldham & Emmett Kelly

Emmett, just overall, brings more joy into the process from beginning to end than many folks that I have played with. He’s got an intense fluency with music, and an ability to translate language into music and back again, which helps us cut to the chase and get to where we want to go with the song or the performance. Then we’ve written these songs together, and he challenges me rhythmically and melodically as a singer, and helps me to become a better singer, which at the end of the day is one of my driving forces in life.

Now that the “Palace” moniker is far behind you, can you tell our readers anything about its significance to you, and how you seem to have settled into being Bonnie “Prince” Billy in recent years?

The Palace records were my way of getting schooled.  Once out of school, I hung my own shingle out.

When you made Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, where you redid some of your older songs in a more polished and traditional style, were you trying to unite two distinct stages in your career, “correct” what you’d come to perceive as errors, get back to basics, or what?

The goals were two: One, to rerecord older songs that had been released under a Palace name so that people who didn’t have the time or inclination to dig deep could know the repertoire if they liked Bonnie records and came to the shows—because we were performing most of these songs anyways.  And two, to make a record with some solid and hardened musicians whose process and performances I admire.  By bringing material that I knew backwards and forwards into the studio, I could begin to work with these musicians with something approaching confidence.

Can you tell our readers about what sort of instrumentation and songs they might expect to hear at your Duke Performances show—i.e., are you showcasing your new album, with its familiar arrangements?

We’ll have a six-piece group. The newest addition is a woman named Angel Olson, who’s based out of Chicago. Emmett’s been familiar with her music for a while, so we’ll bring her in as an energetic vocal ingredient, primarily. There’ll be a very strong rhythm section from Louisville: a drummer named Van Campbell and a bass player named Danny Kiely. Danny’s also played with the Picket Line; he’s on that Funtown Comedown Picket Line record. Van has a group called Black Diamond Heavies, which is a duo, him and a guy who plays Fender Rhodes. They’re a pretty heavy rock band that energizes the whole audience. He plays a little bit of piano, a little bit of organ, a little harmonium—a guy named Ben Boye who’s based out of Chicago as well. We’ll play a lot of these Wonder Show of the World songs, and then we’ll probably have worked up a few covers, then we’ve some new songs that we’ve written, and then we’ll play some older Bonnie Billy songs as well.

Can you say anything about the mysterious opening act, the Babblers?

The Babblers aren’t that mysterious. They’re from Shreveport; I guess they are a bit obscure, but we’ve played with them and feel like it makes a good evening. Singing duties are shared by male and female lead singers; they perform story-based songs.

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