To assert that Will Oldham is a complicated character is to toy with extreme understatement. To suggest that he embodies more than a few contradictions as an artist is to flirt with revealing the painfully obvious. Itís no accident that heís regarded as one of indie rockís premier mystery men. This is an image and an aura heís cultivated over the past decade, first at the forefront of what sounded an awful lot like loosely organized back-porch hootenannies field-recorded by the fine folks at Drag City and released under various permutations of the Palace name (from Palace Brothers to Palace Songs to Palace Music to just plain Palace), then as a solo artist recording everything from stripped-down acoustic numbers so lo-fi in nature that even the back porch seemed to have gone missing to more orchestrated roots music that threatened to rock. He tried releasing music under his given name, but it wasnít long before he adopted a new musical alter ego ó Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
Of the eight albums heís put out since 1992 (not counting any of the numerous seven-inch singles and EPs), no more than two have been attributed to the same band or artist ó when a misprint on a seven-inch single dropped the "e" and had him listed as Bonnie ĎPrincí Billy, he was referred to by that name in the press on several occasions. And though his alter egos arenít as numerous as those of certain techno DJs, in the realm of the indie-rock singer-songwriter, where folk idioms meet country inflections, acoustic guitars strum up against the occasional burst of feedback, and Americana emerges as some kind of closely guarded secret, name games are at least unusual, if not unprecedented. Because as even a first-year marketing student will tell you, your name is an invaluable commodity, and more than a few heated legal battles over name rights have raged in the business of rock and roll. Yet Oldham had the audacity to release one of his albums ó 1996ís Arise Therefore (Drag City) ó without attributing it to anyone at all.
Of course, even getting the 33-year-old Oldham ó who calls Louisville home and appears to have settled on Bonnie "Prince" Billy as the name under which he will record and perform (thatís who heíll be when he comes to the Middle East this Friday) ó to admit so something as basic as the presence of folk in those acoustic guitars he strums throughout Master and Everyone (Drag City), the newest Bonnie "Prince" Billy full-length, is a bit like pulling teeth. This is the guy whose press photos are all blurry and who didnít see a problem with not putting his name on Arise Therefore. He is, however, candid enough to admit that the latter decision wasnít a particularly good one when I reach him at home.
"Of course, that was a bad idea," he says with a hint of a laugh. "Putting out a record with no name on it was something I did purely out of desperation." So what, you might wonder, drove him to such a difficult point in his career? Did one of his former business associates, musical partners, or label affiliates threaten to sue for the rights to the Palace name? Had he struck out in such a radically new musical direction that he just didnít feel right placing the Palace moniker on Arise Therefore? The answer to every suggestion is a resounding no. But perhaps the last one comes closest to the truth ó though many may view his combined output under all of his musical aliases as a cohesive body of work, Oldham has never seen it that way.
"Well, I guess the idea is that when you have a name of a group or an artist, then you expect that the next record, if it has the same name, should be the same group of people playing on it. And I just thought we were making a different kind of record each time, with different people, and different themes, and different sounds. So I thought it was important to call it something different so that people would be aware of the differences. I mean, I donít want people buying my records and being disappointed that it doesnít sound like the last one."
In what I know will be an exercise in absolute futility, I point out that plenty of bands change line-ups from album to album, and that there are solo artists who record under their own names or stage names for entire careers without once using the same backing band twice. But itís evident that Oldhamís mind was made up a long time ago. "Within my own tiny little world," he explains, "the first full-length Palace record is with one kind of musician and it was recorded in a certain type of way, while the second one was completely different-sounding and there was a fifth of the amount of people involved. The songs to me also seemed really different. And then the third record was another completely different recording environment and I had different kinds of musicians involved. So those things seemed different enough for me to alter the name. Iíll admit that thatís just me in the process of moving forward without any benefit of perspective, distance, or time whatsoever."
Eventually, though, Oldham did grow tired of all the name games, which is what led to the Arise Therefore misstep. He also tried working under his given name ó Will Oldham ó but, in his words, "I didnít like that idea because there were more people than myself involved. See, the thing was that I was learning how to make records all that time, and then at a certain point it was like, ĎOkay, itís finally time to come up with one name.í And that name turned out to be Bonnie ĎPrinceí Billy."
Itís a fitting choice. For starters, it has a cryptic edge that fits both Oldhamís public persona and his lyrics, which often seem to be written in a personal code heís just daring listeners to crack. Itís a reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the 18th-century Stuart pretender to the British throne who for decades was a romantic figure to the Scots, with his image secreted in works of art and even utilitarian objects like vases that, if held up to a mirror in a certain way, would reveal the image of the handsome prince atop his horse. And thereís something both in Oldhamís music, which often brings to mind the romantic image of troubadours of ages past handing down ancient yarns of good and evil with little more than a scrappy guitar and world-weary voice, and in his unassumingly heroic persona that fits the myth of the Young Pretender, though he points out that "a lot of people hate Bonnie Prince Charlie too."
Oldham, who seems to thrive on symbolism, cites another facet of the Bonnie "Prince" Billy name that resonates for him. "Yeah, the name has so many different references that it could almost have a life of its own. Bonnie Prince Charlie has such a beautiful ring to it, and I was very conscious of appropriating that mellifluous sound. And I was also thinking about the name Nat King Cole. But it wasnít until later, and this may have been subconscious, that I remembered that Billy the Kid was William Bonney or Billy Bonney."
Outlaw tendencies aside, Billy the Kid does seem to provide a crucial link to the music that Oldham must have been weaned on ó the songs of the Louvin Brothers, of Jimmie Rodgers, and of bluesmen like Washington Phillips, whose "I Had a Good Mother and Father" he covers without attribution on the first Palace Brother CD, 1992ís There Is No One What Will Take Care of You (Drag City). Oldhamís musical education didnít end there. Heís also recorded songs by Brit-punks the Mekons and í60 singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, and by the time of the final Palace full-length salvo, 1995ís Viva Last Blues (Drag City; attributed to Palace Music), his band had grown to encompass enough organ, electric guitar, and piano to resemble the Band of the "Basement Tapes," with Oldham himself playing the role of the cryptic Bob Dylan.
Like many artists, though, he has little or no use for labels and categories. The main strains running through each and every one of his incarnations have been Americana, roots music, folk, and, at times, country. But he isnít copping to any of it. "I donít think itís roots music, though itís definitely influenced by Western popular music," is his retort to my suggestion that he plays roots music.
How about Americana?
"I donít think so. I mean, I sing in English."
"Itís on independent labels."
Any relation at all to punk rock?
"Ah, I would say, yeah, that it does," he admits as something finally captures his fancy. "I would say that I think the way we go about putting shows together and putting records together is directly related to my experience with the way I saw shows growing up and bought records growing up. I mean, Iíve done a lot of seven inches, and the main reason is that I bought a lot of seven inches when I was younger. I loved having a little time with this music, just one or two songs. And 85 percent of it was punk-rock seven inches."
Okay, how about folk music?
"My definition of folk music is music that people hear and then re-sing.
Do you think punk rock is folk music?
"Yeah. Any song that people learn the words to and play in their own band is folk music. And that can be anything."
Finally, something we all ó even Will Oldham ó can agree on.