Will Oldham: My Life in 15 Songs
It’s a straightforward sentiment, but Will Oldham has a typically striking way of phrasing it.
“I can’t yield the labor to this intangible space,” he says.
“The labor” is a significant portion of his life’s work: the hundreds of sly, intimate, harsh, joyous, crude, archaic, funny and foreboding songs he has written since the late Eighties and released under a variety of aliases, from Palace Brothers in the early Nineties to, for roughly the past two decades, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “This intangible space” is, broadly speaking, the Internet, and more specifically the world of streaming and digital music. While he’s begun making his own albums available for streaming, rolling them out gradually as of last year, he’s wary of the practice both as an artist and a fan.
“I’m very reluctant to give over control of the culture that I want to experience to a monthly fee application, and also to a battery-powered device that I would rather use just to make telephone calls on, and I don’t want a telephone call to interrupt a song that I’m listening to, and I don’t understand somebody’s willingness …,” Oldham says, trailing off. “I guess I understand, because it’s just that they don’t have the value of the listening experience that I have. But I do have that value of the listening experience, and I don’t need call waiting when I’m listening to a Six Organs of Admittance record.”
Oldham is at home in Louisville, Kentucky, speaking at length — with breaks to attend to his ailing Yorkie, and to chat with his neighbor’s kids and the occasional visitor — about his life as a songwriter and the broader mindset that led him to want to assemble a new book called Songs of Love and Horror. The volume, out October 9th, compiles the lyrics to more than 200 of his songs, arranging them in unbroken alphabetical order, with brief annotations. The collection handily illustrates, among other things, the impressive breadth of his work, and its distinctive jumble of off-color imagery (“If I could fuck a mountain/Lord I would fuck a mountain,” goes the opening of 1995’s “The Mountain Low,” to which he’s added the note “Centerfold: West Virginia”) and what can sound like lines out of an old hymnal (“I take my lessons/From what’s poor/That’s what God/Has put me for,” from 2003’s “Lessons From What’s Poor”).
Oldham’s work often seems to stem from a folk tradition, but in more than five hours of friendly, animated conversation with Rolling Stone, the 48-year-old is just as quick to cite Madonna, the Mekons, Boston, Hüsker Dü and “the unfathomable genius of Glenn Danzig” as he is to name more obvious touchstones like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard (whose songs he covered on 2017’s Best Troubadour) or Leonard Cohen. (Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate LP title didn’t inspire the name Songs of Love and Horror, he says, but he was happy when he realized the resemblance.)
In his early life, Oldham trained as an actor; as a teenager, he played the role of a preacher in Matewan — John Sayles’ 1987 drama about a coal miners’ strike in 1920s West Virginia, which also featured James Earl Jones and Chris Cooper — and he still takes the occasional role. But it’s his way with words and his otherworldly voice, which can sound simultaneously youthful and ancient, that have gradually won him a fiercely devoted fan base, which includes everyone from Björk, who took him on tour in 2003, to Rick Rubin, who arranged for Cash himself to cover one of his songs.
“One of the main reasons for doing this kind of work is to try to forge a path that leads you to some of the clearings where you might find your heroes,” Oldham says. “You know, making their camp and eating their food, and [you’re] just, like, ah, OK, I did it; I figured it out.”
Currently, Oldham occupies a strange space in American music culture. He’s still affiliated with Drag City, the Chicago indie label that has been releasing his music since 1992 — and will put out a lovely solo-acoustic companion album to the book, also called Songs of Love and Horror, on October 19th, featuring new renditions of songs from throughout his discography — but visible and well-connected enough to contribute songs to the HBO series True Detective, write songs for a John Legend album and appear in a Kanye West video.
Oldham also straddles two eras. He’s a singer-songwriter who came of age in the last days of the old-school record industry — “I started into this line of work when it was plausible to make a life out of it,” he writes in the intro to Songs of Love and Horror — but who now finds himself, and his peers, grappling with a very different reality.
“I’m not sure how or why people get into making music right now beyond just the love of it, which is fantastic,” he says. “The love of music is a fantastic motivator, but I guess there’s this huge blind spot that many people have about thinking this music that is exchanged for very little effort, for very little money — people imagine that that’s a fine thing, because it’s music, and the way we absorb music is effortless. But not understanding that people involved with making music are being intensely taken advantage of, and there’s a huge amount of money exchanging hands; it’s just no longer reachable by the people who are responsible for producing the music, on any level.”
He hopes that Songs of Love and Horror will serve as a monument of a time that might be disappearing.
“It’s just wanting to put another physical signpost out there saying that this music, and other musics, have an existence,” he says of the project, “and that our cultural life has an existence and isn’t confined to virtual space.”
Ahead of an October tour, Will Oldham spoke to Rolling Stone about how everything from a perplexing deep dive into the work of Jimmy Buffett to a stash of THC-infused blueberries informed 15 of his songs that span more than 25 years.
Palace Brothers, “Ohio River Boat Song” (1992)
When I was little, one year we went to Scotland. It was a trip kind of organized by the woman who ran the theater where I studied. I can’t remember how [old I] was, 12 or 13 maybe. I’d never been overseas.
There were things that I knew about Scottish music that were powerful to me, but I couldn’t find anything that I really loved. I had made a mixtape of bluegrass and country music for [the family we stayed with in Scotland], and then when I hitchhiked to their house [a couple years later], their middle son [Andy Shearer] was there, and he said that he had really appreciated that mixtape, and we started talking about music. I said, “Well, maybe you could help me with this Celtic music quandary. I know that there’s music that I like there and I’ve never heard it, but I think I could give you the clues for what I’m looking for and maybe you can respond.”
Maybe six months later, I got a package and it had five 90-minute tapes and maybe 14 pages of notes about every song. They were all mixtapes that he’d meticulously assembled. I just started to listen to them and it was most of what I listened to for a while. And it began to intensely inform things that I thought and felt about the world. One of the significant songs on there was “The Loch Tay Boat Song,” and it was especially significant because Loch Tay was near this house [where I’d stayed in Scotland]. It resonated with me just from the little bit of time that I’d spent there, and I knew that it resonated with [Andy] in the same way that any song that mentions Louisville or Kentucky [would with me].
So “Ohio River Boat Song” is from the “The Loch Tay Boat Song,” which on his cassettes was sung by this group called Silly Wizard. Eventually, when I started playing music, which wasn’t for a couple more years, that was a song that I wanted to do, but then I realized in order for it to work it needed to be translated geographically so that I could sing it with the authority that I wanted to sing it with, and have people understand that it was about having a connection with an actual place, as opposed to just romanticizing a place.
Palace Brothers, “I Tried to Stay Healthy for You” (1993)
All of those songs [from There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You] were pretty much written during that summer [when Oldham was staying with friend and Slint member Todd Brashear in Bloomington, Indiana], and it was kind of a daily-discipline thing to work on the songs every day at the end of the day. And at the same time I was trying to learn to play some Scottish folksongs from a really basic Scottish folksong music book, and I think most of the chords from “I Tried to Stay Healthy for You” were maybe chords that I was learning for a song in that book. I think it was a [Robert] Burns song, maybe, called “For the Sake o’ Somebody.” Which then that line also found its way into the title song from that record; there’s a line that’s like “for the sake of somebody you must rise.”
I was unhappily single at the time and thinking many steps into the future. In the song it’s sort of a club owner or a tavern owner or impresario. It’s sort of a Blue Angel–y [scenario], like the Marlene Dietrich [movie]. In this song, the performer that’s being referred to is the de facto object of love of the singer of the song, the voice of the song, and it’s describing an awareness that the life that they live is, you know, the death that they live. And beginning to understand that each step forward is not heading towards something, but it’s kind of retroactively defining what your life and your love is. So it’s this guy sort of saying, regardless of how we interact with each other mortally or sexually or professionally, we are bound together and, you know, the singer is saying that he is totally down with that.
Palace Brothers, “(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit” (1993)
It was relatively agonizing to arrange and capture all of the songs [on There Is No-One] and when it came to [“(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit”] I think at that moment I just thought, this needs to be simple, because if we start getting into it the way we’ve gotten into all of the other songs, this song will kill us. Just because it had so many words. So that’s why it’s a super-simple arrangement.
I don’t think I thought about it at the time, but as the years went on I thought that it was potentially some kind of a reference to or a taking off from the character that I played in the movie Matewan, just because that was someone who worked up in the pulpit and spoke lots of words. So it’s a long story about someone identifying, at least momentarily, the misplacement of power and symbolism on … you know, saying that religion has cornered the market on finding meaning, I guess.
That was when I was first listening to the Mekons a whole lot, right when The Mekons Rock’n’ Roll came out. On that record they have “Memphis Egypt”: “We have met Satan and shaken him by the hand and thought his stinking breath was fine perfume.” And so my brain at that time was opening up to these ideas, like, well if I can’t identify with all that is called good, does that make me inherently evil? And if I’m thinking that I’m potentially inherently evil and you’re at a church service and they’re putting the body of Christ in your mouth, you just have to wonder what your responsibility is in terms of, like, letting the guy who’s putting it in your mouth know exactly what he’s doing.
Palace, “West Palm Beach” (1994)
[“West Palm Beach” is] similar to “Ohio River Boat Song.” Is that a genre of song when there’s a geographic reference that’s the central theme of the song? “Place-name songs”?
[I was] trying to understand why some place-name songs work and some don’t, and then also trying to understand why Jimmy Buffett was as popular as he was. And I approached the Jimmy Buffett problem in the same way that I’d approached the Celtic-music problem: I had this sense that there’s all these tips of icebergs in Celtic music that I was aware of that I figured there was something beyond. So then I thought with Jimmy Buffett that it’s got to be something similar, because so many people loved him so much.
However, that was a frustrating one. I couldn’t quite figure it out. It’s a pool with no deep end, it seems like, the Jimmy Buffett pool. And so part of me also wanted to then make a hybrid of the songs that I was trying to write or was interested in writing, and what I was learning really was a Jimmy Buffett song. So, trying to build in a fair amount of escapism, ’cause that seems to be the core of his appeal, but then the escape is to a real place. The idea was to find spaces that many people … almost everybody that I could think of at the time had some sort of a fictional fantasy romantic concept of what the southeastern United States had the potential to be and to represent. It was a place that people went: South Carolina, Florida, potentially Alabama. But mostly Florida.
And so trying to think, well, what if I tried to make up a couple of songs that were the Jimmy Buffett songs that I was hoping existed and couldn’t really find by describing a more complex view of these places that you escape to in your mind? In his songs, the reminiscences or the evocations don’t really get very contradictory or complex. But at the same time, play with the idea of trying to initially seduce people by making a song about a place that they fantasize about.
Palace Music, “New Partner” (1995)
[“New Partner”] came naturally from, in my brain, over a period of time, realizing that I often was conflating [Nirvana’s] “Heart-Shaped Box” with [the Rolling Stones’] “Get Off of My Cloud.” Like if I was mowing the lawn or mopping the kitchen, and I had a work song in my brain, it was this weird combined chorus of “Hey! You!” and “I’ve got a new complaint,” whatever, and then maybe eventually thinking, well, if I’m going to build a song maybe I should start with that idea. And because the idea had no other basis than just tapping into somebody else’s oil well times two, I just thought, well, I’ll continue to run with that and let the influences just pour in. [Note: Oldham says he also drew on the Johnny Cash song “Tony”.]
Oftentimes you keep the influences at arm’s length when you’re making a song, but in this case I was like, well, no, I’ll just have it be other people’s music and then weirdly in letting go in that way, of the songs that I’ve written and recorded, that’s the song that people respond to more fervently than many of the other songs. So it’s like, oh, that should help us understand why originality is not highly prized and why the ripoffs are the fodder for most of our cultural lives.
[“New Partner” is] more than those three songs, because there’s also the line “the loons on the moor” — that’s, like, the line that says, “OK, this song is about being a song,” because, you know, there aren’t loons on a moor. It’s taking two romantic images and throwing them together, by a computer, essentially. Just like, “Oh, if I take loons and moors, because those are evocative romantic notions that people might find in a song or a story, and just start throwing everything in there … it’s obvious that this is a romantic song.” But because there are no loons on any moor, immediately it’s like, well, this is not a real-world song. It’s a creation; it’s like a tribute to songs.
Palace Music, “Weaker Soldier” (1996)
<[“Weaker Soldier” has] pan style="font-weight: 400">[“Weaker Soldier” has] got a chorus. I think it’s the only song [on Arise Therefore] with a chorus. “The Sun Highlights the Lack in Each,” I guess, has a one-line chorus. [“Weaker Soldier”] has a chorus and it’s messing around with the idea of Leonard Cohen, among other people probably, but the idea of music being akin to soldiering.
There’s the chorus of the song where it says, “I’m not fit to carry your name.” And not being “fit” or “willing to go on.” That’s all talking about making music. I’d spent most of my life training as an actor. [I was] thinking about music so much and spending so much time with music, but in terms of the practice of making music, or recording music, or writing songs, I hadn’t put in the time, and so it was a lot of learning on the job and at a certain point feeling like I’ve explored all of the things that imagined I might have the ability to explore up to this point.
Then by the time of Arise Therefore, we’re making a record with three very important musical heroes to me, which is David Grubbs, my brother Ned, and Steve Albini. Up to that point, trying everything that I fantasized about, and then Arise Therefore was abandoning fantasy in favor of just listening to these three men, or paying attention to their energy, or their ideas. Then thinking that there’s not anything else I want to do.
But then I’m in a quandary because … just thinking, yeah, I want to imbue everything that I’m involved with in making music with a kind of urgency, and a kind of joy of discovery and exploration and sharing, and then at this point, it felt like it would be moving forward into either repetition or coasting, and thinking, well, I don’t want to do either of those things, so I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do from now on.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “I See a Darkness” (1999)
That’s one of a very few songs that I can recall the physical act of writing down the words, and I have found [them] recently. The song lyrics were written on these little Post-it notes from some sort of industrial-supply company in, I don’t know, Minnesota or Montana or something like that. [The song] was just imagining a conversation with a friend of mine with whom, at the time, I think most of our interaction was via fax. A lot of faxing back and forth.
[Matt Sweeney] played a show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and Rick Rubin came to the show and said that [he and Johnny Cash] were recording [“I See a Darkness”], and invited me to come play piano on the recording session, and I said, “Yeah, of course I’d love to do that.” And then I had to call him a couple of days later and leave a message saying that I can’t play the piano, but that it would mean the world to me, if nothing else came of this, if there was just any opportunity when I could be in the room with John and June.
I got there and [Rick] introduced me to Cash as the guy who wrote “I See a Darkness,” and Cash just said, “Well, let’s work on that one, then, right now.” So it’s probably great that I went there, and great that Cash is the man that he is, or is the man that he was, which is somebody who thrives on musical communion.
From the get-go, I can superficially cite the fact that I said something like, “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Cash,” and he immediately said, “Please don’t call me Mr. Cash. You can call me John or JR or Johnny, but please don’t call me Mr. Cash.” And then from then on, it was astonishing how he was not anywhere but present, and present with the music and present with everybody in the room, and not in a, like, sociopathic music-personality way, but in a way that it just felt like he loved being there and was there to make music with the people that were in the room, you know? That’s astonishing, because most people aren’t that way regardless of their history or their stature or their accomplishments. But somebody with history, stature and accomplishments has a lot working against him to keep them from being present.
There were a couple of things [in the song] that he didn’t necessarily know what to do with, and those were for me the elements of making [the song] surreal or silly almost. In the chorus: “There’s a hope that somehow you, you” — I don’t think Cash says “you, you,” even though he said, you know, “I don’t care if I do-die-do-die-do.” You throw an extra syllable in there because it’s a song and you want it to be catchy, and you don’t want people left wanting a vocalization right there. So you throw in a funny “tra-la-la,” and so it’s “you, you,” instead of just “you.” But it sounds silly.
You know, if you’re thinking [snide voice], “Well, this is a big, heavy song. Why would you say ‘you, you’? That kind of sounds stupid.” Like, because it sounds stupid. That’s why. Because if it didn’t sound stupid, you maybe would want to slit your wrists after you hear the song.
Tweaker, “Happy Child” (2001)
You know when I was talking about kind of using all the paints in my paintbox and all the tools in my toolbox by the time I got to Arise Therefore? Throughout there was this awareness that I sing and play guitar because I can’t play the piano and I can’t play the drums, and I can barely play the guitar. In order to make songs, this is the thing that I can use, but what’s better is to work with other people who can help you get to musical places that you just wouldn’t be able to get to without them.
[Chris Vrenna] was presented as this guy who had played drums with Nine Inch Nails, and that [his project Tweaker] was a kind of industrial goth music. He presented the instrumental track and just said, “Would you be able to write lyrics and a vocal part for this song?” He was great about giving [direction], like he sort of described the physical environment of what he pictured. He pictured that this song took place in kind of a Louisiana decaying mansion, falling apart, covered with moss and then whatever stories that place might hold.
He invited me to Austin to record at [Butthole Surfers guitarist] Paul Leary’s house, with Paul Leary producing and engineering. This is something that I’ve noticed over the years, is that I’m very responsive to and influenced by the audience of my collaborators. With Vrenna and with Paul Leary, I was singing to them, you know? It’s like, singing to Paul Leary with the idea of wanting to push Paul Leary’s buttons. I remember feeling so thrilled by him, like the last lines of the song, his response to it, like loving the horror aspect of the lyrics, and just feeling like, oh, this is so exciting, that this guy who’s participated in creating such wildly garish musical horror-scapes, that he is kind of turned on by what’s happening here. I think that helped me sing it more appropriately.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Even If Love” (2003)
For some reason, [I was] trying to write a song that pays tribute to and/or takes off from and/or references and/or is maybe made from the ashes of things that I felt about some of the music of Polly Jean Harvey to that point, specifically her collaborative record with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point and then also her record Is This Desire?
[“Even If Love”] was just a desire to make a song that was sort of like a warm footlight that you’re trying to throw up onto this performing artist. And I knew that I had [Harvey’s] ear a little bit at that time, for some reason. We were writing letters or something like that. And so wanting to, while she was listening, to say, like, “And I love you.”
There was one time in New York City where [Harvey] had gotten tickets to see Bob Dylan play at Tramps and asked me to go. I remember at one point in that show, looking over to my right and seeing her and just thinking, like, that this is a great image, you know? Like, the profile of this artist taking in the work of somebody else. It must’ve been before [I wrote it], because I’m sure that’s where the image came from [in the line “And I love to look at you/From the side at night/With music playing”].
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney, “Beast for Thee” (2005)
[Superwolf is] a pretty hugely significant record for, I think, both Matt Sweeney and myself. In terms of what we wer[Superwolf is] a ble to do with each other and then also how it’s reached people and who it’s reached.
I think [“Beast for Thee”] was one of the first songs that we did at the outset of trying to figure out if this was something that we could do together, ’cause we hadn’t tried writing anything together up to that point. And he’d just been through the Zwan machine for a couple years and was slightly the worse for wear on some levels just ’cause it was a bruising experience at times, I think.
What inspired the song was, and one can feel it even more acutely in many ways now, just, like, standing somewhere, one hopes with a degree of openness and at a certain point in your life you can feel maybe a modicum of wisdom and experience and feel a positive intention and just a degree of love and be sort of flabbergasted at how it isn’t welcomed. And then, yeah, to drive it home then to have the singer/narrator go ahead and self-identify as this usable beast of burden. But to make it not just be a pathetic thing, and that’s why I mention [the Robert Bresson film] Balthazar in the note [that accompanies the song in Songs of Love and Horror]. Hopefully that’s implicit in the way that I am singing about a donkey, or it’s not just making that beast or that donkey a servile thing and it’s not making it a pathetic thing. It’s just saying that it is a living, breathing thing that is being offered up as your emotional pack animal.
Every single time, no matter if it’s singing it with Matt, if it’s singing it with another ensemble, if it’s singing it with Eighth Blackbird, every single time I sing that and sing “At home on Wednesday morn/Astride my horny horn/You’ll be in glory born,” I get a little embarrassed. Probably, like, 40 percent embarrassed, 15 percent titillated, and then the other 45 percent just singing the story. But it’s there. You know, I’m thinking, is somebody squirming when they hear me say that? Is there a rumble in somebody’s underwear when they hear that?
Björk, “Gratitude” (2005)
It seems like a lot of people, once they declare themselves any sort of artist, they think that that’s license to dismiss the humanity of everybody else, like, “I’m an artist, and therefore I am not accountable,” or something like that. And Björk is one of those few people who has achieved a degree of success and has amazing creative output and is completely accountable. She was this impressive, curious, driven person.
Touring with her was like nothing less than doing the John Sayles movie Matewan in terms of being in and among an amazing group of people who were assembled because they were amazing, and there was a mix of male and female talents, and you felt like everybody was on equal footing. It was just such great energy, and I thought it would be, and it was.
And then maybe a couple years later, Björk has aligned herself personally and artistically with Matthew Barney, and she calls and says, “I’m making the music for this movie of Matthew’s, Drawing Restraint 9, and we have a song that we would like you to sing.” And this was very surreal to get this request, and then she sends the song, and it’s really abstract. The song is like an amalgam, or maybe it’s a single letter from people, post-World War II in Japan, [who] I guess, were suffering because there was a whaling ban that was overseen by General MacArthur. That was the lyric to the song.
I just had to listen to it so many times, because I was going to be singing along with a prerecorded track, and then they have me to their house just up the Hudson River from New York City to record. I’d prepped it, so we started a take. I got about halfway through, and I said, “I don’t know, can we stop and start over?” “OK.” Started another take, and I did it all the way through, and they were like, “That was great,” and I’m like, “What? That’s the whole thing? That’s the work that I get to do with you?” They were like, “You did it exactly right,” and I was pretty bummed, because I was hoping to get direction and have a chance to get manipulated and influenced, and have this big learning experience. At the same time it was nice to feel like, “Oh, I prepared, and they had asked me to do this, and they liked what I did.”
Candi Staton, “His Hands” (2006)
I think I was out in Portland, Oregon, acting in that Old Joy movie, and [engineer and Oldham collaborator Mark Nevers] called and said, “I’m about to make this record with this woman named Candi Staton, have you ever heard of her? She flirted with some gospel music and R&B and disco and had some success in the Seventies and, I don’t know, would you want to write a song for her?” And I said, “Well, let me do some looking into it, but probably, yeah.”
I remember reading, years ago, probably late Eighties, early Nineties, interviews with this guy Kostas. At that time I was reading about him ’cause he was writing with Dwight Yoakam around the time of Yoakam’s This Time record, which I think was ’91 or ’92, something like that. And Kostas was a professional songwriter who, if I remember right, he had this great model of [if] someone asked him to write a song he would go and meet with them and sort of do, like, a Barbara Walters interview with them, but more like a fly-on-the-wall reporter thing.
And of course I couldn’t do that with Candi Staton ’cause I was working in Portland, Oregon, but I could just read about her and then listen to her and just think — like his idea of, well, where has she been personally and where has she been musically of late and in her life, and if someone were going to bring me a song, what kind of release might I want? Think of it as, like, a surprise party. I wanted to send her something that made musical things that she was familiar with that she might be too close to to realize that they could be made musical. And I’m speaking very loftily here but this was my hope. In her case, she’s somebody with kind of a specific relationship to Christianity and a specific relationship to certain styles of music and then a certain relationship to abuse.
“His Hands” was really the first song where I had done a commission and when they eventually titled her record after that song — knowing that she liked that song and continued to sing it and titled her record after that song, like, that’s my version of getting …There isn’t an award for what I do except for that. Her embracing the song was one of those moments.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang, “Merciless and Great” (2010)
I could spend days talking about Emmett Kelly and not speak enough about how significant and important of a friend and collaborator he has been in the years. [The Wonder Show of the World] was a record where I felt like he had given so much to this strange Bonnie “Prince” Billy project for a number of years, and I knew he also made Emmett Kelly music as the Cairo Gang, and I thought he was neglecting the Cairo Gang. I just thought we should make the world know what’s going on.
There was a movie that I was in at that time, New Jerusalem. A guy named Rick Alverson had contacted me and asked if I would be interested in working on this movie with him in which I would play a fundamentalist Christian. The idea was that as an actor, I had to create my character and be able to improvise my character’s lines. So I got deep into the American Christian experience during that time, and that was at the same time as beginning this project with Emmett, so a lot of the lyrics will flirt with religious ideas, specifically this “Merciless and Great” song.
There’s kind of only one other person who makes me feel close to how I feel when I hear Emmett play guitar and that’s Richard Thompson. He grabs you, and he just takes you somewhere, and Emmett does a similar kind of thing where somehow he captures you and pulls you in with his guitar solos, and he ends up dropping you off in some really wild, emotional places that are so crazy satisfying, and his compositions all over The Wonder Show of the World record are similar.
Being able to sing “Merciless and Great” with Emmett is like getting to live inside one of those guitar solos that I was talking about, and you do it again and again, night after night, but each time you’re just like, whoa, how did he get me to this place? Singing these songs with Emmett playing was like, wow. It’s pulling all of this beautiful stuff out of me that I didn’t know was in me.
It’s like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell putting pixie dust on you and being like, “Alright, jump out of your bedroom window. Let’s fucking go to Never Never Land.”
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Intentional Injury” (2015)
Maybe a year and a half ago or so, some plumbers came to the house to fix something, and one of the guys is like, “I’m actually kind of excited to be here at your house.”
“Why are you excited to be here?”
“I don’t know much of your music, but I know that True Detective song.”
I was definitely one of the millions of people who watched that first season [of the show], and it was really incredibly refreshing. You kind of figured that it was so novel that they were gonna work with their strengths as opposed to the weaknesses, and I think that ended up not quite happening with the second season.
[My] friend David Ferguson, Nashville denizen, was friends somewhat with T Bone Burnett, and they were golfing one day, and [David] called me and said, “T Bone wants to work with you on True Detective.“
I showed up at Ferg’s studio, and me and T Bone get into a room together. He starts showing me articles and talking about different things. Part of that encounter was him explaining what the show was about without explaining what the show was about, cause he had [a] non-disclosure thing to deal with, and everything was hush-hush.
He said, “This is dark. We want these songs to be dark.” So, I feel like [the songs I wrote for the show] are sort of the most gratuitously dark songs that I’ve ever made. They don’t get funny, they’re just kind of gross and bummer songs, but it’s OK, because it’s a big TV show, and that in and of itself dilutes some of it, ’cause once you put it on HBO, it can only be considered so dark at that point in pop culture. If I were to put it on a record that I would expect a 22-year-old kid to buy and go home and listen to by his or herself, I would feel guilty about putting something that negative on there.
An end-credit song can be a powerful thing, and [“Intentional Injury”] was an end-credit song. In this case, with True Detective on some level, [it] ultimately was a weird situation, but, I don’t know, the plumber heard the song.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Blueberry Jam” (2018)
So my wife and I, we got to be artists-in-residence at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in January of this year, which meant that they put us in some government-issued housing on the rim of the Kilauea crater, and then just basically left us alone for the month. It was a wild month.
There was one morning where we got out of bed and took a look at our cell phones, which got terrible service anyway, but occasionally a text message could squeeze through, and we had these text messages that squoze through, issued by the government, saying that there was a ballistic missile en route to where we were and to take necessary cover, and this is not a drill.
Neither of us really freaked out, but we figured that this was it, and it was a Saturday morning, and the only people we had any sort of even basic communication with were the office staff at the park, and they all went home for the weekend. So we’re just like, “I don’t even know how to ask anybody anything, like, who would we call?” It took about 30 minutes before a second text came through saying that it was a false alarm. At the same time, that’s 30 minutes the likes of which I had not experienced before in my life.
But part of my routine, my discipline while we were there was writing. I was trying to assemble songs, and so after that, [I] sat down and wrote these words to try to make as light of the situation as possible, and then centered them around this concept of the blueberry, which at that time, a friend of ours had introduced us to these California legal THC-infused chocolate-covered blueberries, and I was thinking, “Well, that’s probably where this day is gonna go. I don’t know.”
[After we recorded the song], I started talking to a friend here in Louisville who is just now trying to get his video-production company off the ground, and he’s amazing and strange and hilarious, and I said, “You want to make something?” And we discussed it, and we had another friend with a blueberry farm, and we went out to the blueberry farm and painted ourselves blue, and yeah, made this thing.
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