Will Oldham talks Hawaiian lava, streaming music and the absurdity of NYC and LA before a Nelsonville performance with Jonathan Richman on Friday
Will Oldham’s connection to Hawaii goes back generations. His mother was born there, and her mother was a nurse at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked during World War II. Oldham, who records and performs as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, made his first visit to the island in the late '90s, and while he was there, he picked up a book of short stories by Ian MacMillan titled Squid Eye.
“That book began to help me unlock a lot of things about Hawaiian history, culture and geography that I hadn't really processed. It became an intensely compelling place, and I've been back many, many times since then,” Oldham said by phone from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. “There's something about the racial makeup of the place that, for somebody who's grown up with the utopian idea of a more racially mixed society, and for somebody who loves the ocean, … is very enticing.”
At the end of 2017, Oldham and his wife, textile artist Elsa Hansen Oldham, traveled to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to spend a month as artists in residence at a spare cabin with no internet and no reliable cellphone service. “It was an exciting time to be there, because it was the end stages of the big eruption. There was active lava every single day that we were there,” Oldham said. “It would take us maybe a minute to walk from our front door to where, at night, we could see the glow from the big Halemaʻumaʻu crater that was full of lava. … There was nothing to do but walk around these volcanoes and work on your work.”
In the cabin, Oldham tacked a piece of paper to the wall, and every day Elsa would write down potential song titles for the new Bonnie “Prince” Billy record, I Made a Place (Drag City). One day, inspired by the luminous lava, she wrote down “The Glow,” which also happens to be a title used by singer and songwriter Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie. “[Elverum] and his daughter came and visited us while we were on the volcano for a couple of days, but my wife didn't know he has a song ‘The Glow’ and ‘The Glow Pt. 2.’ So I had to give it another part and called it ‘Part 3,’” Oldham said, though in the record’s lyric sheet, beautifully illustrated by artist Aurel Schmidt, the title appears as “The Glow, Part Seven.” “I hadn't yet asked [Elverum’s permission], and I wanted to be sure he didn't have other parts that I didn't know about, so initially I called it ‘Part Seven,’ just figuring, well, I don't think he's written seven of these.”
Oldham’s gorgeous version of “The Glow,” like much of I Made a Place, is marked by wary, tenuous optimism. “How worried are you when you don’t see the glow? When it’s stuffed deep and awfully in a junk drawer below?” Oldham sings, later joined in haunting harmony by fellow Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley. Despite the song’s sobering refrain — “It all will never not end” — Oldham grasps onto hopeful slivers of warmth, singing, “I can still see the light of day.”
Oldham’s daughter was conceived a few months after the I Made a Place songs were begun, and the future felt uncertain, at best. “I think at that point we had had two miscarriages. So we didn’t know what our future was,” he said. “Everything [on the record] is kind of about the present, and the past leading up to the present. … I think we had in our minds some degree of optimism, but the optimism was based on optimism. It wasn't based on anything else.”
On the current Bonnie “Prince” Billy tour, which will stop at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville on Friday, March 6, Oldham will perform as a duo with Emmett Kelly on a bill that also includes Jonathan Richman with drummer Tommy Larkins. “We'll definitely play a lot of the [I Made a Place] songs, but the reason that the tour is happening is because Jonathan Richman said we should tour together,” Oldham said. “One of my main goals in doing the tour is to just observe Jonathan and interact as much as possible and ask him questions about music.”
Recently, Oldham rediscovered a letter he wrote to a friend about the first time he saw Richman perform in 1989, and he’s excited to show it to Richman. The temporal nature of music is something Oldham thinks about often, and it often makes its way into the songs of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, particularly I Made a Place track “Look Backward on Your Future.”
“It's a wonderful thing to be a time-related artist,” Oldham said. “That song is accompanying you into the future. As you're listening to it, you're holding hands with the song, and it's hopefully a trustworthy companion and walking step by step with you. As the minutes roll by, if you find it rewarding, some part of you subconsciously looks forward to singing it again to yourself by memory or listening to it again.”
Oldham is intentional, too, about the way he ushers Bonnie “Prince” Billy songs into the world. For I Made a Place, he opted to first release the songs on physical formats and waited a couple of months before putting the music on streaming services.
“It's an attempt to put money back in the hands of people who handle music — record stores, distributors, record companies and even places like Bandcamp that sell music to interested listeners, as opposed to just throwing everything out there for free, essentially cutting everybody out. … Who's telling us that we need to put music out in a certain way? It's really two corporations, and two corporations have convinced everybody that this is the way things should be done. And that's kind of gross,” he said. “It was kind of an experiment, but now that we've done it, I don't understand why that isn't just the way records are put out: Put it up for sale first, and then offer it a little while later to the streaming services.”
Oldham admits his resistance to the streaming economy is “ageist to some extent, but I can only be who I am, and I know the things that are valuable and resonant to me.” He’s also content to be somewhat removed from the gears that turn the current version of the music industry. “I can tend to idealize the functioning, working artist who can live a fairly normal life apart from the circus,” he said. “Everyone starts to think all of the really important things are happening elsewhere. [But] now there is more and more validity in a small- or medium-sized city like where I live, Louisville, Kentucky, or Columbus. And people who live in Los Angeles and New York seem more and more ridiculous.”
“A tiny life might be the way through it all,” Oldham sings on I Made a Place lead-off track “New Memory Box,” and as we wrap up our conversation, Oldham seems to happily embody an introvert’s preference for quietness. He's finished cleaning up the kitchen and about to go pick up his daughter, who helped inspire the song “This is Far from Over.” It's the one album track that was written after his daughter's arrival, and it’s one of the record’s most intimate and comforting tunes — just Oldham’s endearing quaver, a strummed acoustic guitar and a lulling flute solo that sounds as if it arrives via ocean breeze. “Don’t worry if all life is gone/The rocks and sea will still roll on/ And new wild creatures will be born/Yes, this is far from over,” Oldham sings, then assures us one more time: “The whole world’s far from over.”