Will Oldham

An intimate discussion about God, life and love with a tremendous human being and one of America’s greatest songwriters.

*A full transcription of this audio interview can be found below.

Photograph by Joss McKinley.

Photograph by Joss McKinley.


Ben Evans: I’m Ben Evans and you’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This morning, I’m pleased to be joined once again by my friend Will Oldham, who of course records music under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Few are the songwriters who have remained more consistently prolific or true to their artistic vision than Will. I respect him a great deal and am honored to have him back on Fogged Clarity. Will, welcome, thanks for taking the time.

Will Oldham: Thanks, Ben. Good to be back on the horn with you.

BE: Absolutely, absolutely. So, I had some coffee, got a dip in, so let’s jump right to it.

WO: Oh, you’ve got a dip, like in your month.

BE: Yes, I do. (Laughs).

WO: I thought you meant you had time-wise budgeted in.

BE: (Laughs) Man, I’ve been thinking a lot, a lot about you, in preparation for this interview, so we’re going to go for big air right of the bat.

Do you find your convictions growing more pronounced as you age—I’m speaking here of your belief in the necessity of work, the absence of a God, or at least one able to intervene on our behalf, and the preeminent importance of the self and self-will? And, I guess, in what ways have those convictions continued to inform your music and your life since the last time we spoke in 2011?

WO: Ohhh, umm, well that’s a multi-pronged question. Those are different convictions that you outlined, each of which I’ll have to walk around and look at what I recognize in each of them.

BE: Maybe this is better, Will, just this one question: I guess, is it accurate to say that a lot of your philosophy has to do with the acceptance of imperfection and uncertainty in the interest of living a productive life?

WO: I imagine…the acceptance of imperfection and uncertainty… I think it’s redefining imperfection and maybe even denying uncertainty, or just pushing the whole concept of uncertainty out of the way. So moving forward with, you know, keeping in check what one knows and what one doesn’t know. I don’t want to not be surprised, but I guess that ends up being part of the goal, not being surprised or not being afraid of things. Does that seem like a goal, to not be afraid of things?

BE: I think that absolutely is a goal and, uh, yeah, I’m trying to do the same thing every day, and I think I expose myself to things that make me uncomfortable in order to get over the fear and be a better person and be able to grow.

WO: Right. So you do that, and to what extent are you… Are you achieving that? And to what extent might you be, maybe, inuring yourself to things? If you have the capacity for fear and the capacity for ignorance, if you do what you can to rise above that, might you not… I don’t know, I feel like, we have an allotment of ignorance, I feel like I have an allotment of ignorance, and the more I learn, I haven’t learned anything more, because I’m still going to be starting with my God-given allotment of ignorance and I’ve just pushed one thing aside in favor of another. And I’m always vulnerable to learning once again how little I know.

BE: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this, you know, I went through a couple tough years, I just mentioned it in passing to you, and I found myself… In order to survive, I think I had to dampen, for at least a period of time, my intellectual curiosity in order to escape things that triggered fear. And that was a bad place, that’s where wonder begins to slip, and, I don’t know, I just think it is important to expose yourself to fear, but there are certain times when you are so vulnerable that you just can’t take the fear, you know what I mean, and so this is, I guess, what we call escapism, when we’re watching fantasy movies or… I don’t know if that makes any sense but…

WO: Yeah. I want to, you know, it’s a balance to want to stay curious, and part of staying curious is warding off despair. And yet, how can you do that without staying vulnerable to the same traps that have felled you again and again?

BE: You are exactly right, that is spot on. I wrote down the other day “grow the other voice”, grow the other voice, not the niggling voice that sees fear and spawns anxiety, but the voice that can counter that and say: “it’s ok, onward, onward.”

WO: I’m thinking and hoping that a lesson that I’ve learned gradually over the past ten or twelve years… but it seems to be crystallizing more and more right now is: I have a hard time with boundaries, I try to stay open, which sometimes then means that I have to psychically shut myself away, because I can’t shut things out if I’m exposed to them, especially people. And realizing that there are certain wonderful and aggressive and chaotic forces manifested in certain human beings that I have been consistently open to because I’m sympathetic to the need for that kind of aggressive expression and aggressive interaction on intellectual and emotional levels. But ultimately, the people who are like that, they don’t respect boundaries either, so it’s finding just a match of somebody who doesn’t respect boundaries whose found somebody whose just got these huge gaps in their armor, and they’re like a disease, you know, sort of like a wonderful little disease oftentimes, but they won’t stop. And I guess trying to find this other self or this other voice so that I can walk around and talk to people and learn, I don’t know, maybe to be a little more extroverted perhaps, rather than introverted, because that way I can combat those… they end up being crazy people, you know? I have a lot of friends who are crazy people and if you’ve ever had bouts of distinct and severe mental confusion, it’s natural, or it’s not natural—to be compassionate to somebody who might be living with that at present or most of the time—feels kind of natural. Although, it’s easy to forget that by being compassionate to somebody who’s in a state of mental imbalance you’re giving over reality to somebody who has no business designing reality and they try and design it for both of you. And the more power and strength and corroboration you give to that person the more you have to work to maintain a semblance of a reality that might be shared with other people who are not so imbalanced. That’s a lot of work.

BE: Is there a particular instance you’re referring to that served as the impetus for that thought?

WO: Ummm…there have been a lot in recent years. And I think certain things, I guess, survival… survival instinct can make one realize like: “Oh, I’ve actually been kind of gutted, and if I give any more to this person or these people then I will not have anything left with which to even brush my teeth.”

BE: Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right.

WO: How do you shut down somebody who you recognize…you know, I think it’s common in dealing with people with addictions, and people who go through the twelve step program have to learn to recognize these kinds of boundaries, but if you’re dealing with somebody whom you may love, or if not love, have such empathy or compassion for that you don’t want to deny them, or shut them down, or shut them out because you know how scary their state is… but at certain points it feels like you may just have two alternatives: One is to keep going with them and allowing them to destroy you because they don’t even realize that you need help, as well; or to push them into the distance somewhere.

BE: Will, I feel like, you know, you may often be regarded as brusque or curt because you’re going about a work that is far more important than trivial socialization, and that speaks to, you know, helping people in the way you suggested with addiction. You have done more than enough to help anybody by putting this catalogue of music out there that really has crafted a philosophy by which, if one listens, they can live. And I don’t think you need to extend yourself any further than that. You just keep your nose to the grindstone and keep working, and you are doing the work that you were meant to do, man.

WO: And, I guess I’m so easily swayed or confused by the reality of another person that sometimes it’s this, being brusque, I feel like, is the only… You know, I think: well, if I’m not this then I’m going to lose myself completely in these other people’s realities and so, you know, I have to be terse and brusque sometimes because otherwise, you know, I’ll go home and I’ll look in the mirror and there won’t be anything there.

BE: Yeah. I’ve taken on kind of the metaphor of the lion for myself over the past eight months, and a lion’s gotta eat and keep going. It’s a creature of desire, preservation, and pride.

WO: Yeah, and, you know, ideally as some sort of recognition of its role in a community, in a pride, in a group that necessarily includes other lions.

BE: Yeah, you’re absolutely right.

Well, you said something, and we’ve spoken to this a bit, but you said something in 2011, that conversation we had, the second of ours, that only recently crystallized for me; it has since become a pillar of my own ideology. You stated, and I’m paraphrasing: that at a certain point one has to stop listening to the voices and the teachings and trust that they have learned themselves and the world well enough to live without reference to anything other their own inner dictum, which some might call the soul. I guess, how hard was it for you to arrive at that revelation? I know, for me, it took about thirty years…but my life hasn’t been the same since, it has been much better.

WO: It was hard, and I think though… Well, I don’t know, I was going to say that right now it feels like a moment for me of stepping out and learning again, and maybe double checking that inner dictum and maybe comparing it against, or just maybe double checking to see how it may have mutated in isolation or through lack of active tending. Because, there have been certain moments, even this morning, just sitting reading a book, drinking coffee where I’ve thought, like: “Oh, there are ideas that used to be in my head that were a hell of a lot better than ideas that I’ve recently had in my head, and I could do well to spend some time and energy now getting back to those ideas that have been patiently waiting”—you know, they’re not gone—they’re still sitting inside just, like: “eventually he’s going to come to his senses and recognize me and then we’ll have a good life together.” But I’ve been ignoring some of those attitudes and ideas for a while.

BE: What are some of them, in particular?

WO: Like many people probably, I think like most people right now, probably concentrating on the present too much, and not looking for guidance from the past quite enough. But also, there was a nice… and this will probably kind of sound a little silly, but there was a moment this morning where I was reading something about the beginning of the Protestant Reformation about how, you know, people used to be able to buy forgiveness from the Catholic Church.

BE: Martin Luther.

WO: And thinking about all of that, and… there was just a moment when I thought about…oh, and have you seen that tv show called “True Detective”?

BE: Oh man, yes.

WO: So, there’s a line that the Matthew McConaughey character said that I really appreciated, because it made me… You know, I had sort of had thought this for a long time, and it must be something that’s been covered extensively, because I don’t think I could have come up with it in a vacuum, but, the idea that religion is a virus of language, that it’s… You know, once communication occurred and began to grow and get more complicated that religion’s just a side effect of the existence of language. This morning what I was thinking was just: that I could feel free to love God, because I could realize that God is this byproduct of language that is very valuable, very valid, very useful and very real. But that’s what it is.

BE: That’s the extent of it, language?

WO: That’s not the extent. But, the reason that God exists is because of language, and that’s no small thing. That’s not to trivialize it. You know, without language God wouldn’t exist, basically. Most of the people that I run around with don’t have any time for organized religion, that’s kind of a given. And, a few of those, or most of those probably won’t necessarily claim to have any time for God, but it seems as much as a folly or waste of time and effort to deny God as to accept God.

BE: I think that folly is inherent in any denial.

WO: Yeah, unless you know what you’re doing. Yeah, exactly. Which most people don’t with their denial. Unless you, for some reason, consciously make it a program to actively engage in denial, you’re right, denial is folly.

BE: Now, throughout “Singer’s Grave: A Sea of Tongues”, your latest album, collective pronouns like “we” and “our” are used in a fashion similar to how a sociologist or even a pastor speaking to his congregation might use them. It’s almost as if your singing on behalf of, and to, humanity and its collective ethic. I’ve said this, but I don’t hesitate to call your work deeply philosophical. Are you, in your music, in a way, proselytizing freedom and self-reliance in order to counter the harmful effects of organized religion? And, I guess, might you be considered a pastor of good?

WO: Well, I’ve always been…since I first heard, I think it was maybe in a Kurt Vonnegut book that I read when I was a kid…I’ve always been taken by the concept that you are what you pretend to be. And there are many fortunate people who pretend nothing, but one of the burdens that comes with freedom is to have to. You know, you are free therefore the construction of identity and the identification of a role is totally on us. And, in order to pretend to be something, you know, you can sit there and be… On some levels that’s the ideal state, or, one of the ideal states… that would be pessimistic to say it’s the ideal, of like, you know, being in the womb and not having to profess anything or pretend anything or ask for anything. You can just be. And maybe if you had a rough gestation, you might be more fortunate than somebody who had a peaceful and comforting gestation because you come out and you’re sort of already primed for the struggle. But, I don’t think I was. So it’s always a matter of… you know, in creating music in the first place, but then in creating a lyric where…. realizing like, “oh, I get to have a voice, I get to use the voice and through that voice I can more than define what is”, because that obviously doesn’t serve anybody, you know, try to define what should be or what will be, and by maybe using these collective pronouns, and saying, well right now, sitting with a notebook, beginning to put a song together, I’m alone, but once I put the word “we” down there, I begin the path of not being alone. And if I do that with some degree of respect and reflection, and gathering whatever wisdom I can put to the task, then that “we” is something that other people will recognize and want to be identified by as well. But, you know, that’s not the state that things necessarily are before the song comes into existence, but you have to sort of pretend that you have a concept of a future in order to walk strongly into that future.

BE: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. In listening to this album, and “Wolfroy” (Goes to Town), from which, on which, nine of the tracks first appeared, I’ve come to wonder: are these then dramatic monologues, speakers other than yourself? Or are they simply different iterations of the self, your self, singing?

WO: Yeah. Well, I wish I had a little more—some days I do and some days I don’t—I wish I had a little more self-awareness or even self-love. But since I don’t, I look to my love for others to find a voice and so the voice in each song is very informed by voices that I hear, or that I think that I hear, things that I think I hear other people saying, in ways that I think I hear them talking that resonate with me, and I feel a need to be… or should be repeated, or should be repeated in a way that other people get to hear them who wouldn’t have heard them otherwise, either because—and this is a good example of these songs appearing again in another form. You know, part of it is saying, like, “Did you hear me? I said this.” Or, you know, I understand that somebody who may have not been open a couple of years ago might be open now, and that would be really interesting to, you know, just to say certain things again or in a different way, just because that person may not have been there before.

BE: God, that’s a powerful statement, that’s incredible. I do feel it’s that important too, after really delving into the album. The way that you’re able to weave together philosophy with compelling songwriting is… I think your label mate Bill Callahan is the only other person who does it.

WO: I did, a couple weeks ago, me and Dawn McCarthy, and we invited Emmett Kelly to come with us, to help celebrate the Everly Brothers at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and I guess the day of the concert, Dawn and I got interviewed by Ann Powers, do you know Ann Powers, she’s like a music person for “The New York Times” and for NPR, and she’s a good thinker, good writer, nice lady. And she wanted to talk about, or ask about, you know, she was saying like, “you know something that has struck me in all of my listening to the Everly Brothers is that there is this strange philosophical edge to what they do.” And, you know, I hadn’t necessarily thought of it that way, although I think that’s kind of a necessary component of things that I spend my time with, you know when it comes to music or when it comes to books, that I have to be able to find something that resembles a philosophical component I guess.

BE: Having that hinge behind it creates longevity. It’s going to last.

WO: Yeah, I mean if there’s flippancy or certainty to something then it’s kind of already had its time, because certainty and flippancy are things of the moment. But a nice thing was, after we had this discussion I got invited to go over to the library and archives and the guy who brought me over said let’s look something up just so I can show you how the system works. I said, “Ok, well let’s look up the Everly Brothers”, and we found a hardbound dissertation about the Everly Brothers called “The Roots and Influences of the Everly Brothers”. So we went and looked it up and it was from 5 or 6 years ago, a woman named Paula something or other, Paula Davis maybe, and it was just her… I think there is a company called ProQuest maybe that publishes dissertations on demand, and her dissertation on the roots and influences of the Everly Brothers called “The Roots and Influences of the Everly Brothers”, in the opening you see it was written for her Doctorate in Philosophy. I was just like: that’s pretty cool.

BE: That is pretty cool. Dude, that’s awesome.

Do you think it’s necessary for one to master the self and the mind before they are able to fully inhabit the subconscious and engage in the real work of making? And, when you are in your flow, musically, are you in some degree unconscious; do you find yourself so wholly lost in the act of creating that you are immune to the trappings of uncertainty, and, by extension, insincerity?

WO: Oh, there is that goal to have that be a crucial part of different moments in the process of music-ing, as some musicologists like to term it, so music-ing, in every moment of that process. Because I feel like, out of respect to the eventual thing, whatever it is, if it’s a composition, if it’s just a lyric, if it’s a performance, if it’s the object… that out of respect for that and out of respect for the experience of the eventual audience—because that’s what I look for is for things to disappear and have it be just this Vulcan mind-meld with something inside of the music itself. Sometimes I think, and I don’t know if this is true, but that somebody like Nabokov or Eudora Welty have this ability to know what they’re doing all the time, or Truman Capote, to know what they’re doing all the time and not lose themselves. Like that they are born with, or through discipline and practice have developed such a mastery of their skill that they don’t get lost in it. I don’t know if that’s true but it comes across that way because it’s just so well put together that you think: they have to know… they have to be uber aware of how good they are at constructing a sentence and picking a word and how that will effect the audience. But I could be wrong, that could just be so innate in them that they can lose themselves and be masters of their craft and masters of our language. But I think like, yeah, there’s all these times when you’re doing it when you have to, I think, get lost in it, but then out of respect for people like that and experiences like that, like those writer’s that I just mentioned, you know, that should be balanced with second-guessing and also trying to understand where getting lost in the process might be kind of specific to me in that case—because I don’t want it to be so.

BE: Yeah, so it’s not just subjective experience, but something that can be experienced communally.

WO: Yeah, so I can get lost in something, but I have to re-check and be sure that anything that is, or most of the things that are specific to my experience are somehow buttressed by the potential for other people’s having a similar or parallel experience.

BE: Yeah, but I think that second-guessing you speak of takes place at the time of composition of a song, rather than at the time of execution. You do that kind of work, checking to see if what you’re saying will resonate with people beforehand, so that in the moment of playing you can depart and disappear as you said.

WO: Yeah, but a lot of the fun actually is trying to have that happen at different times during the composition as well. It has to happen, on some level, during as many stages as possible. So, during the composition, you know, it’s sort of… there should be moments of losing the outside world to the world of this song that’s becoming.

BE: Yeah, you know, I’m so thankful that conversations like this exist because I feel like there’s a vast and expanding communication gap, particularly in this country, between those who are equipped and willing to reason and argue ethically in the interest of, I’ll call it progress, and those who are unwilling to… and I say “equipped” because I believe everyone has the capacity to be rational…though I’m aware that rational minds can arrive at different conclusions. I guess my question or concern is–how can individuals have productive conversations about life, living and progress, when there are a diminishing number of people who can and are willing to engage in them? Complacency and comfort remain the enemy, there is no doubt about that, and I feel like more and more people are opting for comfort, rather than the good work of progress and making. I guess, if we’re not on the same level, and I’m thinking kind of politically here, and I’m talking about reason–what way is there to bridge that gap?

WO: If you even take, you know…I don’t think many people…well, I don’t know actually, I’m beginning to think that more people do than I would have thought. But people who have thoughts like that, and questions like that, and desires like you’ve just expressed say in relation right now—because you’re talking about, you know, the state of, whatever, culture or society right now and it’s probably futile to talk about, you know, to have a long conversation, at least, about the state of culture and society right now without talking about something like social media, and to realize that it kind of is a great platform and a great form of communication that doesn’t get very well utilized partly because most of the people who use it are not masters at communication in the first place, and because it’s also such new mediums that, and the ground is always shifting under everybody’s feet, because they are modifying or introducing new platforms or new ways that the platforms work before anybody gets a chance to develop a language on them. Still, they are kind of ideally suited because they enter into everybody’s brain space usually at a time when that brain space is fairly open and unguarded, to look around for and propagate and invent and create things within those contexts that encourage that kind of thought and that kind of discussion and, for me, that usually means drawing the attention of one person to the viewpoint of another person that’s… that seems superficially radically opposed to that first person’s viewpoint. So, for example, if you could use Facebook to show your grandmother like a really cool hip-hop video, you know, that’s super basic, but that’s the kind of thing that I mean. Just because right there there’s access to so many kinds of images and ideas, and then at the same time each individual has access to a community that might be unaware of the rest of the world, or because they’ve forgotten or because they’ve always been unaware of it, and you can, I think, help nourish potential thought patterns and interactions by just alerting people to these things. And, you know, I don’t honestly think that there’s a hope of creating a—unless it is eventually through breeding human beings, you know, selective breeding of human beings—I don’t think there’s necessarily a hope that we’re going to have more or less good people, or more or less thoughtful people ever on the planet. I don’t think that’s a pessimistic thing, it’s just…and it’s so impossible seeming that… I definitely am not speaking in favor of breeding humans for certain kinds of interactions or thought processes or value systems, definitely not.

BE: (Laughs) It kind of comes down to cognitive dissonance theory. On the one hand you have people who, upon the revelation of new information, are willing to restructure their web of beliefs to accommodate that new fact or information, and then there are those who, faced with something unsettling, disturbing, push it back and leave that pre-existing web of beliefs in tact so as not to engage in, I guess, the cognitive work of reassembling their understanding of the world. And, I think the answer lies in a lot of what you sing about, and a lot of what we’ve talked about–that exposure to fear and not denying it, and welcoming the different. I don’t know…

WO: I’m trying to remember the word right now, and maybe you’ll remember and maybe you won’t, but there’s a word that you used once in a communication to me that was used out of like, sort of, anger and a desire to be dismissive, and I think, you know, somewhat hurtful, and it worked in all those ways and it’s something that, even though on this Saturday morning I can’t think of the word, I think you might be able to help me come up with it… You know it stuck with me and I think about it fairly often…and, what is the word? You said, effectively, “all I am is ‘something'”… and it’s not “blasphemous”, but it’s something like that. Do you remember?

BE: I don’t. I remember your email that said: “you were lost in your cups”, and I completely was, I had been drinking wine all day. And, again, I apologize for that. I guess I had just built up all of these expectations and, like, I was apprehensive upon meeting you, and I was drunk, and uh… yeah, I don’t recall, but I had no right to say that.

WO: Well, except for what you said, I mean, it relates to this conversation in a healthy way, I think. It’s a word…”irreverent” or something like that?

BE: It may have been “irreverent”.

WO: You may have said something like, you know, “at heart all you are is irreverent” or “all you are is iconoclastic”, or some word like that. I don’t think it’s any of those words, but it’s something like that, and, to some extent there’s, like you were saying early in the conversation about seeking out ways… Like, when I was a kid when I was disarmed by watching a Sam Peckinpah movie or a Russ Meyer movie or watching the “Elephant Man”, you know, to me that was like a wake-up call, like I can not walk through this world with the potential for being leveled and destroyed by a piece of pop culture. Like, I know, as I grow up, that that’s not something I should do. I should learn how to… So you know, try to expose myself in art, but in as many real situations as possible to things that would have the potential to, you know, put me out for a week or something like that and make it so that that is not the case. And you were saying a similar thing, I believe, at the beginning of this conversation, that that’s an exercise that you’ve engaged in is trying to expose yourself to things so that they don’t take you by surprise and render you helpless. Is that too much paraphrasing?

BE: I think more of what I’m saying is: understanding that the world does not cater to you and disturbing things can crop up all over the place. I mean…

WO: But trying to get a handle on why something is disturbing and to say: “I don’t want to be randomly disturbed by things.”

BE: Yeah, yeah. You’re absolutely right, when you said you didn’t want to be disturbed by popular media or that it didn’t… or that you wouldn’t give it the time, I think you’re absolutely right there. There are times when commercials or ideas would trigger me and, like you said, I could disappear for a week, sometimes two, because of it, because I’d just be circulating something like that. I’m the one who is ascribing power to something which is not deserving of it.

WO: Or is deserving, but you can’t…but the best way of dealing with that power is not to disappear and retreat, right? Like if you see a shocking image or hear a shocking piece of news and it, you know, floors you, it’s valuable to know that you can be floored by it and it has that strength, but it’s not valuable to be floored again by the same news. It’s more valuable to figure out how you’re going to stand the next time you hear news like that and how you’re going to deal with it rather than be at its mercy.

BE: On point. Completely on point.

Hey, so I don’t know if you know this, but, I watched, and I’m not bragging here, but I went to the theater like, I don’t know, two years ago and watched that movie “Interns” with Owen Wilson. Do you know they use a line from your song in that?

WO: Ohhh, somebody just told me that about a month ago, yeah, I hadn’t known that until…

BE: Yeah, dude.

WO: And I guess nobody told me that because probably not enough people saw the movie.

BE: I am kind of ashamed to bring it up (laughs).

WO: No, I thought like: “should I watch that movie?” I mean, should I watch that movie? I don’t know.

BE: No dude, no you shouldn’t.

But I looked that up because I didn’t know if that was kind of a commonly known fact or not, but Owen Wilson was once interviewed just after attending one of your shows, so that’s pretty cool.

WO: Uh-huh

But, again, just to go on and talk about this irreverence concept and this way of encouraging, you know, if only in our own little communities and universes, is to establish or try to find, Trojan horse style, try to find points of comfort and points of commonality with others and then to take a little bit of advantage of that moment to see where subversion can fit in so that complacency isn’t the bed you make for yourself and your community.

BE: Yeah, yeah. Well, man, I can sincerely say that you’re one of my favorite people on this earth and thank you so much for taking the time to talk and share with me again, Will. I really appreciate what you do and you’ve made, I know, a big impact on my life, so thank you.

WO: What are you gonna do the rest of the day?

Will Oldham is a musician and actor living in Louisville, Kentucky. Since 1993, he has released over twenty albums as Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs, and the pseudonym under which he has recorded for the past fifteen years, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. As an actor, Oldham has appeared in the films Eden, Pioneer, New Jerusalem, Junebug, Wendy and Lucy, and Old Joy, among others.