Mystery Man: Whether or not much is known about musician Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, his music stands for itself on the recently reased album 'The Letting Go.'
Bonnie the Obscure
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy slightly lifts the veil of secrecy
By Paul Davis
In the music world, there are the true eccentrics (folks whose strange personas are vindicated by their work) and the willfully obscure (those who cultivate an air of strangeness in a calculated bid for artistic respect). In the case of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, a.k.a. Will Oldham, it's been difficult at times to tell which side of the line he's on. The teenage indie-film actor featured in John Sayles' 1988 film Matewan, he went on to become ringleader of the influential '90s indie-folk outfit Palace and continues to assume any number of personas. Thanks to his cryptic lyrics and public statements, cynics have suggested Billy has cultivated more than just his legendary beard. In the process, though, they have dismissed one of the more vital American songwriters of the past 20 years, an odd yet undeniably talented musician whose songs even attracted the attention of Johnny Cash in his last years.
Certainly his mercurial public persona has added to the speculation. He's at turns affable and testy: Some journalists have been audience to Billy expounding on the merits of R. Kelly's music, while the less fortunate have received the sort of taciturn and combative treatment that Bob Dylan refined to an art. But as Dylan once insisted, such a public persona was meant to turn the public eye away from the persona and toward the musical output, and Billy expresses a similar sentiment.
"The easy way to maintain an 'elusive' profile is to not engage in the things that would destroy privacy," he says. "The majority of the people on the planet do it effortlessly. It is my hope that the music can be very public while the figures who make it remain unimportant to its fullest appreciation." And the music certainly stands up on its own merits, chilling character studies that possess all the bleakness of Appalachian murder ballads.
On his latest release The Letting Go, Billy widens that bleak sound to a cinematic scope, adding a string section and the eerie twang of singer Dawn McCarthy to songs that on previous albums might have featured skeletal arrangements. Despite the broader aural canvas, Billy views it as an organic development in his sound, one that owes as much to the players he works with as to his own songwriting.
"It is all about what is possible," he notes. "I had traveled with my cousin Ryder McNair, and he had played me some orchestral pieces he had arranged. As I was putting the session together, I called Ryder and warned him that I might be calling on him to write some arrangements. I want to keep instruments, friends, voices, arrangements, family, songs, time, as intertwined as possible. It isn't really hashing-out; it's the design of what is to occur; I guess it gets hashed out primarily inside of everyone, and it's about turning brains inside-out. The exception would be Dawn McCarthy's input. She had pretty much lined out her arrangements prior to the session itself, and was able to mold them to the forms we mutated."
It's tempting to read Billy's songs as autobiographical: They are usually written in the first person, and he clearly demonstrates his ability to inhabit the minds and souls of the characters that drift through his songs. But he dismisses any suggestions that these characters are a stand-in for himself, insisting "the songs are evidently not an illustration of the perceived life of the man singing." And while his traditionally spare arrangements have shone a bright spotlight on his words and vocals, he also refuses to isolate his songwriting process, insisting that each song is a work in progress that owes as much to the other players as it does to the songwriter. "Each performance of a song might be helped or hindered by that approach," he admits.
Similar to the philosophy behind his recordings, Billy considers his tours a work in progress that relies as much upon his fellow players as himself. Despite an uncharacteristically strong publicity push behind The Letting Go, he avoids linking the recent release to this current tour.
"There is no tour 'for this record,'" he explains. "There are tours and there are records; they are not related to each other. There is no effort to differentiate. Live shows are fleeting and the record will last; why waste effort re-creating what has already been captured?"
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy performs Sunday, Oct. 29, at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave. Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 advance or $18 at the door. For more information call 831.460.1800 or go to www.theatticsantacruz.com.
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