Alan Licht, interviewer/editor of “Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy,” does the once-thought impossible and gets Will Oldham to speak at length about something, let alone his musical alter-ego. Oldham has consciously avoided interviews in his nigh two decades of releasing music. Part of what has made Will Oldham such an enigma is his caged secrecy despite his cult notoriety. In the book he expresses his philosophical disdain with regard to the press:
With interview after interview, most people are doing the interview don’t really prepare, don’t care, and what this is doing is providing a lot of lukewarm, empty, quasi-interesting content in relation to [an artist]…which is canceling out any efforts that had been made before to try to have only stuff that’s considered and thought about be associated with the [artist]. And here we are, doing all this bullshit, and people will be like, ‘Oh, it’s just the same old bullshit that everybody does. It’s just bullshit, it’s just a lot of garbage, magazine-filler bullshit’…the whole publicity machine is vile and corrupt.”
He may ramble a bit and have a jaded view of journalism, but he’s likely not far off regarding some press offenders. What makes this book so special is that Alan Licht is prepared to the nth degree and “Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy” is far from the same old bullshit.
If you are hoping to learn more about Will Oldham the person, you’re offered precious little about his day-to-day life. The book does delve into some snippets from his youth, particularly his time spent acting as a teenager and young adult (which will undoubtedly be news for some fans), but the vast majority of the book focuses on his musical career, starting with Palace Brothers in the early 90s and venturing onward to BPB. After all, the book is titled “Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy” not “Will Oldham: A Biography.”
Licht offers a very unique opportunity for Bonnie “Prince” Billy fans; the book is a transcription of a week-long series of interviews between two old friends, and the best part about it is that it totally reads that way. The reader becomes a fly on the wall in a room with two guys, recorder on, bottomless tumblers of spirits and a duty to document. Alan Licht is not only a friend of Oldham’s, he has accompanied Bonnie “Prince” Billy on a handful of tours. It is also clear from his encyclopedic knowledge of BPB’s extensive body of work (cited in its entirety as an appendix) that he is a true fan. Nearly every Palace/Bonnie “Prince” Billy release, down to singles and EPs, is expanded upon in great detail and Licht can quote song lyrics at will like a priest quoting scripture.
In these interviews, Will Oldham, whose name is and will continually be used interchangeably with Bonnie “Prince” Billy to his dismay, tries to establish a creative rift between the two “persons” after the release of the incredible BPB debut, I See A Darkness:
There was now a Bonnie to sing through…and I could be free to write in the first person by becoming disembodied and writing from this other first person that did exist, but only in the abstract.”
Bonnie gave Oldham a chance to separate himself from his craft and re-approach it with an elastic sincerity based on the concept that two egos can exist for a singular artist and neither are necessarily reflective of one another. If that sounds confusing, let it be known that Oldham does a much better job of explaining it.
The real magic of the book is the casual exchanges in between questions. The quick asides both reinforce the fact that this is a dialogue and also produce some of the most intriguing tangential discussions. In these asides Oldham openly shares his opinion on varying topics: from file-sharing and corporate band greed to inspirational actors, from his love/hate relationship with playing live to his plans for future live performances, from his use of recreational drugs to his acceptance of humanity’s self-destruction; and most fascinating and equally disturbing, his obsession with R. Kelly.
“Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy” may not engage a reader who is totally oblivious to his catalog, but that being said, one doesn’t have to be a fan to appreciate this book. Will Oldham is an inherently interesting character and this book functions as a “Portrait of an Artist as a Middle-Aged Man.” If nothing else it will spur the reader to discover or rediscover some wonderful music.