A Q&A with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Written by Scott Mervis on .

Dawn-McCarthy-and-Bonnie-Prince-BillyBonnie 'Prince' Billy is known for being a reluctant interview, but once on the phone, it's a pleasure to talk with the artist formerly known as Will Oldham.

He's not a household name, but having come around in the early '90s with an eerily quiet folk sound that went against the tide, he's had a huge impact on an indie-folk scene that still flourishes.

He's been to Pittsburgh a handful of times, having played the Millvale Industrial Theater, The Rex and The Warhol.

On Saturday, he plays another show in the Warhol Sound Series, at Carnegie Lecture Hall, this time in a trio format with Emmett Kelley and Cheyenne Mize, with whom he recorded the 2009 EP "Chijimi."

His latest project is a collaboration with Dawn McCarthy on a tribute to the Everly Brothers called "What the Brothers Sang," coming Feb. 19 on Drag City.


Looks like you're a few select shows rather doing a full-blown tour. What made you agree to this show and what is the preparation like?
The Warhol asked a while ago if there could be a show in conjunction with the Cory Archangel [exhibit at Carnegie Museum of Art]. It's pretty challenging to do one-offs, just because of the preparation it takes to feel like you can put on a show, so I said I didn't think it would be a good idea to do it. Then they asked again a few months later. Then we got another interesting invitation from the Mountain Stage folks, and that's a radio show that I've been affected by. I've heard music on there that's made a difference to me, and we only have to do four or five songs, so I though, 'Well, we should do that.' Then when I started talking to Emmett and Cheyenne, whom I will be playing with on this trip, and realized how well we've worked together in the past, I thought we should revisit and see if the Warhol show was still a potential, and it was, and that was great. Then we added Columbus so we could have a trinity of shows, so we could do a mama bear, papa bear and baby bear show ideally. I'm trying to respond musically appropriately to these three occasions.

How would you describe the chemistry between you, Emmett and Cheyenne?
We work well together. We have a web of acquaintances that is interesting. Emmett had gone to music school with a guy named Chris Rodahaffer, and when I first met Cheyenne here she was playing with a band here with Chris Rodahaffer, there was this intersection of knowledge. And

Emmett and I have been playing for a long time, about seven years, and Cheyenne, she plays in a couple other groups and makes her own music and then she also is a music therapist, so I sometimes like to think and say that Emmett and I can function as her clients/patients on stage and she can respond and make us feel good by adding an aesthetic quality or structural quality by recognizing what it was we're trying to do, so it makes it into a nurturing experience on stage.

Always good to have a therapist around.

Alan Licht is on this bill with Title TK. As someone not fond of interviews, despite what we're doing right now, why did you work on this book ['Will Oldham on Bonnie 'Prince' Billy'] and what was the experience like?
In terms of this conversation right now, one thing I have always done is engage in talking with folks around the time of playing shows because I've never known what to say about records, I've never wanted to do those kinds of interviews, and also I don't feel that there's anything urgent — a record comes out and most of the records I have obtained over the course of my life were not obtained within the first month or year or decade, even, or 50 years, sometimes within its release date, so I don't feel there is an urgency in it, and it's an uncomfortable situation to be asked questions about a record that you just finished recording. There just isn't much interesting to say about it, because all I know about it is the brass tacks, so if you want to talk about what time we showed up at the studio on the second day of recording, I know that, but I don't know what a song is about or why the record exists or anything like that.
But you have to talk about shows because people can't find out about a show after it happens and go see it. So, for the last 20 years, I have always wanted to talk to folks about coming to town.
The book with Alan came about because the record company over in England, Domino Records — worked with them for most of the last 20 years — they started to develop a relationship with the publisher Faber and Faber, and Faber asked if I had interest in any sort of book. I said why don't they release a compilation of interviews that I've done over the past 15 years and either that will, a) cut down on the number of interviews that Domino expects of me or b) make those interviews that I do have to do potentially more interesting because there would be this source material that would cover a vast array of subjects and exist over a long period of time, and so somebody in preparation for an interview could leaf through the book and we might have a more fun conversation than we would have if we were basing it on current happenings.
Faber was intrigued but said they would prefer it if the interview was a new one rather than old ones, which kind of defeated my original purpose. But I'm kind of an easy touch, which means that I end up hiding myself more often than not from society at large just because I can't seem to build walls or learn to say no, so I said yeah. They suggested a couple music writers that were British, of course. I said I've known Alan since the late '80s, as a friend, as a musician, as a great conceptual artist, and as a writer, and I really like his music writing, so I thought that would be a safe and trusting environment to undertake. He came to town and it was like a weeklong conversation and we followed it up with a few telephone conversations to fill in blanks, and there was the book.

Given what you just said about talking about new records, I wonder if I could ask you about the Everlys project.
Yeah (hesitant). What do you want to know about it?

What got you interested in an Everlys project and how did you go about choosing the material?
I've been listening to the Everly Brothers for almost my entire life and regularly go back and listen to things I've heard before and dig up things that I've never heard before. When Dawn McCarthy and I were first getting to know each other, about eight or nine years ago, we did some shows together, as separate acts, but in between the acts, because we wanted to sing together, we picked a couple Everly Brothers songs because they are a great default canon of songs if you want to put two voices together. And it was great — really nice singing these songs.
About a year ago, we were talking and she said she had a bought an Everlys hits compilation at a thrift store, put it in her truck, and her little girls responded very enthusiastically, and she just said, 'We should record some of these some time.' Because they remain a very active presence in my brain through all these years, I sort of leapt on that idea and started sending Dawn some of their recordings which I'm sure she never heard because almost no one seems to have heard them, and that I knew she would be excited about. She would say this one can work, this one no... We had a group of about 16 or 17 songs that we went in and recorded.

It seems as though the Everly Brothers called for some songs to be more uptempo.

One of the thing that's always fascinated me about you is that you came along around '93 when music was so loud and abrasive. And you mentioned Minutemen and Big Black as influences. Yet you really went against the tide. How did you arrive at that?
I think primarily it's just feeling the way that I sing and the way that thinking and reacting plays into singing, it functions better for me when there's the time to think and react, and to feel as well. A loud and fast song, it's not as rewarding for a brain like mine, to escape into a loud and fast song as it is into a song that has a little less pace and a little more space. As well, thinking about incorporating the music, making it something that's sustainable as well, even in a year cycle, having it in your existence, there's a limit to how much loud and fast can be a part of any individual's life. Just on a daily basis, it just doesn't apply to most situations. I like the idea of the music being a part of or strongly related to a lot of just what we do and think, and how we interact with others.

Were you surprised it was embraced by the same people who liked the loud and fast?
No. I wasn't surprised, because the reason to make the music was because it felt related to other music that I was aware of and passionate about. It felt to me complementary and like it was filling a void that another music might create, so whereas something like Rapeman [Steve Albini's late '80s band] is so energetic and inspiring and challenging there needs to be.... Say, on Wednesday there is no such thing as Rapeman, on Thursday there is, and on Friday there needs to be a yin balance to that yang, and at the time it wasn't there, but I knew that I needed it, and so in trying to make something, it was making something that was definitely in that way kind of reactionary — not hostile but reactionary.

You said early on that you used the various names so that "people identify the songs with themselves, and not with the singer." Do you think that you have accomplished that?
I'm not sure. I feel like I have, just because I remain pretty ignorant of what people's relationship to the singer is. I don't really have any concept. To that extent, it has been accomplished. I know in fact that there is little to no relationship to the singer, although I can't say for sure if there's a sense on the audience's point of view if there is a relationship to the singer.
I mean, I have a relationship to Cary Grant and Cary Grant is not only unaware that I have this relationship to him, but he's also dead. But at the same, when I watch him in a movie, I think about his motivations, I think about how did he get from one role to the next role to the next role, and I have a thinking, active and even back and forth with Cary Grant, but it isn't with Cary Grant obviously. His work as identified as a force and as a human being.

It's gotten harder in this Twitter/Facebook age where the separation with the artist and the art has gotten narrower.
It has for many people. Of course, it hasn't for Cary Grant. When I first became aware of Facebook, which was some years so, I thought 'that sounds interesting' — tried it for a couple months and realized it wasn't going to work. There's a lot of things that in order to work in the way I like to work, I can't engage in, which is frustrating at times, but at the end of the day, I think it's better not to engage in some of these practices which will continue to evolve and fall by the wayside themselves. I don't feel like I'm stepping away from society, just certain aspects of modern media.

It's nice sometimes to walk into a show, for instance, not knowing what to expect.
That's very true, and sometimes there are things that I would like to do and things that I would like to say at a show that I don't anymore, because I want to do and say certain things and have it be about that experience in that room, and if it's not going to be about that experience in that room, I won't do it, and I think that's a shame.

You mean in terms of people taping you while you're playing?
Yeah, I can't think of any public event in the last two or three years that I don't see people taping — holding up their cellphones and recording moments. I can really literally be anything, and I know that that goes on and there's some things that you feel you don't want for the general public, it's just for the people who came together at that moment.

It's impossible to not ask you about Johnny Cash. What does it mean to you that that cover [of 'I See a Darkness'] exists? If it were me, I'd probably wake up and think about it every day.
[laughs] Yeah, it has come to mean so many things, and I've gotten to think about it in many different ways. There was a graphic novel biography of Johnny Cash named after that song, which is pretty [f----ing] cool, I think.
But then as well, more recently, and maybe not as exciting to you or your readers, but making the Everly Brothers record, we made it in Nashville with this man David Ferguson. David Ferguson was a close friend and engineer for Johnny Cash and I met him at Rick Rubin's house in LA when he worked on that song. I have just gotten closer to closer as years went on, so now he is a big part of my professional and personal life. Being in the studio with Ferg is a continuation of the power of that moment and that thing happening 12 years ago or so, and right now, today, that's one of the most important parts of that experience, was getting to know Ferg.
There are different times when I'm confronted with...last night I was lying in the bathtub listening to music on random play and this Johnny Cash song came on, 'While I've Got it On My Mind,' and it's basically about a man hanging around his house with his wife, and getting horny in the afternoon, and liking the opportunity to have sex with his wife — because they're married, they're in love, they're attracted to each other — whenever he feels like it.
His delivery and the slapback reverb on his voice and the arrangement of the song, is like all of his, it's a very classic Johnny Cash recording, and yet it pushes some of the limits of what we would consider to be the subject matter of a Johnny Cash song. While I was lying there in the bathtub, it was another moment to reflect on how great an artist he was, and remains, and, yes, how fortunate I was to have had an intersection in my professional life with his.

Like Johnny Cash, your songs reflect a lot on life, death, god. Do you see music as taking the place of religion for a lot of people, that people go to music for that kind of release or comfort?
For sure, and music is a crucial part of most actual formal religious practice as well. But yes, in that it allows us to let go of thought. When you put the needle down on a record or push play on your CD player or tape player or MP3 player, it's an act of faith because you're allowing others into you brain and into your heart and you're putting that faith... and most people, most of the time when you're pushing play, they know what they're doing and they know that they are releasing and surrendering themselves. They know what they're playing.
Sometimes, you're discovering and you might realize it was a bad decision to push play or put the needle down but most of the time we know we are giving ourselves over to something that has to do with culture and language, as well as rhythm and melody, so listening to music or watching performance, it's an act of faith and an act of release and, like most worship, it's an act of some kind of participation in something that exists outside of us and connects us to each other and to something else that I don't think in this lifetime we will know, what it connects us to. We just have to trust.

On another note, are there perhaps any artists from the late '60s/'70s folk/rock era that you identify with?
Hmmm. I don't know. Probably. What does that mean?

Sometimes I listen to you and get a David Crosby feel.
Sure .... I've definitely listened a lot to his solo record from 1970, 'If I Could Only Remember My Name.' The first time I heard it, it felt like — in relation to making quiet music vs. loud music that was going on — it felt like my soul knew that it existed and all of a sudden there it was. Once it started playing, it was like 'Ahhh, here is this record that I had been wanting and missing, and here it is and it feels so good to listen to again and again.'
At the same time, I don't think I identify with him, or have much in common with worldview or approach to music and that, and maybe that's an exciting part about listening to that record, that I'm always going to learn something because we're so different, and everything I read about him just underscores how I don't feel like I can identify with where he's coming from, but I cherish it nonetheless or all the more because of that.

I think there's a similar tonal quality to your voices.
I heard on the radio last week — and I know it was a song I heard a long time ago, but it felt as if I'd never heard it before — his recording with Graham Nash, 'Lee Shore,' and it just sounded sooo good...
Getting back to Cheyenne, we made a four song EP called 'Chijimi' a few years ago and it's one of my favorite experiences recording, one of my favorite recordings, and it's a good thing to listen to, better than me explaining why it works. It's just us three in the room with no engineer, just in a room making music.


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