Will Oldham is an enigmatic singer/songwriter who commonly performs under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. For decades, his music and lyrics have explored the human experience with great intensity and respect. With an ear finely tuned to history, Oldham speaks candidly about the role music plays in the past, present and future of our culture in this new interview.
Joe Skinner: I’m Joe Skinner, I’m the producer of the American Masters podcast and we’re really excited to introduce veteran musician and actor Will Oldham.
Will Oldham: Thanks. It’s pretty neat to be here.
Joe Skinner: For a PBS audience that may not be familiar with your work too much, how did you arrive at the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy?
Will Oldham: OK so I got this name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I come from an acting background started making music, but the way that I looked at putting records together in my mind resembled something more akin to a film production and thinking of records as being these things that could be kind of a musical or audio equivalent of a motion picture. Never ever had in mind the desire to perform on stage or just wanted to make things. I wanted to make these musical things so I realized after a few years that audiences and record stores and distributors and the whole the whole machine including the audience as they sometimes can be considered part of the machine of making something like the idea of associating an individual person or character with specifically a singing voice and general musical output so people are satisfied to say that they like they Frank Sinatra not realizing that every Frank Sinatra record and song is a production of multiple human beings. But we call it Frank Sinatra. People like to do that. So I thought it needed to have a name so created this name Bonnie “Prince” Billy because it rolls off the tongue really easily and it has all these wonderful modern Western English language mythic potential associations. And it’s alliterative. So it’s kind of beautiful and it’s kind of silly and stupid which the whole enterprise of having a name is so it feels good. I don’t know I like it. Yeah that’s where it came from. And you know I thought about it as I thought about it as being related to Bonnie Prince Charlie specifically I thought about Bonnie Prince Charlie as a general, you know Scottish British figure of history slash mythology specifically like there’s this the Robert Louis Stevenson book Kidnapped in which Bonnie Prince Charlie is this shadow character. And I like the idea of this shadow character of Bonnie “Prince” Billy being ultimately intangible like a ghost or something like that but you can still be haunted by his voice if you’re lucky.
Joe Skinner: So has acting played a big role in the way you approach music?
Will Oldham: You know I started acting as a kid because it was what I wanted to do because I went to the theater with my folks a bunch and had kind of a voracious appetite for certain kinds of movies and I thought that acting was going to be something that it kind of turned out not to be. And I realized that I could take a little bit from here take a little bit from there and build something new a new kind of working life that you know could be better described as a musical working life as opposed to an acting working life. So yeah everything is kind of it’s all filtered through this idea of you keep yourself in shape to fully occupy whatever you’re asked to occupy. But at its basest level singing is far more thrilling than just speaking. So right away I think even just speaking you know playing a part and just speaking conversationally especially when something is underwritten for an actor can be pretty underwhelming. But singing there’s always someplace to go there’s always a pocket of rhythm or harmony that you can go out of desperation if the rest of the experience isn’t pulling you along hard enough or fast enough.
Joe Skinner: This season of the podcast we’re trying to focus on different writers from different mediums. Recently we spoke with the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks about some of her work and how she approaches writing. And so I guess we were wondering if you could kind of walk us through what it’s like to write a song something that I’ve always seen as kind of a more spiritual and less kind of rigid, I understand dialogue between characters a lot better than I understand how somebody might write a song like “Even If Love” or something you know something so powerfully emotional.
Will Oldham: Right. And I like the idea of the dialogue as well. And I always think you know at the very least broadly and vaguely about that a song is being written to be heard by usually you know an undefined set of ears or sets of ears. But I try to idealize as widely as possible what- who do I want to sing to and then write the song with those people in mind. You know people who are potentially at a tipping point and you know it can be a tiny little tipping point or it could be a monstrous tipping point but at a tipping point and try to invest in the written song itself and always in the performance something that can just give a gentle shove into you know take the mind that gets so often stuck and pushing it one direction or another and letting it roll again and letting it get momentum again. But you know the most rewarding – thinking about this – the characters you know in the past few years I’ve been asked to write songs and there I can have this dialogue because I can dig into the constructed persona of a given singer and try to write something where I as Will Oldham or Bonnie “Prince” Billy is speaking to the person who is represented by his or her singing entity. But also I’m also speaking to the singing entity when I write the song. So like I work a lot with my friend Matt Sweeney who plays a lot of music with a lot of people and we’ve written a bunch of songs together and over the past month we’ve worked on a song together for a group from Mali called Songhoy Blues and he said you wanna write a song I’m going to do a two song session with them. Of course. So this group Songhoy Blues is specifically like a current group of young folks young guys who are singing who are using music to sing about issues that they feel intensely about that are pretty political issues and they’re going out in the world presenting their well-constructed beautiful taut heavy vibey music to audiences that don’t understand anything that they’re singing. And I think they’re being maybe promoted as a great African band which, sure they’re a great African band, but if you ask them what they were it’s something more than that. It’s something different. You know it’s something more specific. They are a Malian band that’s really trying to make sense of what they’ve been witnessing what they’ve been experiencing and create and or transmit a message to people about what they’re seeing and how they’re trying to understand it and make change. And so Wow. I’m in a position then to write a song with Matt that is saying OK well I am this white American dude who’s writing English lyrics for them to sing also because they have they usually don’t sing in English and I can write something that tries to address all of that as a problem. You know the problem of them writing these songs. Yeah. They’re writing these songs and they’re playing for a good time party audience. And I’m sure that there’s a degree of I’ve heard it and I would imagine there’s a degree of frustration on their part that it’s like two steps back in some spaces where they may be performing. And to think well I want them to know that I’m trying to listen and trying to understand if I can give voice to some of what they’re experiencing that they might be emboldened by this musical connection. And as I was talking about earlier you know my life is one of staying in shape, staying in shape to sing and staying in shape to write because writing I think is kind of a performance in and of itself that I appreciate witnessing when it’s time to write a song. It’s like it’s time to do a hundred yard dash or something like that you know OK this is what I’ve been preparing every day for it’s time to at least begin to put the you know the bones of a song together. And so I have now you know also with all the things that I think about and the people that I speak with and the music that I think about and the music that I listen to hear mats put on the table. OK ready go. Do- see what you’re prepared to do. And yeah so we write the song and send it in. And they’re supposed to record it next week I guess.
Joe Skinner: Oh cool. Is it going to be coming out, like an album, soon?
Will Oldham: I think it will come out on their American label is Fat Possum and I think they’re going to do a single.
Joe Skinner: It seems like collaboration is a frequent, is more and more something you’re frequently engaged in. Could you talk about the collaboration process more broadly and how that inspires you?
Will Oldham: Well you know you have to make – most people have to make a living. And so that’s sort of reason one for doing the work that we do and that’s reason one for doing the work that I do. Then put that aside what’s reason two for somebody who you know I think it can be considered a typical kind of artistic biography for a certain kind of creator which is one where for whatever reason there’s a degree of isolation during childhood you know a certain amount of a certain amount of isolation a certain amount of just lack of crucial connection with you know close connection distant connection. And so the human mind is as inventive and entrepreneurial and can sometimes try to figure out a way to so you can have conversations with yourself. You can create imaginary worlds you can dig into the relationships that are created by writers and singers who came before you and filmmakers who came before you, and I think I always grew up with this sense and seeing- as a kid going to theater and seeing actors on stage. This sense that I loved so much that these people were making things for me. Me and other people but I mostly appreciated it for myself. Feeling like oh you know I want to be a part of this thing. You know I want I felt like it’s I feel like it’s a collaborative experience for audiences. For readers and filmgoers and music listeners that that’s a collaboration that’s happening already right there. And rather than say you know fame is good you know sometimes and money is good sometimes. But I feel like the real the ladder of success the next level is getting access to people with whom you can work and exchange ideas on all levels. But it’s always been about well how do I figure it so much so that there’s even coded messages you know thrown into the songs that are intended for certain listeners you know imagined and real that maybe we can someday be in the room together and work together because then it’s those that you know there’s certain collaborations where it feels like this is absolutely no more than any other thing I think in what I do for a living, a successful collaboration is when it’s happening and when it’s immediately finished I think oh this is completely why I do what I do. This is absolutely like I just achieved everything that I could possibly ever- you know there are certain times when I’ve sung with Don McCarthy or even you know writing this song with Matt for the Songhoy Blues you just feel like oh this is what it’s all been about is finding this moment where you’ve made a really valuable connection with somebody else whose efforts and visions you admire if not covet. And here it is, for a moment you’re on equal footing with these other people and you’ve made the communication that you so lacked and so desired and continue to every day. You know I think right most people are craving connection and most people accept connection when it’s one directional which is a shame because the best is when it’s going at least two directions. The exchange.
Joe Skinner: Another legend that you happened to work with Johnny Cash on “I See A Darkness.” Could we talk a little bit about that and what that experience was like for you?
Will Oldham: I Will. So yeah. So again talking about my friend Matt Sweeney friend colleague Matt Sweeney. He’s a New Yorker through and through and I think it was around 2001 he gave me a call and said that he had run into somebody who said that they had just been had just met Rick Rubin and Rick Rubin knew that Matt knew me and that they had just recorded a demo of the song “I See A Darkness” that I’d written a couple of years before and I’d made records through Drag City Records from the early 90’s and there was a moment of tumult and conflict and confusion that had us creating our own record label and it was literally our own record label it wasn’t like we were pretending to have a record label and putting it through some other record label we did everything ourselves and mail you know shipped everything out from our houses. And that was “I See A Darkness” was the first record on there. And the song itself was specifically inspired by a great friendship that I have had since the mid-90’s I guess with the filmmaker Harmony Korine. And we’ve been quite close for a number of years and that was before, a few years before he went out into the stratosphere in many ways and then fortunately came back to be an awesome friend and great filmmaker. But it’s awesome. I mean what I was giggling sort of is awesome thinking about Johnny Cash you know singing about Harmony. So you know so then Matt saw Rick Rubin and invited him to a show we were playing at the Bowery Ballroom here Rick came and said you want to come to play. You know you want to play piano because this is a piano heavy song. And he said you want to come play piano on the recording the Johnny Cash recording. And I said of course I do. Yeah absolutely. I will do that. He said OK here’s my phone number. And it took me a couple of days to get up the courage to because I’d rather be embarrassed long distance than in person to call him and say that I you know I don’t know how to play the piano. And it was my friend Colin Gagon who played piano and that and that I didn’t you know I’m not one to count my chickens before they’re hatched I thought there’s no realistic chance that this song would actually be completed and released for public consumption with Johnny Cash singing it which didn’t bother me. I didn’t you know whatever. You know nothing lost but I had to say that I really really really wanted to witness if possible because I don’t really care about meeting people as much as I care about watching them work and if there was any way I could come into the studio and watch Johnny Cash do anything. And I said I think in the message that I left I said John and June I’d like to see John and June. And he called and said OK well you know we’re going to be recording in two Sundays. You can come out then. So I flew myself out to California went to his house Rubin’s house which is where he had his recording studio at the time and immediately he says OK well let’s meet John introduces me. I said Hello, Mr. Cash. He says don’t call me Mr. Cash you can call me John, Johnny, JR. Okay. And Rick says this is Will Oldham and he’s the guy that wrote that song “I See A Darkness” and he’s like how about we work on that song right now. OK. So we went down. They stopped doing what they were doing and pulled up their recording of this of Cash singing and I think Randy Scruggs was you know who’s playing guitar, Randy Scruggs is playing guitar. OK. But Johnny Cash was not happy with the way he sang it. I couldn’t detect any flaws in his vocal delivery. But he was unhappy and they asked me to sing the song myself. Use Randy’s guitar sing it. And then Johnny would try to match it. Did that didn’t work but they liked the sound of our voices together so at the end they had me sing a harmony part which was cool but then what they decided was that – so you and I are right now are sitting, for those who can’t see us, about 18 inches apart from each other – and so they put me in the vocal booth with Johnny Cash. And you know Johnny Cash said will you just guide me through this song. So we sat like this you know 18 inches apart from each other and the music begins. And he’s just looking at me you know kind of like I’m a you know first grade teacher and he’s a 6 year old girl. Like what do I do now. You know like wide-eyed fully ego-less just looking at me and then I would like raise my hands and motioned to him you know and sort of conduct him when he would enter in each line. So he would sing the line and then he would know he would lose himself in the song and be Johnny Cash. But then he would immediately look to me like, “Now what do I do?” And I would you know get this incredible moment of being able to say, “Now you sing the next line.” It was really killer. And the recording engineer on that was a guy named David Ferguson who soon after Cash died Rubin brought Sweeney in a number of times to work on a lot of the posthumous recordings. And Sweeney became really close with David Ferguson and I and I loved Fergie and that’s become one of the great defining friendships of the last 20 years of my life and so that’s another great thing that came from the Cash recording experience.
Joe Skinner: Outside of collaboration when you’re working on a personal song I guess or when you’re writing your own song are you in conversation would you say with people from the past or people from the present during that process?
Will Oldham: Yeah. Well like you mentioned “Even If Love.” “Even If Love” is a song from “Master And Everyone”. And that’s just specifically that song is specifically like an expression of love and admiration for somebody’s work. But in part of you know a part of expressing that love and admiration is trying to make something that is what I’m paying tribute to. It wouldn’t be a worthwhile tribute if it wasn’t also a functioning thing in and of itself. So and that specifically you know I was thinking about certain times when the great singer and song-making human being that is Polly Harvey. You know I was thinking about her and thinking about the way that certain works of hers specifically the songs on the record “Is This Desire?” and the record she made with John Parish called “Dance Hall At Louse Point” – those records resonate pretty heavily for me. And so I wanted to take the opportunity to you know find something inside that could use coming out but then try to build it in a way that I imagine she might build it but as you know as a tribute to her yeah. Usually I try to think of every song and every record as a part of a continuum I don’t want to necessarily be involved with things that are mostly novel experiences just because I’m afraid of ignoring the past. On a personal level, on a political level, and definitely on a musical level. So I feel like it’s always good to be conscious of pulling some things from the past into what you were making then even if it you know sometimes it’s just directing the dialogue towards somebody who is no longer with us and then making something that ideally will roll into the future and with it bring parts of the past because we’re encouraged, it seems like we’re pretty violently encouraged to forget things that have gone by even things that have gone by very very recently. And most people you know weren’t trained to keep themselves strong enough to just passively ignore or have to sometimes fight this suppression of the past that we’re encouraged to constantly just take for granted that what happened is not as good as what is to come or what we have right now. So I try to put that in songs you know and say like well without repeating it you know trying to understand well what made it vital then and is any of that still vital now. Potentially yeah. This rhyme scheme is or this vocal harmony is or this use of slang is still you know it’s not done it’s not over yet. And let’s just keep working on that because it’s because it also it empowers the listener ideally because you’re not saying you know that your memory is not important when it comes to artistic experience.
Joe Skinner: I guess we were wondering if you could just kind of peel back the process a little bit deeper into when you are writing a song.
Will Oldham: I guess when I mentioned the idea of songwriting as performative I’ve always from the beginning of making records, for better or for worse, I include myself in the audience of the music that I’m involved with you know building and creating and it’s the same with, I like this idea of staying in shape to write a song because I like to be thrilled as the song you know as you realize oh I’m capable of writing a song. Isn’t that amazing like sort of as if it’s an out-of-body experience. And the song is being written because it is you know people talk a lot about the mysteries of writing a song and it is kind of in essence it’s mysterious, just as in essence almost anything that we say do or think as human beings is pretty mysterious. And there’s people talk about lyrics first or music first and there are piles of songs that begin one way and piles of songs that begin another way and piles of songs that may begin because a session is booked in six weeks and you think well OK what that’s what is that a session for two songs. Ok I need to make two songs that fit together that will be ready musically and otherwise to record in six weeks. And there were a couple songs a long time ago that I was way into understanding… Back in the 80’s and 90’s you look at the top grossing concerts of the year. Always near the top it was Grateful Dead and Jimmy Buffett. And for the life of me I couldn’t understand the Jimmy Buffett thing, and I thought well there’s got to be something great in there, there’s got to be something really you know potentially even musically awesome somewhere in the world of Jimmy Buffett and so it’s not an easy task to find the great things about Jimmy Buffett records. And I went to see him here once at Madison Square Garden. I thought this is going to be it. I’m going to I’m going to have an experience and I’m going to realize how awesome Jimmy Buffett is. And it didn’t happen. It was awful. It was a terrible show musically just practically unlistenable. But one of the most incredible experiences of communion with an audience that I’ve ever felt ever. And people were so so happy and so relieved and ecstatic and happy to be there and to be with each other. It felt, I loved you know it was it was one of the most interesting most exciting most memorable shows. Nothing to do with what was going on stage. So I thought well you know well try to figure out try to figure out. Is there any possible intersection? And so I thought well I’ll try to build my version of Jimmy Buffett songs and built these two songs one is called “West Palm Beach” one’s called “Gulf Shores” and they kind of rose simultaneously music and lyrics and they work because people like those songs and they like them for the reason that people like Jimmy Buffett songs. But I think most people who like “Gulf Shores” and “West Palm Beach” would be horrified to know what the origins of you know what the origins of those songs were. But that’s what the origins were. It seems like songs that begin as music are especially rewarding because they feel more you know what you might call spiritual they feel more like you really don’t know where they came from or why they why they work. Whereas if you work really hard on a lyric and then you just try to set the lyric, you know more what’s going on. It’s a little less mysterious. And there’s a you know there’s a joy and a release that comes with the you know as when you’re singing a song and you don’t understand why it makes you sad or why it makes you scared or why it makes you angry or why it makes you exultant. If you really don’t know then you get a free ride which is awesome. It’s really nice.
Joe Skinner: How do you think music today is different from you know a hundred years ago or even when you first started getting into the music industry?
Will Oldham: I don’t think music is necessarily, because music is its own thing. So we are different but music is the same. And if you talk about like if I were 19 right now and thinking about how am I going to make my way through the world it would not occur to me to embark upon a musical life as it as it exists today. The way that most people make their living in music is completely foreign to me and I can’t relate to it and I don’t appreciate it. So the way that people experience music, it’s not a substantial relationship I guess that happens and it’s not encouraged. You know you’re not encouraged to create a relationship with any given piece of music you’re encouraged to let it go, let everything go, and to own nothing. And people who make music are encouraged to own nothing as well. When I was a kid I was always I was deeply impressed and distressed by a couple of like a, there was a book you know the book “Harriet The Spy” and things get out of her hands and she loses control of her life. And as well there was a movie with Tim Conway, it was called “They Went That A-Way And That A-Way” and he and somebody else play deep cover police or some sort of law enforcement people who had to go deep cover in a prison. And the only person who knows what they’re doing is the warden of the prison. And then he has a heart attack and so then they have to convince people that they’re not actually prisoners. And I feel you know that’s their lives and their identity. But to a great extent the music that I am involved with creating as songs and recordings those are a big part of my life and identity to the extent that I would not give it over to the warden who might have a heart attack. I try to maintain some degree of say in the life, in the continuing life of that music even if it means, or especially if it means, that if it does become worthless that it’s not worthless due to a lack of care or negligence of someone who acquired authority through the stroke of a pen or the exchange of some you know monies that seemed somehow valuable at the time of the exchange, and then you realized later it isn’t worth it. There’s so much money in music still there’s so much money that I see all the time being paid out and spent. You don’t get paid for the same things that you would have gotten paid for 10 years ago or 20 years ago. But there is tons of money in what they call the music business. It’s just, I don’t see a lot of people who are receiving big amounts of money or have access to big amounts of money using that money in very interesting or challenging ways. It’s usually pretty kind of boring and safe and has a foul kind of odor about it but mostly because it’s people who grew up listening or being shaped by incredible musics. And then when being given the power to do something either with the money or with the exposure they choose to act like Sonny and Cher maybe would have acted as opposed to the way somebody with a little more substance or just compassion might act.
Joe Skinner: How do you think people can avoid that temptation?
Will Oldham: I don’t think anyone will avoid that temptation. I don’t think people care to. I think people appreciate it when other people do the work. And that’s, that’s, I think that’s a good part of the people that we spend time with. You know we appreciate when other people do the heavy lifting and I think that, as in probably any business, that in the music business there’s a lot of people that just, they want it easy they want things easy. I guess that’s kind of an American thing as well. A white American thing. We want it easy and we get it easy because we’re kings of the world right now.
Joe Skinner: Well what do you think is the best way that people should approach music or should approach the listening experience of music?
Will Oldham: I’d say if you have any reason to be listening to this and it resonates that there is more power to music than you see being utilized in your immediate surroundings or in your life than- I try to throw into the production methods the distribution methods, the way that we perform, the way that we decide where to play, the way the songs are built. I try to throw things in that are some kinds of clues that there are paths worth seeking out if, you know to make a good life for yourself it needs to include this kind of creative exchange. That it’s that it’s out there. You know most people don’t need it. Well you know, we travel a lot so we stay in people’s houses and you see more and more you’re in someone’s house and where 15 years ago you could spend a couple of hours looking through somebody’s music collection and listening to their music collection and really discover something about the person that you’re staying with or about a whole style of music that you didn’t know anything about, but that doesn’t exist anymore. You walk into somebody’s house and there is no music, it’s all owned operated managed by the late great Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos and the Scandinavians who do the Sportify thing. It’s all owned and operated by them. We’ve given them all of our music. And I don’t know. That’s a little frustrating. It’s nice for music to be able to take you by surprise and catch you off guard. And that’s something that can still happen all the time and does still happen all the time but I think most people have given that up, they’ve traded it in unwittingly. And it can be a bummer to think about it but really there are so many people and there’s so much music being created every day and being presented and re-presented and performed that any way, almost any way that it was great ever, it is great now and will continue to be great. Most record stores are gone. That’s not an experience that people will have, but record stores weren’t here 150 years ago. You know we’ve opened ourselves up through our devices to you know being told so much about the world that we forget that we, you think that somebody has your best interests at heart when they’re telling you about all this music or all this film through your devices and they do not have your best interests at heart. There is nobody who is presenting you with the opportunity to stream or download something that cares about you in any way shape or form you know. And if you know, if you realized like well for me, receiving things or receiving ideas and keeping things in motion through you know the creative impulses that I experience when I witness some sort of music performance or listen to some sort of musical recording or go to see movies or experience something that the last place you should look for the origin of that experience is you know on a device that you’re paying a monthly fee for. Your experience will be watered down and less valuable than if you choose almost any other way of doing it. If you invest some part of yourself some bit of energy some bit of time some bit of money or some combination of all three of those things it actually will be a worthwhile experience as opposed to just, just like eating fast food versus preparing food. As much as they dress up Applebee’s or a Panera or Chipotle. You’re just making a really interesting pile of dung, that’s going to you know that’s going to come out of your body the next day and not made that big of a difference to how your body looks feels or works. Whereas some other culinary experience is going to potentially you know re-wire a couple synapses in your brain and I don’t know, just make you feel different and if you feel different than you think different. It doesn’t mean your life is going to be radically changed day by day when you have a great musical experience. But it is subtly changed and it does help you put in order the things that can feel confining sometimes. You know a great musical experience or a great cinematic experience can just shed a slightly different you know slightly different perspective slightly different coloring slightly different light so that you can know what to do with the only life that you have. And I think that succumbing to this idea that we have at our fingertips, you don’t have at your fingertips all of recorded music, you don’t have your fingertips all of cinema, you have this weird product interface at your fingertips that’s all you have really. And everything else is going to be up to you or the people around you, you know. Ask somebody. Never never never listen to what a machine tells you you should listen to or watch. Always ask somebody. Ask a friend you know or random people. That’s the cool thing about staying in someone’s house and you look on the shelves and you see oh this music means something to that person. I don’t even know what it is. I better listen to this because I need to understand this thing or fortunately some people still have books on their shelves. You can look at those.
Joe Skinner: Recently this year you put out a Merle Haggard homage album, “Best Troubadour.” I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that.
Will Oldham: OK. Well Merle Haggard and it’s you know he’s on my mind much today being here because there was such a fantastic American Masters about Merle Haggard. And he’s somebody that at any point you know in your 20’s 30’s 40’s, if you actually like what you’re doing and you’re doing things that are musical, or if you’re doing other things actually you look at Merle Haggard as somebody who never stepped away from the work of singing and making songs and making records. He kept making great records, he kept improving and adapting and evolving his singing power, and his songwriting power. I often times will feel betrayed by people who gain your attention and/or your loyalty and/or your respect and admiration and then once they have that foundation from you and numerous other people they shift gears and say well this is what I really want to do. Well why did you do that? The more influence that he got the more power that he got the more capability that he accumulated through experience and through self-exploration. The more he reapplied it to what he did and the reason that he was where he was, was the reason that he was going to continue and that included in it exploration and questioning. I mean I can think of Leonard Cohen being similar in that way we could say Prince probably you know in terms of people who’ve achieved a lot of success and still work really hard and have a relationship with their work and their audience and themselves. There just aren’t a lot. And his and his music and his lyrics are so full of humanity and ambition and regret and sexuality and family dynamic intention and an obvious reverence for those who came before him. Maybe if I were going to fault Merle Haggard for anything it would be that at a certain point say you know probably sometime around the mid-70’s it seems like he was the present and the future and all other music was the present and the past. But there was no music I don’t think that he seemed to connect with, you know he didn’t have a lot of relationship with younger songwriters or you know younger singers. You know he did a duet with Toby Keith and he did have a great, a few years sort of songwriter-singer relationship with Iris DeMent. But for the most part it was Merle’s world at the same time he explored that pretty rigorously and that’s what we could probably best hope for each of ourselves. You know at a certain point we just if we continue to explore the world that we have greatest access to and control over which is you know a small world if we treat that with a degree of curiosity and respect then you know it’s bound to rub off on other people. So we made it. So I love Merle. It makes me so happy to listen to his songs sometimes can be so- here’s a song “Let’s chase each other around the room tonight,” It came on the radio a couple of days ago and I thought why didn’t we do this song because verse and chorus is same structure same melody. So it’s like he’s writing kind of haiku or really short form poetry because a lot of songs don’t even have bridges they’re just, here’s a musical idea that doesn’t need anything else. And I’m just going to make this into a song and give it to people or sell it to people and people love it because it’s so full of respect for his side of the line their side of the line. There’s tons of generosity and respect for respect for the audience and what the audience has the capability to appreciate. So we wanted most of all to make a record that told Merle as I was talking about early on in our conversation you know a coded but pretty overt message to Merle saying that since you know his last charting song I believe was in 1994. Since then he made six or seven brilliant records. And if you go see him if you went to see him live he wouldn’t play new songs he would play his probably the same set that he played more or less since the late 70’s or so. But his new records were really exploratory and inventive and awesome. And so I kind of wanted to make a record saying this is the Merle that I love. And you know it’s hey Merle Haggard you know, I’m you know cheering you because you’re making things that are so awesome and exciting. It’s just full of love, is what it is, it’s just a record that’s about love and respect.
Joe Skinner: How do you see yourself as a songwriter? How would you, if you had to, identify yourself as a songwriter?
Will Oldham: I think I’m too in the stew of it to even know that because it’s so different on different days. And if you know I might write a song that I know that hundreds of people will ever hear. And I’ll put plenty of work into it. And then I wrote songs for John Legend last year. You know that’s more than hundreds of people will hear it. There’ll be lots of people, you know I guess millions of people will he will hear those songs or have heard those songs now. And songwriting is you know as an art and as a business is so mysterious especially to those of us who practice it that it’s you know you step into the world of songwriting and it’s, there’s so much fog there that you just shout, you know I’m here and wait and see if you hear another voice that says OK we’re here. We’re up here. As long as you know I just think it’s songs as long as I can make. But yeah. I don’t understand it yeah I don’t. It’s so mysterious. Other people’s songs are so mysterious they don’t know where they come from I don’t know how they sometimes you know how they build them and sometimes it’s impressive and sometimes it’s depressive and sometimes you just don’t know how they build those. How they built those songs or where or why. I have no idea. I have no idea where. I don’t have any vision of, because it’s also changing, you know more people get born every day and they change what it is to be a songwriter. You know every new thousand people every new ten people every new million people inherently change the definition of what a songwriter signifies. And so it was a different thing when I walked into this room and it will be when I leave this room.
Joe Skinner: Well thank you so much for coming in.
Will Oldham: Thanks for having me here.
Joe Skinenr: Really appreciate it.
Will Oldham: Yeah. Thanks Joe.