The only reality that matters is the one that’s being built as you listen, second by second, to this song,” says singer-songwriter Will Oldham, describing the creative space he shares with his audience. Under the banners of Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace Brothers, and other permutations of the Palace moniker, Oldham has blurred the lines between folk, country, and underground experimentalism since the early nineties, earning a reputation as a true American original.
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This week, Oldham gives admirers a peek behind the curtain. In a Duke University residency featuring a unique concert and a pair of lectures touching on his techniques for writing, performing, and recording, he’ll have an unprecedented opportunity to lay every aspect of his artistry out on the table for inspection, leaving himself open to learning from the experience and sharing what he discovers with his audience.
Oldham’s earliest songwriting impetus came as a Louisville, Kentucky, kid attending summer camp in Southern Indiana—the only Kentuckian in the bunch of Midwesterners. He says that at the time, he was listening to the likes of Volcano Suns, Minutemen, and Big Black. But around the campfire, he found that his fellow campers were more interested in acts like Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, and especially fellow Hoosier John Cougar Mellencamp.
“All these campers bonded with songs like ‘Casey Jones’ and ‘Small Town,’ or Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer.’ They were specific songs that seemed to help this group of people identify themselves,” Oldham says. “When I see what a song does to other people, I think, ‘Oh that’s really what you want to do, is make a song that people have a shared experience with, it should be about something as collective as possible.'”
By the time Oldham started recording his own songs under the Palace Brothers name in 1992, traditional folk music had become a part of the artistic equation too. His sideline in acting, which has encompassed numerous film and theater roles over the years, led to an epiphany.
“My theatrical ambitions had been to figure out how to leave my life and enter the life of characters; that’s what I thought an actor did. And similarly then, I thought, ‘I’m not gonna be able to do that in acting; maybe I can do it with music,'” he says.
He realized he needed to find albums and artists where “there’s no makeup or construction that needs to happen before the song starts playing,” which he found in folk music and field recordings.
“I just thought, ‘I want to create music that exists and record it, rather than build it to be recorded,'” he says.
Oldham accordingly folded folk influences into his songwriting, often crafting melodies that sound like they could have been written in a bygone era if not for some eccentric lyrical touches. A key component of Oldham’s work is the way he balances anachronistic language with modern imagery and perspectives to create songs that somehow stand outside of time, from his first single, The Palace Brothers’ “Ohio River Boat Song,” a tune that could have fallen off of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, to 1999’s “I See a Darkness,” a foreboding tune timeless-sounding enough for Johnny Cash himself, who covered it on 2000’s American III: Solitary Man.
“I remember first hearing [bluesmen] Bukka White or Washington Phillips and just thinking it was the most effective and contemporary and pertinent music I had heard in a long time. These are recordings that were made in the twenties and thirties, I think,” Oldham says. His visceral connection to those vintage recordings gave him a touchstone for balancing old and new ideas without sounding anachronistic.
“I’m not trying to recall the past with anything,” says Oldham of his occasional antiquarian lyrical tendencies. “It’s more like, ‘Well, I want to build a house that takes some technology from a certain era because those houses are still standing. Not because those houses look cooler, necessarily, but because those houses are still standing. That’s the technology that I may trust more than technology that’s being utilized in the modern construction of a house.'”
The construction of Oldham’s records began in a resolutely DIY arena. He recorded his first full-length Palace Brothers record, 1993’s There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, on an eight-track cassette recorder in whatever spaces they could—that meant houses rather than stately recording studios.
“There’s a lot of wonderful records that mean the world to me that are recorded in recording studios, but I was sort of liking the idea that if you choose a [non-studio] space and record in it, by opening up the microphones and pushing record, you’re bringing in something from the space,” Oldham says. “You’re not listening to a sterile, universal space like a recording studio or a dentist’s office, you’re listening to a space that no record has ever been recorded in before.”
This idea dovetails neatly with Oldham’s desire to create songs that exist outside the recording studio. Over the years, both Oldham’s recording techniques and his initially unschooled singing underwent a significant amount of refinement. He recorded in Nashville with country session musicians for 2004’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, collaborated with post-rock heroes Tortoise on the 2006 covers album The Brave and the Bold, and made many more expansive excursions, from the Nico Muhly-orchestrated The Letting Go to the ambient trance-folk of Epic Jammers & Fortunate Little Ditties.
Oldham’s approach to songwriting is in a constant state of evolution too. Though he’s often written in character, self-reflection has crept in.
“In the past, I think I would have always said that I was not building songs based on my inner life,” he says. “As years have gone on … I start to realize there’s so much that I was fooling myself about in terms of what I was allowing into the songs that pulled directly from or paralleled my verifiable existence.”
And surprisingly for someone widely regarded as a sophisticated song poet, even the very function of lyrics is up for grabs in Oldham’s writing.
“Most of the big, great Rolling Stones songs that I love, I don’t really understand what they’re saying. And those songs are monsters,” he says. “Do I want to make music that’s like what you would call ‘Rolling Stones music,’ which ultimately is not lyric-based music, versus something like Richard Thompson, which is lyric-based music—you understand every word that’s sung and you understand how the words fit together from beginning to end?”
All the facets of Oldham’s perspective on record making, song building, and live performance will come under the artist’s own microscope at his Duke residency. On September 26, he’ll deliver his Making Songs lecture at Sound Pure studio, letting attendees in on his songwriting secrets. The next night, his Recording & Performing Songs discussion will occur at the same spot. And on the 28th, in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, a truly special concert will occur. Louisville jazzman Jacob Duncan crafted new arrangements for a batch of songs from all across Oldham’s career, for a lineup including sax, clarinet, tuba, trombone, violin, cello, and double bass.
“They require that I relearn songs that I’ve been playing for almost thirty years,” explains Oldham enthusiastically. “Not just, ‘Oh here’s a retrospective set.’ It’s not like that at all. This is new, fresh to me.”
The impending arrival of the book Songs of Love and Horror: Collected Lyrics of Will Oldham, due to be published by W.W. Norton in early October, coincides perfectly with the residency.
“It felt like a good time to do it with this lyric book coming out,” affirms Oldham. “I wanted to re-explore older songs, because that’s what the book is doing, to try to parallel that in some way, but kind of drastically.”
The frequently spotlight-shunning Oldham relishes the opportunity for a one-of-a-kind interaction with his audience.
“We’re inviting people into a small space that is ostensibly a professional music space,” he says, “Something will transpire there, and stories will be told and information and emotion ideally relayed that couldn’t be reproduced or experienced in any other way. And that’s very appealing.”