Bonnie "Prince" Billy on Recording Others' Songs, Mourning David Berman and Long-Awaited 'I Made a Place'
Published Nov 18, 2019On the cover of his first album of Bonnie "Prince" Billy originals for Drag City since 2011, Will Oldham acknowledges a curious bit of confusion. Though the beautiful and heartfelt album, rife with familial memories and hope, is titled I Made a Place, the cover suggests it's called I Have Made a Place.
"It had different titles at different times, but then I created that graphic, and every time I said it, I thought the rhythm didn't feel right," Oldham tells Exclaim! over the phone from his home in Louisville, KY. "But I really loved the graphic, so I said, 'Let's just change the name of the record, but keep the graphic as it is.'"
If you've followed Oldham's work over the past three decades, you're aware of his penchant for trusting instinctual impulses and going with the flow, while simultaneously challenging everything that is happening, to think things through.
To track his prolific output over the past decade, you'll also note that, aside from a self-released, self-titled 2013 album, he has mostly devoted his time to collaborations (2016's Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties with Bitchin Bajas), recording albums full of songs by others (the Everly Brothers, Merle Haggard and Mekons have all garnered his focused attention for respective homages) or even those previously written and recorded by himself (2014's Singer's Grave – A Sea of Tongues presented an alt-universe version of his 2011 album Wolfroy Goes to Town).
"Part of the drive of making those records was essentially going back to school," Oldham says of the "tribute" albums, though he eschews the term. "Paying tribute implies that someone is going to pay attention to that fact, and that's not something I can presume.
"You see something and just want to get closer to it and maybe get inside of it. It's along the lines of that old Palace song ['The Mountain Low,' from Palace Music's Viva Last Blues], 'If I could fuck a mountain.' You see something that's so compelling and you think, 'How do I join myself with this thing? I'm sitting here recognizing its beauty or its qualities, but is that all I can do?'
"With music, one thing you can do is get deeper and deeper inside of it by learning it, performing it, arranging it and recording it. You're ripping it apart and putting it back together. I'm sure they helped me think I could make things in a similar way."
In an alluring aside, Oldham mentions that he and producer Mark Nevers have contemplated making a Ramones covers album for some time, and that the two did record a version of the band's "Outsider," from Subterranean Jungle, with Oldham's dear friend, the late David Berman, performing the Dee Dee Ramone vocal section. Berman died this past August, leaving a lot of lost fans and friends behind.
"Yeah, it's different all the time," Oldham says of mourning Berman's passing. "It's something that [Drag City co-founder] Dan Koretzky and I talk about at different times. There was a French journalist who came and spent the day here on Friday, and he was sitting on my couch. It's the couch David slept on a couple of weeks before he died. Or my daughter will point to his picture and I'll be like, 'Yup, that's David.' So, we're just taking little bites out of the grief, knowing we'll be nibbling on it for the rest of our lives."
In terms of his own creative path forward, Oldham says the exercise of dissecting and recreating the songs of masters did inform his approach to I Made a Place.
"It was possible to make those records, because I was working with material that couldn't be tainted or destroyed significantly by what I was doing to it. Maybe that was something that I needed to do, because the making of any other record of original songs prior to that was always so harrowing, because I could make or break or destroy the songs fairly easily. I know when I was making these other records, I couldn't destroy the songs, and maybe that helped me realize that I should build songs that I really felt were somewhat indestructible, at least as far as what I could do to them. Songs that were self-contained.
"Before, I think one of the strengths of the older records was that they weren't self-contained. They were open and vulnerable enough that their completion required the audience. They were always open and questioning, and this is not a questioning record at all. These are all statements."
Despite his confidence in this material, Oldham candidly shares that he has spent the past decade rather confused by the cultural landscape and his place in it. It seemed to freeze him up to a point where he might've just stopped.
"I worked on the songs without thinking they would be recorded, and then I recorded them without thinking they'd be released," he says of I Made a Place. "Each step was a self-contained step, and I wasn't concerned about the future. The reason I didn't think they'd go on to the next step was because I don't have confidence in thinking about records, recorded music, and live shows the way I have in the past."
Indeed, as Oldham has gotten older, he has seen people's relationship to music and its consumption change, and it has impacted him personally and professionally. It's one thing to make music knowing it will reach an audience, but in a more fractured time, when the distribution of music is both omnipresent and varied, and the bottom line for artists who need to feed themselves and their families is diminishing, it all gives someone like Oldham pause about the sanity of moving forward like nothing about his material conditions has changed.
"You can say, 'I'm in love with Jane Doe and I know that for a fact. And even though she broke up with me and is married to someone else, I know I'm going to buy her these flowers and I am walking down her street and I am knocking on her door…' but the scenario has shifted," he explains, as though music itself represents unrequited love.
"So, I thought I couldn't do it. And then I found, after giving myself some time and space to think about it, not only could I do it, I was compelled to do it. But still I do wonder, 'Why am I doing this?' And I can only say, it's what I know how to do and so, I will tend to do this, potentially, for the rest of my life."
I Made a Place is out now on Drag City Records.