Will Oldham: My Life in 15 Songs

Will Oldham: My Life in 15 Songs

With the release of a new book of lyrics and companion LP, the artist best known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy looks back on a quarter century of uncanny, engrossing music

With the release of new lyrics book ‘Songs of Love and Horror,’ Will Oldham looks back at 15 songs that span his career.

It’s a straightforward sentiment, but Will Oldham has a typically striking way of phrasing it.

“I can’t yield the labor to this intangible space,” he says.

“The labor” is a significant portion of his life’s work: the hundreds of sly, intimate, harsh, joyous, crude, archaic, funny and foreboding songs he has written since the late Eighties and released under a variety of aliases, from Palace Brothers in the early Nineties to, for roughly the past two decades, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “This intangible space” is, broadly speaking, the Internet, and more specifically the world of streaming and digital music. While he’s begun making his own albums available for streaming, rolling them out gradually as of last year, he’s wary of the practice both as an artist and a fan.

“I’m very reluctant to give over control of the culture that I want to experience to a monthly fee application, and also to a battery-powered device that I would rather use just to make telephone calls on, and I don’t want a telephone call to interrupt a song that I’m listening to, and I don’t understand somebody’s willingness …,” Oldham says, trailing off. “I guess I understand, because it’s just that they don’t have the value of the listening experience that I have. But I do have that value of the listening experience, and I don’t need call waiting when I’m listening to a Six Organs of Admittance record.”

Oldham is at home in Louisville, Kentucky, speaking at length — with breaks to attend to his ailing Yorkie, and to chat with his neighbor’s kids and the occasional visitor — about his life as a songwriter and the broader mindset that led him to want to assemble a new book called Songs of Love and Horror. The volume, out October 9th, compiles the lyrics to more than 200 of his songs, arranging them in unbroken alphabetical order, with brief annotations. The collection handily illustrates, among other things, the impressive breadth of his work, and its distinctive jumble of off-color imagery (“If I could fuck a mountain/Lord I would fuck a mountain,” goes the opening of 1995’s “The Mountain Low,” to which he’s added the note “Centerfold: West Virginia”) and what can sound like lines out of an old hymnal (“I take my lessons/From what’s poor/That’s what God/Has put me for,” from 2003’s “Lessons From What’s Poor”).

Oldham’s work often seems to stem from a folk tradition, but in more than five hours of friendly, animated conversation with Rolling Stone, the 48-year-old is just as quick to cite Madonna, the Mekons, Boston, Hüsker Dü and “the unfathomable genius of Glenn Danzig” as he is to name more obvious touchstones like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard (whose songs he covered on 2017’s Best Troubadour) or Leonard Cohen. (Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate LP title didn’t inspire the name Songs of Love and Horror, he says, but he was happy when he realized the resemblance.)

In his early life, Oldham trained as an actor; as a teenager, he played the role of a preacher in Matewan — John Sayles’ 1987 drama about a coal miners’ strike in 1920s West Virginia, which also featured James Earl Jones and Chris Cooper — and he still takes the occasional role. But it’s his way with words and his otherworldly voice, which can sound simultaneously youthful and ancient, that have gradually won him a fiercely devoted fan base, which includes everyone from Björk, who took him on tour in 2003, to Rick Rubin, who arranged for Cash himself to cover one of his songs.

“One of the main reasons for doing this kind of work is to try to forge a path that leads you to some of the clearings where you might find your heroes,” Oldham says. “You know, making their camp and eating their food, and [you’re] just, like, ah, OK, I did it; I figured it out.”

Currently, Oldham occupies a strange space in American music culture. He’s still affiliated with Drag City, the Chicago indie label that has been releasing his music since 1992 — and will put out a lovely solo-acoustic companion album to the book, also called Songs of Love and Horror, on October 19th, featuring new renditions of songs from throughout his discography — but visible and well-connected enough to contribute songs to the HBO series True Detective, write songs for a John Legend album and appear in a Kanye West video.

Oldham also straddles two eras. He’s a singer-songwriter who came of age in the last days of the old-school record industry — “I started into this line of work when it was plausible to make a life out of it,” he writes in the intro to Songs of Love and Horror — but who now finds himself, and his peers, grappling with a very different reality. 

“I’m not sure how or why people get into making music right now beyond just the love of it, which is fantastic,” he says. “The love of music is a fantastic motivator, but I guess there’s this huge blind spot that many people have about thinking this music that is exchanged for very little effort, for very little money — people imagine that that’s a fine thing, because it’s music, and the way we absorb music is effortless. But not understanding that people involved with making music are being intensely taken advantage of, and there’s a huge amount of money exchanging hands; it’s just no longer reachable by the people who are responsible for producing the music, on any level.”

He hopes that Songs of Love and Horror will serve as a monument of a time that might be disappearing.

“It’s just wanting to put another physical signpost out there saying that this music, and other musics, have an existence,” he says of the project, “and that our cultural life has an existence and isn’t confined to virtual space.”

Ahead of an October tour, Will Oldham spoke to Rolling Stone about how everything from a perplexing deep dive into the work of Jimmy Buffett to a stash of THC-infused blueberries informed 15 of his songs that span more than 25 years.