Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy

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Indeed, Oldham has developed a reputation – not entirely undeserved – for sounding a little down. His first record as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (and sixth overall) was the appropriately titled I See A Darkness (1999), a searingly bleak meditation on love, death and existential dread. Though it is the album that sporadically (and rightly) finds its way onto Top 100 lists, with subsequent releases such as The Letting Go (2006) or the sublime Lie Down In The Light (2008), Oldham has developed a distinctive musical idiom that seems to blend a modern view with an almost nineteenth-century sensibility – an occasional actor (he was given a leading part in John Sayles’ Matewan (1987) as well as landing bit roles in everything from Junebug (2005), R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet (2007) and Jackass 3D (2010), even appearing in the video for Kanye West’s ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’), one can’t help but feel that a cameo in Deadwood would have been appropriate…

Speaking from his home in Louisville, Kentucky amidst preparations for his upcoming round of touring – “tidying up loose ends and cutting them off so that they don’t get infected,” as he puts it – Oldham is both courteous and eloquent, very much the Dr Jekyll to the Mr Hyde of his persona, though as he elaborates the distinction is at times far from clear.

“When I was a kid I always found myself quite compelled by the Beauty And The Beast story,” he says. “I feel like when I’m not fully participatory in my music – that is, when I’m not writing or recording or performing on a regular basis – my spirit gets divided very sharply into the decent and tolerable and tolerant human, and the indecent and intolerable and intolerant and unpredictable and potentionally despicable beastly nature. They vie for time. When I can be in the music, I feel those two opposing forces become one; they become one in the shape of this Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and it’s a great relief. It’s like when you hold two magnets with the same charge against each other and try to push them together and they just won’t go… then you flip one and it’s the opposing charge and they click right together. That’s how it seems to me.”

The search for the perfect counterpart is one that seems to have preoccupied Oldham through his career. Though he has frequently collaborated with a range of different artists (including Tortoise, longtime friend Matt Sweeney as well as The Cairo Gang), of note is his propensity to invite female singers to contribute to his own records, artists such as Scout Niblett (Kiss EP), Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy (The Letting Go) or Angel Olsen on last year’s Wolfroy Goes To Town providing a counterpoint to Oldham’s own gruffly tremulous quaver. As he sings on the opener No Match of this most recent record, ‘You will be a match for me/I will be a match for you.’

“Music is about collaboration and community,” he explains, “and the greatest manifestation of collaboration and community for a singer is to sing with another person, [whether it be] in a song written as a duet, or harmonically where the voices are bang up against each other. So it’s [about] looking for someone with whom I feel my voice can have an exciting interplay, either on an ideas level or sonically or both. Musically it’s like: that’s what’s missing from my voice. When I sing, it’s incomplete,” he continues, “but when these two voices are there, oh, it’s the complete being that I would like to be musically. If there were a body that was the sound of these two voices singing together, that would be my ideal body.”

Perhaps it’s this sense of yearning that creeps into Oldham’s music that has continued to transfix listeners, his voice seeming to carry a frailty made the more consoling by the crackles that colour his precise enunciation. Now 42, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that Oldham will continue raise a joining of voices against the darkness for another twenty years – though his reasons for continuing to tour are more refreshingly straightforward: “Money.”

“We don’t have a very strong government arts support over here,” he chuckles. “We are the people, so we provide our own arts support by soliciting funds from a paying audience, and that’s potentionally as it should be. There are so many great things about playing shows and travelling but emotional stability is not one of them. Ten years ago, six years ago I thought, ‘some day I’ll stop travelling.’ The way that record sales go, that seems unlikely. It’s frustrating because I don’t know how long my body will hold out, but it’s great playing,” he says. “There’s something really phenomenal about all this shit on the computer, on YouTube and everything – if anything, it seems to strengthen the energy and the needs of the live audience. I don’t know how that equation works, but that’s what I’ve observed. My life is remarkably full of good things.”

BY OLIVER DOWNES