On August 27th Chicago-based label Drag City announced a new Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, by uploading a staged interview with Will Oldham, the cryptic force and songwriter behind the “Prince” Billy moniker, dubbed “The Most Awkward Radio Innerview Ever!?!” For 17 minutes and 47 seconds, Oldham berates, threatens, and belittles a clueless sounding radio deejay, all the while refusing to reveal anything about the album he’s ostensibly trying to promote.
It’s a brilliant piece of comedy, but one nervously rattling around in my head as I called Oldham, whose records occupy mythic status in my collection. Few songwriters cast the kind of shadow Oldham does, and many of his albums, I See A Darkness, Master and Everyone, Sings Greatest Palace Music, Viva Last Blues, and Superwolf, included, have defined me as a music listener. Luckily, I fared better than the hapless disc jockey of “Innerview,” and found Oldham warm, friendly, and eager to discuss his new album, which falls in line with his countrypolitan classics Master and Everyone and Lie Down in the Light. Featuring many songs that appeared on his 2011 album Wolfroy Goes To Town, the album gave Oldham a chance to try those songs with a crack Nashville session band, featuring longtime collaborator Emmett Kelly, Chris Scruggs (grandson of bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs), and the gospel singing McCrary Sisters, who’ve contributed vocals to albums by Bob Dylan, Charlie Louvin, and Solomon Burke.
Ever fascinating, Oldham discussed the “mind-blowing” pool of talent in Nashville, the nature of “God,” the internet, WTF with Marc Maron, and one of his favorite Samhain lyrics.
Aquarium Drunkard: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the players that appear on Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues. How did you meet Chris Scruggs?
Will Oldham: This record sort of carries on from Master and Everyone, Lie Down in the Light, and to some extent the Sings Greatest Palace Music record, in that they’re all these Mark Nevers [produced] records. He approached me about making another record, one he thought would be a third part of a trilogy for us. One of the great revelations of making the Master and Everyone record was working in Nashville, and beginning to have contact with and access to the Nashville session players’ scene.
We were talking about a couple songs for this album – specifically “Mindlessness,” where there’s this weird little moment, a time change situation, where there was a gap. It sounded very strange, because the timing changes — and we thought, “Let’s get a mandolin player to come in and fill that gap.” He said, “Chris Scruggs,” and I said, “Great.”
I had met Chris Scruggs when he was playing steel, about four years ago or so at a celebration of the musical work of Shel Silverstein in Chicago. There was a house band and featured singers would come up and do different Shel Silverstein songs. I was one of the singers and Chris Scruggs was one of the band members. So that’s how we met, though that had nothing to do with this record, other than I was excited to see him again and work with him again.
AD: Emmett Kelly appears on this record. You’ve maintained a partnership with him for quite a while now.
Will Oldham: The first thing we did was the record The Letting Go, about nine years ago. We’d run into each other a couple of times in Chicago, usually late at night at a bar or something, and I liked him. Then, he came to Louisville as part of Azita [Youssefi]’s band. He blew me away. It was just so tremendously exciting, his moments on stage with Azita. I started talking to him about playing on a record, and then I gave him the songs, and some records to listen to sort of potentially inform what we were going to undertake. And that began it.
AD: The gospel singing group, the McCrary Sisters, are all over this record.
Will Oldham: I don’t think I was fully aware of how subconsciously aware I was of one or more of the McCrary Sisters when they came into the recording studio, but then through conversation with them and conversation with friends afterward I realized I knew different people they had recorded with, either personally or by reputation.
AD: When I realized that Regina McCrary sang on Bob Dylan records…
Will Oldham: Specifically those born again records. Which, if I’m thinking right, might be the last musically exciting Bob Dylan records that were made.
AD: Those records have a strange reputation, kind of a complicated legacy, but I like Dylan’s religious records a lot.
Will Oldham: I do, too, yeah. And there’s a couple of great bootlegs from that period as well. I’m fortunate enough to not have instilled in me an aversion to Christianity, and to Christian terms and concepts. It’s sort of easy for me to translate any religious or Christian term or concept into a language I understand in a heartbeat. I think a lot of people have a fucked up relationship with religion because of how it was delivered to them early on, and that unfortunately sort of bars the gate and keeps them from a lot of really good musical experiences, those Bob Dylan records being a really great example.
AD: “We Are Unhappy” is my favorite song on the record, and the vocals are pure gospel.
Will Oldham: And that’s funny, because there was a great moment in there where Mark said in advance, “You might have some problems with this song with the McCrarys.” One of the other sisters is deeply religious and deeply spiritual, and when it came to the line “we are unblessed,” she said she couldn’t sing it. So you know, we talked about it for a while, I tried to explain the intention behind the song, tried to see if there was a way that she could find her way to singing that line. She couldn’t; we ended up doing sort of a hum or an “ooh” underneath that line. But it was funny because when it came time sing the song “Whipped,” which is all about vaginas and fucking, she had no problems whatsoever with that. [Laughs]
AD: I wondered if the lines about “demonized bodies” and “exorcized minds” might create some tension.
Will Oldham: Those didn’t. They didn’t have to sing those lines… and they have a kind of professionalism. She didn’t mind participating in a song with the line “we are unblessed,” but she just couldn’t let those words come out of her mouth.
AD: I’ve long been fascinated by your use of religious language. In Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, your book with Alan Licht, you talk about using religious language in a completely open manner. You aren’t confined to the terms you use; you say something along the lines of “God can mean a lot of things.”
Will Oldham: Yeah. I love to think, for better or for worse and right or wrong, my default is to think of “God” as literally being all things, and in so being God is also nothing. God is the absence of God, and God is God, so that God is the word for all things, and therefore there is nothing untrue that can be said about anybody’s concept of God. So you can just say, “Yeah, that’s true: God is merciless, God is merciful; God is good, God is bad; Of course God doesn’t exist, and of course God exists.” Do you ever listen to that WTF interview show?
AD: Yeah, all the time.
Will Oldham: I was listening to the beginning of the Jay Bakker interview, you know him? [Televangelists] Jim and Tammy Faye’s son.
AD: Yeah, I do.
Will Oldham: They were rapping a little bit about the role of faith and the role of religion, and for some reason this line came into my mind, as it does now and then, from this Samhain song that I learned as a child. It’s from the first Samhain record, Initium. There’s this song, and I think Danzig intended it to be about the Devil, Satan, or Lucifer, or whoever, but the song is called “He Who Cannot Be Named.” I think about one of the lines he uses — he describes “he who cannot be named” as an “intricate entity,” which is a nice little phrase.