The calm, quiet and disturbing sound of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
January 24, 2013 5:00 AM
Simona Dalla Valle
Cheyenne Mize, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Emmett Kelly will perform together Saturday night at Carnegie Lecture Hall.
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bonnie "Prince" Billy is known for being a reluctant interview subject, but once on the phone, it's a pleasure to talk with the thoughtful artist formerly known as Will Oldham.
He's not a household name, but having come around in the early '90s -- originally billed as Palace Brothers and Palace Music -- with an eerily quiet folk sound that went against the tide, he's had a huge impact on an indie-folk scene that still flourishes.
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
With: Title TK.
Where: Warhol Sound Series at Carnegie Lecture Hall, Oakland.
Since the masterful 1999 album "I See a Darkness," the 43-year-old Louisville, Ky., native has recorded as Bonnie "Prince" Billy for reasons that have always been a little difficult to grasp. It has been a prolific run under that moniker, with a dozen albums and numerous EPs, featuring collaborations with such artists as Tortoise, The Cairo Gang and Dawn McCarthy.
The albums, highlighted by his simple, honest and haunting vocals and songwriting, are almost universally praised while rarely making a blip on the charts. It's not his style to push the releases with interviews.
"I've never known what to say about records," he says. "I've never wanted to do those kinds of interviews, and also I don't feel that there's anything urgent -- a record comes out and most of the records I have obtained over the course of my life were not obtained within the first month or year or decade, even, or 50 years, sometimes within its release date. So I don't feel there is an urgency in it, and it's an uncomfortable situation to be asked questions about a record that you just finished recording.
"There just isn't much interesting to say about it, because all I know about it is the brass tacks. So if you want to talk about what time we showed up at the studio on the second day of recording, I know that, but I don't know what a song is about or why the record exists or anything like that. But you have to talk about shows because people find out about a show after it happens and go see it."
He's been to Pittsburgh a handful of times, having played Luciano's and Millvale Industrial Theater back in the '90s, then a pair of concerts at the Rex and one at The Warhol. On Saturday, he plays another show in the Warhol Sound Series, at Carnegie Lecture Hall, this time in a trio format with multi-instrumentalists Emmett Kelley and Cheyenne Mize, with whom he recorded the 2009 EP "Chijimi."
"She also is a music therapist," he says, "so I sometimes like to think and say that Emmett and I can function as her clients/patients on stage ... so it makes it into a nurturing experience."
This visit is part of a trio of one-off shows, including a stop Sunday in Charleston, W. Va., at Mountain Stage ("a radio show that I've been affected by"), so it's not in conjunction with any particular release, but Mr. Oldham, on Feb. 19, will issue a tribute to the Everly Brothers called "What the Brothers Sang" that he worked on with Ms. McCarthy.
"I've been listening to the Everly Brothers for almost my entire life and regularly go back and listen to things I've heard before and dig up things that I've never heard before," he says. "When Dawn McCarthy and I were first getting to know each other, about eight or nine years ago, we did some shows together, as separate acts, but in between the acts, because we wanted to sing together, we picked a couple Everly Brothers songs because they are a great default canon of songs if you want to put two voices together. And it was great -- really nice singing these songs."
About a year ago, Ms. McCarthy picked up an Everlys compilation and was so enthused, she suggested they take some songs into the studio.
"Because they remain a very active presence in my brain through all these years, I sort of leapt on that idea and started sending Dawn some of their recordings, which I'm sure she never heard because almost no one seems to have heard them, and that I knew she would be excited about. We had a group of about 16 or 17 songs that we went in and recorded."
Needless to say, you don't get the usual "All I Have to Do Is Dream" and "Wake Up Little Suzy," and there isn't much crossover with an Everly Brothers greatest hits compilation. Instead, they opt for lesser-known songs, from the somber "Empty Boxes" to "Milk Train" and "Somebody Help Me," which is Bonnie "Prince" Billy at his jauntiest.
Normally, his vocals are sung as though there were a sleeping baby in the room -- although they are often far from comforting, like his classic "I See a Darkness," which was covered by Johnny Cash. It was a fascinating approach in that Mr. Oldham, who started out as an actor (in the 1987 film "Matewan"), turned to music around '93 when alternative music was loud and abrasive. Although he's mentioned The Minutemen and Big Black as influences, he went in a very different direction.
"I think primarily it's just feeling the way that I sing and the way that thinking and reacting plays into singing, it functions better for me when there's the time to think and react, and to feel as well," he says. "A loud and fast song, it's not as rewarding for a brain like mine to escape into a loud and fast song as it is into a song that has a little less pace and a little more space. As well, thinking about incorporating the music, making it something that's sustainable as well, even in a year cycle, having it in your existence, there's a limit to how much loud and fast can be a part of any individual's life. Just on a daily basis, it just doesn't apply to most situations. I like the idea of the music being a part of or strongly related to a lot of just what we do and think, and how we interact with others."
He wasn't surprised when it was embraced by the same people who liked the loud and fast.
"It felt to me complementary and like it was filling a void that another music might create, so whereas something like Rapeman [Steve Albini's late '80s band] is so energetic and inspiring and challenging, there needs to be ... a yin balance to that yang, and at the time it wasn't there, but I knew that I needed it."
For the full Q&A with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, go to the Pop Noise blog at post-gazette.com.