POP Montréal | Talking Secrets with Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Interview by Varun Swarup
Genres and styles : Alt Folk

Additional Information

There are not many artists one would prefer to see play alone rather than with a band, but Bonnie “Prince” Billy, or Will Oldham as he is known to some, is surely one of them. Since the 90’s, Mr. Oldham has amassed many a loyal subject with his poetic soul and his troubadour heart. His latest album, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You,  is out via Drag City.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy plays at 8 p.m. at the Théâtre Rialto on October 1, 2023.

PAN M 360: Hey Will, thanks a lot for taking the time. Since you’re playing POP Montreal, I thought I’d ask what your relationship with the city is like. Do you have any particular feelings towards it, strong or otherwise?

Will Oldham: Well I haven’t been to Montreal in a really, really long time. One thing that’s kept me significantly from performing in Canada, as much as I would like, is very simply that the border crossings can be daunting. You know, I respect anybody throwing up barriers to the free passage of Americans, but it just does make it a little challenging.

I feel like my last memory of playing Montreal might have even been maybe with Mick Turner when we were opening for Godspeed You Black Emperor! And that must have been 20 years ago now, when we were playing songs off our Get on Jolly EP.

I think there was another Montreal-based band with us, I can’t remember the name. PAN something?

PAN M 360: You might be thinking of Fly Pan Am, they’ve been around since the 90’s. So it’s been a while, and it’s very exciting to have you here. 

Will Oldham: Thank you and I’m very excited to play. I’ve just actually come off the road with an artist from Quebec, Myriam Gendron. We just toured Texas together. It was beyond delightful, and so it’s nice to come to a place that I haven’t been to in a while, you know, somewhat in good musical shape as well.

PAN M 360: I suppose you must be pretty warmed up touring the album all around. 

Will Oldham: Yeah, just been playing this fall specifically, but even before making the record, I was kind of touring the songs. That’s something I’d never really done before, and so I’ve been playing these songs for about a year and a half or something like that. 

PAN M 360: Does that lead to a different approach in the studio once you’ve played your material on tour a bunch?

Will Oldham: Absolutely it does. Yeah, because oftentimes I’ll think that it’s my part of my job to bring a new song to the studio and explore it significantly there. But this time I took advantage of the fact that I really knew these songs. And so it was more like, well, what’s the best way to present these songs that I know? And that gave me a different kind of power, I’ll have to say, and one that I appreciate. And should the world continue to, even on the most fringe levels, accept full length records as valid currency for people’s music listening, that’s something that I’ll probably attempt to do again.

PAN M 360: Well you’ve touched on something I wanted to speak about. As someone who’s been making music for more than two decades now, are you having a hard time navigating the changing tides? Music and art generally seems to be more and more dispensable. 

Will Oldham: I do find it frightening and disturbing the way we seem to be consuming music these days.  Frightening because I know that what I do for a living is make records and that seems to be becoming somewhat of an arcane occupation. I hope to have decades left on this planet, but I’m not exactly sure what to do with those decades since I understand that it’s not a line of work anymore. You know, it’s like a cobbler or something, and one day there will be people who say you know anybody making records around here? Yeah, I know an old guy who lives up on that hill in that blue house.

Nowadays we are willfully saying, I want this thing that sustains me, that I can be my most vulnerable self with, actively mediated and monitored by corporate interests and not only that, but you’re listening on a device that interrupts you with a text, with a phone call, with a software update, with whatever. And so it does, to me, point to a different relationship to experiencing music. And I can understand that artists now, whether they’re just starting or if they’ve been around for a long time, might be having some difficulty in, you know, feeling like their recorded work is as valuable as possible.

PAN M 360: Going back to your touring, how have you found the reception for Keeping Secrets?

Will Oldham: You know I worked and worked on these songs and I didn’t know anything about them, because you don’t know anything about the songs until you begin to perform them for people, or until people start to be able to hear them. And so with this, when I started performing these songs prior to recording them and getting strong responses from the audience during the shows and after, either directly after or in the weeks and months after through messages or letters or what have you. I realised where some of the strengths of some of the songs were and that the time and attention that went into building the songs was time and attention well spent in these circumstances.

PAN M 360: So how do you curate a setlist? Are you trying to strike a balance between older, more well-known material, while trying to get some newer songs in there?

Will Oldham:  I mean, I usually write the set an hour or so before the show. I understand that there is undeniable value to, you know, playing to if not playing with expectations, right?

One of the first times I did these new songs was in San Francisco where I did a night where it was 90% new songs. And the audience was very happy and that was huge, a huge experience because nobody had heard the songs, they hadn’t been recorded yet and it was the show, that was the show. So, it made me feel, and I still feel like I have a responsibility towards understanding that there are well-founded expectations of any performer, unless you’re explicit about what it is that’s going to be presented. So that’s really important.

But generally it’s based on well, you know, what’s what’s going to be good tonight? Like that one won’t be good tonight, so I’ll just won’t do it. You know, this might be good. And even though I don’t really want to do it and the audience might not want to hear it, I have a feeling it might work, so I’m going to put it on the setlist anyway.

PAN M 360: You have so much to choose from.

Will Oldham: Yeah a lot. There’s some songs that I would need to practice. Sometimes I’ll take a request from the audience and I’ll just have no idea. I’ve never heard of that song. I’ll have to look it up on the internet after the show and learn it. 

PAN M 360: Have you mostly been performing the material solo?

Will Oldham:  Yeah, and part of that decision even had to do with just thinking, well, if I go out solo, then I’m limiting my potential virus exposure to the world and I won’t have to care for, you know, if somebody in the band decides to go out to a bar after the show and then destroys the entire tour because they decided to do that. I do have to leave out some songs but it does come to some kinds of greater flexibility, especially when it comes to set construction. 

I’ve just started to rehearse with another musician here in town for the next set of shows in a couple of weeks. And that’s feeling really good. But, you know, I used to be intimidated by solo performing, because I relied so heavily on the energies and ideas with musicians as it happens on stage, and then I learned to treat the audience as a large group of individuals or a small group of individuals as active collaborators in the space.

PAN M 360: I’m having a hard time imagining ‘Bananas’ without the harmony part, you know? 

Will Oldham:  Ha, I know that’s actually like the only song on the record that I’ve never performed in front of an audience because I rely on that and so we’re gonna we’re gonna do it in a couple of weeks in the southwestern United States because this guy I’m playing with he’s like I’ll sing it I’ll sing it I’ll sing the bananas. 

But the greatest handicap of performing with other people is that, you know, It’s just logistically can be unwieldy at times. But I also think back to when my listening was taking shape or even now, listening to lots of Nina Simone, not to make any comparisons at all, but listening to, there’s one record of hers called Nina Simone and Piano. And it’s bare and it’s perverse and strange and it’s kind of my favourite full-length record that I’ve heard. So it’s cool to think that other people might have the same appreciation for me, especially because it doesn’t seem to fit in with how, you know, what people, when you see lists or hear people in shareable forms of media. When you hear about music out there, none of it seems to resemble anything in which there’s any vulnerability, in which there’s any intimacy, in which there’s any unpredictability. Those things don’t seem to fit into the taste that we’re told are the driving forces behind our culture. but so it’s really rewarding to see from people when people are happy to be in a room with a performer who’s putting something on the line I guess.

PAN M 360: Well there’s definitely a lot of that going on at POP Montreal, and we’re very thrilled to see you, thanks again Will.

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