The Indie Everyman
Will Oldham is a man with many talents and several names.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
When he speaks, the indie rock legend Will Oldham seems to choose his words gingerly, like a hiker finding a way across a stream littered with rocks.
“I think the goal is always the opposite of confusion,” he says in a telephone interview from Chicago. “From doing it for a while, there’s little paths toward directness that get discovered through lots of ground treading.”
Oldham is talking about the lyrical directness that can be found in some of the songs on the beautiful orchestral folk album, The Letting Go, released last month under the name of his alter-ego, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. His fourth impressive release in less than two years, The Letting Go follows a rough-hewn folk-rock album, Superwolf, with guitarist Matt Sweeney; the live album Summer in the Southeast; and a collaboration with the experimental indie rock band Tortoise, The Brave and the Bold, which includes covers of songs by artists from Bruce Springsteen to The Minutemen.
While Oldham has been quite prolific ever since he began his musical career as the rambling country-tinged rock entity Palace, these days he has expanded his work even further. After years of maintaining a relatively low public profile, he is suddenly all over the place, including television and film.
In 2005, Oldham, who made a name for himself as an actor in the 1987 John Sayles’ film Matewan, returned to film in a small role as an art scout in Junebug. Now, he appears in a starring role in Kelly Reichardt’s haunting portrait of lost friendship Old Joy, which opens at the Osio Cinemas Nov. 10th.
In addition, Oldham recently made his television debut, performing his song “Strange Form of Life” on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” where he was joined by Sweeney and the notorious hard-rocker Andrew W.K.
The Letting Go shows Oldham once again striking off in a new musical direction. The opener, “Love Comes to Me,” features a string section, along with backing vocals by Dawn McCarthy, who comes on like an operatic Emmylou Harris. Meanwhile, one of the release’s best numbers, “Cursed Sleep,” has a comfortable, almost classic-rock feel that is augmented by the strings. Elsewhere, “Cold & Wet” sounds like Oldham’s take on country blues.
Though The Letting Go has plenty of Oldham’s oddly intriguing lyrics, it also includes a few seemingly straightforward love songs.
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Oldham had taken six years off from acting before appearing in Junebug. He has a simple reason for returning to the big screen. “I think maybe because someone asked,” he says. “Maybe people didn’t ask for a long time.”
According to Oldham, Kelly Reichardt contacted him to discuss Jonathon Raymond’s short story about a couple of friends looking for some hot springs in the Cascade Mountains. “I think she called me because she was looking for some location advice,” Oldham says. “Because she had heard that I had been traveling and had sought out various swimming holes and hot springs.”
That initial contact eventually resulted in Oldham being offered the lead role in Reichardt’s movie. He says he liked the fact that the film largely consists of interaction between his character and that of his co-star, Daniel London.
“It seems like it’s the kind of acting that doesn’t come along often in terms of the intense character focus,” Oldham says. “Almost any two characters would appeal in that way, just because you can trust that you have the opportunity to experiment with the character, to figure out the character.”
In addition to starring in another upcoming independent film, The Guatemalan Handshake, Oldham says he is hoping to get in the studio with his brothers Ned and Paul to record a collection of traditional songs. The idea was hatched after the Oldhams played a batch of New York City shows opening for Southern songwriter Hazel Dickens. The well-received opening sets included the siblings’ take on numbers like “We Shall All Be Reunited.”
This weekend, Oldham will return to Big Sur, where he played in January of 2005, for a couple of performances. He says that at Friday’s Fernwood show and Saturdway’s Henry Miller appearance he will probably play material from his Palace days all the way up to his most recent work as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “I’m sure we will play relatively different sets the two nights,” he says.
WILL OLDHAM’s (Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s) Fernwood show on Friday, Oct. 27, is sold out. He also plays the Henry Miller Library, located a half mile south of Nepenthe in Big Sur, Saturday at 6pm. $25. 667-2574.