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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Solitary Life of Bonnie “Prince” Billy

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In one incarnation or another, for the past 15 years, singer-songwriter Will Oldham has made records on his own terms. After a peripatetic period he returned to his native Louisville, Ky., making a conscious decision to live far from the major metropolitan centers so he could manage, by his own estimation, to make a decent living.

Oldham's label, Chicago's Drag City, supports his decision to remain geographically and philosophically in the outlying areas, away from the business of music and closer to the art. Still, Oldham is ambivalent about his distance from the mainstream.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'll be too old-fashioned to be able to function; to basically become obsolete just in sheer bullheadedness, because I can't get behind the idea of putting your favorite music on as your ringtone, for example," he says.

"Some days," he continues, "I think, that's fine, because there are enough people who feel the way that I do. And some days, I feel I might be taking a position that will find me farther and farther away from being able to make music at all. If Drag City didn't exist, I'm not sure that I would be able to make records."

Oldham wrote much of the material for Beware, his forthcoming album, and his 12th under the Bonnie "Prince" Billy handle, during a three-month stint as an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, a tide-lapped cloister in Marin, Calif., where the trees tower and the air is steeped in eucalyptus and brine. While he admits that a sense of place and geography make an impact on the way a record will sound, the isolation of his residency factored more prominently in the songwriting.

Though his records are never fettered by overarching thematic conceits, the album takes its title, and its cue, from the opening track. "Beware Your Only Friend" is the singer's gift of warning, wrapped in bright, boisterous strings. Loneliness and longing, sometimes self-inflicted and often humorous, are laced throughout the record.

While the lyrics reflect the isolation of Oldham's surroundings during the songwriting process, Beware's sonic spaces are more densely populated than the sparse arrangements of Oldham's earlier work, such as 1999's I See a Darkness, or 2003's Master and Everyone. Building on last year's Lie Down in the Light, Beware marks another outlaw-countrified chapter of Bonnie "Prince" Billy's existence, stratified with brass, pedal steel and banjo, and a prominent vocal chorus.

This month, Oldham embarks on a cross-continental tour that will coincide with the release of Beware, but he is quick to dispel the notion that he tours in support of his records. "It might have something to do with record companies' schedules, but as far as I'm concerned, we finished [Beware] six or eight months ago, so we're onto other ideas," he says. "If anything, we toured in support of Beware prior to the recording of Beware, prior to any of the musicians hearing any of the songs."

Oldham is hesitant to guess at how his next record will come together. "I don't see a record like [Beware] happening again in the near future, or possibly ever," he says. "It was a good experience, but I think-and I worry about it sometimes-I'm probably on a trajectory to more solitary activities as I get older."

As for his future, Oldham says, "I'm not the kind of person that could be a touring musician well into my 50s and 60s, I don't think. Maybe I'll surprise myself."

And while Oldham's livelihood is, to an extent, dependent on the solvency of the record industry, he could be persuaded to explore the alternatives. "I don't know if anxieties and neuroses or a strange relationship between laziness and work ethic necessarily comes with being very rich, but sometimes I just think I could find a wealthy patroness. I think I could satisfy myself on a daily basis. I wouldn't lose my sense of self-worth living off of her money. But she would have to be a tolerable sort."

If it comes to that, here's hoping she's well read.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, March 18.