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Will Oldham - interview


Will Oldham


There are times when it feels like the mind disturbs itself in order to identify first a problem and then its solution.  Age brings a lessening of fear of the chaos revealed by our brains/bodies


Will Oldham (b. 1970) is an American songwriter. His early work was distinctive for Oldham’s unusual vocal style and its ‘lo-fi’ aesthetic and was released as ‘Palace Music’ or slight variations, to reflect the interchangeable line-up of his band. From the early 2000s, most of his work has been released under the moniker ‘Bonnie Prince Billy’.


These recordings documented his emergence as one of the finest songwriters in contemporary music as he gained renown for his idiosyncratic and literary lyrical style and often intense and meditative compositions. Beneath layers of eccentric personas and unconventional narratives, these songs offered frank and sometimes startling insights into his relationships and preoccupations.


The title track from his album ‘I See a Darkness’ is an example of one of his more directly personal songs and is written from the perspective of a troubled spirit speaking to a friend, or brother, about his fears and hopes for the future. It is an exceptional piece of work which was recorded by Johnny Cash for his ‘American Recordings’ series. I spoke to him about his songs and his views on the relationship between mental distress and music.


JT: Your songs are thought by many to explore the darker side of human nature. Would you agree with such an assessment? If so, what is the motivation behind such an exploration?

WO: It is my understanding that human nature gets considerably darker than the aspects explored in my songs.  Certainly, though, there is an attempt to address aspects of our natures which make us feel outside and ostracisable.  By revealing these visions and sharing them, and making them melodious, we may feel welcome again.

Many of your songs appear to be written from the point of view of protagonists. ‘I See a Darkness’ though seems to have a more directly personal feel. Would you like to comment on the inspiration or motivation for writing this song?

Every song is an attempt to make a "hit".  I don't imagine that the world will stand still and start listening and singing.  Still I hope to break into the circle of song, nudging aside one and another to push something that I make up into the communion.  Recently I found the three or four little yellow post-it notes onto which the lyrics for "I See a Darkness" were originally written.  I can remember where I was sitting as the song came out.  It was a stab at identifying specifically one audience member and signing to him, rather than the usual open concept of audience.

Many mental health professionals are interested in the mental state of artists and musicians and composers at work. Kay Redfield Jamison for example has explored this in depth in her work. Do you find that you work more effectively when your mind is at ease? Is some form of distress necessary for you to find inspiration?


A mind completely at ease may or may not bring forward something useful.  There are times when it feels like the mind disturbs itself in order to identify first a problem and then its solution.  Age brings a lessening of fear of the chaos revealed by our brains/bodies.  There used to be some real fear that came with thoughts in turmoil. I've seen this turmoil too many times now to be intimidated, I hope, anymore. Still, it is often during the times when we have strayed from an accepted shared reality that we can make something of actual "new" value as opposed to replicating something.

You are known to have a wide range of influences and to appreciate many types of music and art. Are there any particular songs or artists that have helped you through times of distress? 


So many.  I first heard Peggy Lee sing "Is That All There Is?" when I was a teenager, and it has remained one of the great levellers.  Then in my twenties, I drove by myself across the USA a couple of times and I had two records with me.  One was Folke Rabe's ‘WHAT?’ and the other was John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey's ‘Dance Hall at Louse Point’.  I listened to these two records over and over. They helped make sense of everything, and put the past into perspective while apparently arming me for the highs and lows to come.  Parish and Harvey recorded "Is That All There Is?" on that record, and I edited that song from the cassette that I made, because their reading of the song was too far away from mine for me to appreciate it.


Really there are too many to write about, because most of my life has been spent relating to songs to help me through. In the song "All Murder, All Guts, All Fun", Glenn Danzig wrote: "Because I like when chests are torn apart/the way that heads come off/and the way that art starts to imitate life."  How far can we go in lyric? How different can our vision of the world get before we are irretrievably unique?  Knut Hamsun was a vile man, who seemed to leave his writing clean of his vileness. Maybe part of him knew that his life itself was the wasteful by-product of what he was creating, and what he was creating would last far longer.


We read Edgar Allen Poe's poem "Alone" and what do we feel? If we identify with it, then the poem has also been negated by our reading.  So by writing, "Alone", Poe has forced us to create more nuanced, if not perverse, visions of solitude in order to appease terminal senses of separation.



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Minds in Music

Minds in Music

  John Tully  


Dr John Tully is a forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London. He is also a musician and is interested in the role of the arts in mental health.