Having a conversation with Will Oldham in an isolated corner-room in the Algonquin Hotel is a more pleasant experience than one might believe, if judged by his muted, frequently melancholy songs. But in person, Oldham displays openness and a wry sense of humor–qualities also lately much in evidence in his ever-growing catalog. Back in January, Oldham was in town to promote his latest album, Beware, out March 17 on Drag City. We spoke with him then about the new record, his love for Madonna, and his famously unruly back pages.–Steve Lowenthal
Beware seems like the most ornate record you’ve done in terms of arrangements. How was it trying to get the performances you needed this time around?
Ease Down the Road and Greatest Palace Music each had a large group of musicians on them. This was a more concentrated effort. Greatest Palace Music started with session musicians and then friends and family were added. Getting the performances out of people, a couple of times it was hard but for the most part it was not like pulling teeth. It was more like getting cum out of a thirteen-year-old boy: easy as hell.
The title of the record is Beware, and there are a lot of songs where the music is upbeat but the lyrics are dark. I felt it was a fitting title in that regard.
Exactly, and it also relates to the previous record [Lie Down in the Light], which I feel was a wholly well-intentioned, positive record. So the title is saying that this is not that record, and I apologize that it’s not, but it isn’t. There’s also the fact that as a kid I always coveted owning a copy of the Misfits’ Beware, and I still don’t own it–so now I do in my own way.
You mentioned the positive nature of Lie Down in the Light. There was one line there that always struck me: “And a hand to hold your throat, to stifle that crying choke.”
That was basically the tough love line of saying “I will force you to stop in order to show you a good time, I’ll torture you. If I have to.”
But the title track to that record was about giving yourself over to being happy, which is a terribly difficult thing to do.
It’s also a dangerous place to be sometimes. Feeling comfortable is when they get you.
You have a pretty extensive archive of demos and lo-fi recordings. Do you ever go through the old tapes to see what’s there?
Only haphazardly. I forget there’s anything of value but then I’ll listen and think: “whatever happened to that fragment, or that verse?” It’s completely out of mind in the editing process: at that moment it has to not exist in order to move forward. So then you only discover it six months or five years later. And then it’s interesting to remember that certain things exist.
I ask because you’re no stranger to releasing different versions of your songs. I wonder if you’ll go back ever and cherry-pick some choice ones.
I have a very intense fan who wrote and said he was interested in getting some work as an archivist, who would be a perfect guy. But he’s such a heavy fan there might be too much emotional weight. He’s kind of intense. But at this point there are lots of cassettes, DAT tapes, CDR, ¼ inch reels. And a lot of it is poorly labeled.
Lately it seems like you’re releasing less singles and limited editions than in the past. The focus has really been the albums.
Maybe. There’s also a matter of the Internet making the release of something easier to hear about before it goes out of print. There are some 7″s I have at my house that I don’t think many people have that are recent. Another thing I’ve been doing over the year is a lot of singing on other people’s records. Maybe they’ll send me a copy and maybe they won’t. I don’t know what exactly gets released; I don’t keep tabs on those things.
Speaking of singing with other people, in the last few years you’ve had a lot of women singing with you as a counterpoint. What about that technique appeals to you?
It’s a really perverse–my psyche is drawn to that harmonic interplay, the same way it’s drawn to interacting in other ways with a human being. For me, it’s wildly satisfying having your voice in harmony with that male/female dynamic, and then recognizing that one of those voices is my own.
It also seems to neutralize the gender of the song.
Exactly. I feel like I was born with some crazy male/female mix internally. It’s nice sometimes to imagine that gender-neutralizing the song is actually a more accurate representation. Sometimes it feels necessary to feel like you are singing with the women as much as you are singing with the men in order to say, “Just so you know, I’m not really taking any sides here.”
It seems like it could change who you are speaking to in a way. Almost like how Cat Power flipped the gender role on her Hank Williams cover.
Oh my gosh! That was a huge musical moment. That was the first Cat Power song I heard, driving through Virginia on the radio. It was such a powerful performance.
At this point, when you go in to do a record, do you look at it as a refinement of a grand concept or are they all individual unto themselves?
They are all unique into their own to a great extent. One thing about Beware, at some point in making the last record, I knew that I was going to make another record that was different in some way. That was the only time I thought about what was going to come while in the process of doing something else. In working on some of these songs, I sometimes thought about how they related to other songs of mine. The title Beware is referenced in a song on Lie Down in the Light so there is that thread running through them. The second line of the song is a paraphrase of the first Palace Brothers record. This was the most conscious record besides the Greatest Palace record, in terms of how it sits in the catalog of my work.
Do you ever feel connected to any of your past work? Do you ever listen back and feel that a certain work still speaks to you strongly?
In general, mostly the value of the records had to do with the other people who played on them. Arise Therefore was my brother, Steve Albini, and David Grubbs, who are all heroes, all on one record. For sheer volume and spectrum of people it would have to be Greatest Palace Music and Ease Down the Road, which was friends and family, far-reaching. Those records I feel strongly about. I always feel strongly about the Get On Jolly EP with Mick Turner, I have a lot of feelings about it. We recently played a song from it with people other than Mick, and we turned it into another kind of song but it reminded me how strong of an experience that was. The forces that came together to make that–just thank god the forces came together so that I was able to make that.
When listening to Beware, the song “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” reminded me of an older song of yours, “End of Traveling”…
That’s Funny! “End of Traveling”, the title came from the Madonna record Bedtime Stories, which had come out around that time. The last song on that was the title track, which was written by Bjork, and the refrain triggered me to title the song “Traveling.” In “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” that line comes from the song “O Father,” also from Bedtime Stories. Wow, you found that relation. I would have never remembered that.