Will Oldham is one of the most gifted avant-garde singer/songwriters of our day, but he remains criminally unheard outside of a tight indie following and a few famous devotees. Johnny Cash was a fan and covered Oldham's "I See a Darkness" on American III: Solitary Man. Equally enamored of his quivering autumnal style, Icelandic songstress Björk brought him on her North American tour in 2003. Still, mainstream fame has eluded the bushy, wobbly voiced 40-year-old troubadour since he began releasing records under a variety of pseudonyms in the early '90s.
There are piles of his albums attributed to Palace Songs, Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, his own name and more often than not, the moniker Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Despite these constant transformations, Oldham has built a cult audience willing to seek out his material.
His latest effort, "The Mindeater," is a ten-inch collaboration with contemporary folk act Dominic Cipolla of Phantom Family Halo. Lucky for patient Sunshine State fans, the enigmatic Kentuckian will have plenty of copies on hand when he embarks on his unprecedented "Free Florida Tour." Commencing May 25, Oldham will perform free gigs at record stores exclusively in Florida — with shows scheduled for Pensacola, Gainesville, St. Augustine, Orlando, Tampa, Miami (Sweat Records), and Fort Lauderdale (Radio-Active Records). For each date, Oldham as Bonnie "Prince" Billy will team up with the Cairo Gang's Emmett Kelly, his collaborator on last year's The Wonder Show of the World.
New Times: So, what is the impetus behind this "Free Florida Tour"?
Will Oldham: I've been asking my booking agent to get me shows down there for years, but he never felt like he could proceed with confidence until now. And Emmett has never stepped foot in the state.
So it seems like this tour was booked partly as an excuse to travel through our sandy beaches.
Yes, a small fraction of me takes a perverse glee in being the Julie from Love Boat.
You seem to have had a connection with our state for a while. Under the Palace Music moniker, you penned a song called "West Palm Beach."
One of my earliest memories is doing a straight drive from Louisville to Sarasota. It was my first time ever seeing palm trees. My first impression of Florida was one of complete fantasy and magic. The song "West Palm Beach" in particular was about having specific sets of memories of family and friends in a place where you do not live all the time.
Within the budding progressive folk scene here, I've found that all the musicians involved played punk rock at some point. What do you think the connection is?
I started out playing Ramones songs too, but at the end of the day, the idea of DIY really drew me to what I do now. It is crucial to not rely on electricity and play your music anytime, anywhere. Also, you can shove so much down the audience's throat in punk rock, but what is really cool is demanding the audience put forth an effort and listen.
Does country get a bad rap? Everyone's not a Toby Keith, after all.
Even Toby Keith has some great songs. It is strange, though, that most popular modern country has become so dependent on software. That is kind of lame that this music that's singing to America's heartstrings is so vastly produced.
You inject tons of macabre imagery in your work. Do you see yourself as an American Gothic or a modern-day Edgar Allen Poe?
If something can elicit a sense of apprehension and horror, that is great. Lately, I have been thinking that nightmares are your mind working overtime to present to you potential situations as little test situations to prepare you.
Taking into account your acting, is Bonnie "Prince" Billy like a role?
It is. He is an open creature I can dive into and sing a song based on his universe. Our universe — yours and mine — is not always a very musical thing. So to be in a song, it is nice to think like you are in Willy Wonka land. In this case, it's a world filled with music, not candy.
With a hundred albums, singles, and collaborations under your belt, do you ever experience writer's block?
I never find it necessary to write a song. It does not come into play, because we could play shows for the next ten years without putting out a single album.
But you put out albums rather consistently, though.
Well, Wonder Show came out in March of last year ago, and I'm hoping there will be one ready near the end of this year. A year and a half between records, that's not too crazy.
What's the common thread between liking R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and Merle Haggard?
For the most part, when music moves me, it's impossible to explain why. I think when people are able to explain their musical taste, that's when you have to start to doubt their musical taste. If they have reasons why they like something, they are probably not listening with their hearts.
I can hear your R. Kelly influence on The Wonder Show of the World's "That's What Our Love Is" in the lyric "the smell of your box on my mustache."
Yes, the chorus part of that song — where I sing "heads on shoulders" — was inspired by a line from R. Kelly's song "I Wish" from TP2.com. I just liked the idea how musical he made shoulders sound.
So, you can be little raunchy too.
It's nice knowing that there might be some drenched drawers out there in the audience while we are playing.
Some of the record stores you are playing on the "Free Florida Tour" will most likely have shoddy PAs. Are you prepared?
I'm actually counting on many of the places to be small enough where we don't actually have to use the PA.
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I hear the set list will be rather loose from show to show.
Yeah, we will be writing the set list as we drive from store to store. And ideally, we will be open to any rational request.
Just so people from Fort Lauderdale know, what would constitute an irrational request? Would Taylor Swift be out of line?
[chuckling] We could probably only play songs that we have played before. We don't know any Taylor Swift songs, unfortunately.