Bonnie "Prince" Billy rules the palace – March 2004
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Bonnie "Prince" Billy rules the palace  Print

By Dan MacIntosh, March 2004

Will Oldham once said that face-to-face interviews make him sick. The endless questions regarding religion, family, alternative country music, name changes and the songwriting process - whether asked in person or not - make him just as equally ill.

Yet the quiet and polite gentleman encountered at the infamous Chateau Marmont on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, the place where John Belushi OD'd, didn't appear to be at all uncomfortable during a short talk. You can call him Will Oldham, Palace Music or Bonnie "Prince" Billy - or any of the other pseudonyms he happens to be going under that particular week - but you'd be dead wrong if you referred to him as rude.

This casual looking, scandal-wearing artist also appeared strikingly different from his sometimes sickly and disheveled image on album covers and press photos. Oldham, who loves to swim and surf when he's not creating music, was dressed like any number of other Southern California beach-goers.

For his new album, "Greatest Palace Music," billed under the name Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Oldham re-recorded some of his favorite Palace Music songs with a few of Nashville's top session men. It's also arguably his most traditional country-sounding album to date.

But with heavyweights like Hargus Robbins (piano) and Stuart Duncan (mandolin, fiddle) helping to comprise his studio band, it would be hard for this music to sound like anything other than traditional Nashville country.

Although he didn't let such feelings show on the afternoon of the interview, Oldham may actually in truth despise the interview process. But who can blame him? Nobody honestly enjoys answering the same recycled questions over and over again. Nevertheless, he realizes these press tasks are all a part of the promotional flow. "I'm aware that it's a good idea. It's necessary, I'm sure," he admits.

Because "Greatest Palace Music" is about as traditional as country music gets, it also could have the added side affect of possibly introducing Oldham's work to fans that might have previously only associated his name with the alternative rock genre.

"I'm not all that aware of who the audience is or specifically who the potential audience is," Oldham admits. "And I think with whatever minimal ways each record differs from the last, it's potentially a different audience that can find the record and get something out of it. Some records are more drastically different than others. So maybe this album is more drastically different; maybe a more drastically different audience will get some satisfaction out of it."

Oldham is a big fan of Don Williams' music. Nevertheless, he's hesitant to name any particular country artists that may have inspired him or left imprints upon this latest work. From his perspective, the players he plays with on each recording session tend to hold the most influential sway of all.

"I think that the sound that comes out on these records is wholly dependent upon what the musicians who are involved with each record bring to each session," he explains. "There definitely are country artists that have been really important to me at different times in my life, including country artists in the '80s and '90s as well. But what specifically shaped a lot of the sound of this record was these musicians - who came up in the '60s, '70s and some in the '80s - and are still playing now. And I think they were sort of overjoyed to be given a chance to play some of the same kinds of things they were excited about in the past, rather than some of the things ' they've worked on as session musicians more recently."

Oldham is a great believer in the artistic collaborative process. So when it comes to making albums, he is not at all what you might term a dictatorial leader.

"One of the things I wanted to do in this situation was not give directions," Oldham recalls. "One reason why I wanted to record these older songs of mine was because I trusted the songs already. I'm always unsure of bringing new songs into the studio. But this time I figured, even if the session tanked, I still have the songs. Also, I brought in 21 songs, and we recorded 21 songs, figuring I could cut it down to 12. I thought 12 would be a good record length."

Working with such seasoned players gave Oldham extra flexibility in the studio to change tempos and song structures on the fly, for instance.

"With the last song on the record, "I'm A Cinematographer," I said, 'Can we do it with a little more swing?' So they did it full on swing. Then on another song, I said, 'Can we do it slower?' And Eddie (Bayers), the drummer, basically cut the beat in half. He kept the same beats-per-minute, but it felt slower. But I felt like that's what their specialty is, (which) is coming in and attacking a song based on everything they know about music, everything they know about recording sessions and everything they know about songs. And so I figured whatever direction I was going to give, was going to take the shape of what I brought to it after the session. Like with all the overdubs and friends and family and other musicians (contributing later) and the mixing and choosing of songs. That would be how I directed them, basically, which was after the fact."

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