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The channeler: Will Oldham

March 6, 2009 |  5:34 pm

Willo400 At home and out on the road, an air of mysticism surrounds indie prince Will Oldham. He listens, absorbs, conjures anew.

In a small, shadowy room at the Moroccan-themed Figueroa Hotel, Will Oldham sat cross-legged on the floor, dressed all in black with slashes of kohl under his eyes, capitulating to one of his most dreaded tasks, the interview, with the sweet agitation of a little boy. He fidgeted with a small silver vessel when he wasn't stroking his profusion of wheat-colored facial hair.

Based in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., Oldham is one of the most prolific, idolized and enigmatic figures of American indie folk. At  39, he's an elder of sorts to the New Weird Americana scene, based on a  credo of lyrical reflections cast in bare-boned acoustics, and often steeped in the natural world. But Oldham's version is also leavened with the element of surprise -- lascivious songs that would make R. Kelly blush, and maverick moves like covering the output of his former band with Nashville session musicians on "Sings Greatest Palace Music."

The neo-troubadour spends half of his year traveling, playing from dozens of albums released under various monikers, including Palace, Palace Brothers and, for the last 11 years, Bonnie "Prince" Billy. He roams to far-flung locales such as Reykjavik, Iceland, where he recorded "The Letting Go," his delicate album from 2006.

While on a three-month tour through North America and Europe that kicks off this week for his new album, "Beware," Oldham will leave behind a fledgling romance and his recently widowed mother. And though he'll be traveling with a band of good friends and musicians, including guitarist Emmett Kelly and percussionist Michael Zerang, he's adopted a coping philosophy.

"I can't consider any of that time as time away," Oldham said, "because you don't want to spend half of your life being away or where you shouldn't be. I choose to think of all the time as being present. I'm always home."

But home doesn't always mean comfortable. Oldham, who enjoys an intimacy with listeners by playing unplanned shows or releasing albums and one-off songs with no announcement, does not enjoy conveying his thoughts to the media. He's bewildered more than a few journalists with non sequiturs seemingly crafted to discourage his premier indie labels, Drag City in the U.S. and Domino in the U.K., from putting his wildly bearded visage in front of the press ever again.

Nevertheless, he's back at it for "Beware," his collection of warm-current folk that will be released March 17, fulfilling a promise to the labels that he'd relent to a veritable junket after skipping press for last year's  "Lie Down in the Light." He'll also play at the El Rey on April 2.

Keeping loose

What's so bad about being interviewed? "The side effect of it is that I get very upset, self-loathing kind of upset," Oldham said. "There's a limit to how much going over stuff can help you in your life. Just plowing things up, it's strange . . . and then it's in print, where it becomes a new reality, a new truth for other people, who will then draw conclusions from something you didn't mean at all."

For all of his reluctance, he fully engaged in his own way, with long pauses and sometimes skittery eyes. He spoke animatedly about a residency he completed last spring in Sausalito, where he worked on many of the "Beware" songs in an old barn, surrounded by bobcats, coyotes and, at the coastline nearby, caterwauling baby elephant seals. The tossed-off instrumentation of "Beware" evokes the setting -- a ramshackle, de facto music hall where a person could drift in, grab a beer out of an icy bucket and sit and listen for as long as no other earthly responsibilities intervened.

That looseness is what Oldham seeks in every recording. He insists that his revolving stable of musicians, which has included Faun Fables' Dawn McCarthy and fellow Louisville native David Pajo, forgo rigorous rehearsal for the spontaneity caught in the first few takes. McCarthy, who shared vocals with Oldham for the bulk of "The Letting Go," described Oldham's approach as "voodoo and kamikaze . . . he'll just change the key of a song one day" or keep some musicians intentionally in the dark until the last minute. "He wouldn't let the guitarist Emmett Kelly hear the songs; he had him prepare by listening to traditional Yugoslavian music."

Oldham's technique boils down not to willful subterfuge but to the joys of listening. "I like to listen to musicians play. I like to listen to them making decisions -- how long they choose to hold a note or a word and thinking that, ideally, that is unique to the moment. That is the thrill for me of listening to anything I like."

Oldham's influence is somewhat mystical. He has inspired Smog's Bill Callahan, as well as legions of younger followers such as Bon Iver and Phosphorescent. He was the first to champion Joanna Newsom, who opened for him for several shows before her debut album. A fan website, the Royal Stable, does yeoman's work of cataloging Oldham's sprawling discography and set lists from hundreds of live performances. In addition to the rambling country he carved out with Palace, Oldham won fans with the plucked-clean Americana of his second album as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "I See a Darkness" in 1999. Since then, his music has expanded: Both "Beware" and "Lie Down in the Light" include sloppy, happy songs, the kind that feel written for singalongs in  crowded dive bars.

Matt Sweeney, from Chavez and one of Oldham's most frequent collaborators, echoes McCarthy's sentiments of Oldham being like family. "At a time when I was feeling especially down about my musical abilities and some bad life decisions, he sent me an e-mail with lyrics he wrote, asking me to make them into songs," the guitarist wrote in an e-mail. "Rising to that challenge made a big difference in my life. Will is so great to make music with. He lives it."

He's also an actor with a renewed purpose. His career, which slowed down in the '90s after appearing in John Sayles' "Matewan" and some smaller fare, has been reinvigorated with his understated work in Kelly Reichardt's meditative and unsettling films "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy."

For Oldham, music and acting offer the same chance to do what he ultimately loves best: inhabiting the written word. "Singing and doing music the way I do," he explained, "is related to the idea of personifying a text of some sort, and looking for my idols in text personification. . . . It's as if Elvis Presley is a written, created character like Stanley Kowalski."

He even creates dream roles in his music. The stirringly proud "My Life's Work," one of the songs on "Beware," was conceived as a lost gem from what Oldham thinks of as Presley's heyday in the early '70s. The dusky track "There Is Something I Have to Say" was distilled with British folk singer June Tabor in mind. He also greatly admires Merle Haggard and R. Kelly, whom he's covered on several occasions, sublimating his lust, for instance, into a version of "Ignition."

Losing himself in his work, in both the creation and in communing with his idols, might be one way that Oldham fights through the pain of being everywhere and nowhere at once. The middle child of three sons, Oldham lost his father, Joe Oldham, in 2006 when he died of a  heart attack while on his weekly bike ride.

When asked if any of the songs on "Beware" reflect grief about his father, Oldham's eyes filled with tears. His fingers flew into his beard, quickly stroking it, before he said, "I can't tell where me or anyone in my family is in the grief stage . . .  so I don't know how this record might relate to that."

For now and maybe a long time, Oldham will work it out in the way he knows how -- living his lyrics, but as if they were sung by someone else. Whenever he plays "I Called You Back," the last song from "The Letting Go," the album that was released close to the time his father died, "I get kind of devastated," he said quietly. "I imagine myself singing the song to my dad from my mom's point of view."

--Margaret Wappler

Photo by Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times

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