Will Oldham has been singing and composing for twenty-five years. In a new book, he discusses his highly individualistic approach to music making and the music industry (under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy), one that cherishes intimacy, community, mystery, and spontaneity.
Do you think a song is ever really finished?
I feel like a song is completed when the writing is done and I present it to a friend, partner, or group of musicians. Then it’s completed when we record together and finish mixing. Then it’s completed each and every time someone listens. I think that a song, for the most part, is completed by the listening experience. It enters into people’s brains and mutates and then might get completed again—in their dreams, in mix tapes that they make, or in new listening experiences that they have. So it isn’t ever finished because there’s never going to be a definitive listening experience. I guess the idea is that I listen to certain favorite songs over and over because for some reason I just haven’t finished listening to them. But in terms of concentrating on the bones of the song, that ends with the recording; in rare cases there will be arrangement modifications, but from that point on the skeleton is always going to stay the same. From then on, playing live, for me, is more like an exercise to stay in shape for writing and recording.
There’s the way a song can sound when you’re just playing it in a room to somebody that’s going to perform it with you, and then the way it sounds in the rehearsal room when you’re playing it with a band, and then there’s the way it sounds when you go into a studio and the engineer is listening to it; there’s an evolution of the song’s identity from when it’s something that you’re creating on your own to where it ultimately ends up.
Yes. Anybody who’s a big music fan and plays music for people experiences this, but if you work with recorded music you can point to the differences in instrumentation or preparedness or arrangement. And you can play the same recording of the same song and have vastly different feelings about it. You could be listening to a song in your car and not enjoying it, and then someone could get in the car and all of a sudden the song becomes good, or the reverse. It seems to me that the ears that are listening make more difference than the way the music sounds. ‘Cause you can also tell when you see people who are absolutely 100 percent enthralled and enjoying inarguably terrible music, and they’re smart human beings; you see it happening and you realize it doesn’t have anything, or far less, to do with the music itself than the listening done by the listener and the situation.