Will Oldham's contributions to the American songbook have maintained a steady, scraggly, sublime output since the early '90s. Though Oldham has left behind the Palace, Palace Music, and Palace Brothers monikers with which he began his musical career, he still rarely records under his given name, instead using the Bonnie "Prince" Billy handle for the past several years. His latest album, The Letting Go, was recorded in Iceland and furthers the evolution of his take on Americana, Appalachia, folk, and country—all essential ingredients that comprise his eerily emotional and artful blend of down-home songwriting.
Music isn't the only path Oldham follows, though. He has also been intimately associated with cinema throughout his life. As a teen actor, performing with a passion far from the usual OC/ 90210 anti-zeal that we're all familiar with, he stole the show in films such as John Sayles' Matewan. Over the past few years, Oldham has scored and provided songs for various documentaries and features, including David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, and appeared as an actor in offbeat indies such as Junebug and Julien Donkey-Boy.
His latest filmic endeavor is Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, which screened at the Seattle International Film Festival this past summer (Kino International is working on a Seattle release date in the near future). The film follows two friends, played by Oldham and Daniel London, who reunite for an overnight camping trip to Oregon hot springs. The two men, both in their 30s, have taken very different paths in life, and their weekend together is a culmination of this disparity, fueled by emotion, nature, and Oldham's character Kurt's constant pot smoking. Kurt is a neo-hippie man-child, and his familiar balding head and potbelly further this characterization. Oldham's performance is enjoyably understated. In fact, the whole film is understated—much of the screen time is occupied by tracking shots through the car's windows, as Kurt and Mark explore the divide between them through meaningless banter (Kurt on Mark's imminent fatherhood: "Having a kid is so fucking real").
The Letting Go, however, is a decidedly more adult effort than Oldham's portrayal of the emotionally arrested Kurt. The record opens with "Love Come to Me," a swath of strings softly blending into acoustic guitar and the singer's soothing croon. Yes, much of the charming crackle and warble of years past is absent from his voice now. But instead of feeling like an affectation or unneeded polish, this change comes across as a natural step forward. On what is perhaps the strongest song, the melancholy-yet-rollicking "Strange Form of Life," Jim White's softly brushed drums tramp beneath romantically poetic lines like, "A dark little room across the nation/You found myself racing, forgetting the strange and the hard and the soft kiss in the dark room." The lush arrangements on the record weren't something Oldham set out to accomplish, though. "It is a process of working with what musicians and arrangers can be at hand without handicapping the rest of the process," he explains.
In his own slightly cryptic words, Oldham explains what he sees as the relationship between music and film. "Start with this, that movies and music are the same. Which is to say, start there, because it isn't true, but if you move from that point, then the posts will get you quicker to where I'm at," he posits. "When you sit in a room, first as a child, then later to whatever we are now, sitting there listening or watching and making up your half of a dialogue to be completed, or not, way far beyond the end of your own lifetime, then you go back to that point of them being the same, and indeed they are!" His thoughts about the similarities between acting and playing live are a bit more straightforward: "Recording is more like film acting. Live is like improvising—you are given restrictions, and to hold the attention of yourself, among others, you go off from there."
The current Bonnie "Prince" Billy tour may be a more democratic affair than most, as Oldham responds to rumors that he's taking requests this time around with the inviting, "Give it a shot!" But be polite and wait for the appropriate moment, as his live show can range from the quiet, contemplative tone of Old Joy to raucous, barroom shanties—two sides of his dynamic spectrum that are essential to his artistic work, on film and on record. And as for more acting gigs in the future, he puts it quite simply: "God knows; Bonnie does not."
Bonnie "Prince" Billy With Human Bell and Ponieheart. Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-789-3599, www.tractortavern.com. $15. 9:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 6–Tues., Nov. 7.