Interview: Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

My interview with Will Oldham was far too long to fit into a 400-word feature, but I enjoyed it too much not to share more of it. So here's the full Q&A to get you primed for Friday's Bonnie "Prince" Billy show at the Wexner Center.

In Columbus you'll be playing with a couple of your longtime collaborators. But if I understand right, Dawn (McCarthy), who you are about to release a record with, is not going to be at the show, right?

Yeah, exactly, exactly. We're going to do some shows around this record with Dawn starting in the spring. So this is like a little mini trio tour with myself and Emmett Kelly and Cheyenne Mize.

Could you explain how this tour came about and what you're trying to do with it?

Sure. The tour came about because, you know, all the time strange little options come up to do one thing or another, and most of the time they aren't feasible or are uninteresting. But there was an invitation to perform on the show Mountain Stage, which is based in Charleston, West Virginia.

By NPR, right?

Yeah, by NPR. And I had heard a lot of great things over the years on Mountain Stage, and it, you know, it was a nice invitation. And then at the same time there's an art show at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh by this artist named Cory Arcangel, and we were asked to do a performance there. There were just these kind of really good chances to do some music things. And Emmett and Cheyenne and I hadn't played together as a trio in a long time, and when we had it was some of the more rewarding performances that I've been a part of in just a very close and nice and warm and communicative way. And we made a record called Chijimi, a four-song EP that remains one of my best memories of writing, recording, and releasing a record. And so, usually when these isolated opportunities come up, I have to regretfully decline because there's no standing group of musicians ready to go, and if there's just an opportunity to do one thing, I just don't want to go and do one thing because I don't think it's good for the audience. I don't think it's good for us to just play one-off shows. When there was a chance to do a couple other things and then I asked if we could at least make a trilogy of shows out of it - which is what we're doing; we're playing Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Charleston - and asked Emmett and Cheyenne if they were into the idea of getting together and doing these, everything kind of aligned a little bit.

That's cool. So it sounds like you got these special invitations for the other two shows. How did Columbus become fortunate enough to be the other?

Because the ice cream is so good there. [laughs] My booking agent had suggested - what did he suggest? He suggested somewhere, and I thought, "Why wouldn't we be playing Columbus? If we're gonna put another show with these other two shows, why wouldn't we play Columbus?' And I asked him, and he was like, 'Yup, you're right. Let's look.' And we were able to do it. Cause we haven't played, really. The Babblers played in Columbus a couple of years ago, which was great, but we haven't played another proper Columbus Bonnie "Prince" Billy set in quite a few years.

You mentioned that the performances that you've done with Emmett and Cheyenne, there's a special kind of warmth and you guys are all on the same page. Do you have any idea what it is about the three of you that jibes so well, or is it just kind of an intangible thing?

Well of course, it's kind of intangible. And there are things - I've played with Emmett for a long time now, about 7 years I think last month, we've been playing together and recording together and writing together. And so we know each other pretty well. And there's something I know for Emmett and myself, one of our musical strengths and social weakness is a vulnerability that can be a strength in making music with other people but is not a strength in trying to walk through this world. But we have a good, trusting communication. And Cheyenne, she's a tremendous musician. I first started playing with her when my friend Oscar asked me to. He asked if I could play a show here in Kentucky, and again it was one of the one-off things, and he was like, "What would you need to play a show out on this farm?" And I was like, "Well, really, I would need a rehearsed band.' He was like, "What do you need? $1000?" And I was like, "I just need a rehearsed band," because that is the biggest impediment to playing a one-off show. So he put together a band which was essentially his band at the time which is called Thomas A. Minor and the Picket Line, and then he brought in Cheyenne, and we started playing together, and it was just, it worked very well. A theory I have is Cheyenne is - she plays, she writes music, she's a good learner, good singer, she plays guitar, she plays bass, she plays percussion, she plays keyboards, but she also, one of her professions is that she's a music therapist. And my overriding theory is that it's her experience as a music therapist that makes it especially and uniquely rewarding to play with her because of how she's accustomed to - when she works with someone in music therapy, your idea of "what is music" completely opens up. What is music and what is successful music is based on how well the musicians are communicating with each other, and that's kind of it. You know, there is no song structure. In the most extreme cases, there is no song structure. And here we're adding song structure, which is plus, but she's able to listen and participate and be generous in ways that most of the musicians that you or I get to hear most of the time aren't. They can be great, they can be generous, they can be collaborative in so many ways, but a music therapist does bring something, um, a pretty incredible set of skills to the room that's not your everyday set of skills when it comes to making music. And she and Emmett had a neat connection in that an old friend of Emmett's that he had gone to school with is a music therapist also. So Cheyenne knew him through a music therapy community. And so there was already a cool connection between them as well. So we just, I don't know, it's a nice little triangle.

So in Columbus are you going to be kind of all over the map or are you trying to keep that under wraps, the direction you're going to go with it?

Yeah, I think we will essentially be all over the map. Yeah. And it's, you know, one of the strongest memories or strongest experiences of playing with Emmett and Cheyenne, we were invited to play at Sacred Music Festival in Milan, Italy a number of years ago. And the idea was that we were supposed to play three concerts with no other acts, just us, in three different churches in the greater Milan area over the course of three nights. And that ideally the repertoire would be geared towards some idea of sacred music. And somehow, over the course of those three nights, we ended up coming up with three almost completely distinct and different sets that still adhered to being acceptable within the confines of a sacred music festival. And that was pretty amazing to be able to pull that off for ourselves. So I'm imagining that in this trio of shows, it will be similar that each show will not necessarily resemble the other show.

You've said a few things that lead me to believe that you believe preparation for performances is really important. Just that you needed a rehearsed band for that one show or just the fact that you don't like to go and do one-offs. Is that just a professionalism thing or something about making sure that you're presenting the best version possible of the music?

It's a professionalism thing and a lot of it - a lot of decisions are geared around ensuring that each experience encourages everyone to come back, including myself. So, of course, you do want to give something to the majority of the audience that shows up for the show. You want to give them something good to take away with them. But also, if and when we show up and do something that has the potential to leave a bad taste in our mouth, then you start to look at it and think, "Oh, I don't want to play again." That's the position that you don't want to be in, or I don't want to be in. So I find in the idea of a one-off, there's not a lot - you can't really take much away from that. You know, it's like a one-night stand versus a relationship. [laughs] And at a certain point in one's life, all one-night stands are not dissimilar, but each relationship is. So being able to think and communicate and practice, so when a song is doing something halfway through and you want it to do something else, or a set, or in the larger scheme of things, an outing. When we get off-stage, we usually talk for a while about what just happened. And there's no point in doing that if you're not going to play it the next night.

Yeah, that's an important part of the process for you.

It is.

Would this be somewhat different if you were continually performing with the same band?

Sure, it would be. I don't - yeah, I'm sure. No, I don't know that it necessarily would be. The closest thing that I've come to with consistently performing with the same band was over the last two or three years, there was essentially six of us playing together. We did two tours where we would splinter into a trio here, a quintet there, a different trio there, but always made up of these same six musicians. And it was pretty much, it was the same thing. When we put together the set prior to the show and when we got off stage, there would be communication and discussion about what was going to happen, what just happened. There have been a couple of tours over the last 20 years where the set remains the same from night to night. But that in itself is kind of an experiment, which was great, but for some reason it hasn't occurred to me to want to do it again since, like 1997 or something like that.

It seems like you really appreciate music as a continuum rather than as a series of bursts.

Yeah, exactly, yeah.

Let me ask you a couple things about the album that's coming out too. You've obviously tackled all different kinds of projects over the years, so it's not surprising necessarily to see you dig up the Everly Brothers, but what about them compelled you so much that you wanted to make an entire record out of it?

Dawn's interest is the biggest, most important answer to that. Because it's - the Everly Brothers have been important enough and energizing enough and inspiring enough over the years that it's always just below the surface. And thinking about the potential for different kinds of music to undertake, it's kind of based on, oftentimes, the interest of others, because the best part of it is the collaborative part of it. I've continued to listen to their music for pretty much my entire life, and it's always intriguing, and it's always exciting and it's always mysterious. And Dawn and I, like the very first tour we did together, which was around 2002 or so, she would do her set, we would do our set and somehow in the middle, it just happened that we would sing an Everly Brothers song or two. That was how we took advantage or our proximity to each other. Like, "Well let's sing together." "Well, what should we sing?" "Well, what sounds good for two voices that's sort of neutral territory?" And we started thinking about these Everly songs. And then a year ago, she just casually mentioned that she had picked up a greatest hits cassette at a thrift store and was playing it in her truck all the time because her daughters, her young daughters, were psyched about the Everly Brothers and would request it. And she just mentioned, "We should record some of these songs." And I knew that she didn't have a concept of how deep that question was because I also knew there was so much Everly Brothers material that specifically that Dawn had never heard and that specifically would pique her curiosity. Because they got into some very intense themes and arrangements in the 1960s specifically and, nobody's - I mean, some people have heard those songs. But pathetically few people have heard them, so I counted on the fact that Dawn hadn't heard them. So I said, "Let me send you some you songs and see if you think there's a record there," and started sending her songs and we just kept going.

Cool. Were you right then that she hadn't heard them?

Yeah, yeah, I mean it's a sure bet that anyone in conversation today that people haven't heard these songs. It's unfortunate and surprising. Like, whenever I listen to it, I just assume that the world knows this music and whenever I talk to people I realize the world doesn't.

When you guys took on this project, when you were trying to put together the arrangements, did you try to stay faithful or consider it a jump-off point for taking it in new directions?

Yeah. It was neither one. It wasn't important to us to stay faithful, nor was it important to us to consciously stray from the songs. It was just, these guys have done the heavy lifting, and they've come up with an incredible repertoire of songs that are good for two voices. And so let's totally stand on their shoulders and re-attack these songs. And the idea from the beginning was to do something that was enjoyable for us. Because often times working on your own songs is fraught with different kinds of tensions just because, you know, you don't know what it is until it's done. And here we were given the gift of these songs that are already done, and we just want to sing them and play them. So we knew that they would sound different because we're different people, all of us and all the musicians involved in making the record. And there's no point in replicating them because they're great. So yeah, the only responsibility was to enjoy what we were doing.