Symbiosis sets the tone for 'Superwolves'

Before Saturday's show at Thirty One West in Newark, Matt Sweeney and Bonnie "Prince" Billy discuss their years-long creative partnership and using a safe foundation to jump deeper

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Matt Sweeney

Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) describe it as a forgotten style of songwriting: Oldham writes the lyrics, and Sweeney puts them to music. It’s a collaborative process with plenty of precedents, though not as many in modern times. On a phone call earlier this month, Sweeney and Oldham came up with a few examples: Gilbert and Sullivan, Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, Jim Steinman and Meatloaf.

Sweeney, an otherworldly guitarist (see Chavez, Zwan and a host of other projects), and Oldham, a singer and lyricist with few rivals, employed the process back in 2005, when the pair teamed up for the Superwolf album. Two decades later, they did it again for Superwolves (Drag City), one of the best albums of last year.

“Matt and I have come close to doing things like this, but the idea of us potentially getting brought in to write a record's worth of songs for another performer would be pretty exciting,” Oldham said from his home in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I've been wanting to do that!” said Sweeney by phone from New York City.

“There are a lot of really great performers out there, and everybody feels the pressure to write their own material in recent decades,” Oldham said. “But it might be kind of liberating for certain performers to say, ‘You know, I'm great as a singer. I'm great as a player or performer. But I could really use a hand building songs.’ And we could be like, ‘Yeah, that's us.’”

“I would love to do a Miley Cyrus record. That would be so sick,” Sweeney said.

“Oh my gosh, yeah. Or Madonna. Or Janelle Monae,” Oldham said. “We’re talking about people with budgets.”

The camaraderie and natural, back-and-forth mind meld between Sweeney and Oldham make it easy to see how the two friends collaborate so effectively. “There was a language and a style developed over a really long time before we wrote songs together,” Sweeney said.

Because of that relationship, Oldham doesn’t necessarily have to send notes or directions along with his lyrics when he hands them over to Sweeney. “The notes were basically made up of all the things that we talked about and had done together up until that point,” Oldham said. “Our previous collaboration and communication and hanging out was the prep and the training for the writing.”

That same comfort and familiarity translates to the stage, as well. As a duo, Oldham concentrates only on singing while Sweeney handles the guitar work, freeing each other to explore. “For some people, safety as a place is a stopping point,” Oldham said. “For us, I think safety is the foundation from which to jump even deeper.”

Onstage, the songs continue to change, especially without drums, which forces the two musicians to find their own rhythmic groove and discover “an architecture I didn’t know was there,” Oldham said. “It's like a trepidation-and-glee hybrid emotion when certain songs begin.”

For the current tour, which stops at Newark’s Thirty One West on Saturday, Feb. 26, and includes Columbus opener Powers/Rolin Duo, Oldham and Sweeney fill out the live show with guitarist Emmett Kelly. During recording sessions for Superwolves, the pair brought in another fantastic guitarist, Mdou Moctar, along with some of Moctar’s bandmates, who give songs like “Hall of Death” and "I am a Youth Inclined to Ramble" a psych-rock sheen. (Moctar bassist Mike Coltun is also Sweeney’s neighbor.)

“As disparate as our backgrounds are, I think there are some crucial commonalities, just in terms of what gets us off musically and what we look for in a musical collaboration,” Oldham said of working with Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg band that often performs at wedding ceremonies back home, intermeshing its music into everyday life in practical ways — a hope Oldham holds for his own songs. “I always like to fantasize that our music strives to be a step away from all that [industry] noise and that it actually becomes integral to people's lives.”