I do not want a personal relationship with my fans. Or to do anything that encourages them to think they have one with me. They can have a personal relationship with my songs. That’s fine, but they don’t know me.
Does music have a more fascinating character than Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy? The pseudonym of Will Oldham, it really is impossible to know where Bonnie starts and Will ends. How much of the narrator of these songs is Will himself, and how much is just fiction? Sometimes it’s not even entirely obvious whether Will knows himself, he has previously explained that “the primary purpose of the pseudonym is to allow both the audience and the performer to have a relationship with the performer that is valid and unbreakable”.
He’s an artist who has regularly explained that he has no interest in being successful, yet somehow, despite his own misgivings, has become, at least within certain circles, a household name. He’s released countless albums, collaborated with artists from Sun Kil Moon to Jonny Cash, appeared in a Kanye West video, and all of Bjork, Jeffrey Lewis and Half Man Half Biscuit have written songs about him – yet he still manages to do it all on his own terms, and at his own pace.
We might never know the real Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, or Will Oldham, but that doesn’t make him any less important, brilliant or life changing. As he once sang when covering R. Kelly, “I’m that little bit of hope with my back against the ropes, I can feel it, I’m the world’s greatest. And in the ring of life I’ll reign love and the world will notice a king”.
The king is dead, all hail The Prince.
One artist who certainly appreciates the genius of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is Northern Irish songwriter Ciaran Lavery. For this year’s Record Store Day festivities, Ciaran put out A King A Night, a collection of covers of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy tracks. Ciaran turns Horses from the album Sings Palace Music from a country stomper into a delicate ballad of piano and strings. While in Ciaran’s hands, Beast For Thee, originally a collaboration with Superwolf, becomes a heartbreaking piece, all fluttering acoustic guitars, soaring violins and Ciaran’s gentle vocal styling. Best of all is Ciaran’s take on Viva Last Blues’ stand out track New Partner, his wispy enunciated vocals taking on something of Ryan Adams, as he plucks out complex acoustic patterns, and the strings explore new melodies not present in the original. It’s a bold decision to take on an artist with the gravitas of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but Ciaran’s thoughtful takes are a fitting tribute to a songwriter he so clearly admires.
Ciaran’s own music has previously drawn him many admirers, his second album, Let Bad In, scooping last year’s Northern Ireland Music Prize. Since that release he’s been touring regularly and put out a live album, Live At The Mac, which again showed his way with a cover version as he took on both Streets Of Philadelphia and Love Will Tear Us Apart. Whether turning his hand to his own songs or classics of the alternative songbooks, Ciaran Lavery has shown his ability to inject music with an impassioned honesty few can match.
Today Ciaran has put together a mixtape inspired by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and the many artists whose music he has tied to, featuring the likes of Angel Olsen, Elton John, and yes, R.Kelly. Explaining his love of Bonnie’s music, Ciaran explains, “To me personally, Will Oldham defines the modern day artist in that he is always evolving and creating. He never hangs around long enough in one space to become predictable and he lives through his music”.
1. Palace Brothers – I Am a Cinematographer
The first time I heard Will Oldham I was entirely fascinated. It was like my whole brain was halted in its tracks, this demanded my attention. I was magnetised by the unconventional nature & the rawness of the voice, the recordings, the production; I was an instant fan.
2.Will Oldham & Matt Sweeney (Superwolf) – Beast For Thee
I remember hearing this for the first time thanks to a friend of mine Paul Wilkinson, who just happened to have possibly the best collection & almost encyclopaedic knowledge of lo-fi music; I was instantly bowled over. I rushed out immediately to get a copy of this record. It has a special place in my heart.
3.Angel Olsen – Who’s Sorry Now
I first heard Angel Olsen on the Wolfroy Goes to Town record & couldn’t believe this voice. It sounded like it was coming through a gramophone at the turn of the 20th century. On top of this, it turns out she’s also a stone cold killer of an artist in her own right, so I’m a fan for sure.
4.Everly Brothers – All I Have To Do Is Dream/Cathy’s Clown
I have long been an admirer of cover records or cover songs in general. I guess it’s the interpretation & general surprise as well as admiration from one artist/band to another that always interested me. A few years back Will released a record with Dawn MacKenzie made up of the songs of the Everly Brothers that I really enjoyed. The Everly’s harmonies are as famous as Simon & Garfunkel’s, if not more so; a legendary act.
5. Elton John – Daniel
The Tortoise & Will Oldham collaboration brought about some of the most interesting interpretations I had ever heard, including a truly special version of Thunder Road no less. The bravery to take such classic songs like the aforementioned & Elton John’s ‘Daniel’ really gave me a fresh perspective on what exactly is sacred & the kind of payoffs that come from being nonconventional. In my own work/work of others I always bear this in mind, as long as it’s to the benefit of the song, regardless if it follows the structure or not. Boundaries are broken, this is music.
6. R Kelly – Bump N’ Grind
Will Oldham guest featured in an episode of R Kelly’s bizarre, yet weirdly addictive rap opera Trapped in the Closet – there’s a strange fact for you. When I was a kid I Believe I Can Fly was the biggest song in the world at one time, long before Black Panties ever became an album. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about Robert Kelly myself, but I do know TIAC soundtracked my tour of Germany 12 months back & became embedded in my brain, for better or worse, I have yet to decide.
7. Johnny Cash & June Carter – Jackson
It’s a well known fact that Johnny Cash covered I See a Darkness on his American Trilogy records. I have been a fan of the man in black since I was a teenager, my friend & I would watch & rewatch his biography on VCR so many times that we almost burned out the tape entirely. We used to sit up half the night & replay clips of the Johnny Cash show, eat our hearts out & wish we could only be half as cool. There was an aura about him. I regret never having seen him live but I love his music all the same.
8. Richard Hawley – Coles Corner
Dead Man’s Shoes was a movie that resonated with me since I seen it for the first time in my early twenties. The soundtrack was also quite special, and, as well as Bonnie Prince Billy, it also featured artists like Richard Hawley. I have a fond memory of buying his Coles Corner record on a whim one sleepy afternoon having skipped school & deciding I would find solace among the grand wonder of the nearest record shop. There was a romanticism about the record that almost broke my heart, though admittedly I knew little of heartbreak or romance back then. I can still lose myself in these sounds.
A King A Night is out now via Believe Recordings. Click HERE for more information on Ciaran Lavery and for details of his upcoming tour dates.