2006 - 2008, STREAMING NOW

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy | 03/07/18

Image: Bonnie 2008

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - The Letting Go - Streaming Now

If they hadn’t before, the Bonnie recording sessions by 2006 started to resemble the assemble-the-team movie genre a la THE DIRTY DOZEN or THE DOGS OF WAR.  Here’s how the LETTING GO team members, all experts in their own spheres of musical excellence, came to be a part of the recording session that yielded such a record.

Of course, Paul Oldham was deeply enmeshed in the Bonny zone, having recorded and/or played on almost all of the Bonny sessions up to this point.  Jim White had worked with Will Oldham on multiple tours and recording sessions.  The newcomers were Emmett Kelly, Valgeir Sigurdsson and Dawn McCarthy.

Oldham had met Kelly on numerous occasions, always in Chicago, always late at night at the Rainbo Club.  It’s not what you think, although it would be fine if it were.  It wasn’t until Kelly came through Louisville as part of Azita Youssefi’s touring band that Oldham realized what kind of power Kelly had at his disposal. He asked Emmett to join the session, sending him demos for the songs as well as a copy of WORLD LIBRARY OF FOLK AND PRIMITIVE MUSIC VOLUME V: YUGOSLAVIA and asked that Emmett attempt to fuse the two in his mind.

Oldham had met Bjork through Harmony Korine, and eventually Bjork invited Oldham to join her tour as an opening act.  During this tour, Oldham got to know musician/producer/recording engineer Valgeir SigurdssonValgeir suggested that they tackle a project together, and the idea was filed away.  Oldham and Valgeir met again when Bjork and Matthew Barney asked Oldham to record the voice part for a piece on their collaborative film-and-music project DRAWING RESTRAINT 9Valgeir was the engineer on that session, and once again brought up the idea of working together on something.  Oldham had just been building the collection of songs that would be THE LETTING GO, and leapt at the chance to bring the songs to Valgeir’s Greenhouse studio in Reykjavik.

Dawn McCarthy’s main public musical endeavors existed under the name FAUN FABLES.  Oldham had first heard FF’s MOTHER TWILIGHT record in the house of a Seattle audience member who had allowed the Bonny band to pitch tents in his back yard after a show.  It was a life-changing moment for Will.  He soon contacted McCarthy and asked if Faun Fables might be willing and able to open some shows on a Bonny tour.  She agreed, and came along as a solo act, traveling in the Bonny van (the “Freedom Joint”) together with the whole band.  Will and Dawn worked out the Everly BrothersSo Sad (to Watch Good Love Go Bad)”, which they performed together during the tour.  Dawn the Faun’s mysteries only got huger, to Oldham, so he invited her to come work on a slew of new songs.  He sent her demos of the songs that he’d recorded onto a handheld cassette player.  She brought the demos with her on a Faun Fables tour and began to work out her parts, which she then laid down using a cassette 4-track machine.  When Oldham heard the first moments of Dawn’s demos, he knew the record was going to work.

On the way to Iceland, Oldham played a couple of shows in Venice, Italy with Current 93.  At one of the shows, he played most of the new songs about to be recorded in Rejkyavik.  It was winter of 2005, and the nights in Iceland were long indeed.  The assembled musicians got to work.  Once acceptable takes were gathered for all of the songs, everyone piled into a car and drove into the wilderness, to a cabin owned by Valgeir’s family.  Valgeir cooked a feast of whale meat, and the recordings were listened to.  There was satisfaction in this listening session.  It should be noted that each band member plays a keyboard solo on at least one song on the record.

Everybody flew home.  Oldham and Valgeir agreed that many of the songs called for string arrangements.  Oldham suggested his cousin Ryder McNair as an arranger, and Valgeir suggested composer Nico Muhly.  They compromised and sent the recordings to both arrangers, agreeing to listen to the results with open minds.  In the end, two each of McNair’s and Muhly’s were the obvious best choices, while the arrangements of both were put into play for “The Seedling”Oldham came back to Iceland for the recording of the strings and for the mixing of the record.

During the break between tracking and mixing, Oldham had found a book called GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT on a remainder table at a book store.  The title struck him, because Oldham recognized it as a lyric from the Mekons song “Oblivion” (he didn’t recognize it as an Emily Dickinson line, which is its original provenance).  He brought the book with him to the mixing sessions, and buried his nose in it while Valgeir twiddled knobs.  The record was originally going to be called WAI, but Oldham was concerned that such a title was more than a little confusing.  It was from the pages of Chip Brown’s GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT that the title for THE LETTING GO was fixed upon, as well as the title for the song “Then the Letting Go” (originally titled “Letting Go of a Little Girl”).  There were many Emily Dickinson tie-ins, many unintentional.  The last track on the record (not counting the ‘hidden’ cover of “Ebb Tide”) is “I Called You Back”; Oldham later learned that the epitaph on Dickinson’s headstone reads “Called Back”.

The cover photographs for THE LETTING GO were taken on the windward side of Oahu by Oldham.  British artist Becky Blair painted paintings for the artwork.  Three TV commercials were made with Neil Hamburger prior to the release of the record.  Videos were made by Oscar Parsons, Jennifer Parsons, and Will Oldham for “Strange Form of Life” and “Ebb Tide”, by Andy Bruntel for “Cursed Sleep”, "The Seedling" video by Aran Reo Mann and by Vernon Chatham and John Lee for “Lay and Love”.  Coincidentally, BPB was asked to perform on the Conan O’Brian show on the release day, September 11th 2006.  The band for this performance included Jim White, Matt Sweeney, Paul Oldham and Andrew WK, and they played “Strange Form of Life”.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Ask Forgiveness - Streaming Now

Like GREATEST PALACE MUSIC before it, ASK FORGIVENESS was more explicitly a master class than a regular record-building session.  In the case of the former, Mark Nevers facilitated an experience in which Will Oldham could butt heads, in the best of ways, with the seasoned and storied top-tier session musicians of Nashville.  And the meat of those sessions was that interaction and the subsequent interactions with Oldham’s friends and comrades on previously-recorded songs.  ASK FORGIVENESS was about working with Meg Baird and Greg Weeks, both then of the group EspersOldham had seen Espers perform in Santa Monica at McCabe’s, on a bill with Michael Hurley. Listening to the Espers records, he was particularly taken by their collection of covers THE WEED TREE.  And so he figured to ask Weeks and Baird if they’d join him in tackling a set of other people’s songs, just as an opportunity to working the same room with them on somewhat equal footing.  Further, Oldham thought it would be good to collect others’ songs that focused specifically on first-person identity themes, songs including Phil Ochs’My Life” and Glenn Danzig’sAm I Demon?”  These were songs that had been in Oldham’s brain for most of his life; a song Frank Sinatra had popularized, “Cycles”, had been in Oldham’s record collection since before his voice broke.  Oldham mashed up two Merle Haggard hits here, “The Way I Am” (written by Sonny Throckmorton) and “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am”, in the middle of which medley he jammed a line from the Mekons’ “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian”. The record was recorded in Week’s studio in Philadelphia during a very hot summer.  The mastering engineer was Paul Hammond, who went over the sparse takes with a fine toothcomb with Oldham by his side, mouth agape.  Lori D drew some of the artwork elements and designed the poster.  The front cover is a pencil drawing of Oldham, intended to mimic the solipsism of the songs’ subject matters.  The pencil artist was a high school classmate of Oldham’s, Timothy StillOldham and Still had not seen each other in many years; Oldham found one of Still’s business cards advertising his artistic skills pinned to a bulletin board in southern Indiana.  Also featured in the artwork were photographs that Oldham had taken of kids in Kashmir and Ladakh many years earlier.

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Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Wai Notes - Streaming Now

Dawn McCarthy’s work on the demos for THE LETTING GO are very special.  Though the sound quality is objectively poor, the artistry on display is epic.  It’s understandable that for a small but strong audience, audio fidelity is hardly a matter worth discussing; we get the music however we can, however it exists.  With this in mind, it was decided that a small run (though not small enough, as there are still physical copies available) of the Oldham/McCarthy demos be pressed as a CD, under the title WAI NOTES (WAI being the original intended title of THE LETTING GO).  The artwork is by Magnus Johnstone, then of Blue Hill, Maine.  Oldham had learned of Johnstone’s MANGA zine through artist Spencer SweeneyOldham had commissioned pieces from Johnstone before for t-shirts and for the Amalgamated Sons of Rest EP (made with Alasdair Roberts and Jason Molina).  WAI NOTES features most of the songs from THE LETTING GO, plus the song “God is Love” which was later rewritten, rerecorded, and released as the b-side of the “There Is No God” single.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Lie Down In The Light - Streaming Now

When Will Oldham was working with Andy Bruntel on the “Cursed Sleep” video in Atascadero, CA, he got a telephone call from his mother announcing that his father had died very suddenly and unexpectedly.  This event began a distinct shift in color and practice for Bonny endeavors.  Oldham advanced to Louisville, KY to see what was what.  He decided to buy a house there, and to lay low for a spell.  The first time he ventured out of Louisville after his father’s death, it was at the invitation of Mark Nevers, who asked Oldham to come to Nashville to sing “Knoxville Girl” with Charlie Louvin for a new Louvin record.  Oldham went to Nevers’ Beech House studio and sang his parts on the same day that George Jones came in to sing with Louvin.  The experience reminded Oldham that Nevers’ place was a strong and safe fortress for music-making, and seeds were planted for the planning of the making of the next full-length record, LIE DOWN IN THE LIGHT.

Since THE LETTING GO, Oldham had done a tour of Switzerland and Italy as a duo with Alex Nielson playing drums (Oldham had met Nielson during the recording of Alasdair Roberts’ NO EARTHLY MAN in Aberdeenshire, Scotland).  At Bad Bonn in Dudingen, Switzerland, Nielson and Oldham played a show with Faun Fables, who were themselves touring as the duo of Dawn McCarthy and Shahzad Ismaily, with Ismaily on drums.  Faun Fables and Bonny Billy did a few Swiss shows together, and over that time a friendship and musical connection grew between Oldham and Ismaily.

Then on a longer and more ambitious tour of the western USA and Canada (documented somewhat on the live CD WILDING IN THE WEST), Oldham met Ashley Webber when she opened a show in Victoria on Vancouver Island.  He had never heard a voice quite like Webber’s.  Once home in Kentucky, he began to construct duets with the hope that Webber would be able and willing to record them with him.  They corresponded, and she agreed.

Also during this period, Oldham had played a small part in a film called WENDY AND LUCY, directed by Kelly Reichardt.  On set, he met Katy Kolego, who was working in the production crew.  He asked her to come to Nashville to be the production coordinator for the recording session.  She got everybody there and kept every body fed and comfortable.

Emmett Kelly (guitar), Paul Oldham (bass), Shahzad Ismaily (percussion), and Ashley Webber (voice) joined Oldham at Beech House for the recording of LIE DOWN IN THE LIGHT.  The songs tackled were all Oldham constructions except for “I’ll Be Glad”, which was written by Shannon StephensJai Agnish, of Flygirl magazine, had sent Stephens’ music to Oldham a few years before.

Marty Slayton returned to sing as part of the choir.  Nevers brought Pete Finney in to play pedal steel; it thrilled Oldham to no end learning that Finney worked regularly with one of Oldham’s heroes, Patty LovelessNevers close friend and colleague Tony Crow brought his keyboard magic to the table, and Oldham first worked with percussionist Ben Martin on these sessions as well.

Oldham was familiar with Scott Colburn’s work on Sun City Girls’ records and hired Colburn to master this new record.  Paul Oldham remixed “Keep Eye on Other’s Gain” in Shelbyville, KY.

The front cover of the record was drawn by Joanne Oldham, Will’s mother.  She had long been fascinated by Gauguin’s paintings of Jacob wrestling with the angel, demanding salvation.  It was Will’s intention to photographically pay tribute to Gustave Courbet’sL’Origine du Monde” for the inside artwork; ultimately he balked at the self-set challenge.  Still, he asked his mother to modify Courbet’sThe Wrestlers” so that it depicted, with a wildly unnatural color palette, the biblical Jacob story.

The whole idea behind the making of the record is wrapped up in its title; when in doubt, Oldham defaulted to a relaxed acceptance of good energy and momentum as often as possible.  The record was released quietly; most of the promotional capital was spent on bus-bench advertisements in cities around the country.  No review copies were sent out, nor announcements made in advance of the record’s release.