2003 - 2005, STREAMING NOW

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy | 11/06/18

Image: Bonnie 2005

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Master And Everyone - Streaming Now

I SEE A DARKNESS and EASE DOWN THE ROAD sessions had ultimately proceeded well, and so Will Oldham mapped out a third full-length recording session with a similar process concept in place.  This new record would be made over the course of a month in Shelbyville at Paul Oldham’s Rove Studios with musicians coming and going for their respective tracking sessions.  For basic tracking, NY-based guitarist Alan Licht, Baltimoron bassist Drew Nelson and Belgian drummer Thomas Van Cottom were flown in and recording began.  To ease into the session and get good sounds down, a cover of Glen Campbell’sLess of Me” (learned from Roger Miller’s TENDER LOOK AT LOVE LP) was tracked.  A few originals were attempted, but the results didn’t feel right to Will, and he reluctantly pulled the plug on the whole session, sending this amazing ensemble back to their respective homes scratching their heads.  What was wrong with the proceedings?  Probably Oldham missed having a collaborator at the helm with him, looking at the big picture.  EASE had been a very satisfying experience with David Pajo co-overseeing the shaping of the record.  A conversation with David Berman persuaded Will to call producer/engineer Mark Nevers in Nashville to see if something could be done about saving the record.  Nevers had time available at his Beech House studio, so Will and Paul drove down to Music City, USA to start fresh.  Nevers brought in Paul Burch to play drums.  After a couple of days’ worth of recording, Will again felt that the songs weren’t coming together correctly.  Burch was dismissed, and the tracking began again from scratch with just brothers Will and Paul (on bass) playing the songs.  It was rudimentary, but the songs were coming across and so all proceeded until the ten songs were on tape.  Paul Oldham went home, and Nevers began to introduce Will to some of his intimate musical community, as well as to methods of studio recording in Nashville.  Nevers and Oldham would discuss arrangements, and then Nevers would get on the horn and bring in one pro or another.  Most significantly, Nevers introduced Oldham to keyboardist Tony Crow and guitarist William TylerOldham wanted a woman to sing on the record.  Nevers asked Oldham to describe what he was looking for, and Oldham said he wished for someone who combined the timbre and expressiveness of Dolly Parton and Sandy Denny.  It was up to Nevers to explain this to the singer’s union over the phone.  They recommended Marty Slayton, so Nevers called her and she came and threw down.  Watching Slayton work, Oldham realized what he wanted to be when he grew up.

With Nevers doing the heavy lifting, he and Oldham mixed the record in a few days.  It was done, but it had been an awkward and jarring experience overall for Oldham.  The songs and their recording had not been easy.  For months, Oldham listened to the mixes, convinced that they weren’t releaseable.  He thought to pare the collection down to six songs and release it as an EP titled IT’S EXPECTED I’M GONE, after the Minutemen song (which Oldham later recorded with Tortoise).  He’d become acquainted with Marianne Faithfull through Matt SweeneyOldham sent Faithfull the full ten songs, and she encouraged him to release the record as a full-length. 

He was still on the fence.  When the session was slated to go down in Shelbyville at Rove, Sarah DeVincentis was scheduled to come in and sing.  She’d joined the Bonny band for it’s first of three annual tours with RainyWood (who transmogrified into Brightblack by the third tour), an all-camping venture down the west coast of the USA (a 7” was recorded during this tour, “Barcelona” b/w “We All, Us Three, Will Ride”).  A couple of months after the Nashville session, Oldham joined DeVincentis and her family on a surfing excursion in Biarritz, where the cold and rain and generally poor surfing conditions kept everyone indoors.  Oldham played DeVincentis the MASTER AND EVERYONE recordings, and her positive (or at least non-negative) reaction pushed Oldham towards the decision to put out MASTER AND EVERYONE as the full ten-song record it is.

The front cover of the record is a photograph by Steve Gullick taken in a London hotel room.  Oldham commissioned his mother Joanne to make the back cover.  He asked her to render a blue jay.  She had just been to Alaska and was inspired by Russian iconographic works in the churches there, and so she rendered her jay in stylized two-dimensionality with a golden halo around its head.  Sammy Harkham painted a work for the record as well.  Harkham worked up pieces based on paltry notes provided by Will, coming up once again with inspired brilliance.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Happy Child / Forest Time - Streaming Now

A couple of little orphan songs were birthed in 2002, and Will Oldham felt strongly that they would be well-served by a release through channels familiar with Bonnie Prince Billy and Palace Musics.  One of these was “Forest Time”, commissioned as musical accompaniment to a small pressing of photographs by artist Erik Wesselo.  The song was recorded on home multitrack hard drive thingamajig at Oldham’s Baltimore house.  The other song, “Happy Child”, was released on a record by Tweaker.  Oldham had been approached by Tweaker’s Chris Vrenna to write lyrics and vocal melody for an instrumental bed that Tweaker had created.  The singing was recorded by Paul Leary in Austin Texas.  The cover art for the release of these two songs as a CD single was culled from paintings that Sammy Harkham had made for MASTER AND EVERYONE.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Greatest Palace Music - Streaming Now

Recording engineer/producer Mark Nevers had introduced Will Oldham to the wonderful community of Nashville session musicians during the sessions for MASTER AND EVERYONENevers noted how impressed Oldham was with how things could work at a Nashville session and suggested to Oldham that they reconvene for a future record for which Nevers would book a whole crew of A-team musicians.  Oldham first conceived of bringing in a pile of cover songs culled from the breezy pop charts of the 1970s; songs from Meat Loaf, Journey, Elton John, REO Speedwagon.  He figured to pare the fat off of the popular arrangements and build them back from the ground up, inspired in part by Dolly Parton’s cover of “Time For Me to Fly” on her WHITE LIMOZEEN record.  As the months passed, this idea transmogrified into the concept of covering Oldham’s own “hits”, bringing repertoire from Palace records formally into the Bonnie Prince Billy arsenal.  Oldham had learned that names can be confusing and misleading to the listening public, and thought he ought to record the evolution of the songs, introducing them to the BPB audience for now and future.  Drag City asked audiences to submit their favorite Palace jams for possible inclusion in this endeavor.

True to his word, Nevers assembled a mighty crew of seasoned pickers at the notorious Castle recording studio in Franklin, Tennessee.  Eddie Bayers played drums, Hargus Robbins played piano, Stuart Duncan played fiddle and mandolin.  Union rules were observed, with a few songs allowed per 4-hour session.  Things went fast.  Oldham’s head spun, gleefully.  After three days, 18 songs had been tracked with bass, drums, fiddle, mandolin, piano, and guitars, along with all of the lead vocals (except for “New Partner”, which vocals Oldham would re-sing later).

The next step, overdubbing, took months.  Oldham wanted to bring in many of the musical forces who had been crucial to the life of these songs. He brought the recordings to Milwaukee so that Colin Gagon could throw down some accordion and trombone parts; Anomoanon members Jack Carneal, Ned Oldham, and Aram Stith were recorded remotely.  Sessions occurred at Paul Oldham’s Rove Studios and at Nevers’ Beech HouseCynthia Hopkins, of Gloria Deluxe, played and sang.  Duets of a sort were recorded; David Berman joined in on the singing of “No More Workhorse Blues” (a song inspired by Berman) and Marty Slayton helped turn “Agnes Queen of Sorrows” into a functioning duet.  A few songs were scrapped from the final running order.  Oldham had been unhappy with the singing he did on “New Partner” in the initial sessions  He asked Berman to coach him for the vocal retake, which Berman did with aplomb.  Matt Sweeney came to Nashville and recorded his inimitable guitar moves and even sang a bit here and there.  William Tyler and Tony Crow were back, Bobby Bare Jr. joined in on some singing, Ned Oldham played and sang, Andrew Bird fiddled and whistled, DV DeVincentis blew his sax.

Loathe to travel and/or endure video production days, Oldham videotaped himself singing a few of the songs from the collection and sent the resulting clips to film-maker friends Harmony Korine and Braden King (he’d also sent the sole copy of his duet-with-a-puppet clip for “Agnes” to Geoff McFetridge but the tape was lost in the mail).  Korine conceived of and shot his short film for “Pushkin”. When Oldham saw it, he was both blown-away and inspired.  He asked Korine to re-fit the piece to “No More Workhorse Blues” instead of “Pushkin”.  Korine did so, and truly a mighty work is the final result.  Braden King shot an epically playful piece for “Horses” which remains vibrant and loved.

The front cover for GREATEST PALACE MUSIC is dominated by a painting by McLean Stith.  The back cover is a close-up photograph of Bonny Billy taken in a Montauk motel room.  The inside artwork was rendered by Patsy Desmond.  The vinyl edition featured three sides of playable music, with side four featuring a vinyl etching by Savage PencilBob Arellano wrote the liner notes.

Artist Kyle Field created artwork for the promotional poster.

Two physical singles were released, one for “Agnes”(again with art from Kyle Field) and one for “No More Workhorse Blues”.  Bonus tracks on these singles included a Mariah Carey cover, a Judee Sill cover, a new collaboration with Tweaker, and an outtake from the GREATEST PALACE MUSIC session.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Matt Sweeney - Superwolf - Streaming Now

Smoke was clearing for Will Oldham from the elaborations of GREATEST PALACE MUSIC.  Digging into the older songs had a left a brain free and wandering.  For Matt Sweeney, a separate kind of smoke was dissipating, as a years-long musical collaboration with David Pajo and Paz Lenchantin had come to a close.  Sweeney had been string-tickling in another’s wheelhouse, and his own was getting restless.  Oldham had a solo show booked in London (England) and came up with a kernel of an idea, in the form of an email with the subject of “Challenge”: would Sweeney be able and willing to collaborate on some new songs in time to debut them at this London gig together, as a two-man effort? Say, three songs? So they woodshedded separately and came up with “Beast For Thee”, “What Are You” and “I Gave You” in time to perform them at Shepherds Bush Empire together. They were late getting to the show due to stopping to see their colleague David Blaine who was weeks into being suspended in a box without food for 44 days- Steve Gullick’s photo of Oldham re-stringing a guitar last minute in the taxi was no pose. Both men felt good about what they had done at the concert and figured to pursue this process further.  They met up again in New Orleans, performing many old songs and some new at the El Matador and holing up for days at the Frenchman Hotel to hash out more songs.  Days and weeks wore on, they scheduled a session with Paul Oldham at the farmhouse studio in Shelbyville, KY.  They toured their way to Shelbyville from New York, playing shows at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn and Baltimore’s Ottobar.  Landing in Kentucky, they got down to business.  Pete Townsend was brought in to throw down drums on a few of the songs.  Friend Nicky Katt had strongly recommended that they watch the Vietnam vengeance movie ROLLING THUNDER, a suggestion that proved creatively crucial to “Blood Embrace”.  Artwork was rendered by Matt and his cousin Spencer Sweeney.  The poster for SUPERWOLF is a wax painting made by Brian “Babyleg” Deran.  A Calabasas-located music video was made by Mike Piscitelli for “I Gave You”.  The week of the album’s release saw two-man Superwolf shows at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 2 sold out nights at Big Sur’s Fernwood Inn and an in-store performance at Amoeba Records on Haight Street in San Francisco. A CD single for “I Gave You” was released with an outtake from the SUPERWOLF session, “My Circle”, along with two new songs, “Birch Ballad” and “Four Screams”.  On tour, the ensemble would also perform a cover of the Walker Brothers’ “Inside of You”. The European tours around the album featured Alex Neilson on drums, Azita Youssefi on keyboards, Ben Chasny on guitar and Paul Oldham on bass. A psychedelicized headlining show at the Montreux Jazz Festival in The Miles Davis theater happened. There was a BBC session at the end of the tour with the Chasny lineup.

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Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Summer in the Southeast - Streaming Now

In the early 2000’s, a band from Alabama called Rainywood contacted Will Oldham, expressing an interest in playing some shows.  It was agreed upon to undertake a tour of the west coast of the USA, Rainywood and Bonnie Prince Billy, an all-camping, all-swimming, all-surfing and/or hot springing journey from Washington state to Solana Beach, CA.  A good time was had by all, and it was agreed that the following summer a similar trip be undertaken, this time through the mountains and deserts to the east of the previous year’s trek.  Rainywood morphed into Brightblack (and ultimately Brightblack Morning Light), the Bonny Billy band rotated musicians in and out and back again, and once again a good time was achieved.  It was on the first of these trips that Oldham came into contact with the musics of Faun Fables and Joanna Newsom, and it was on the second of these trips that Newsom and Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables joined the bill for many of the tour’s shows.  2004 brought the third annual trip of this kind, this time rolling along the southern states of the USA from west to east, beginning in Texas and ending in North Carolina.  A split EP was recorded by Brightblack and Bonny Billy, called PEBBLES AND RIPPLESBrightblack gave Bonny three songs to cover and Bonny returned the challenge.  The Bonny band on this stretch featured David Bird and Matt Sweeney on electric guitars, Ryder McNair playing all keys, b singing and playing an acoustic guitar, with the powerhouse I SEE A DARKNESS rhythm team of Paul Oldham (bass) and Peter Townsend (drums).  Pink Nasty had arranged and recorded Bonny’sMay It Always Be” previously, and it was this rendition that she performed during this tour. Paul Oldham had to miss the final two shows and Aram Stith filled in on bass for those.  The previous years’ outings had been so fine and rollicking that Oldham invited engineer Kris Poulin along to record the shows, with the idea of making a live record out of the resulting recordings.  Will and Paul pored over the recordings for months after.  Will had thought to assemble the record from multiple shows, stitching the songs together into one flowing set.  Originally he’d thought to approach the piece like GET YER YA-YAS OUT (and most big live records from the previous decade or two), taking liberties with the idea of “live” by adding overdubs when the recording just didn’t translate.  However, they found the collection worked without more recording.  All of the manipulations had to do with selecting and sequencing songs from different shows to accommodate the new context.  The photographs on the cover of SUMMER IN THE SOUTHEAST come from a trip that Oldham took with Todd Brashear to Argentina.  Drawings inside were by Able Brown.  The record came out on Drag City’s ‘bootleg’ label, SEA NOTE.