Will Oldham (b. 1970) is an American songwriter. His early work was
distinctive for Oldham’s unusual vocal style and its ‘lo-fi’
aesthetic and was released as ‘Palace Music’ or slight variations,
to reflect the interchangeable line-up of his band. From the early
2000s, most of his work has been released under the moniker ‘Bonnie
These recordings documented his emergence as
one of the finest songwriters in contemporary music as he gained
renown for his idiosyncratic and literary lyrical style and often
intense and meditative compositions. Beneath layers of eccentric
personas and unconventional narratives, these songs offered frank
and sometimes startling insights into his relationships and
The title track from his album ‘I See a
Darkness’ is an example of one of his more directly personal
songs and is written from the perspective of a troubled spirit
speaking to a friend, or brother, about his fears and hopes for the
future. It is an exceptional piece of work which was recorded by
Johnny Cash for his ‘American Recordings’ series. I spoke to him
about his songs and his views on the relationship between mental
distress and music.
JT: Your songs are thought by many to explore the darker
side of human nature. Would you agree with such an assessment? If
so, what is the motivation behind such an exploration?
WO: It is my understanding that human nature
gets considerably darker than the aspects explored in my songs.
Certainly, though, there is an attempt to address aspects of
our natures which make us feel outside and ostracisable. By
revealing these visions and sharing them, and making them
melodious, we may feel welcome again.
Many of your songs appear to be written from the point
of view of protagonists. ‘I See a Darkness’ though seems
to have a more directly personal feel. Would you like to comment on
the inspiration or motivation for writing this song?
Every song is an attempt to make a "hit".
I don't imagine that the world will stand still and start
listening and singing. Still I hope to break into the circle
of song, nudging aside one and another to push something that I
make up into the communion. Recently I found the three or
four little yellow post-it notes onto which the lyrics for "I
See a Darkness" were originally written. I can remember
where I was sitting as the song came out. It was a stab at
identifying specifically one audience member and signing to him,
rather than the usual open concept of audience.
Many mental health professionals are
interested in the mental state of artists and musicians and
composers at work. Kay Redfield Jamison for example has explored
this in depth in her work. Do you find that you work more
effectively when your mind is at ease? Is some form of distress
necessary for you to find inspiration?
A mind completely at ease may or may not bring
forward something useful. There are times when it feels like
the mind disturbs itself in order to identify first a problem and
then its solution. Age brings a lessening of fear of the
chaos revealed by our brains/bodies. There used to be some
real fear that came with thoughts in turmoil. I've seen this
turmoil too many times now to be intimidated, I hope, anymore.
Still, it is often during the times when we have strayed from an
accepted shared reality that we can make something of actual "new"
value as opposed to replicating something.
You are known to have a wide range of
influences and to appreciate many types of music and art. Are there
any particular songs or artists that have helped you through times
So many. I first heard Peggy Lee sing
"Is That All There Is?" when I was a teenager, and it has
remained one of the great levellers. Then in my twenties, I
drove by myself across the USA a couple of times and I had two
records with me. One was Folke Rabe's ‘WHAT?’ and
the other was John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey's ‘Dance Hall
at Louse Point’. I listened to these two records over
and over. They helped make sense of everything, and put the past
into perspective while apparently arming me for the highs and lows
to come. Parish and Harvey recorded "Is That All There
Is?" on that record, and I edited that song from the cassette
that I made, because their reading of the song was too far away
from mine for me to appreciate it.
Really there are too many to write about,
because most of my life has been spent relating to songs to help me
through. In the song "All Murder, All Guts, All Fun",
Glenn Danzig wrote: "Because I like when chests are torn
apart/the way that heads come off/and the way that art starts to
imitate life." How far can we go in lyric? How different
can our vision of the world get before we are irretrievably unique?
Knut Hamsun was a vile man, who seemed to leave his writing
clean of his vileness. Maybe part of him knew that his life itself
was the wasteful by-product of what he was creating, and what he
was creating would last far longer.
We read Edgar Allen Poe's poem
"Alone" and what do we feel? If we identify with it, then
the poem has also been negated by our reading. So by writing,
"Alone", Poe has forced us to create more nuanced, if not
perverse, visions of solitude in order to appease terminal senses