BONNIE "PRINCE" BILLY in-store at Rotate This (620 Queen West), Saturday (August 19), 5 pm. Free ticket with purchase of Cursed Sleep EP. www.rotate.com. Rating: NNNNN
In the embattled realm of collegiate country, where beard-folk minstrels rise to prominence strumming melancholic ballads of love's bitter blessings, it may be good to be king, but Will Oldham knows it's much better to be Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
If he decides on a whim that a change of scenery is required to make a new album, flights to Iceland for all his collaborators, including Faun Fables vocalist Dawn McCarthy, bassist brother Paul Oldham and drummer Jim White, will be hastily arranged and recording time blocked out in a Reykjavik studio.
And should the Bonnie one feel that the conventional clubs, taverns and other local liquor-serving establishments are not suitable venues for his quietly introspective solo renditions of the tenderly twangy new songs on his forthcoming Drag City disc, The Letting Go (due out September 19), he need only speak the phrase "in-store tour" and fiercely independent record retailers across North America such as Toronto's Rotate This will bend over backwards to make their humble vinyl-vending operations suitable for a royal visit.
"It was a way of exchanging ideas through music without commerce entering into the equation," explains Oldham over a cellphone while cycling to another interview. "At least the original plan was to make these shows free, but I've heard that some stores are giving away tickets to people who purchase my new EP. I guess that's a way of maintaining some crowd control. Still, these shows will allow me to play in a way that I normally don't and enable people to listen differently.
"I really don't like bars, and I almost never play in clubs by myself because they're such miserable places. It would just be too pathetic to try doing that alone. Also, because there's no alcohol being served and the shows are starting early, people of all ages can attend - everyone from young children to those who need to get up early for work - and I'll be able to see all their faces in the light of day, so no one can escape the face-to-face interaction.
"Since it's free, I'm confident everyone will get their money's worth."
Such levity might seem a bit unusual for Oldham, in light of the characteristically dour delivery given to his sordid twilight-set scenerios, but lately there appear to have been some changes.
It could have something to do with McCarthy's delightful harmonies, but the songs on The Letting Go definitely have a more optimistic feel. The picture of Oldham on the back of the disc's lyric sheet shows him attempting what looks like a toothy grin, although it could be argued that it's really just a pained grimmace in the shape of a smile.
Of course, the residual effects on Oldham of composing a song specifically for Southern soul great Candi Staton, which eventually became the title track of her Mark Nevers-produced comeback album, His Hands (Honest Jon's/Astralwerks), shouldn't be discounted. His Hands is among the very best songs Oldham has ever devised, and clearly, the collaboration with Staton was a moving experience for the songwriter.
"Originally, I started working on a more erotic song. Somehow, her voice makes me think of... well, in Big Black terms, 'songs about fucking.' But when I called Mark with my idea, he said that type of song might not be appropriate. As Mark told me more about her spiritual devotion and the abuse she had endured, I knew I'd have no problem writing something that could deal with both of those issues.
"Hearing her sing the words of His Hands for the first time made my skin crawl. It left me in tears. I was crying out of happiness for the success of our collaboration as well as sadness because of the emotion her interpretation brought to the song. I'm sorry, I've gotta go."