We know far more about the prolific indie-folk songwriter than anyone did in 1993, when There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You caused a stir; a record by a previously unheard of group called Palace Brothers. The album had come out of Louisville, Kentucky and it was soon revealed that Brian McMahon, Britt Walford and Todd Brashear from indie rock band Slint were involved in playing on it.
But that didn't explain who wrote and sang these songs. An assumedly young man whose voice was devoid of pretence and backed up by lazily strummed pastoral banjo, unaffected guitars and loosely brushed drums.
As if figuring out his identity wasn't enough, his lyrics were deep and needed interpreting. This was a record that could keep a fan busy if they had the inclination, but it was nothing in comparison to what was to come over the next 21 years.
As Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Will Oldham and, most famously, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Will Oldham continues to deliver a raft of beautiful, gloomy, funny and poignant music at an impressive rate.
We're not trying to solve the mystery that surrounds this enigmatic artist or even give a definitive picture of who Will Oldham is. But we do hope to shed some light on an underappreciated songwriter who has a unique view of the industry in which he works and how he makes it work best for him.
The majority of Will Oldham's records have been released under the guise of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. But when asked what the relationship between Will Oldham the man and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy the artist, Oldham tells Double J it is complicated.
He recently wrote a short bio for the program of an Everly Brothers tribute he is performing at later this month and came up with a line he thinks explains it pretty well.
"'Bonnie 'Prince' Billy is a singer, played by Will Oldham'," he says. "I don't know why it never occurred to me to say that before, but it made sense. Essentially that's what I think that it is."
But depending on the circumstances, and presumably how Oldham is feeling at any given time, he relates to the character of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy in different ways.
"Sometimes Bonnie is I, sometimes Bonnie is me, sometimes Bonnie is him," Oldham says.
Oldham worked as an actor as a young man before turning to music, landing roles in a few films late in the 1980s before becoming dismayed with the film industry. A large number of Oldham writes in the first person, which he says is his way of relating to the characters in the song, just like acting.
I came to music through acting and I came to acting through the desire to live out alternate realities.Will Oldham
"I came to music through acting and I came to acting through the desire to live out alternate realitiesn and make decisions based on completely different forces acting upon my decision making process," he told Time Off magazine in 2012. "One good way of doing that is to play roles and another good way of doing that is to write songs, in which you can leave certain parts of the forces that act upon you to make you who you are and retain others.
"Maybe one day it would be nice to write some more third person songs, I think I've tried every now and again. But when you're singing, the joy of finding the dynamic and the melody of the performance comes more completely with identification with the voice that is making the words happen."
Every artist's writing process is personal and often it can be difficult to explain what helps make the songs flow. Oldham says that time and space are two vital elements to making his songs come together.
"Spaces and routine can contribute significantly to the ability to get any sort of writing accomplished," he says.
"An idea rarely, if ever, comes anywhere near fully formed. In order for it to come to anything approaching completion, it needs some sort of continuity in your thought processes. That can usually only happen if you're in the same place for a week or two months or six months or something like that and have some sort of a day where your brain can trust that it's going to find its way back to the beginning of a song. But that said, one never knows when you're gonna get regularity in your life so when it happens that's when the songs seem to creep together in a way.
The only way to do things is to work at it. Work at it regularly. Every day if possible.Will Oldham
By modern standards, Oldham is an incredibly prolific artist. Last month he released his 21st studio album Singer's Grave a Sea of Tongues. He has released 29 EPs, either solo or in collaboration with another artist or band, and has countless singles lifted from these releases and separately, on their own.
But Oldham doesn't like that such a work ethic is considered prolific, blaming the music industry for breeding artists who don't release enough material.
"I think it's a shame. I feel like the powers that be have really steered musicians and people who write songs into this idea that anything more than a record's worth of songs every two years is prolific," he says. "I think that's incredibly, incredibly crippling and unhealthy.
"Record companies like to have that amount of time to sell records, but they don't care if that's good for the musicians or the songwriters at all. They'll just get more, once they burn out those people in convincing them that that's the way to do things when it's the wrong way to do things. The only way to do things is to work at it. Work at it regularly. Every day if possible.
"That's how the music industry began and then when people learned that artists were disposable, they encouraged people to think that writing more than an album's worth of songs every two years could be called prolific, when it's just normal."
Will Oldham is not a fan of the machinations of the music industry. He's occasionally outspoken about it, but lets his actions speak far louder. There is rarely a large promotional push behind his albums, he infrequently allows interviews and some of his self-released music is given no promotion at all.
"It's working in tandem with the way I've always related to music, which has to do with discovery, being able to understand that the most valuable music in your life is going to come to you in the most unlikely of ways," he says. "Either because you didn't know about it because there wasn't a big ad campaign around it, or because it wasn't available, or because you were doing something else, like living your life.
"All of a sudden you hear it at a friend's house or you hear it on the radio or you see it at a record store, it comes into your life somehow and that's the beginning of your relationship with the most important music in your life.
[The] most valuable music in your life is going to come to you in the most unlikely of ways.Will Oldham
"It didn't come because somebody said 'here's the new record, here's a billboard, here's a sign, here's a commercial, here's a video'. It's unlikely that that's gonna be the music you remember when you're in a nursing home at age 92."
The slow pace of Oldham's music is a distinctive characteristic of his sprawling catalogue. He likes fast music, but he says that he can't play it.
"I would play loud and fast music if I could, but I can't and I've never been able to. I just don't have the mechanical facility," he says. But Oldham gives compelling reasons to the virtues of playing music slowly.
I like singing a line and having time to see where the line takes you.Will Oldham
"I think I cherish the amount of choices that can be made when you move slowly," he says. "If you move slowly and surely, the things that you can see and that you can savour are more than if you move quickly. I like that. I like singing a line and having time to see where the line takes you."
"If you sing a line that takes four seconds to sing, as opposed to a line that takes 12 seconds to sing, in four seconds you have a limited amount of choices you can make. Whereas in 12 seconds there are more things you can decide as you head through the line, whether its intention and emotion or melody and dynamic. It's always just made sense to be slow and quiet and go for beauty, because I don't have the option."
Will Oldham is no household name, but he's a revered songwriter among songwriters across the globe. We asked a few Australian artists what it is that they love about Oldham and what their favourite songs from his catalogue are.
CONOR MACDONALD (THE GIN CLUB): 'Beast for Thee'
He's quite funny, there's a humour in there that I quite like. It's dry and a bit rude.Conor Macdonald, The Gin Club
The Gin Club guitarist Conor Macdonald says one of his favourite Oldham compositions first appeared on Superwolf, a 2005 album he made in collaboration with Matt Sweeney. But Oldham has a habit of re-recording his material in different situations to suit different circumstances, and it's a later version that Macdonald likes particularly.
"It came out again on an EP called Now Here's My Plan," he says. "It was a slight rearrangement with Emmett Kelly playing guitar and Angel Olsen singing on it. That's a really lovely version of that song.
"I like that [Oldham's songs] get reinterpreted either live or re-recorded in the studio. So you can have three or four different versions of a song and they'll all be great and they'll all be different."
His phrasing, his humour and his left-of-centre approach to songwriting is what endears Macdonald to Oldham's work.
"He's quite funny, there's a humour in there that I quite like. It's dry and a bit rude – he works blue sometimes. I think that's funny," he says.
"But his lyrics and his phrasing are really great and the way his voice and the melodies have developed has been really interesting to watch. The song structures are kind of weird sometimes – he doesn't play by any of the usual rules and there's just something really appealing in that."
GLENN RICHARDS (AUGIE MARCH): 'Arise, Therefore'
"Every now and then there's a record that will grab me and help me with my own songwriting. Will Oldham's Arise Therefore was one of those," Augie March frontman Glenn Richards says.
The 1996 album, released under the Palace Music moniker, was recorded by Steve Albini and is distinguishable by its basic, droning, rhythmic drum machine that provides the record's percussion.
"It's one of the sparest records I ever heard, probably only rivalled by Pink Moon by Nick Drake in that they both feature just a tiny bit of piano that comes out of nowhere," Richards says.
The Augie March frontman is often regarded as one of Australia's finest lyricists, so it's interesting to hear that he learned a lot from Oldham's approach to writing.
"Exceptional lyrics," he says. Otherworldly sort of stuff that showed me you can do that. You can be genuinely poetic and wrap your mouth around the words while you're singing.
"It's worth reading them, because they read like a poem on the page. I expect the unexpected in his songwriting, I expect to hear complex rhyme, I expect to hear a dark tale that could be William Faulkner and I expect to hear a dirty lyric as well, really bawdy stuff. He obviously loves his sex and he loves writing about it in quite a Hemingway sort of fashion. He's a very American songwriter, but not in a contemporary sense. I like him because he makes me think."
HOLLY THROSBY: 'Ease Down the Road'
That bawdiness both Richards and Macdonald mention plays a part in Holly Throsby's favourite Bonnie 'Prince' Billy song as well. 'Ease Down The Road' from Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's 2001 album of the same name sees the protagonist taking a drive in the country with the wife of a fireman.
"I think it's really beautiful," Throsby says. "It's kind of about him taking another man's woman on a drive and doing things that he probably shouldn't do. The whole album is really beautiful and I think it has a really nice sentiment about it nonetheless."
Oldham appeared on Holly Throsby's 2009 record A Loud Call, lending vocals to the song 'Would You?'
KEVIN MITCHELL: 'New Partner'
"If there was a record that introduced me to the whole 'alternative country' genre, it was probably this record. It came out in 1995 but I didn't hear til a couple of years later. It's really idiosyncratic music that sometimes can be a little bit hard to access. His vocal style particularly is really, really different.
A lot of the lyrics, of this song particularly, I didn't even understand for a long, long time. But that's kind of what draws you in, because it sort of makes you create a picture in your mind from these fragments of weird kind of imagery.
The moments that underpin this song is when he sings 'you were always on my mind', which for this band is a pretty rare moment of directness. Then at the end he sings 'I've got a new partner riding with me', again it's a really simple line but it just reflects that sort of sweet and unassuming joy that newfound love brings."
MACHINE TRANSLATIONS: 'Wolf Among Wolves'
Jay Walker of Machine Translations has had a few personal interactions with Oldham and finds his unique voice particularly endearing. His selection comes from the 2003 album Master and Everyone.
"He's someone that I've sort of bumped in to a few times over the years doing shows," he says. "A great artist with an incredible ability to just keep put out great albums every year. He's always trying new things. He's got a funny little voice that makes you feel like you wanna kind of give him a little cuddle."
MIA DYSON: 'You Will Miss Me When I Burn'
Mia Dyson came about Oldham in a similar way to many others, thanks to a cover of his beautifully glum song 'I See a Darkness' on his album American III: Solitary Man.
"I fell in love with that song, lyrically especially, so I went and hunted down Will Oldham's records and became a big fan," she says. "Particularly of his record [Bonnie 'Prince' Billy Sings Greatest] Palace Music (2004), where he covers his own songs and does a more elaborate production style."
Dyson is most attracted to the darkness and uniqueness of both Oldham's sound and his lyrics, evidenced in her choice of track.
"My favourite track is 'You Will Miss Me When I Burn'. It's such an odd, dark, weird, beautiful song. It's low and it's lanky and the lyrics just spoke to me. It was just one of those songs that just stayed with me."
You could spend years trawling Will Oldham’s body of work and the mind behind it all and you might not ever get close to truly capturing the essence of what makes his work so special.
Sure, there is hours upon hours of recorded material available to listen to. But that doesn't begin to explore the 18 films he's appeared in, not to mention the Kanye West video in which he stars alongside Zach Galifianakis. It doesn't even touch on Oldham's talent as a writer, his interview with R. Kelly and his book with Alan Licht Will Oldham on Bonnie 'Prince' Billy which are both brilliant.
One gets the feeling that no matter how deeply you delve into the world of Will Oldham there'll always be more to explore. And whatever creative output Oldham offers in the future, you can guarantee it will be done on his terms.