Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
The thinking just doesn’t ever seem to stop. To keep it from caving in on itself or from going into dangerous and irreversible places and states, I try to keep a flow of sensations, experiences, ideas, and interactions coming in at almost all times.
Recently I was asked to contribute a song to a compilation celebrating Wim Wender’s 70th birthday. Coincidentally, earlier in the day I was looking for some old song lyrics and had come across an unfinished song called “Cal’s Song”. Cal is a character played by James Dean in EAST OF EDEN. EAST OF EDEN was one of the first pre-recorded VHS tapes I ever bought, when I was a teenager. Coincidentally, on the day that I rediscovered this lyric sheet I was in the middle of reading Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN for the first time. The title “Cal’s Song” was a reference to the song “Cassiel’s Song” that was recorded by Nick Cave for Wenders’ movie FARAWAY, SO CLOSE. It was one of the last Nick Cave songs that really moved me, as I really appreciated his music beginning with FROM HER TO ETERNITY and going on through until HENRY’S DREAM and the songs for Wenders’ UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD and FARAWAY SO CLOSE. After that that, it seems like Cave et al. settled on an ensemble and an approach, and that settling was at odds with what had been intriguing to me about Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ records and songs. Anyway that’s where the title came from, and then the song’s lyrics addressed conscience, I guess.
There were two drafts of the lyrics, one of which I had sent years ago to Matt Sweeney, so that he would set the words to music as he did with all of the songs on our SUPERWOLF record. He never sent me any music for these lyrics and so the lyrics collected dust. Now I had them again in my hands and lo and behold someone wants a song for Wenders. So then I get to dig into the words again, and edit and rewrite and then I get to set the words to melody and begin to sing it.
So I sing it for a week or two, at home alone or with my girlfriend present, all the while thinking about honouring Wim Wenders, about singing straight to him. So singing about THE GOALIE’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK which introduced me to Peter Handke and to a very hard style of storytelling and expression (deadpan and in color); singing about WINGS OF DESIRE and being told again and again to see it by my friend Steve Driesler and finally going to a showing at a Santa Monica movie theatre at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, and Peter Falk and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and Bruno Ganz and angels and love in general and “From Her to Eternity”; singing about LIGHTNING OVER WATER and Mitch the A.C. on MATEWAN and about Nicholas Ray and so about IN A LONELY PLACE and Ray’s Gypsy movie and his Eskimo movie and Peter O’Toole’s dubbed voice and watching THE LUSTY MEN alone in a room with a 16mm projector and about Kelly Reichardt saying “Watch ON DANGEROUS GROUND!” and about eye-patches; about THE STATE OF THINGS and that black-and-white film stock that we see again in STRANGER THAN PARADISE; and THE AMERICAN FRIEND and Hopper before and after that; about Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange acting so incredibly together; Michelle Williams driving across country with Wenders; BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB; THE END OF VIOLENCE and so Bill Pullman and so INDEPENDENCE DAY and how Bill Pullman’s mouth reminds me of my friend Bryan’s mouth, Bryan who I went to visit in Moscow and in Bujumbura and with whom I wrote songs; about meeting Wenders after a show in Berlin; about giving him a song that Sweeney and I had written and recorded for his PALERMO SHOOTING; about Rudiger Vogler and thus actors and acting overall and also ultimately about ALICE IN THE CITIES and Chuck Berry and “Memphis, TN” and children ignored and abandoned by our parents and how to make that beautiful. And then I got to sing a song again and again, a song that already had a home and so wasn’t fully superfluous and just adding to the mass of unheard melody and failed attempts at communication and expression.
With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? Who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
Originality is one of those things, like good and evil, that will not increase or decrease proportionate to the amount of people that are or have been or will be. I’m guessing that some of the most radical, innovating and deft moves are happening in fields to which I have no access, like computer coding. In “creative” fields I am familiar with, here are some people who can really surprise me with their originality: Helge Sten, Shary Boyle, Leslie Shows, Yusuf Islam.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Any performance I take part in, whether in front of a present audience or in front of an assumed-and-hoped-for future audience (or a past audience...? that’s all of them) is improvisation bounded by composition.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
We are writing, performing and recording in one space with an idea that the music will carry forward into other spaces, and the success of the music will be determined by its ability to inhabit the spaces well. So it’s just about being aware of spaces and respecting them, about respecting that we don’t know where any music will find its ultimate home most fulfillingly. And, to me, it is about not trying to define (in a recording) a space, because that will be the listener’s job.
What's your perspective on the relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema, for example – and for you and your work, how does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?
I can’t understand relationships between mediums as much as I can understand relationships between creators. The medium is something that happened to the creator. And I guess that if we are around long enough, there will be a way to quantify the relationship between the senses. I know it’s there, that a song becomes a different song when the temperature changes, or when the smell in a room changes, or a taste in the mouth. And the tastes and smells and feelings change as the sounds and musics change.
What's your view on the role and function of music as well as the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today - and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
The drive, for me, in making music is not to express myself but to participate with others, including (and at times even especially) the audience/listener.
Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What's your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies change the way music is perceived by the public?
PR as an art form is under-recognized and under-utilized, especially by professional publicists and promoters. Promoting and publicizing work should be as wild and broad and solid and unpredictable as any promoted work can be. Usually it isn’t though.
Do you have a musical vision that you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons – or an idea of what music itself could be beyond its current form?
I have ideas about constant singing. Every day I get closer to what I want music to be.
Will Oldham's website is royalstablemusic.com