Moments before I’m scheduled to speak with folk luminary Will Oldham via phone, my new recorder breaks. In lieu of finding a quite, peaceful nook in Chinatown to record the conversation aloud, I find myself hunkered down in a barren sushi restaurant bathroom, listening to Oldham’s weathered warble bouncing off of the paint-chipped walls. We discuss his “Bonny Billy Blend” coffee, his poke allergies and his deep-seated love for Hawaii. Turns out Oldham, a musician known for his sparse, stripped-down lo-fi aesthetic paired with haunting, elegiac vocals, doesn’t mind a few technical glitches.
How did you come up with the idea to start making coffee?
Well when we were finishing this last record [Wolfroy Goes to Town], we were trying to think of interesting ways of letting people listen to the record. One of the great employees of Drag City [Records] said, “What if some sort of coffee house did a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy blend?” And I said, “Well we could, I also have a friend who lives on the Big Island and farms for Kona Coffee, what if we just did something with him?” Everybody thought it was a good idea. It was decided that the blend would actually be 100-percent Kona, so the “blend” is actually 100-percent pure [laughs].
I read the coffee’s description and it says it’s good paired with chewing gum, hash-browns, garden heirlooms, sour patch gummies, non-wacky tobacco, turkey necks … anything else you think it’ll go well with?
Umm … like a habanero pepper. Just pop it in your mouth, then drink a hot, steaming cup of black coffee and you’ll be good to go, yeah.
Noted. Sounds good.
I’m allergic to octopus, but I’m thinking you can probably put some of that, what’s that thing called, that octopus salad thing?
Tako poke? Throw that in there?
Yeah, I’m allergic so I can’t tell ya if it’s good.
I’ll test it and get back to you. Right now the coffee’s available through Drag City’s website. Do you plan on making it more accessible?
It’s strange because we thought of it as kind of a lark and there’s been a much stronger, positive reaction then we expected, so were having to think about what we’d like to do and what Jason, who works at the coffee farm, and his wife, Collette, want to do or are willing to do. It’s great having this connection with Jason and Colette–having this connection with Hawaii.
What’s your relationship with Hawaii, how often do you visit?
Well my mom was an Army baby. She was born in Hawaii so her father was in the Air Corps and her mother was a nurse in Hickam Field. She was in the womb during Pearl Harbor. She lived there for a couple of years with her folks. They lived on a house that’s actually still there by the Ala Wai, right next to the canal.
Yeah, it’s wild because there are all these newer buildings around it. So I wanted to come here and visit this state that I had heard about, going back about every 18 months or so.
The video for “Quail and Dumplings” was shot here. What made you decide to shoot in Hawaii?
A few years ago I was there to perform a wedding ceremony. My friends who got married were going to have their second anniversary and wanted to re-gather people that were a part of the wedding. They asked if I wanted to go and I said sure and thought, “Well, lets shoot a video while we’re there.” It coincided very well because we had also just recorded a song by a Hawaiian musician whose name is Darren Benitez who lives around Waianae and Makaha. I’m a big fan of his music.
How did you find out about him?
I think he didn’t necessarily play out at a lot of public events, but he happened to be playing a show as part of a benefit for a hula school. He sings a song or two in Spanish, a song here and there in English, and a lot of songs in Hawaiian.
I’ll have to look him up
Yah, he’s got a really cool falsetto. His band he played with that night was really good.
I really enjoy your recording, “E Iesu / Maikai No.” Hawaiian music and country-folk seem so intricately tied to one another, I liked what you brought to it. What inspired you to sing a song in Hawaiian?
Just from listening to the records of Darren Benitez. He uses Hawaiian music, country music and Puerto Rican music to great effect and I just love listening to him. I thought it would be a challenge to hit all of those notes as well, to sing a song in Hawaiian with guitar.
I thought the concept of your video was really interesting. The character gets shot near the last scene, why did he die?
The guy who made the video was Ben Berman and he used to work for a number of years with Tim and Eric off of the show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! He came up with that idea–I think the end thing was his punchline.
You’ve had so many releases, is it still a struggle to write a song you like? After so many songs, is the writing process pretty transparent by now?
It isn’t necessarily transparent. Like recording the Darren Benitez song, it’s the sort of thing where you’re trying to understand another great song by learning it and performing it and that helps make creating new songs make a little bit more sense.
I know that you played a show in Oahu a few years ago. Unfortunately, I found out too late. Do you plan on playing another show here?
I hope so. My favorite way to play shows is with two to five other musicians, so it can be kind of cost-prohibitive. We’d have to get multiple shows around the state, which would be amazing.
You should definitely do that!
Yeah, we’ll get Darren Benitez to play a set, too.