R. Kelly doesn’t need to throw on a tuxedo and dig into a McRib sandwich—like he did at the photo shoot that accompanies this story—to demonstrate that he is a complicated guy. In fact, the 44-year-old Kelly is the walking, talking embodiment of complicated: Complicated because, as a singer, songwriter, and producer, he has worked with everyone from Quincy Jones and Ronald Isley to Jay-Z and Michael Jackson, and represents so much of what is both good and important and difficult-bordering-on-ridiculous about R&B. Complicated because he is, if not the inventor, the preeminent purveyor of both soul music–as–art rock and the slow-moving sex jam. Complicated because of the scope of his talent, which allows him to move so easily from making a club-ready album like Chocolate Factory (2003) to creating a more introspective one like Happy People/U Saved Me (2004). Complicated because of the near-visionary, bombastic ambition of projects like his 22-part, soap-operatic, audiovisual song cycle epic “Trapped in the Closet” (2005–2007). Complicated because he grew up not terribly well-off on the South Side of Chicago, and started out as a street performer, quite literally singing for his dinner. Complicated because his solo debut, 12 Play (1993), includes songs with titles like “Bump N’ Grind,” “I Like the Crotch On You,” “Freak Dat Body,” and “Sex Me, Pts. 1 & 2.” Complicated because he once referred to himself in a lyric as a “sexasaurus” and included a philandering little-person character in the aforementioned “Closet” epic. Complicated because so much of what he does shouldn’t work. Complicated because so much of it does. Complicated because of the video tape that emerged in 2002 of him allegedly having sex with an underage girl, reawakening questions about the nature of his relationships with a number of young women, and the subsequent child pornography charges. Complicated because of all of the legal wrangling that followed (Kelly was cleared of all charges). And complicated because as the difficulties of Kelly’s personal life have deepened, so has his work, moving beyond the patent uplift of a song like “I Believe I Can Fly”—as considerable a hit as it may have been—to a place of real heart, real soul, and real conflict. But for all of the big songs and bravado, what has really defined Kelly’s work is a certain fearlessness and a willingness, even in his most difficult moments, to do something very uncomplicated by delving headlong into all of the inspiring, disappointing, heroic, and tragic forces that make someone like young Robert Kelly throw his hat on the sidewalk, steady himself, and belt one out for the ladies.
Kelly’s impact on contemporary R&B cannot be overstated: So many of the themes and tropes of the genre, both the outrageous and the outrageously brilliant, are ones he created or developed or helped bring into the modern pop consciousness by adapting or reimagining them. During his tour behind 2009’s Untitled, Kelly began performing two songs by the late soul singer Sam Cooke. That set—as well as a Sam Cooke– themed party that Kelly threw at his Chicago home— inspired his recently released new record Love Letter (Jive), an old-school R&B album that explores, among other things, the subjects of love and forgiveness.
Kelly was in New York City in early December to promote Love Letter and to perform on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Singer, songwriter, and actor Will Oldham sat down with Kelly in his dressing room backstage at the show, which is recorded at NBC’s midtown headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza—the 30 Rock of 30 Rock—to discuss the making of Love Letter and why the long, bumpy road that led Kelly to make the album has him revisiting the past and thinking about the future.
WILL OLDHAM: Do you watch 30 Rock?
R. KELLY: No. What’s that?
OLDHAM: It’s a television show, a comedy, that takes place in all of these hallways. It’s pretty funny. It’s, like, a good sitcom. It’s got Alec Baldwin. You know Alec Baldwin?
KELLY: Alec Baldwin? Yeah! Don’t he have a brother and they all kind of look alike?
OLDHAM: They’re, like, four brothers.
KELLY: Steve Baldwin . . .
OLDHAM: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] So I wanted to start by talking about how you work. For example, is this new album, Love Letter, a set of songs that you were working on constantly, where you were focused completely on this project? Or were you also working on other songs along the way? How do you approach making an album?
KELLY: Well, you know, Love Letter is a concept album, and whenever I do a concept album—and I love doing concept albums more than any other kind of album—it allows me to get dressed, in a way, musically. It’s not just like a freestyle situation. To make an album like Love Letter, everything’s got to be about love. Everything has to have a great feeling when you listen to it. So once I’ve decided that, I’ve geared myself up. I’ve programmed myself musically to come up with love-feeling tracks that are romantic, sexy, but classy, all in one. And that’s the challenge. Once I create that music, then the lyrical content starts to come—you know, the stories and things like that. But I have to say, it was fun doing this Love Letter album because, hey, man, love has never failed. It has won every battle. And today and forever more it will go on undefeated. I’m also a very loving person.
OLDHAM: But do you remember the day when it started? When did you start to think, I’m making a record about love?
KELLY: Well, a party that I gave at my house influenced me. I gave a Christmas party last year—well, two Christmases ago—where I did a Sam Cooke show. I didn’t perform as R. Kelly. I performed the Sam Cooke show from 1964, when he performed at the Copacabana.
OLDHAM: You performed the whole set?
KELLY: I did the whole set. I invited, like, 1,000 people out to my house, and everybody had to be dressed like it was the ’60s. People had the long-stem cigarettes and the zoot suits and all that stuff, man. It was just a good time.
OLDHAM: And that was before doing the Sam Cooke miniset that you did on the tour?
KELLY: Oh, yeah—way before that. It was about a two-and-a-half-hour show that I put together in my living room. Built a stage and catwalk. I had the bulb lights and everything. I had tap dancers. I had a girl with me who sounded just like Billie Holiday. I had a guy who sounded just like Frank Sinatra. And then I did Sam Cooke. We had the marquee on the outside of the door, and I went and got old-school pictures of myself and we put them up like I was born back then and performing back then. We had a sign that said, “One night and one night only.”
I STILL FEEL LIKE I’M ALONE AT TIMES—EVEN IF I’M IN THE MIDST OF A MILLION PEOPLE. BECAUSE NO ONE—INCLUDING ME—UNDERSTANDS MY MIND, CREATIVELY.R. Kelly
OLDHAM: There was only one show?
KELLY: Just the one show. I did that show, and I was afraid of doing it, but I knew I wanted to do it because I’ve always wanted to go back in time—I’ve always said that I wished that I was working back in the Sam Cooke days so I could feel the spirit of that music, because I love that music. So the only way for me to capture that was for me to become Sam Cooke for one night and do all his music and really try to nail it. So I had a full band. I had an orchestra, horn sections, upright bass, all of that stuff, man. Brought in background singers. And I came out with a suit on and everything. It was very classy. People loved it. I mean, they got with every song. I was shocked. We had a ball. But I think I was bitten that night, like Peter Parker being bit by the spider. I had this feeling that we really tapped in spiritually to that time. We did go back in time that night. And when I came back to the present, if you will, I’d brought back some goodies, because when I went in the studio—I was working on the Zodiac album, which was all, like, the bump ’n’ grinds—I couldn’t work on it because I was so overwhelmed and overpowered and pretty much musically abducted by this other period. So I switched and started working on Love Letter, and the next thing you know, “When a Woman Loves” came out and I was like, “What?” I was like, “Wow!” You know, my music comes to me like that. It talks to me. It just teases me sometimes. For two days that’s all I heard in my head [sings]: “When a woman loves . . . ” You know, we recorded the show. We had three cameras recording it because I didn’t want to lose what we’d done. And when people would come over to my house—be it celebrity company or just my friends from around the way—I would play it for them and we would drink and have a ball just looking at it. The more I would play it for people, the more I saw they was enjoying it, and the more I saw they accepted me in this area. So I was like, “If I did a whole album of this, boy . . .” You just never know— it might be a great thing, you know? So that’s when I started really deciding I’m going to go and do an album.
OLDHAM: The concept record aspect of the album is really nice. It feels like a marriage of the Happy People/U Saved Me records—you know, rather than have the two halves of the double album, you have this one album that is about good times but also about love as well.
KELLY: Love Letter reminds me of Chocolate Factory and Happy People. It’s a little bit of both of those, yeah. I just wanted it to be classy, man. And romantic. And maybe 10 percent sexy.
OLDHAM: How involved do you get in the artwork and the packaging?
KELLY: Well, I came up with my whole concept, man, and when I do concept albums, the entire vision comes with it. I like to go all out. I wanted the album to come in a love letter, like, a package, with my stamp on it. I wanted it to feel old-school. I wanted people, when they got it, to feel like they do when they get a letter—like it’s personal.
OLDHAM: That’s a rare feeling these days.
KELLY: I wanted it to just be this thing that’s special, where you don’t want nobody else to see it—you just want to look at it yourself, know what I’m saying? I felt like people have fun with concepts like that—even when you throw a party. You say, “Okay, everybody gotta come in with a broom and a witch hat and it’s a witch party.” You know what I mean? “Everybody gotta come already drunk.”
OLDHAM: Have you ever said that for one of your parties—like, “Everybody has to come drunk”?
KELLY: “Prove you’re wasted. Walk a straight line . . . Oops! That girl fell. She gets to sit in the VIP section.” [both laugh] Nah, man, I’ve never done that. But whenever you have a concept or anything, people enjoy it. It’s like you go to parties and they give you these little bags. I got everything I can ever want, and I’ve been blessed, but I want that little bag, you know? I want what’s in the bag. You’re like, “Where my bag at, dawg?” And they’re like, “Ah, we ran out, man.”
OLDHAM: I know what you mean. It’s like when you get on a nice first-class flight and they give you something that you’ve never seen before. You’re like, “Wow. That’s really cool toothpaste. Now my life is a little more complete.”
KELLY: Exactly. There’s something about a package.
OLDHAM: Just out of curiosity, what time of day do you like to record? At night?
KELLY: Fifty o’ clock.
OLDHAM: [laughs] Is that right?
KELLY: Yeah. It’s ridiculous, man. I get interrupted in my sleep all the time. You know, “Lost in Your Love”—I was going to sleep on my living room couch and [sings] “I want to bring love songs back to the radio . . . ” came in my head and I was awakened. So I’d go down to the studio, and when I go down to the studio, I be in there, you know, I don’t know what time it is. It’s pretty much like Vegas in there, you know? Like, whatever.
OLDHAM: Is there someone waiting there in the studio to push record? Or do you go in, push record yourself, and take notes and things like that?
KELLY: Well, my engineers kind of switch shifts like bus drivers, you know?
OLDHAM: So there’s somebody there.
KELLY: Yeah, there’s always somebody there, and if they happen to not be there, which happens every now and then, I do have a recorder. I got little Dictaphones all over my house. But I can’t hold the Dictaphone, because if I hold it, I will never hear nothing. So I have to pretty much stash them in places and then I have to go get them. That’s what the music does to me.
OLDHAM: So what happened to the Zodiac album?
KELLY: I’ve changed the name to The Return of 12 Play: Night of the Living Dead. I think it’ll be an R&B-like thriller album, if you will.
OLDHAM: That 12 Play reference is interesting, because there is this great sort of little puzzle-labyrinth thing that you have in your records, where there are little bits that repeat and come up again in new songs from other songs you’ve written, whether it’s a musical element or a lyric or an idea. It’s always a thrill when those things come up—it’s a good feeling, like a visit from an old friend.
KELLY: Exactly. Yep.
OLDHAM: I thought of that especially when I heard that line at the end of Love Letter, where you sing, “You are not alone . . . ” How many songs did you do with Michael Jackson?
KELLY: Two or three, I think. “You Are Not Alone,” “Second Chance,” and then another song, but I forgot the name of it. It was another inspirational type of song. It never came out.
OLDHAM: Will they put it out with this next slew of Michael songs?
KELLY: I hope so. I did an album and a half of songs for Michael Jackson. They’re all up in my studio.
OLDHAM: Did you mine those songs for yourself?
KELLY: Well, I put one of them, “Not Feelin’ the Love,” on the Love Letter album. I wrote that for Michael. I changed it up a little, of course. But you can kind of feel his spirit on it a bit with the melodies.
OLDHAM: How was your trip to South Africa last summer for the World Cup?
KELLY: Ah, man. It was an experience like no other. This may sound crazy, but the last time I really had a feeling like the one I had performing there was when I was a street performer. It was just the rawness of it. When I was performing on streets, there was no pressure. People accepted me. They loved me without knowing me. When I go to Africa I get pretty much the same feeling, but obviously on a bigger level. It was my first time in South Africa, and the love that the people there gave me was so huge, because a lot of them had grown up on my music but had never seen me. So it was like a long time coming. And to be performing right in the middle of the World Cup—you know, a hundred and something thousand people, and they surround you. . . . And you don’t feel one negative spirit. You feel like everybody’s on one accord, everybody is loving it, and they’re blowing the vuvuzelas and all of that energy is going to you . . . You ever see the movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde , where all of the electricity is just going into one body? That’s what I felt like. I felt like all of that love, all of that energy, and the sprit of Africa was being shot into me through the vuvuzelas, like I was a son of Africa. There’s just no other way to describe it, man.
OLDHAM: Who were the musicians who performed with you on that song, “Sign of a Victory”?
KELLY: The Soweto Spiritual Singers. They really just blessed the song. They made it authentic. They made it official. But I just had a ball in Africa. Everywhere I went, there was just so much love. There were about 7,000 people at the airport when I got off the plane. You know, I always said, “If I go to Africa, man, I want it to be like when Muhammad Ali went to Africa. I want to feel that kind of love.” You know, because I saw When We Were Kings  and I saw all those people at the airport. And it’s funny, because you have this vision in your mind of things you want to do and accomplish and see, and then to see them actually come true . . . I mean, when I came off of that plane and I came around them corners, man, and I saw all of those people—it looked biblical. [Oldham laughs] Then you look way up there and you see all of those people just lining around, man . . . It’ll bring tears to your eyes. I love to go where I’m celebrated, not tolerated, and when I went to Africa, it was a celebration.
OLDHAM: Have you ever met Muhammad Ali?
KELLY: Oh, yeah. I hung out with Muhammad Ali. I went to the opening with him for the movie [Michael Mann’s Ali (2001)]. Him and me sat right next to each other. He invited me to come because he loved Sam Cooke, and when I did [sings] “I am a mountain . . . ” it kind of put Ali in the mind of Sam Cooke because he loved that song. So he invited me to come with him to the premiere in Chicago. He was joking and playing with everybody during the whole movie. After every scene, he would lean in and whisper in my ear [lowers voice], “That didn’t happen. It’s bullshit.” [Oldham laughs] Then, at the after-party . . . [laughs] He is amazing, man. Amazing spirit.
OLDHAM: I love that song “The World’s Greatest” as well. We perform that song onstage sometimes. We do sort of like a country version of it.
KELLY: Yeah? I would love to hear that. You know, I took the Queen Mary to Europe once because I didn’t want to get on a plane . . .
OLDHAM: Because planes make you nervous?
KELLY: They make me way more than nervous. This was a time I had to stop flying because I had a couple of bad experiences. But they wanted me to go to Europe for a big tour, so I got on a boat. They said it was going to take seven days, so I’m cool. Seven days—that’s a vacation. We finally got over there on September 11, 2001, just as planes be goin’ into the buildings and the whole nine. And I was actually supposed to leave from New York that day to get on the plane to come there, but I was like, “No, I’m getting on the boat. It’s all good.” So all of this stuff went down. But I remember, during the trip, we went to this club on the boat, and this tropical type of band was playing “I Believe I Can Fly.” They didn’t even know I was in the audience. I was just sitting and having a drink or whatever with some friends and they bust out [sings] “I believe I can fly . . . I be-lieve I can touch de sky . . . ” And I’m like, “Wooooo! That’s my damn song!” So I’m calling my people, seeing if I can get paid . . . [Oldham laughs] But I love to hear when other people remake my music, because that means it’s more than just your song.
OLDHAM: Seven days on a boat . . .
KELLY: I met some interesting people. I met this lady, man. She reminded me of the lady from Titanic . She had written Broadway plays. She was, like, 81. But she was actually living on this boat.
OLDHAM: She had a suite?
KELLY: Yeah, she had a suite and she just traveled. But one night she got on the piano and started to play and we sat and drank and talked. Her spirit was unbelievable. White lady. Martha something . . . Unbelievable lady. She took me back to her room and wanted me to meet her husband. Me and my guys all went. We had a ball on that boat, man.
OLDHAM: How are you with flying now?
KELLY: I’m better with it.
OLDHAM: Do you fly in America or do you take the bus here?
KELLY: I don’t fly around America. I flew to Africa because it was a mission. It was something that I felt that I should do. So I did it and I got comfortable with it a little bit. When I fly, I do something to get myself to sleep real fast when I get on the plane, if you know what I’m talking about.
OLDHAM: Yeah. [laughs]
KELLY: And I kind of wake up when we arrive.
OLDHAM: When you were street performing, did you sing a cappella?
KELLY: Nah. I had a little keyboard.
OLDHAM: Like, a little Casio thing that makes beats?
KELLY: A Casio with beats, yeah.
WE WERE CLOWNING AND I THREW A HAT ON THE GROUND AND SAID, “WATCH THIS.” AND I STARTED SINGING . . . AND THEN THE WHITE PEOPLE STARTED CROWDING AROUND ME AND THROWING DOLLARS AND CHANGE IN MY HATR. Kelly
OLDHAM: What kinds of songs would you do?
KELLY: I would do my original songs. Or I would make up some songs to do. The reason I got into street performing was that I discovered myself. [laughs] You know, I used to be walking around with my homies, just playing. We used to just go down on Rush Street, because that’s where all the rich folks would be. We’d be little bums from the ’hood, but we’d go down there and walk around the rich people, just messing around. So we were clowning one day and I threw a hat on the ground and said, “Watch this.” And I started singing. I put my glasses on and I sang, “Oh, so long for this night I prayed / That a star would guide you my way / To share with me this special day / Where a ribbon’s in the sky for our love . . . ” And then the white people started crowding around me and throwing dollars and change in my hat—and I was just doing it for a joke! But they started paying me.
OLDHAM: Had your voice changed yet?
KELLY: Nah, it was still up there, man. [laughs] But these people just started throwing money in the hat. We made about $50 that day, just playing around—I mean, we didn’t have 50 cents in our pockets! I gave my friends a dollar apiece—there were four of us—and I kept all the rest and took everybody to Giordanno’s and we ate some pizza. People thought we was in there messing around, because we was young. But I showed the lady the money and she let us come on in and get a table. So after that I said, “Man, I’m comin’ back down here tomorrow.” So I started coming down and singing and got me enough money to get a little keyboard, put some batteries in it, and start messing around and writing my own little songs. I was the highest-paid street performer, probably, in the history of Chicago. I was making like $800 a day.
OLDHAM: Did you have other street performers try to say, “This is my turf!”?
KELLY: Yeah, but I would just give them $100 and they would go running like, “Whoo-hoo!” [laughs] I started creating gimmicks and stuff. For instance, when a lady would come down up under the L, she would have a McDonald’s bag in her hand and everything like that, so I said, “I should write a McDonald’s song, because everybody always comes down from the L with McDonalds.” So I wrote a song that was like [sings], “McDonald’s is the place for you / When the day is through / You can go to McDonald’s and get yourself a Big Mac / Big Mac / Order a fries, icy coke and a apple pie / No one does it like McDonald’s / Dooh-ooh, McDonald’s and you . . . ” [Oldham laughs] Sometimes I would do Stevie Wonder—I would sing “Part-Time Lover” to the instrumental. But mostly I would just sing my own songs. I was hustling.
OLDHAM: It’s interesting because, aside from those Sam Cooke songs that you did during your show last year, you don’t sing too many songs by other people.
KELLY: That’s because I’m writing my own songs all the time, you know? Not that I don’t want to sing other people’s songs . . . I used to do talent shows and do other people’s songs, but now I’m so overwhelmed with hearing my own songs, I’m just trying to get them out there.
OLDHAM: It was cool on the tour hearing the big medley with The Love Boat theme song.
KELLY: Oh, yeah. Those are some of the songs that touched me.
OLDHAM: I think I watched The Love Boat just because of that song.
KELLY: Welcome Back, Kotter, too. Those songs were magical. The melodies? All of them, to me, were magical.
OLDHAM: One of my favorite songs of yours—one of my favorite songs of anybody’s—is “3-Way Phone Call.”
KELLY: Oh yeah . . . yeah.
OLDHAM: It brings in some of the story elements from some of the other songs, except it’s fully a song on its own. It’s fully musical and very complicated in its execution. I don’t know if you have anything to share about how that was recorded or how it was even written. I mean, I can’t even sort of conceive how . . .
KELLY: You know, I love plays. I love the smell of a theater. The old rooms and the carpet and all that stuff. I love to tell stories. Even before I was doing music, I saw myself as a director. So most of my songs come in a play form, you know, where there are characters and stories, so I like to go beyond just the song sometimes. So “3-Way Phone Call” happened at a time when I was going to church with my sister. My sister would come by, get me to go to church with her, and things like that, and then they would start saying things in the church that I really didn’t approve of, and I felt like I was in the streets still . . . You know when you’re coming up, when you’re young, and you think that churches are where people are perfect? You think, in the streets is where people are bad, because people in the street, they talk behind your back. They’re backstabbing you or they’re judging you or this, that, and the other. But if you go to some churches, you come to find that there are people who do the same thing there, too—you know, they’re stabbing your back, like, “What is he doing here? If he’s thinking about bump ’n’ grind . . . He must be confused. He don’t know what he want!” And I’m like, “I could’ve stayed home for this!” So it was pretty much that. Sometimes the negative can actually inspire you to do a bigger song than a positive situation might, because it’s the struggle that feeds that passion. It feeds the music.
OLDHAM: It’s one of those songs where every time I listen to it or play it for friends, I get goose bumps and my eyes get a little watered up.
KELLY: Yeah, because it’s got those key points in there where he asks of his sister, “Do you really think I can come back?” That’s my tearjerker there. That gets me. When I was writing it, I just kept having to stop to cry. But the hardest thing is getting the other people on those kinds of songs, like the “Trapped in the Closet” songs, to sing the parts exactly how I sang them, because if they go over the note, they interrupt the next person’s comeback. Everything is about delivery, too—like, as if we were acting onscreen.
OLDHAM: From the records, one gets the sense that you have something like a real life. But I would imagine it’s kind of hard for you to have that. I mean, you can’t just walk around on the street, right?
KELLY: No, but I pick my spots, man. I pick my spots. I can get on people’s nerves, so they can get so used to me that they ain’t lookin’ at me that way no more. [laughs] So I got my little spots where I go play basketball. They’re used to me there. I know where I can go eat. But I don’t just randomly go to the mall—unless I just feel like I need some attention and I need some
love. Then I go to the mall.
OLDHAM: So you’ve got people in your life you can talk to and places you can go and just be . . . free.
KELLY: [pauses] I wouldn’t say it’s that . . . It’s not that easy, but, yes, when I’m ready to do it, I can. I still feel like I’m alone at times—even if I’m in the midst of a million people. Because no one—including me— understands my mind, creatively. I haven’t really been formally introduced to my gift yet. I feel like I’m still on the runway.
OLDHAM: How do you mean? Can you explain that more?
KELLY: I haven’t figured me out yet.
OLDHAM: On a percentage basis, how much of you do you feel like you’ve figured out?
KELLY: I think 50 percent. I feel like I’m still sitting on the runway and waiting for my clearance to take off. I’ve gotten a lot accomplished, though, sitting on the runway. But I don’t think I’ve flown yet.
OLDHAM: Has there been a time, like, in the last 12 months, where you’ve felt, like, “Oh, I just learned something specific about myself?”
KELLY: Oh, absolutely. Since “Trapped in the Closet,” and then this new Love Letter album, I’ve definitely learned things. I think that took me to 50 percent, as far as knowing who I am and what my gift is capable of. I’ve graduated, in a way, musically, because I feel like I’ve got this musical time machine, now, that I can just get in and travel anywhere I want now.
OLDHAM: Do you think you’ll visit another era?
KELLY: I’m thinking of going back to the Shaft  days next year and just see what it’s like to bring that back to R&B. It’s interesting because when I was a kid I used to watch, like, Back to the Future , where the man would call “Marty!” and they would jump in the little car and go back to the future. And I always said, “Man, that’s how I want to be able to travel with my gift.” So it’s funny that I just sit here now, and I feel like I can get in my musical time machine and just travel anywhere I want. And when I get there, I can take some of those elements and bring them back to these days, and it’s authentic. It’s almost like I feel like it’s unfair, but it’s not, you know? I didn’t give myself this gift, so I must be meant to do something with it.
OLDHAM: Are you going to take this Love Letter record on the road?
KELLY: I don’t know, man. We’re milking this album first. But I would like to go on tour when people know the songs. I’ll do a couple of club dates here and there, and then I’ll start to feel the vibe, like, “Okay, people know it . . . They feel it . . . They want it . . . Yo, let’s do this. Let’s go on tour.”
OLDHAM: How do you feel the vibe?
KELLY: You just know. That’s about spirit. It’s all about spirit and having a connection with people. I wouldn’t be able to do the songs as long as I’ve been doing if I didn’t feel the pulse of the world. But I can feel people and I know what they want. I feel like I know how they are, because I am the people. And I just have a gift. I’m like a pastor that can go anywhere and preach—Earth is my turf. And the people have got to relate to him because where he goes, he always feel like he’s talking to that one person in the audience, but he’s really talking to everybody. And me, I’m the same way with my music. It’s not the same as going to church, but it preaches.
Will Oldham is a singer-songwriter and actor. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a book of interviews with Oldham by Alan Licht, will be published this April.