Retooling songs isn't new for Oldham.
Will Oldham sings with honesty so blunt that it tends to make a mark. The folk iconoclast has released a dozen albums since adopting the stage name Bonnie "Prince" Billy in 1998. In October, he unveiled a self-titled album, which he'll bring to the Majestic Theatre on Friday, Dec. 13.
Though Oldham primarily identifies as a songwriter, he sometimes steps outside the musical realm to express himself. He has acted in several films and TV shows, portraying a gorilla trainer in Jackass 3D and a preacher in MTV's twisted sketch-comedy series Wonder Showzen. In addition to teaming up with filmmakers, he's made collaborators out of writers and activists.
For instance, he tweaked his song "Black Captain" after receiving a suggestion from writer and Greenpeace activist Travis Nichols. While the old version has to do with letting go of a lover, the new version centers on the release of 30 seafaring Greenpeace activists detained by the Russian government while trying to protest offshore drilling. It's dedicated to Captain Peter Wilcox, leader of the protesters' ship.
Oldham got acquainted with Greenpeace's work at sea when Nichols gave him a personal tour of a boat.
"He invited me to come aboard a Greenpeace ship that was headed from Seattle to the waters around Alaska," Oldham says. "He thought we could make some kind of video clip. Then the thing with Captain Peter happened, and Travis had the idea of me performing the song 'Black Captain' [on video]."
But with lyrics such as "I watch with a sigh/As my captain curls up like a cripple," the original tune was more mournful than uplifting. That's why Oldham decided to rework it "so it had a more hopeful angle."
Retooling songs isn't new for Oldham. Last year he released Now Here's My Plan, an EP of reworked tunes that includes the popular track "I See a Darkness." But this isn't just a sonic project. It's a companion piece to Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy, a book of conversations with Alan Licht, a guitarist and sound artist who shares his love of eccentricity.