Q&A: Jeni Britton Bauer & Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Fri, Jan 18, 2013

As a warm-up to his upcoming performance at the Wexner Center on January 25, we asked mutual fans Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) and our favorite local ice cream queen (and new board member), Jeni Britton Bauer, to trade a few questions about their work. The results, much like her ice cream and his music, we think you’ll agree, came out beautifully. Read on, and see you at the show.
 

Bonnie “Prince” Billy: How might you characterize the differences so far between the Nashville experience of your ice cream and the Columbus experience? I was happy to find the Nashville spot, so happy, as I have spent a lot of time there in the past couple of years for music work.

Jeni: Nashville and Columbus are very similar places. That’s why we love it there so much. There is an openness and resilience in the people that I love and care deeply about — both here and in Nashville. I love to hang out in the Nashville shop and feel like I could be in Columbus. Both cities are beaming with the “it’s our time” attitude. People are pulling out all the stops right now and living up to their potential, whether it’s music, food, design, artisanal products, activism, and/or community. Both cities are full of people who aren’t from there, which is great because it adds to the always-shifting forward locomotion of the city. Nashville is all “Hey ya’ll!” Columbus is all “hello, nice to meet you.” The two cities have different personalities, but similar vibes.

BPB: Do you imagine, as you are making them, that some recipes will only live for a short period of time…not because they wouldn’t have staying power but because they are so special that you only want them to be around for a limited time? Or do all recipes begin life with a hope to one day be staple flavors?

Jeni: We often make ice creams that we know most people won’t like, that won’t sell at all, but that we enjoy in some way. Occasionally, we try to predict and we are wrong. We did a Vanilla Cedar Wood flavor two years ago that people went crazy for. I didn’t see that coming. But the one I thought would be a huge success — Cumin & Honey Butterscotch Cake — wasn’t. That’s what I love about this. The staples help balance out the risks. We make ice creams that we love. The staple list allows us that freedom.

BPB: Outside of your domain, the most thrilling ice cream experiences I have had were in San Francisco, Bologna, and Paris. Are there destinations in the world that are inspiring or satisfying for the work that they scoop out to you?

Jeni: HELL YES. Bologna — La Sorbetteria de la Castiglione. When I had my first ice cream shop in the mid ’90s and couldn’t yet afford to travel, I had always heard about the amazing ice cream in Paris and Italy. So, I spent years making ice cream that tried to live up to what I imagined the ice creams there would be like. I still do that now, try to live up to my own imagined perfection, because there is nowhere on Earth that can beat that (not even here, yet). I found that I was disappointed when I went to most places in Italy (and elsewhere) because I had dreamed so richly about what I might find there, and then I didn’t. Except in Bologna — but then, Bologna is magical in many ways (Dante).

BPB: What kind of presence is it important for you to avoid or maintain, personally, when it comes to your shops? At different times, I have had dreams of casting someone (male, female, young old, whatever) as Bonny Billy and sending that person out into the world to sing, so that I could stay in one place. Because there was a time when recordings were considered a representation of music rather than actual music, and with respect to this I’d like to maintain a relationship with live music-making even when it is beyond my physical/emotional capacity to do so. Do you envision a life for “Jeni’s” that goes far beyond Jeni? How far outside of your reach can something be “Jeni’s”, in physical or temporal distance?

Jeni: I go to work everyday thinking of how I can contribute in a way that helps us all move forward as a team together. I am uplifted by the people of our company who, together, have created this extraordinary thing. As we grow, it becomes about building resources that we can use to create the ice creams we want to eat and the community we want to live and work in. That reach begins here, but continues through the producers, growers we work with locally, regionally and internationally, and our customers far and wide. In a way, it’s never been about me. That said, my name is on the sign for a reason. My name means a lot to me, and I hope that our ice creams and everything that goes with them, lives up to it.

I work with a team of in-house artists, writers, and artisans to accomplish the creative vision. I also believe in the gifts of service and civility, so we are always honing what it means to do that work. In addition, there is this intensely scientific thing in creating ice cream. I create recipes, tweak them constantly, and obsess about their defects. When I am making ice cream in the kitchen, I change the recipe every single time because I always want to learn something. That works in music, but in ice cream, we have to have consistency. So, we have created a process to make change and to train correctly, so that customers (and our team) never suffer for it.

BPB: At their best, many of your flavors bring a transcendence with them. Have you experimented with more overtly psychoactive ingredients, or, more basically, have you included ingredients in recipes specifically for their physical/mental effect beyond taste?

Jeni: Cream is a great carrier of flavor, not a great carrier of substances like caffeine. But, milk and cream also contain water, which can carry some affects of caffeine (and similar) depending on how hot we heat the mixture to steep the plant material. There are other solvents we could use first that also bind with fat or water in order to fuse it into the cream, but I haven’t gone there. I can see the benefit of locking psychoactive ingredients into cream through freezing, which are then released slowly by the warmth of your tongue. Like time-release. I’d like to be a fly on the wall at that party.

BPB: I am grateful for the many very particular and special experiences I have had with your work.

Jeni: Thank you. And I am grateful for your talent and that of the people you work with. Ya’ll put on a great show. Can’t wait to see this one.

______________________

Jeni: Wolfroy goes to Town, is GREAT. Quail and Dumplings. So, how’d you end up doing a $35 per pound coffee as a part of that project?

BPB: My friends Jason and Kollette Stith grow coffee on the Big Island. Print ads are unaffordable, wasteful. I especially like that the Bonny “blend” is one kind of bean. My mother was born in Honolulu. Can we do an ice cream flavor (not necessarily with coffee, I just mean in general…although a pre-show standby for me is a shot of espresso with a shot of Sambuca…) ?

Jeni: Your presence on stage is both quiet and aggressive, still and frenetic. Every molecule in the audience is unsettled and activated when you are on stage. It’s the way you attack the microphone and recoil. It’s the way your bandmates lovingly look to you for timing. It’s the silence, and then the clarity of the music. How do you build these relationships with your bandmates? Do you direct them in their stage performance – or is it all in the moment? How do they influence you? How does your prior acting experience help?

BPB: Goodness. I mean that as an exclamation not as an answer. I’m certainly too close to the action to have perspective to answer this well. It’s surely all tied up in the moment.

Looking ahead to the preamble for your next question…it seems to provide an answer to this question…

Jeni: A lot of times, around here, I plan things and involve whoever is around. I try to recognize talent and incorporate it in from the beginning – I am often inspired by the talent of the team here, which can energize and propel an idea forth. Like, as opposed to having a defined end result and working backward from that. What is your process of creating a song or an album?

Are you surfing the wave or captaining the ship?

BPB: It is about captaining things, building moments of release into what we do. Making a durable framework within which we can ride the wave. Body-surfing, sex, and singing: working with and against a force that provides parameters for expression and release.

Jeni: If a train is a seed of an idea, how many trains are you on?

BPB: My guiding hope is that all of the branches of the plant/train/idea are inexorably on their way to one impenetrable beautiful hedgerow. Even if the seeds begin differently, they are also nourished by the same soil and sun.

Jeni: What train have you been on the longest?

BPB: The train in which people communicate directly. The pre-internet train. Where a mass-produced thing, like a song or an ice cream, is the outer edge of distance when it comes to communication.

Jeni: Have you stepped on any new ones lately?

BPB: Lately I have been stepping OFF trains, with a resolve to do more and more of that.

Jeni: Any crash and burn?

BPB: Yes, many. Too many.

Jeni: Why Louisville? Is there something there that you can’t get in other cities?

BPB: The short and most relevant answer is: family. That said, it is a great city. And also I have learned that there is a depth to experience when one lives where one grew up that cannot be replicated ever, anywhere. And I try to make that an asset.

Jeni: Art is a business. Right? I mean, if you’re an artist you need to actively build your resources in order to continue. Music is an expensive art to produce. How do you balance taking risks and making money?

BPB: There is art that is business and art that is not. I am definitely in the music business, as a creator and listener. Music can be expensive, but those who spend the most end up wasting a lot. I do not gamble. I have a habit of making $5 bets, always figuring that a loss or a win can be relatively painlessly chalked up to education and experience. I dropped out of school when I got my first check (in 1993) from Drag City, for around $400; I figured that, if that was a sign of what was to come, I could survive. And since then, I have invested what I make from one record into the making of the next record. If I spend/invest money on/in something, I always tell myself that I must be at peace with the fact that that money is now as good as gone, and we’ll see if what has been undertaken yields more to replace it. And I am frugal. I love and cherish great things, which are only rarely also expensive things.

Jeni: Are you a cook? I love honey, do you like honey? What’s your favorite bourbon? Do you have a favorite natural swimming hole?

BPB: I am a feeble combiner of culinary ingredients. Yesterday I thickened a lentil soup by stirring in cheese grits, and then I added kimchee for taste and texture. It was great, but I didn’t make the kimchee, soup, or grits.

I love honey. Last week I was speaking with a young woman from Congo. She is a refugee here in Louisville. We were working on her English vocabulary, and speaking about food. I told her that I have a vegan friend who does not eat honey (something about not wanting to hassle bees). This young Congolese woman was in disbelief and said “but honey is a perfect food!” and I agree. I have honey in my coffee every morning.

In my house, I have drunk more Rowan’s Creek in the past couple of years than any other bourbon. The same distiller makes a slightly less expensive bourbon called Johnny Drum that I will switch to, as it is also delicious and makes me feel a tad less decadent.

My old favorite swimming hole was just across the river in Utica, Indiana. It is on the cover of the Spiderland record by Slint. A gated community of large new houses has been built around it now. My favorite place to swim is a cove –and so almost a “hole”–this beach called Makapu’u on the island of Oahu. Not fair, but that’s it.

Jean Dubuffet, Vaches au pre (Cows in a meadow), 1954

Reserve your tickets now for Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection, on view Sept 21–Dec 31. Learn more about the exhibition.

Artists featured in Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection

Learn more about the artists represented in Transfigurations at our dedicated website. (Educators will also find curriculum resources to support their K–12 classrooms.)