Bill Callahan plays The Academy on Thursday, May 5th. Siobhán Kane spoke with him about the writing process, poetry and finding a place to call home.
Listening to Bill Callahan‘s work is often like listening to a nineteenth century explorer, talking about the ‘brave new world’ that he has stumbled upon, and is stealing from. He borrows from nature, from heartbreak, from history – a rich palette of references that he uses to invent pieces of work that are completely timeless, yet modern, and completely necessary. His work is the product of a complex man and mind; inaccessible yet compelling, rich and searching, yet troubling and unsettling, he has a way of getting directly to the heart of the matter without wasting a single word. There is no babbling in Callahan’s world, except for the water that trickles throughout his records, and the blood that seeps from his tormented heart.
His work has always been intriguing, from his early Smog output to his last few records A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (2005), Woke on a Whaleheart (2007), Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (2009) and this year’s Apocalypse, all, as ever, pleasingly released on Drag City. His early work was marked by a highly experimental impulse, and so often instrumental, and even though the sound is different now, and his voice has become a hugely important part of his creative process, the impulse remains the same. He is still experimenting and exploring, but it seems that in some ways he is going further into the recesses of his imagination, and evermore into the most complicated terrain of the human condition. There is a fearlessness to his work, but a tenderness also, and this combined to particularly magnificent effect on A River Ain’t Too Much to Love which is less confrontational than some previous records, and somehow softer, but no less honest, as he says on ‘I’m New Here‘, ‘I did not become someone different/No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/You can always turn around‘.
This turning around has taken in the soft strings and French horns of Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, and the loose, rhythmic flowing of Woke on a Whaleheart, illuminating so many different sides of Callahan’s soul. His black humour has often been the gleaming jewel that has saved his work from becoming obtusely morbid, and his fascination with mortality and his often dark reflectiveness on everyday living has a unique deliciousness about it, something sensual and foreboding; a delicate kind of doom. Perhaps it is essentially because Callahan, at his core, is vulnerable and curious, often struggling to understand why life and love should be so hard, yet more often than not he flies too close to the sun, his waxen wings dripping all over his records. Sometimes his work is viewed very much in the vein of the title of his song ‘Cold Blooded Old Times’, that here is someone forensically picking over the past in a dispassionate way, helped along by his trademark deep and deadpan baritone, but the truth is, he is one of the most brave, going over heartache and disappointment in such a painstaking way, it is that thing writer JG Farrell once wrote in his letters after all the pain of ill health and utter disappointment in love, “anything is worthwhile which allows us a greater understanding.”
Perhaps in some ways, a greater understanding of Callahan is to be found in his first novel, last year’s Letters to Emma Bowlcut, a rendering of a sort of long distance relationship, but in a way it is a document of his relationship with the world. His protagonist is a nameless scientist, a boxing enthusiast (always the best kind) in love with Miss Bowlcut. There is a breathlessness to the book, a need to connect, and letter-writing becomes the most tender form of that. Boxing becomes an underlying motif, the beauty and grace and ugliness and pain that goes with that sport becomes a metaphor for all our lives struggles; we are always in the ring with someone or something, and much more debilitating than a sucker punch, is the weighty burden of love’s sorrow, the kind that cannot be recovered from after the count of ten. This is really the crux of Callahan’s work to date, that love and pain are kissing cousins, and yet, as can be sensed from his most recent records, and in something like ‘One Fine Morning‘ from Apocalypse, there is redemption to be found within that dynamic, and more strength to be found in true affection and gentleness, and Callahan has found, or is still looking for that – a real ” ballet of the heart”, his apocalypse. Siobhán Kane met up with him ahead of his Dublin show.
With your book Letters to Emma Bowlcut, apart from gaining a little more insight into your sense of humour, there is also so much tenderness there, and quite a philosophical preoccupation. Letters are my favourite method of communication, and it seems you hold them dearly to your heart also, so it must have seemed natural to write an epistolary novel?
One of my favourite books is Hemingway’s letters, I think it was a big influence on the book I wrote, just because it is a very affectionate and chummy way of writing that makes you feel so good, even though the letters are not to you. I think it’s maybe knowing that one person was so…well, he loved people and his friends, and really valued them, and even though he was alone a lot to write, almost every letter he wrote that wasn’t to his publisher, was saying ‘please come and visit me and we will go and do all this stuff’, I love that and love that book. It was a good form for my book, because a letter can by anything, it can have jokes in it, it can be fragmentary, it can be anything, there are no limitations, and it has no form to it really, that appeals to me. I used to write a lot more letters when I was younger, it was a big thing, writing and receiving letters, but now the email has kind of taken over, everything has really.
It is quite depressing how many people ‘communicate’ these days, so much is over the computer and phone, they are using text and writing, but there is something inauthentic about it, less reflective, whereas there is a real ritual to writing a letter, a sense of something more worthwhile.
I know. I keep wondering if they will they make anthologies of people’s emails? They don’t really exist in the same way as letters. I mean, computers break every few years, so then you just get a new one, and so many things get lost. I suppose the way people are listening to music is definitely changing too. At first I thought about it a lot, then a couple of years ago I realised that it is not my job, it is the record label that has to worry about if people are going to listen to my record in the right way, so I stopped worrying about it and carried on working. Though I know people don’t often to listen to albums as a whole thing as much as they used to, but it is such a strong tradition that I can’t believe it will die, maybe I am in denial, or I am hoping that something will swoop in and change things.
Your lyrics have always been one of the most interesting things about your work, and so often it is said that to be a great writer, you have to be a great reader, when did your relationship with reading begin?
I wish I was one of those kids who read all the time when I was younger, but I don’t think I finished reading a book until I was like eighteen or something. I just didn’t have the focus, but then I started, and reading books led me into music, much more than music itself did. When I finally got into reading, I realised I could also write stuff myself and that was my door into music, the writing really.
How have your few readings of Letters to Emma Bowlcut gone?
I have only done about four readings, so it’s still new, and I think there is a more established set up when you are doing it in a bookstore, but the places I have tended to do it have been in record stores, so people don’t really know how to react. A book is more cerebral, more than music, so I think a lot of people get uncomfortable, maybe I’m just imagining it. I think as well, whenever I am in a new building I am not comfortable until I know exactly what’s around, and I feel really discombobulated, and so if I am plopped down somewhere and have to talk to someone, and I don’t really know where I am, it’s strange. Space is important to me. With the London reading, I just showed up in the Rough Trade record store and a few minutes later was reading, it would probably have been better if I sat in the little store for a while before.
Your relationship with Drag City is an unusual one, it seems radiant and nurturing, can you explain a little as to why?
I think just right off the bat it worked. I started working with them around 1990 – 1991, and we just clicked as far as them letting me do whatever I wanted, and on a personal level I am really good friends with them, so it’s not even like a business thing, I feel it is my label also, because I have been with them so long, and there from the start, and seen all the changes, and been part of the changes, so we kind of developed at the same time together.
You have previously said that when you are approaching work, you probably have about five or six ideas, is that still the case?
That is very true, and some of them have come to light, but some of them haven’t and probably never will, they are like placeholders. I like to be planning a record, so I tinker with things, but they also might never happen. When I get a new idea I just push all the other work aside. With this record I worked really hard and probably a bit differently. Usually I let it go, see what happens and work when I feel inspired, but this time I had two and a half months set aside and was doing a solid eight hours a day. I just wanted to see what would happen if I did that, and it turned out well, I was worried that it wouldn’t be from the heart, that it would be forced, but I was really surprised that all it takes is dedication, and even if you have nothing, eventually you have something.
Did that kind of discipline come easy to you?
I am only disciplined about my work, but everything else is a house of chaos.
Your voice is so distinctive, has your relationship with it changed over the course of your records, do you think?
I think my voice has changed as I have been doing this record, it is just getting more strong. I could always sort of sing, but I have just learned more about performance. Singing is still a mystery to me, but I am always learning a little bit more about it.
With a song like ‘Riding for the Feeling’, it brings back one of your recurring images, the horse – but you also have other images that populate your work such as birds, and I keep thinking of that beautiful line from Emma Bowlcut, “and I hope each morning you wake like a bird in a nest and fly without a thought“, the weightlessness, the freedom – is that what keeps bringing you back to these animals, these images? There is also a temporal nature to your work, perhaps informed by a restlessness, a need to travel, you live in Austin now, do you see it, finally, as a ‘home’?
I think there has always been a connection between man and horses for a long time, we are so closely connected. There is a freedom within them. I have been in Austin since 2006, I don’t really feel like it is home. I feel it is a homey place that has a comfort and an ease to it, inherent in the city. It’s not too big, not too small, just right, like Goldilocks – and sometimes it is comforting to be there, but that is not always what you want, it gets a little too easy. I was in New York a while ago, and I wasn’t even trying, and all this stuff came tumbling towards me, I realised I needed to do some photographs for the record and it all happened so easily there, whereas in Austin you would need to set it up a week in advance or something, so you have to be very self-motivated, you have to be anyway, but in New York you are pushed to situations or face things in a different way, in Austin you can be forgotten, you can disappear if you want.
Do you miss the sea? I have a sense that is quite important to you.
I miss the coast, I do. Austin is very landlocked, though there is the Gulf Coast about five hours away, but it’s not the same. For America that’s not too bad though, if you were in Chicago you would have to drive twenty hours to get to the water.
Why do you think you moved around so much years ago? Austin is probably one of the places you have stayed the longest.
I was moving to a different city every year, out of curiosity out of what another city was like, America of all places makes sense to me, I like to move around it rather than move somewhere outside of it, and I get really bored with the same routine; shopping at the same grocery store and stuff like that, it drives me crazy after a while.
Do you never daydream about a little cafe, where the elderly proprietor saves you a special muffin and knows your name?
That’s a little fantasy, but things like that don’t ever happen in my life.
A sense of place is always very present in your work, this must also apply when you are performing live, from festivals through to more intimate shows, in some ways, your music seems more attuned to the outdoors, and nature.
There are two different kinds of festivals, the kind in a mud field, and the kind in a city in different venues, but you know, I really love performing outside and having the fresh air around me, it’s an amazing feeling, with the wind there, or the moon in the sky, and singing the songs.
Has your approach to writing changed much as the years have gone on?
I am more sparing these days. There is nothing worse than an old notebook full of shit, so I have started to edit while I am writing, I don’t want to waste paper, ink or time. I have always edited songs, but it’s been in the last few years that I didn’t want to have too much stuff, there was no reason for me to write extensively just for the sake of writing, so I am really trying to focus. I look at songs and other writing as different shapes – prose is like a block, a rectangle, it’s the shape of the page and paragraphs, whereas a song is more like a jagged thing – that is a bit abstract and doesn’t really mean anything to anyone but me, but it’s how I see these things.
Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? You have had quite a number of adventures.
[Laughs] I have thought about it, but at the moment I am toying with what form it would take, what ‘voice’ it would have, how much of it would be true [laughs].
With Apocalypse, there seems to be an almost opposite amount of content to the dark title, there seems to be a willingness to hope amidst all the rubble.
It’s not really a feeling I was having, though I wasn’t having the opposite feeling either, but there is an openness to it that could maybe be considered hopeful.
‘Dress Sexy at My Funeral’ was one of the only poems you have written, and it turned into a song [on 2000’s Dongs of Sevotion]. Have there been any others, and how do you feel about poetry?
I wrote just one more [laughs], but that became ‘All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast’ on the last record. Those are the only two poems I’ve written. I don’t really understand poetry, most poems I read by other people I kind of think ‘what is this all about?’ I don’t understand the language, it doesn’t speak to me most of the time, unless it is really plainly written, if it is too fancy then I don’t really understand. Poetry is very insular and perhaps in some way a self-serving form to me, when you are reading poetry you are by yourself, though I know sometimes poetry is read aloud, but music is somehow more of a social thing.
You once said that you were thinking a lot about what being an ‘artist’ meant, and that you were previously a “student of personal strife” who would “torture yourself for a song”, but then decided not to do that anymore, what are your thoughts now?
I always wonder about it. It’s just a word, what does it mean if you say it out loud ‘artist’, what does it mean? Does it mean you make art? I don’t know at the time what I was thinking when I said that [laughs]. I think I have been working through all the changes, but making a record is pretty much the same as it always was, as in the basics, it’s like making a sandwich, it doesn’t really change. I come up with the songs by myself, and writing always feels exactly the same, it is just you and a piece of paper – and that feeling of trying to make things the right way never changes. I never know what is going to come at first, because at first they are just words on paper, so you don’t really know where it will go, but I do have a sound in my head, and there is always a narrative arc, and I will always know with sequencing where the story is going.
In the past few years, you seem to have relaxed a lot in terms of how you create music, but more specifically perform music, would you say that is true?
I am probably relaxing more into the act of making music and playing guitar, and how it relates to the voice and stuff, I think it started with A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, which I still think is one of my strongest records, and then things started to connect more for me, and I started searching for a real route to things. I had done solo shows a lot, but I was always focusing on the lyrics, and singing and guitar were always background for me, but I realised that when I was playing solo, I was bored with the guitar parts and so I imagined the audience probably were too! So I wanted it to be more challenging for myself if I was going to play solo, to make sure that it would be as good and interesting as if I had a band. I started playing less chords and picking more, which leaves a whole different space for the vocal, because when you are strumming it fills up a lot of space, but if it is picking, the voice sound is in the middle, and the guitar is around the voice, and it changes the whole shape of the song and the way they fit together, they are more equal, and kind of stacked.
With this in mind, do you ever want to go back to older material and approach them in the same way or rearrange them?
I haven’t really had much luck there. I would like to do that, but I would rather come up with a new set of songs.
Yet you love doing covers of songs, and in the past while have contributed beautiful covers for tributes to both Kath Bloom [‘The Breeze/My Baby Cries’] and Judee Sill [‘Like a Rainbow’].
I get asked to do those tribute things all the time, and I always say no, but I had a month or two where I said to myself that I was going to say ‘yes’ to everything and see what happens.
Yes to everything?
Well, only to tribute albums [laughs]. I love doing covers, and it takes me a really long time to work it out for myself, but when I finally get it, it is a really exciting thing for me – singing someone else’s words, but trying to pretend like you wrote it [laughs], I try to make them, like everything, close to my heart.
Bill Callahan plays The Academy, Dublin on Thursday 5th May.