Current Issue #488

Bill Callahan on birth, death and the unstoppable quest

Hanly Banks

US songwriter Bill Callahan ponders the overlapping circles of birth, death and love on his latest album Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest.

“I’ve kind of tuned it out lately,” Bill Callahan tells The Adelaide Review, making small talk about politicsas he dials in from his home in Austin. “It seems like the full Trump thing has moved like an iceberg; nothing ever really seems to happen, it’s just both sides threatening for something to happen. So I’ll tune in when something’s actually happening.”

Callahan has had other things to tune into in the half-decade between his 2013 album Dream River and last year’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest; he got married, became a parent, and farewelled one. 

“Music was my baby – then I had a baby,” he ponders in the low, slow, considered baritone recognisable to anyone who’s paid attention to his decades-long output, first through the noisy, anti-folk moniker Smog and since 2007, the critically acclaimed brand of neo-Americana released under his given name. 

“I think it’s still the same guy, but there’s also another guy in there standing next to me. The old me. That’s what I think took so long, to find him. I knew there was really only one person inside me who could make a record – I had to re-find him again after all the changes. I don’t think that guy has changed… he’s just got company.”

Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest (2019)

Shepherd is a long, quiet album full of short, fleeting tracks that lap at the listener’s ears like water on a hull. That unadorned intimacy – you can often hear the chair creak as Callahan plays and sings – was a deliberate choice.

“I just remember I was on a little weekend away with my wife at this resort,” he recalls. “There was no one else there, and we were just listening to some quiet music. I don’t really remember what it was. But it seemed so nice, with the sun setting and dragonflies around, and I just thought that I wanted my next record to not drown out nature, or thoughts, but kind of blend into whatever circumstances are surrounding you when you’re listening to it.”

Callahan’s own circumstances certainly blend into the album. He reflects on his mid-life domesticity on What Comes After Certainty?, placing a wry line like ‘I’ve got the woman of my dreams, and an imitation Eames’ alongside the pragmatic ‘True love is not magic, it’s certainty’, before delivering the ambiguous kicker of the song’s title.

“Yeah, it’s still changing too,” he says of his understanding of love. “Things I may have thought were revelations on my last record, I’m already kind of dismantling those in my head. But I think that’s just how people are, and you just make declarations as best you can within whatever moment you’re in. That’s kind of the best we can do. I’m also not a very fixed person; I change a lot, my perspective changes a lot.”

This constant flux becomes a virtue on Tugboats and Tumbleweeds, a lullaby written for his child. ‘Fools learn from fools / The wise learn from the wise / Always be prepared to revise’, Callahan counsels, as the song’s bobbing rhythm takes on the gently onomatopoeic air of a puttering tugboat engine.

“Once I had a kid and obviously thought a lot about being a father, and being a son, in general terms, relationships, I started thinking about what sort of things would I have benefited from hearing when I was a kid,” he explains. “And also, what kind of wisdom I can pass onto my kid. But yeah, I wanted to make a universal father song.”

In Circles, Callahan finds more universality in specificity, this time as a son reflecting on his mother’s decline and eventual departure ‘with kisses sweet as hospital grapes’. ‘Death’, he sings, ‘is beautiful’, a quest neither he nor anyone else can stop.

“The two events, they’re considered to be opposites, but they’re very much alike to me,” he says of the start of one life and the end of another. “I had never really experienced death like firsthand, witnessing it unfold over a period of a year. It definitely…. death has an energy to it that, you think of it as the end of energy, but it seemed not to be. It seemed… there’s a different energy that was being created by the death, or just the energy of death consuming my mother. That energy, it lives on.”

Music is no longer Callahan’s only baby. But, while ‘father’ and ‘husband’ now sit alongside the ‘singer songwriter’ label of past decades, these changes have led to a different appreciation for his longtime vocation. “Not personally, [but] I’ve come to value that other people value what I do, which is kind of a change. For me, it’s just ingrained in me. I just do it, like an animal.” 

Or, as he neatly puts it on the album: ‘You can call me anything – as long as I can sing’.

Bill Callahan will perform at WOMADelaide on Sunday 8 March

6 – 9 March

WOMADelaide 2020

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer and editor living on Kaurna Country.

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