words & interview by tom johnson
photography by hanly banks callahan
This feature first appeared in Issue 5 of our printed journal. If you enjoy reading we’d kindly ask you to consider buying the full publication. It’s available in both physical and digital form here.
Under a nightly red sky that seems somewhat impossible, Bill Callahan finds himself in a European autumn, having travelled across the Atlantic to play some choice shows in support of his latest work, Shepherd In A Sheepskin’s Vest, which was released earlier this year in warmer climes. Mostly charting a series of grand spaces, tonight he finds himself in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, out of the brisk Scottish evening and into the venue’s hallowed and ornate backstage maze of rooms and passages. He takes his seat in a room encased by mirrors but looks almost anywhere else.
While there has always been a somewhat gnarly sense of playfulness and wit to his recorded work, in person Callahan is painstakingly measured, the most enigmatic of dead-panners. The words and sentences he eventually chooses to share are deeply considered and contemplated before being set free. The energy he saves in careful conversation is recovered for the stage; his show later that night finds him bright and full of spirit, a home away from home.
Though conspicuously personal, his aforementioned new album begins with – what is assumed to be – a wry smile, a question asked in spite of the answer already being known:
Well, it’s been such a long time.
Why don’t you come on in?
And such a long time it has been. In fact, the six years taken between 2013’s Dream River and this year’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest was the longest recording gap of his esteemed career: a three-decade run which began so many moons ago with the home-recorded Sewn To The Sky in 1990. That debut album was released under the name Smog, the first of thirteen released under a moniker which would become a totemic character of Drag City’s much-admired family. In a fifteen-year parade of sardonic humour and occasional heartbreaking blazes, the Smog project grew with each release. That scratchy lo-fi debut that kick-started it all was toyed with and then built upon, until Callahan was releasing lush indie-rock records like A River Ain’t Too Much To Love.
Callahan eventually retired the Smog name because, he said, he suddenly realised what an ugly word it was. Whether that influenced our own outlook is hard to say, but the subsequent run of albums, released under his own name, seemed to carry a new sense of grace. These were songs that often balanced on the edge of a silent wave, rather than tumbling around within it as they had done for so long previously. Releasing a further four albums in six years (or ‘five in seven’ if you count 2014’s ‘dub version’ of Dream River) the change of name suggested no let-up to Callahan’s prolificacy, until it suddenly ceased, like he’d taken a wrong turn or else found a place to rest, somewhere upon the ‘Winter Road’ that drew Dream River to a close.
“I hadn’t meant to take a break; it was all circumstantial,” Bill tells us, in that quietly considered voice. “Getting married and having a kid was a huge life change for me. There were just more pressing things in my life taking precedence, compared to the work. I had to do it that way.”
Either by circumstance or design, Shepherd is a remarkable achievement. Callahan may have replaced the ambling, elongated compositions that characterised his later work with fleeting strums, but the album itself is still a wonderful journey, stretching out through twenty-tracks, both effortless and so beautifully full of effort, as though telling a story he already knew.
“The first few months of my son being born I didn’t try to do any work, but then I did try and I was working every day,” he says, endearingly matter-of-fact. “I did use some of that stuff, but it was more like planting a seed. You wait for it to grow and it’s not growing, and it’s not growing, and then finally it grows and you think ‘Well, it’s a good thing I planted that seed!’. It took six months or so to fully develop,” he continues. “I worked when I could, and as he got older I could find larger chunks of time to get away and work. That’s when things started happening with this new record.”
Stepping out of the usual writing/recording/releasing routine, perhaps for the first time, might be a giant hurdle for most, but Bill says he was never really worried about finding his way back to that stream of inspiration. “I was definitely aware of it,” he explains, “but I wasn’t really concerned. I’ve made so many records now that I know I’m never going to stop until I die. So I knew it was going to happen at some point. I was more mystified and intrigued: ‘What do I have to do to be able to do this again?’. My mind works slowly, I think,” he continues, slowly mulling over how best to answer. “Any creative thing is 90 percent from your unconscious. Things can pop-out of that unconscious immediately but for me, for the things that I use, it takes time for my subconscious to first take it in and then spit it back out in a way that my conscious mind can understand it.”
This process certainly makes sense when exploring the album. Across its numerous tracks, Shepherd unravels as a personal narrative but is often interspersed with moments far more abstract, glimpses of an imagined future as well as ruminations on the past. Songs drift into one another (musically, deliberately) to form greater wholes, but then a lyric or a musical moment will suddenly shake you out of that fog, into another story altogether. “I knew it had to be something like that,” Bill expands. “When I started it was two blocks, and it was going to be a much smaller picture. So I had that stuff but then I wanted to put more background information and textures in; things from the past, and also the future. I realised I wanted to showcase a bigger picture so I began to add those dimensions to it.”
Despite expanding his vision, Callahan was still conscious of those listening to it, which also helped inform the shorter songs which are prevalent throughout. “I’m very conscious of the audience,” he admits. “If I’d made twenty long, sprawling songs then it would be hard to get through! It’d be a quadruple album. There were a lot of different perspectives and voices that I wanted to present, so that’s the reason for the brevity. I saw it more as a movie, with these quick cuts of little vignettes. Side One has the shortest songs, and I tried to connect the end of one with the start of another, with some sounds connecting them,” he continues. “At first they weren’t there and I found it hard to listen to and get anything out of. So I made those little bridges to make it an easier listening experience for myself, knowing that other people would probably feel the same as me.”
Having been in the music business for nearly thirty-years, Callahan has learned to trust that instinct, and there are traces of it throughout his whole catalogue. His work can be plaintive and beautiful, but it’s never straightforward. Shepherd might be centred around his quietly-strummed acoustic guitar but it still makes daring leaps; asking questions, pulling at the seams of the real world as we think we know it. “I always think of myself as the first listener, and ever since I started writing music I’ve thought that my inner judgement is most important,” he says. “I’m always asking if I’m getting anything out of the song, or if I understand it, because I think people are, at their core, all the same. Well I thought that was a universal belief,” he stumbles, that wry smile creeping back in again, “but not everyone thinks that – and I’m beginning to think I might be wrong. But I certainly share a lot of things with the same people who get something out of my music. I might not share anything with the people who don’t get anything out of my music. But that’s the way that I make my judgement calls. I’m the litmus test.”
The album was released to the world in four staggered parts, a new side revealed each week, though Callahan is quick to point out that this was only to make the record more digestible for the digital streaming age (“If I find a record with twenty songs that I want to hear then I’m probably going to skip through it”) and that it should absolutely be viewed as one whole piece; a rough compendium of thoughts, ideas, and memories. “There are definite divisions but I do think it works best as one whole thing. When we came to play the songs live I started looking at the record, in retrospect, almost as a sketchbook, which is what I was setting out to do. That’s why the cover art was a pencil drawing so that it almost looked like someone’s notebook. I think I always see acoustic guitars as pencil drawings.”
Digital aspirations aside, Shepherd was also greeted with another appendage: that this Bill Callahan was a new version of himself, one that wanted to be open and amenable rather than the previous incarnation that was often viewed as taciturn, like a picture slightly out of focus, a fictional character half-formed in the passive mind. It’s a shift of temperament that Bill agrees with. “I think having a kid, first of all, made me understand the concept of community, which was something I’d never really understood,” he says, contemplating that shift. “People would say that word and I didn’t really know what they meant by it – and I didn’t care. I had my music, books, and movies, and I had my friends, and so I didn’t care about the stranger next door to me. But having a kid changed that because you need all of those people for your kid to be well adjusted. You can’t be telling your son that we can’t go outside to the car yet because there’s a neighbour out there. So that was a huge thing for me,” he continues. “Also the gap between records; the realisation that people – journalists and listeners – still cared after five years of relative silence, led me to feeling more open about sharing myself. Then the third thing, I think, is the nature of the way I was writing on this record. I wanted it to be more personal stories from my life and that was another aspect of that opening-up.”
If this is indeed a new chapter for Bill, a new way of approaching the world, he still has that voice to anchor him, the brooding, lulling croon at the centre of all he does. Indeed, even conversation is tricky. Callahan speaks just as he sings, monotone and melancholy, but here we can’t hum along because we’re always playing catch-up, the sentences forming ahead of us. It’s a voice as old as time, cracked and creaking, teasing glass-boned memories. Does he ever worry that one day he’ll no longer have a use for it, that his well might run dry? “I really don’t,” he answers immediately. “I always have other things happening. The second I was done with this record I started thinking about where to go next. I already have three other skeletons I’m working on. It’s been thirty years of this. I’d probably have to get a severe head injury for me to change my ways! It’s always exciting too,” he continues. “Maybe if I had nothing there it might be disorientating or scary, or maybe it would be super relaxing! I still love it though. Music is always an adventure to me. It’s like climbing a mountain, and it’s still as fun and rewarding and challenging as when I first started.”
Whether his career has been one steady mountain, or a new peak accomplished each and every time, is somewhat unclear, but it’s perhaps best to view his work – from those early Smog records, through his discerning self-titled years – as a set of rolling hills, each undulation revealing new colours to obsess over and new characters to engage and connect with, a spectral land he made his own, that us lucky ones are able to walk within. “Once I started making music my whole body chemistry changed and I was like, OK, this is what I’m going to do with my life now, even if nobody is listening. I could just feel it. Sometimes I think back and go, “Wow, I can’t believe I’ve been doing it this long” but at the same time it really does feel like yesterday that I started.”
Time is always of the essence, and it is time that impresses the greatest weight on Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest. Each of its twenty songs could be said to be illuminated by such a thing, in ways both clear and obscure. Bill sings stories of his past, stories of the future, and time, always time, stretched and reformed, lost within and crumbling away. “And when you get older, find a quiet time, to ride on ahead or fall behind. And take a good look inside your mind,” he sings on the gorgeous ‘Tugboats and Tumbleweeds’. “Morning can be Godmotherly, to stretch, walk, and wander through. Or the wee small hours when the whole world is asleep, but you.”
Now, approaching his thirtieth year as a musician, Callahan has his own anchor of time, and surely nothing tells a truer story of it than watching your child grow right in front of your eyes; days into months into years, through the blink of a tired eye. “Actually, I think it’s slowed time down for me,” he says when asked about the effect his son’s presence has had on his life. “A lot of people with kids always say they grow up so fast, but for me, it’s like a minute is an hour now. I feel like it moves incredibly slowly.”
Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest is out now, via Drag City