Zaph Mann

Bill Callahan | Finn Riggins

Interview with Bill Callahan

The creeping transformation of 'punk' artists into crooning middle aged men isn't without precedent. Elvis Costello generally pulls it off, and Nick Cave's journey from The Birthday Party through the Bad Seeds to his current preachy moaning persona is another. I like a good deal of Cave's recent music but, particularly live, he never seems quite at rest in his deep seriousness, more and more, his act really does seem put-on, quite the opposite seems to be the case with Bill Callahan. These days he's frequently likened to Leonard Cohen, and although he's quite different, the comparison isn't as wild as it would seem if you only knew Callahan's early music.

Callahan started out with distinctly lo-fi recordings back in 1988; cassette tape releases and lot's of hiss. Smog, his 'band', were one of the first released on the groundbreaking Drag City Records label in 1991. He collaborated with Will Oldham and is said to have influenced the likes of Beck and The Flaming Lips with his loose, unconventional structuring of songs. Forgotten Foundation - the early Drag City release is a great example of this dis-organised, dis-chordant phase. That's fascinating stuff, but nothing compared to 1994's Burning Kingdom a standout album, much more accomplished and in my opinion the best album to come out of the whole genre.

Callahan attracted many admirers and a cadre of hardcore fans through those 90's albums, and their reaction to his more recent, contemplative output is mixed. The truth is that Callahan has always written intimately, even during his noisiest days as Smog, layers of overdubbed sound has been replaced by a talented, disciplined and extremely restrained musicians on violin, cello, drums, guitar and Callahan himself on rhythm and occasional keyboards. His words have also evolved: Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is full of sparse, yet captivating wordplay, switching between the straightforward and the allusive; using plain language alongside references towards air, spirit and birds:

"I started telling the story without knowing the end
of ordinary things.
How much of a tree bends in the wind.
I used to be darker.
Then I got lighter.
Then I got darker
Something too big to be seen was passing over and over me."
And Callahan's voice, like Cohen's, is improving with age; it's still admittedly soft, but there is a widening deeper vocal range. When Callahan almost speaks out in his extruded word-by-word baritone he doesn't strain at all, even live (for a very live exposure see this amazing "Black Cab Session")

Callahan also turns up on recent revivalist "cover" albums (Kath Bloom Tribute and Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill) illustrating that capacity Johnny Cash had to make a song his own. On those covers Callahan's is the outstanding track, but his version is inevitably longer, highlighting an issue which may get in the way for some - the elongation of prose. He's not verbose, he's just taken his 'calm' to such lengths that he's never hurried. So unhurried is he that the debate over the future of CDs verses individual songs may be rendered mute as Callahan stretches one song to full CD length. Take for example "Too Many Birds," in which he sings the first word of a phrase "If", then the first and second "If you", then adds the third "If you could" and so on, each incomplete phrase seeming to be a conclusion, then shifting meaning subtly. If I were to read such a description as I am giving here I'd think it impossible to pull off, yet he does. The slowing down, the time taken, frames and emphasizes moments of observation so we don't forget them.

If criticism for exaggerated pause is understandable, finding this music depressing seems odd to me. OK some songs appear to be about his break up with the incredible Joanna Newsome, but these aren't silly lost-love songs; these are reflective, intelligent and precious recollections:

"She lay beside me like a branch from a tender willow tree
I was as still, as still as a river could be
When a rococo zephyr swept over her and me


'She watched the water ripple ripple ripple ripple light
Light watched the water ripple ripple ripple ripple she
I did some kind of dance, jaunty as a bee
I tried to look my best, a finch in wild mint vest
A fiercer force had wrenched her from where she used to be
I caught and caressed the length of her, a tender willow branch floating on me"
And live at Portland's Aladdin Theatre (the perfect venue for such a show), barefoot, occasionally bending his knees or skipping back with boyish enthusiasm, he wasn't dark, he was real. When a self-absorbed heckler broke the atmosphere with a daft comment, he simply looked to the side with barely a raised eyebrow as if to say "aren't you listening" then next song rejoined with a friendly "this one's for the guy with the foot fetish".

If your life's going along sweetly at the moment, you should appreciate all the delight in Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, if, on the other hand, you're upset, vulnerable, or generally susceptible to emotional responses to cinema, you may want to approach this masterpiece with caution, for it's bound to end in tears.

PS: Unless my mathematics fails me, Bill Callahan is currently 42, and that, according to one particular author, is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.