With help from his wife and Lee Scratch Perry, the artist formerly known as Smog has opened up. Hes even talking to his neighbours, he says
Originally, I was going to interview Bill Callahan at home in Austin, Texas. Then he was going to fly to London for a more efficient European press trip. Then his publicist forwarded an email from the 53-year-old songwriter: Every round-trip flight from New York to London melts 32 sq ft of polar ice … in light of global warming, any chance this could be done via FaceTime? These empires must crumble!
Reading about Extinction Rebellion strengthened Callahans decision, he says, when we speak by phone, along with hearing a friend cite that chilling statistic. Still, he will keep touring. Performing music is worth melting the ice caps, he says, with a chuckle that clicks like a latch closing.
Since his 2005 album A River Aint Too Much to Love his last as Smog, the name he made music under since 1990 nature has taken root in Callahans songs. Birds, horses, rivers and cattle populate his lyrics, telegraphing chaos, stubbornness, peace, and above all, an embrace of intuition. Less dissonant than his Smog work, this openhearted evolution his tender songs elevated by laconic profundity has affirmed him as one of the USs greatest songwriters.
Yet Callahans beautiful new album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, is altogether more domestic, revealing his unexpected new life as a husband and father. I never thought Id make it this far, he sings on What Comes After Certainty. He had never understood the point of marriage or kids. Then he fell in love with Hanly Banks after she made a documentary about him. It was like: Oh, heres my wife! And probably the mother of my child. It was in her face, her aura. And there was no fear or doubt about it. On Callahans 2013 album Dream River, he used the metaphor of flight to immortalise the awe of romantic contentment: I never like to land / Getting back up seems impossibly grand / We do it with ease, he sang on Small Plane.
After his sons birth, Callahan thought he might drop music to become a full-time dad. His wife talked him out of it, but he struggled to start his next album. Giving birth nearly killed me / Some say I died, he sings on Son of the Sea, in that suave, mystic deadpan. He chuckles again. It was kinda the death of Music Bill for a while, but he was resuscitated. As his son grew, Callahan eked out time to write, but nothing happened, even as he exercised, meditated and read to stoke the muse. I was trying to be Superman, he says. Then he remembered the importance of idleness: On your list of things to do, you dont write: Daydream.
Once he cracked it, he started writing with arresting candour for a man who has often been described as intimidating, or, he laments, fiercely private. Although more effusive now, he remains a careful conversationalist, approaching sentences like a man negotiating a treacherous slope. Sky change the sea, he sings on The Beast. Love changed me. How? Well! That latch click again: I understand community now. To avoid small talk, he says, he would only run to the car when my neighbour wasnt outside. Now Ill go and say hi. I realised how were all linked. I always felt the link from art and having friends but thats as far as it went. It made me part of the world outside of myself. Callahan credits his wife now a therapist with helping him to open up. She says honesty is the most interesting thing. Previously, Callahan believed the opposite, plus he wanted to protect his intimates. And I wanted people to listen unbiased. If someone tells you: My wife just got hit by a car and died, heres my song about that, then youre probably gonna cry no matter how not-good it is. But if you just hear a song, Heres a Song About My Wife Getting Hit By a Car and Dying, it has to be good or people arent gonna listen.
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