June 14th marked the return of Bill Callahan, via his latest record — the double lp, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. One of our favorite listens this year, we asked singer/songwriter Jerry David DeCicca to catch up with the artist on our behalf as they embarked a short west coast tour together. Their conversation, below …
I first met Bill Callahan last summer when I asked him to sing on a Chris Gantry album I was producing for Drag City. Not purely out of want for a celebrity guest vocal, but because I knew that with just a few words he could lift the song into a surreal and sweeter world. Then, he invited me to open the first couple dates of his tour this past June, so I rode his coattails throughout bits of California. That’s where and when this interview was supposed to take place, but we forgot to do it.
So at the end of July, we met at a trampoline park in Austin. I gave him a box of records and a hug. “Ken-Tech?” he said, reading the brand of the cassette recorder I brought with me to tape our conversation.
We bounced between tables, trying to prevent chitter-chatter and the music from the overhead speakers from muddying-up the 60 minute Maxell. Once we found a good spot, I asked him about interviews, since it seems like he’s done a lot of them recently and I clearly did not prepare for this one well enough.
“Did you really only used to do these through fax machines?” I asked him.
“For years and years, I preferred email. People always took that as an affront. But I just wanted to be clear,” he said. He talked about mis-heard words and misrepresented thoughts. I looked down at my condenser mic and shook my head. CeeLo Green was singing his edited version of “Fuck You” throughout the trampoline park’s arcade.
“Do you think that benefited you? Like, without meaning to, by wanting to be better understood you created a mystique?”
“Maybe when I was younger that kind of thing gave me a kind of a thrill.”
“What do you get out of reading interviews with artists you like?”
“For stories about how songs came together. All that stuff is pretty interesting. Any kind of writer, I like to read what their day is like, what their night is like. Even though it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is when the pen touches the paper.”
I nodded and asked him about his writing habits.
“I write every day. Well, not today. But when I’m settled. These days, I usually have a limited amount of hours set in stone for when I can start and when I can end. I fill that time. It used to be 24 hours a day I was kind of on call.”
I think humor is like alcohol. It loosens people up. And then once you’re loose, you can feel things more or be more open to what you’re hearing. I think there’s a parallel between being a touring musician and being a comic. You get on stage in front of strangers every night and try to win them over.
If you’ve heard the new record, then you know that Bill is married and has a small child. He sings about his wedding, childbirth, and parenting.
“Because you were spending more time alone then or because you didn’t have anyone else that needed you?”
“Both of those.”
“When these new songs came out of you, did they feel more personal?”
“At first they were impersonal because that is the way I like to write: to remove myself, not to be too self-referential or autobiographical.”
“How do you do that?”
“By making it all fantasy. Projection fantasy. I may be in the place, but I’m projecting the fantasy and you can see me if you deep project and go to the projector, you can see what’s back there. When I wrote my new record, I had so many new things in my life, I knew I couldn’t project a fantasy world anymore because of my wife and my son. Since I was no longer alone, there was someone to call me out.”
“Did that make you feel more self-conscious about your writing?”
“Sort of, but only in a way that made me feel I had to be more truthful. I knew that I couldn’t get away with glossing anything over. It was new experiences for me and I had to figure out what it really meant to me and not just what it was supposed to mean, about having a kid and ‘isn’t life beautiful and these things I first thought I was supposed to say.”
“Did you find yourself editing yourself, like that’s too real or I don’t want to share that much?”
“I mean, that certainly has always been the case. If it involves someone else, I don’t want to embarrass someone. I don’t mind exposing myself.”
I brought notes with me on a yellow legal pad: ideas in case I went blank. I titled it, “Things to ask Billy C.” But I didn’t use it. I took my time asking him each question, processing what he’d tell me, and he took his time answering. There was a lot of silence between our exchanges.
“On the ‘Tugboat’ song, you’re giving your son advice, telling him not to drink alcohol until his brain is done developing, to find balance in life, its sweet and funny. That’s a moment that feels very genuine, very real.”
“I tried to make it real, but also to show that real life is magical. It’s not banal. Anything that humans can experience is interesting to me. It’s like that Lou Reed song “Perfect Day”. It’s not banal. It has a very heavenly feel to it.“
“When these songs started coming out of you, did you look towards any songwriters or musicians to see how they addressed family and fatherhood in their music?”
“I couldn’t really find any other people that I like. I mean, there’s ‘Cats in the Cradle’ and I thought about some of those father/son songs, which I love, but beyond that I couldn’t really find somebody to copy or steal from.”
I tell Bill that “The Ballad of the Hulk”is one of my favorites, and so is the Bill Bixby show he references. I ask about it as a metaphor for traveling through life. I try to imagine Bill turning big and green.
“Being a bad person doesn’t help anybody. No one wants to hang out with you. The Hulk is interesting because he was a good person, but he didn’t have a home, he had to keep moving, because he was so appalled by the ugliness and the greed of the world. He made a spectacle of himself and had to leave. But all on the side of good. Other stories don’t go that way. Good triumphs and the bad person is in jail. There’s a certain twist to that dimension that I liked.”
I tell Bill that the song “Circles,” about the death of his mother, was one of my favorites from the tour. I ask if it was difficult to engage in the song’s subject each night.
“I could keep my distance from it because I knew the improv-y parts were coming and it was a release. Any grief about death could be released through the song. On the record, it is this quiet thing that doesn’t have a release to it.”
The new songs are more melodic, or different melodically, from his older songs. They feel more playful, gentler.
“With each record, I try to push some aspect of my performance into a direction I haven’t been in. I noticed I was singing in a higher range and soft, I don’t know why. Maybe I’m turning into a woman. Your testosterone goes down when you have a kid as a male. Anyways, it seemed necessary to add a few notes to my repertoire.”
“I’m not sure about that,” I say. “I’m not sure you’re turning into a woman.” Bill didn’t say anything to this, but I think he heard me. “Does the nylon string guitar, as an instrument, have an impact on what you write?”
“I’ve been doing that since A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. There’s just something about a nylon string guitar that I’m in love with it.”
Bill plays a 60’s Martin. I’m not sure of the exact model, but after his soundcheck in San Luis Obispo, without asking, I picked it up and played it for a few minutes. It’s a beautiful instrument, and I would have played it for hours, but then I felt guilty for not asking first and put it back down.
“What do you like about it?” I asked.
“Even as just an object, it feels like it came from a different place. An electric guitar, I look at it and it looks like it was made in a factory. A nylon string guitar, it’s a mystical thing to me, like an animal or a fossil. For writing, it’s the most neutral accompaniment, not a lot of sustain. It doesn’t push you. It doesn’t have the history that comes with like a Strat. It makes the vocal need to carry a lot more weight. It’s more of a challenge.”
“Speaking of nylon string guitars, one of the funniest parts on the new record is during ‘What Comes After Certainty’ when you’re defacing Willie Nelson’s guitar.”
“Defacing?!” he says, almost whispering a frown.
“Sorry,” I say. “I mean, add your name to it.”
“No, it would be defacing. I’d probably get arrested.”
Bill is a funny guy. Not as funny as me, but pretty funny. And his songs often use humor to take you in and out of the emotions and the weight of the subjects. Before he defaces Willie’s guitar, in that same song, he sings, tenderly, “I’ve got the woman of my dreams/ And an imitation Eames”. He cheats an earnest moment its minute by turning the corner. He sounds happy, and it’s easy to picture him smiling as he sings about marital perfection and a mid-century modern knock-off.
“I think humor is like alcohol. It loosens people up. And then once you’re loose, you can feel things more or be more open to what you’re hearing. I think there’s a parallel between being a touring musician and being a comic. You get on stage in front of strangers every night and try to win them over. And a comic is even more compact. Not much equipment and all alone. It’s all words, there’s no props, unless you’re Carrot Top.” Bill tells me, as musicians, we should start boycotting soundchecks. I tell him he needs a soundcheck stand-in and he offers to hire me to do soundchecks for him.
Knowing he’s joking, I still take the opportunity to do my best Callahan vocal mic impersonation and yell, “America!” Three kids at the skee-ball machine turn around and give me a weird look.
We discuss musicians that use humor. Bill likes Jonathan Richman and The Roches. He mentions a TV show I’ve never heard of that he thinks is funny. Then, I recommend he watch the tv show Psych. The show is set in Santa Barbara where Bill lived for a brief time and one of the show’s producers is coincidentally also named Bill Callahan. When I watch it in reruns, I often think of him during the credits.
“Yeah, Psych. It’s real funny, goofy.”
“I like goofy,” and then we start talking about the record again. “I wanted to make something that was more adult, to be more a part of the world in a physical sense, so the fantasy part has to dissipate.”
“How did you develop that fantasy part of your songwriting? Was it modeled after other writers or just a way to protect yourself?
“I think it came from not having much of a life to speak of, but kind of fantasizing that I did. And I didn’t feel like I had a lot of guidance or wisdom passed on upon me by elders, so just reaching out myself from novels, which in turn, you read a novel, it makes you want to write in the voice of what you just read.”
I ask Bill about sharing wisdom on records. I reference aphorisms on the new record, directed to the listener and to his son.
“A journalist pointed out to me a couple records ago that I have all these aphorisms and that I’m always giving advice. I never realized that until someone told me. Then my wife told me that, later, separate from that, ‘I like it when you give advice.’ Before we knew each other, she found value in that. I guess it’s just me trying to give something to people from my experiences.
“I need to find for myself what my place in the world is now. Writing does help that, but also everything that I write I consider it destructible and replaceable. I just say something so later I can finesse it or replace it. I try not to write definitive statements. It’s more like, I said this thing and check with me in a couple years. But it’s all necessary.”
“At what point will you play your music for your son, or will you just leave a pile of records on the floor and wait for him to find it?”
Bill tells me he that his son knows his dad is a musician. He describes driving around with his son while listening to rough mixes of the new album since the car is their only cd player.
“He knows the lyrics to the Hulk song. I was set for this big emotional experience and I played ‘Tugboats and Tumbleweeds’ for him, and he just left the room. It’s not really a reach-out-and-grab-you kind of song.”
“Maybe in a few years.”
“I kind of hope he doesn’t pour over my old records because most of them are embarrassing.”
“Like he’s going to come up to you one day and say, ‘Daddy, why do you want someone to dress sexy at your funeral?’”
“Yeah,” Bill said, barely laughing at my bad joke. “I prefer if no one listens to my music. Much more comfortable.”
“Buy the record, but don’t listen to it.” This is when side two of the 60-minute Maxell clicked off. I immediately felt more comfortable. We kept talking: about how we both worked at KFC in dark days of our youth and, then, relationships — teacher to student, parent to child, partner to partner. We talked a little bit about our fathers. We talked about disappointments, connections, expectations, and wanting the relationships we make as adults to be meaningful, healthy, and open.
“We want to be known,” Bill said. “I want to be known, you want to be known.”
I told Bill I didn’t think he’d have to worry about that with his son, “The fact that you’re thinking about this, that these ideas are things you consider, you’re obviously on the right path.”
“I’m in it to win it,” he said.
He stood up, we hugged goodbye, he started playing Guitar Hero, and I drove home.
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words / Jerry David DeCicca – photos / Hanly-Banks-Callahan, Liv Kinsey