Space is Bill Callahan’s plaything, his signature and his weapon, sometimes an inadvertent one in his albums of nu-folk, or maybe alt.country – that slow, quiet but loaded-with-intensity mix of traditional musics and very modern subject matter.
Although he is a brilliant, spare lyricist, drawing in part from both Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed in intimacy and occasionally outre tales – “heartbreaking lines and also the more deliberate elements of dark humour,” as uber fan Alexis Taylor of British electro pop band Hot Chip describes it - when the American was last in Australia in 2015 his long, brilliant and captivating shows seemed to stretch out more in silence than sound.
If anything, they were like the paintings of Australian Paul Ryan which were projected behind the band through the show, the songs capturing stories in bare outlines but somehow filling them with imagined detail where humour, wry and dry, bubbled up, in the space between notes.
In conversation the 50-year-old Callahan, who has being recording since 1990, is much the same. He talks slowly, chuckles occasionally at a pointed question and offers surprisingly personal responses, but it’s the gaps he leaves that can trip you up as you tell yourself to wait, wait, and then just as you think it’s probably ok to say something he comes back in.
In the albums under his own name since 2007, and before that under the name Smog, especially in the albums he made in the decade from 1997’s career redefining Red Apple Falls, it’s felt as if Callahan has worked on the writing teacher’s principle of taking out the lines or words you love most in your “finished” piece, and then taking out more.
“That’s still one of the major building blocks for writing a song I think. You take away as much is possible, even more than what you said the first and secondary things you like, as much as can be taken away with it still standing.
“I think it gives the deepest relationship between the listener and performer if they have to bring the most of themselves that they can. In that way it completes the song, and [helps you] understand the song if you have to bring a lot of yourself into it. If you hear something with really bad lyrics, where everything is laid out in really explicit terms, it doesn’t really hold very much for the average person.”
While Callahan talks about the relationship between the listener and the performer, it has rarely been the case that he has encouraged the listener to consider directly the performer, that is to assume a connection in the lyrics to him.
In fact, part of the value of stripping back in the writing may well have been that it enabled him to remove those things that might “clutter” our thinking by even the suggestion of connection to him in what another musician fan, Australian Holly Throsby, describes as “some pretty brutal emotional territory on many of the Smog records”.
“Yes, when I say the performer I mean what they are performing, not necessarily that the performer is bringing their actual self. The parts of me that I take out of it, they are just commonplace. But the things that maybe are above me, that are beyond me, they stay in there. It is just more interesting; the world is more interesting than me.”
How is the world more interesting without that “commonplace”? Where is this place where something that is more elevated, more interesting, arises? Maybe it is one of those mysteries, that combination of performer and listener creating a third entity.
“Yeah, it’s probably that. The chemical reaction of the listener is X, an unknown, and whatever it is from there is a mystery.”
Callahan is probably one of the few who doesn’t attempt to explain that mystery but does he have any sense of what it is that we draw from his songs and why we react the way we do to his songs?
“I feel like the more that I do, the longer that I make music, I sort of become more of a listener to what’s going on. The early part of my career was more putting something up there, saying something, and the response was up to the listener. In recent years I feel like more I am listening to the type of things that I write. I don’t necessarily know what other people are getting out of it but I feel like the way I know something is the way I want it to be is if it’s as if I’m getting a message from it too.
“If it’s speaking to me - and I probably couldn’t define what it’s doing to me - that’s how I know that it’s something possibly worthwhile.”
He said once that often when he finishes a song he feels as if this is something that could change the world in some way, and then that feeling dissipates once he plays it to the people and it doesn’t change the world. It’s a most un-Callahan thing to say but does he genuinely have a point of satisfaction with a song that gradually recedes the further he gets from the writing?
“That could have something to do with time passing and changing and getting older but the songs seem to have a life just to take into the studio and maybe the satisfaction does die out for me for the sake of making more songs. To try and make something that doesn’t dissipate like that. But it’s probably the nature of making anything: you’re not going to write one song or do one thing and hang it up. If I stopped making songs it wouldn’t be around to nag at me.”
Is that nagging a pleasurable thing? When that itching at the back of the brain that says a song is developing arrives, is that a good feeling?
“Yeah, it can be exciting. Hopefully because I know I will be occupied with something. If nothing is happening it feels like you’re dying or just waiting for something. It’s time you get a new little idea, the plants have been watered again, and they perk up.”
Between those moments, does he feel adrift, “dying”, to use his term?
“Definitely not any more. Maybe when I was younger I was more worried about it, but I have a much more well-rounded life these days and I used to do so I have plenty of other things to do. That’s just healthy you know. So no, doesn’t feel empty.”
The other parts of his life, are they things that he does until a song arrives or are they things that he does to create the things that will go into a song? Do they exist separately and are complete without songs?
“I think a lot of extracurricular activities are all benefiting the song, whether it’s doing some exercise or eating good food, or just taking care of yourself. It’s for the benefit of music. That was true seven or eight years ago, or four or five years ago, but now I’m learning to actually appreciate other activities for themselves, besides making music.”
If this has come to him in the past four or five years, does he see that as an appropriate time or possibly a bit late in life to be recognising this lesson?
He chuckles quietly. “It’s probably kind of late. The first part of my life I was extremely focused on just making records and I didn’t really care about anything else. It was like I was trying to get to a certain point and I was probably too focused, too one-sided. But it was my saviour, my guiding light [from] when I discovered that about 20 or 21. I latched onto it and thought I needed to use every ounce of me to repay the thing that gave me meaning and direction. Maybe it was an immature response but I was pretty prolific back then so guess it has its benefits.”