Bill Callahan is not who he used to be. This is incontrovertible.
This is also not new, even if it took us a while to come to grips with it in a man who wrote the most wonderful songs but whose two decades of lugubrious singing, often gloss-free storytelling. and preference for sparse language in almost as sparse musical settings, could draw an assumption of natural misanthropy.
If we were to look at his 2017 Australian tour, the first since he became a father as he turned 50, the signs now seem obvious: in the relaxed atmosphere, in the – dare we say it – serenity, even in the humour which had always been there but this time seemed to come freely, naturally.
My review of that show began “He smiled. He joked. He ate Tim Tams (or at least confessed to having scoffed the hotel mini bar’s stock). Bill Callahan was dressed down and amused. Jovial and relaxed.”
Last year’s stellar, Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest– an album, to some, of startling, equanimity as much as quality (read my review here) - expanded on the idea that post-fatherhood, post-fatherhood songwriting blockage, a post-all of that re-evaluation of who he was and what he did, nothing could be the same again.
As he sang, semi-seriously but also pointedly, in Son Of The Sea, from that album, “I had a son/Giving birth nearly killed me/Some say I died, and all that survived was my lullabies.”
Did it take the man himself long to adjust to the “different Bill Callahan”?
He chuckles, and doesn’t answer immediately. “Um … I think …” he finally says in his characteristic slow delivery with pauses that could double as Harold Pinter silences. “I think … hmm … definitely, the different me had a whole different life. I would say, [chuckling again] yes. Just having a whole different way of seeing the world, I think, having a kid brings to you, and at first it can be hard letting go of that old world that you’ve learnt to navigate and make work for you.”
Was it really as straightforward as having a child?
“I kind of think that kids break you, like horses get broken. And then finally, because they are very of the moment, joy and simple things like a spinning top that you might think is not worth your time, are constantly reminding [you] to be in this moment, like a kid is, and not be thinking about the past or the future,” Callahan says. “That’s a huge change. And also because I was absent from music, from the record making scene at least, I had a lot of time to think about what exactly I have, what I have created and, I guess, gratitude is the word.
“Which, when you are busy all the time you get swept up in anger and other things. But if you take a step back, you can realise how grateful you should be, just waking up basically.”
This came to a head a year or so ago on the release of Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, where Callahan was doing a lot of interviews whose publication rang over and over with the surprise of writers who found him revealing and happy to be so open.
I wondered what did that experience tell him about us and about himself.
“I think making a record or anything creative like that, you are very focused on the work and you are not really … I mean, fans and journalists are great but they don’t help you get the work done and they don’t help you rehearse for tours and that stuff,” says Callahan.
“I tended not to always think about that relationship. But I think with the time between records, and this tour I’m about to do, I did a few interviews maybe five days ago, and I would much rather had been something else – like, who are these people who want to talk to me? Why do they want to talk to meeee [he says with a comic teenage whine]? – but once I started talking to them you get reminded that people really value the work that I’ve done, take it very seriously.”
Is that gratitude as well? From him?
“It’s gratitude and surprise,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot, especially with social media. Now an artist can follow a journalist, and vice versa. In the past that wasn’t possible, and that’s not exactly a relationship but it encroaches on being one. I don’t know, I’m still wondering about it and that there has always kind of been a wall between the creator and the journalists, at least in my mind, but I think it can be a symbiotic relationship.”
If he sounds not entirely sure if this is a good or bad thing, or just a thing, it’s worth noting that this is something we all, as fans, have to learn as well. In an age of few secrets and ultra-confession, this past decade should have forced us to examine our relationship with, our understanding of, and our ability to see in to part of an artist’s life without actually being part of that artist’s life.
It’s an adjustment which seems easier at our end: after all we’re getting more and more, maybe even what we thought we’d always wanted. But I’m not so sure that it is. When it changes how we interact with artists, it changes how we interact with, and react to, the art as well. And Callahan, a fan as well as a musician is as intrigued as any of us.
“It’s all brand-new territory I think and it seems a little bit dangerous and we have to keep in mind that is brand-new to us as fans,” he says. “I might get excited when I see someone I like on social media and I’m like ‘oh I love this person, I want to be in touch with whatever’s going on in their head’, but then there’s always a point where I’ll go ‘shut the fuck up’. I have a saturation point where I go, ‘no I don’t really want to know everything’. It gets old fast.”
What’s the danger? Or the loss?
“If you have a record and your webpage has the album cover, the writing and the music, that puts a lot more on a listener to develop a relationship with a record, instead of being shaped by social media saying ‘I just gave to this charity’. Was this made by a good person? Or by a bad boy?”
Of course, there was never a purity in that exchange in the past. We may not have known all the details, or even any of the details, of the artist to whom we were listening, but we projected or conceived of them in some sense. You caught Bowie on TV in his striking Ziggy era and that suggestion of androgyny gave some people an idea of who he was, but equally who you might be, both in your reaction to him and how that reacted in your life.
Mythology after all has always been an exciting part of how we react to and build on music from an artist. It may be their mythology, it may be ours. And that idea must work in some part for the artist as well, that curated side of their story.
For example, Callahan has said himself he indulged the myth of the tortured artist in his 20s, and the concept of the lonely traveller and chronicler in his 30s and early 40s. Can he see accompanying myths of the happy or settled artist in his 50s, that we might be building, even if he isn’t?
“I think myths, even taking it out of the arena of musician and listener and into our daily lives, are how we constructed our world: I’m a hero, or I’m a black sheep - whatever the stories we shared in the way we look at our families, ourselves and friends,” says Callahan.
“Myths go way beyond just what a listener thinks about or perceives in a performer. A lot of that before social media was borne by the listener who would make up the myths that you need at that moment.”
Maybe as one final myth-busting – or is it myth-making? – note on which to leave us, after the now famous long dry spell following the birth of his son, which at one point had him wondering whether songwriting was something he wanted to do anymore, Callahan says he is “back to my old self” in terms of frequency of ideas and completion of songs.
“Once I got the gates open, I propped them open with a cinderblock,” he laughs. “I’m back. I’m back baby.”
Bill Callahan saying “I’m back baby”? I mean … mind blown.
Bill Callahan plays Hamer Hall, Melbourne, March 4; State Theatre, Sydney, March 5; The Tivoli, Brisbane, March 6; Golden Plains Festival, March 7; WOMADelaide, March 8.