"Honeymoon Child" from the album Woke on a Whaleheart
Wide-eyed and straight-faced, singer/songwriter Bill Callahan is not a typical American folk/rock guy — and he's no Pat Boone, either. He doesn't parade his lack of private vices or knock listeners over the head with glossy clichés. His music and lyrics follow their own unique, gentle-mannered path and dynamic.
"Nothing has changed from day one," he says, speaking from his current home in Austin, Texas, on the eve of his "Mouth of the South" tour. He and his backing band — guitarist Jonathan Meiburg and drummer Thor Harris (both of Shearwater) — perform in Mt. Pleasant this Saturday in support of his latest album, Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City).
"I don't think I'm a serious musician," Callahan says. "I place a great value on music and respect the creation of it. But I never was or became a serious musician. I just started as a curious kid and hope to end as such."
After singing and strumming under the curious moniker Smog for nearly two decades, Callahan recently switched to his own name, following the 2005 release of A River Ain't Too Much to Love.
"I changed it for the sake of change of scenery. Something different written on the covers of my albums," he says. "It's the same drive and desire as ever. The roles of songwriter and singer? Both are challenging. I am striving to be both."
Smog debuted in 1988 with a spare-sounding collection titled Macramé Gunplay, a cassette-only release issued on Callahan's own Disaster label. Cow followed in 1989, while three more cassette releases issued a year later. With 1991's Floating EP, he signed to the Chicago-based indie label Drag City and began an advancement toward more traditional songcraft. The subsequent full-length Forgotten Foundation was a well-rounded effort, employing a stronger sense of melody while remaining true to the trademark bare-bones atmosphere. The superb Julius Caesar raised the stakes considerably, as did the half dozen Drag City releases that followed in the '90s and early 2000s.
Drag City highlights included 1999's Knock Knock, produced by Jim O'Rourke (of Sonic Youth), with a sound more ornate than the so-called "lo-fi" fare. The instrumentation included a string quartet, piano, guitars, and drums — and a small choir of Chicago school kids. Much of Knock Knock resembles the most lively and introspective solo material by artists like Lou Barlow, Chan Marshall, Will Oldham, and Vic Chesnutt. Dongs Of Sevotion (2001) was a beautiful, meandering collection recorded with members of Tortoise and other qualified Chicagoans. Callahan sounded like Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen, only less chipper.
A River Ain't Too Much to Love, tracked in Willie Nelson's Pedernales recording studio in Texas, revealed a more experimental approach, replete with extra instrumentation and an odd mix of vintage Western swing, country, and indie-folk styles. Deep and delicate, it hinted at the subtle transition that led to his latest efforts.
Recorded at Premium Recordings in Austin, the overall instrumental sound Callahan and producer Neil Haggerty (formerly of Royal Trux) were aiming for on Woke on a Whaleheart is noticeably "roomy," with natural echo and very little added distortion or distraction. Drag City mentions a hint of a "Nashville sound" on the disc. That's true.
"I chose the studio because it had a reverb chamber and was all analog," Callahan says. "Neil took it from there. I think he wanted it to sound like Al Stewart, with a guy playing acoustic guitar and singing in the center of it and all these arrangements of hand-played instruments around it."
How much of the setting and atmosphere of the cities in which he's lived make it into Callahan's songs?
"Nothing — it's the city of my heart you are hearing when you listen to my records," he says.
One stand-out track on the new collection is the loopy "Honeymoon Child," a beautiful ballad in 6/8 time with slide guitar and fiddle work by Elizabeth Warren. Callahan wrote it while preparing for a collaboration with Icelandic/Italian songstress Emiliana Torrini, who recorded a version of the song on her album Fisherman's Woman.
"Neil was trying to make me phrase weirdly by having me playing guitar in a weird time signature at the same time," Callahan says of the track. "Emiliana came and sat on my floor for a few days, doodling mostly. I tried to get her writing but I couldn't push the magic buttons, I guess. I'd write a couple songs for her before she came. 'Honeymoon' was one of them."
It's probably fair to describe some of his songs as melancholic, but within the mood and texture of Callahan's recent material, there's more humor than some might expect. Is it fair to describe him as a "serious-minded" songwriter, or perhaps, more accurately, as a "cleverly-minded songwriter?"
"Why wouldn't someone expect humor in the music?" he shoots back. "It's probably best to describe me as a serious-minded songwriter. Cleverness is fleetingly satisfying."