The Hotel San Jose is an ivied boutique property in the middle of Austin’s bustling South Congress Avenue, and it’s where Bill Callahan suggests we meet to discuss his new album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest. On this hot, grey day in the middle of May, he pleasantly drifts into the mise-en-scène of the packed patio, and we soon spend our hour together talking about everything from raising a child to an animal-like instinct to chase tennis balls.
Callahan is the modern incarnation of a street poet, a true genius who uses his elevated sense of language to re-frame the plights we all share. Shepherd is his sixth LP under his own name; he’s also released two live albums under this moniker and 13 records under the name Smog. The first Smog album came out in 1990 — a messy, weird document that sounds like it was sewn together by a seamstress with no hands. It found a home on Drag City, and Callahan’s had a relationship with the label for almost 30 years now.
But about five years ago, Callahan went silent. He got married, had a kid, tried to write, failed to write, lost hope, found it again, and then recorded the wonderful Shepherd. The sabbatical wasn’t self-imposed; he tried to write while raising his son, but the tunes wouldn’t come. Drag City would reliably drop a line, just in case Callahan had decided to re-emerge. “They’re always checking in, but kind of as a joke,” he explains while sipping a glass of water. “After about four years they figured it was good, because people would be excited after such a long wait,” he adds with a chuckle, gray hair split down the middle of his face, his cheeks loosely etched with stubble. Callahan’s always been sardonic and self-effacing, but it’s always come across naturally.
It seems that Bill Callahan has never liked talking about himself — but this past Christmas Eve, the musician who once insisted on doing interviews via fax started tweeting. “Alright, people! Let’s DO this!!! I am PUMPED for 2019! Woohooooo!” his first missive read, before tweeting minutes later, “I’m thinking about quitting Twitter.” He’s Tweeted just over a dozen times since then, promoting solo shows and mentioning that he’s never had a taco.
i’ve never had a taco. are they good? how would you say they compare to a burrito? i must try a burrito one of these days too.— Bill Callahan (@BillCallaman) May 2, 2019
Through his entire career, Callahan has never been anything other than a guy with a somber voice musing about America and provocatively dressed funeral attendees. He’s not dying for attention — he just likes words, and as he tells me, tweeting is a way of him doing something. It’s a low bar, but after five years of silence, Callahan had to convince himself he was strong enough for tasks ranging from Tweeting to putting together a double-LP.
Speaking of: Shepherd may be Callahan’s best album. It’s small, despite being 20 songs long — but the songs are micro-fragments compared to the sprawling folk of his last few LPs. He seems happy with the results, and in general, as even though there’s so much to be upset about on a minute-to-minute basis, Callahan remains an optimist. “Every day kind of feels like the first day of my life,” he says.
When did you actually begin working on the new album?
I probably started the day after my last record was done [Laughs].
You generally move at a pretty fast rate, but this album took a while. Why do you think that is?
I got married and had a kid. Big things were happening.
Were you okay with the music taking a backseat?
At first I was, but as the months and years dragged on, it got a little worrying. I’ve made so many records already — what the hell would I do if I stopped? I wasn’t worried about it as much as I was thinking about what I had to do. I was trying. I had very limited time to myself. After a while, I was getting three hours a day to work, which wasn’t quite enough, especially when you’re in the stressful situation of being a parent. We found a way to stretch that to five hours a day. It allowed me to relax. When it was three, it was worse, because you’re constantly checking your watch.
Does music take on a different meaning for you now that you have a kid?
No, it’s remarkably the same. The thing that changed is that I now have more on my plate. I used to just have music on my plate. Now there’s more, so it’s like, how do I eat all of this?
You pop up in Austin every so often and play shows.
No matter how much I wasn’t writing, or writing unsuccessfully, I made sure that I was around. When you go to dragcity.com, I always wanted to see my name on the upcoming tour page, even if it was one show. I did a few shows every few months. Have you ever been celibate for a long time and you kind of forget how to have sex? It’s kind of like that. You need to keep yourself in the game.
Were you ever worried that you were done with music?
A little bit, but not really. I briefly considered just being a dad, but my wife said I’d go crazy. The music guy needs to stay alive, or else he’s gonna make your life hell.
The album has a lot of shorter tracks. Did the idea of a double album come about simply because you had a lot of ideas after taking this hiatus?
It just happened. I was gonna make a single record but it seemed like too narrow of a focus. I started looking at the same things that were on the single record from different perspectives. I had been away for so long, I wanted to give people a double record.
Do you like touring?
I love it. I need that change of routine. Touring is a routine that gets old, too, but I don’t like doing the same thing every day.
Do you share your songs with anyone before they’re done?
I usually don’t. I’m generally shy about that. But my wife insisted this time around.
What does she think about the record?
She likes it. I sat and performed the whole record for her. She was the first person that heard the whole thing. The second person was Brian Beattie, who engineered the record.
Were there other musicians on the record, or did you track most of the instruments yourself?
Matt Kinsey plays guitar — he’s a crucial part of this record. He made it so much better. Brian played bass on almost every song. There were a few different drummers, too.
Are you an easy and willing collaborator?
I have to have the last say. That’s not exactly collaboration. I try to get people that I trust as players and let them work. If it’s not clicking, I’ll have them work with something else. I think that’s collaboration.
It’s funny that David Berman’s putting out a new record, too.
It’s like all the zombies have awoken.
So much has been written about how you’re insular, quiet, and don’t like doing interviews. Now you’re on Twitter.
I’ve put a toe in the water of Twitter. I’m not full-on. I realized that Twitter is just communication and language, which I like. I’ve always been jealous of people like David Letterman and all of those late-night hosts. They have this huge thing to do every night that never really stops. They have to be funny every night. Music is a lot slower, but I can write a tweet and it’s like I did something that day.
You tour both with a band and solo. Do you prefer one over the other?
The band is probably the most fun, but they both have advantages. It can be a lot more improvisational if I’m playing with just Matt. I like the duo a lot. It’s like a conversation, it’s more realistic. A band is more like a riot — all these people trying to do something.
You’ve talked about your fascination with language. Were there other outlets you were able to express that interest through when you weren’t writing?
It mostly stays pent up. It’s frustrating.
Does it manifest itself in any way?
I’m pretty good at reminding myself that each new day is a new day. I don’t carry a lot of baggage.
Is that how you naturally are? Or did it take practice?
It’s natural. Every day kind of feels like the first day of my life.
Is that an entirely positive philosophy for you?
I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s a song on the new record, “Morning Is My Godmother,” and that’s the same feeling. The morning is protecting me. Every morning reminds me that it’s gonna be okay because morning is there.
Do existential threats creep their way into your brain despite this sort of optimism?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m any good at this. The big question is, “Does this need to exist?” Even if it’s pretty good, do I really need to put it out there? That’s hard, depending on your mood.
When did you realize that Shepherd was a record worth putting out?
In this process there’s always hope. First, I write the lyrics then I set it to music. I reserve complete judgement on the songs at that point, because I know other people will be involved and they’ll be strengthened in the studio. Once we record them and the mix is right, we’re all trying to do the best we can.
Has that ever not been enough?
A long time ago, like in ‘94. I made a record that wasn’t very good. I didn’t release it.
Do you have a favorite record of yours?
I really like A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. That one has good songs and feels right. I still play a lot of those songs live because they're open and flexible. There’s room for improv in there. It’s an enduring set of songs for me.
Do you feel any divide between your two projects?
Not really. Maybe early on, but I changed before I changed my name. That obfuscated the change. Smog was originally more about recording songs that could never be recreated again. There was lots of tape stuff and noise. I thought that was cool. Around A River, I wanted to write songs that thrived by being performed. It wasn’t about the sound on the record as much as the way the song is.
Do you ever want to go back to those experimental, tape-heavy days?
I think with this record I gave myself the gift of being able to make mistakes. There’s a lot of over-dubbing, it’s looser. I’ve still got it [Laughs].
Are you happy with this record?
We just started rehearsing, so it’s hard to tell. Songs are weird. They have to get older to really show themselves. The new songs sound okay and then we’ll do an old one, which sounds fucking great! But it’s just because I’ve performed old songs 500 times. The jury is still out on this one. But the songs are pretty compact. I don’t know how great that transforms to certain live settings. I’d like to perform them in a little drama theater with seats and lights. Now I’m just working out how they’re gonna play into the tour.
What do you like doing when you’re not writing or touring?
I like reading a lot and playing with my son. I really like to exercise, too. All the things that everyone does.
What do you do for exercise?
I never stick with one thing. I mostly run. Tennis, too.
What do you like about tennis?
If there’s a ball I have to hit, I can’t help but chase it like a dog. When you’re running, you can stop at any time. You have a choice. With tennis, you want to win. I don’t care about winning, but I wanna get the ball back over the net. There’s no time to ponder stopping. It’s mandatory exercise.
Is there something outside of writing songs that matters to you as a musician?
My crowning achievement used to be when I got the physical record back to me. That’s when my job was over. Now, I still like to look at the artwork, but once I approve the master, that’s the end of it for me. I don’t really care what happens after that. Because songs have such a long lifespan — they basically live forever — a record isn’t completely received in the two or three months after it comes out. It lasts for the rest of time. I’m still getting things from my old songs.
Do your older songs now hold a new meaning for you?
They’re still alive. It’s unlike any other art. A painting may look different, but it stays the same. Music is ever changing.
In what way?
In performing it. It’s different.
You don’t think any other art form can mimic that?
You can watch a movie every year and every time it’s different, but for me, music achieves it more naturally.
Do you write music for your son now that he’s in the world? Has it impacted the way you go about writing?
I haven’t really thought about him listening because he’s so young. And I know he’s never gonna give a shit anyways. When he’s 16, he’s gonna tell me my music sucks. I’m ready for that. My music is for people. It’s for whoever wants to listen.
What’s this record about for you?
There’s a song on it called “What Comes After Certainty” that’s about what comes before certainty, what comes during certainty, and what comes after. That’s what the album is about.
Do you have themes that inform your process before you begin writing? Or do they reveal themselves once you’ve begun?
I always sequence the record before I start recording. I think of my albums chronologically — which may not make sense to somebody else, but it works for me.
Do you hope people understand anything about you or your music after listening to your albums?
This is kind of some hippie shit, but I do think that music already exists in the universe. Instruments are just a way of bringing it down to Earth. The goal is to make music. I hope that my records are music to people. I do think that all music is already out there. If I pick up my guitar and play a note, my head opens up. That’s just one note I’ve played a billion times. I get transported into this different way of feeling and thinking. I don’t play the note great, it’s just the note.
Now that you’re a bit more transparent as a personality, do you worry that people will project what they read in interviews and hear about you onto your music?
That used to worry me. I think that’s one reason why I was a little private. You can tell someone that something bad happened to you and here’s a song about it. The song is gonna be kind of sad because you told them that. If my dad got shot in the face and I wrote a song, that’s kind of an unfair advantage [Laughs].
Yeah. So the ultimate challenge is to present a song without knowing anything about me. But I got over that. I dunno why.
Do you think some of it may be subconsciously leaving a legacy for your kid to learn about? Like, what dad did before you were born?
I know what kids are like when they grow up and I don’t think they care.
You don’t have much faith in your son liking your music someday.
I’m sure some kids worship their parents. I’m looking forward to when he’s older and he can be a witness. I can show him what I do for real and he can participate in some manner.