PREVIEW: More queen than pawn: Bill Callahan reveals his true self

Posted by on 13 August 2008

Patrick Boyle, FFWD Weekly, July 24, 2008

Few modern musicians have earned the credibility and positive reputation of Bill Callahan, a master songwriter who has enjoyed a long career releasing records under the name Smog. Last year he shed that moniker in favour of releasing music under his own name, citing a desire to showcase other people’s contributions and be “more of a pawn” in his own recordings.

“Well, I haven't done any major recording since then, just four or five tracks for compilations,” he says when asked if the name change has helped him reach this goal. “But I've realized what I was saying doesn't really fly. I think I just needed to be a pawn for one record and I got it out of my system. My nature is more that of a queen.”

Such evasive replies are no surprise given Callahan’s focus on complex, non-linear lyrical structures, weaving a delicate mélange of darkly humorous poetry with a diversity of musical styles ranging from lo-fi folk to rich country rock. Like the queen in chess, he is indeed a songwriter to be protected and appreciated, a force to be reckoned with. With nearly two decades of industry experience, he’s learned to trust himself to strike out in any sonic direction that strikes his fancy, and not to worry about the consequences.

“I like everything at the time of release,” he says. “That's about all I ask of myself. I don't expect or project that they'll stand any test of time for me. After I finish a record, I feel like I have a clean slate. So it's natural for me to start from scratch with every record. When you have no songs, you might as well have no sound, no band members, nothing. That way everything that gets on a record starts from the same place.”

This organic approach to songwriting is part of the reason each of his albums has its own stylistic and lyrical continuity. Although this sometimes makes his musical career a difficult one to appreciate completely, it does make for a great deal of variety. Over the years, songs have drifted in and out of Callahan’s live repertoire, but even the musty corners of his oeuvre remain candidates for performance.

“[All of the songs are] relevant, but not necessarily appropriate,” he explains. “I resurrected “Prince Alone in the Studio” a few tours ago. It hadn't breathed of the stage for eight or 10 years. It used to be something people would request. I made note of that and fulfilled the request eight or 10 years later. But I don't think the same people were in the audience. I thought it would cause a joy riot, but people would ask me, ‘What's that new song you did tonight?’”

Much like the versatile queen, Callahan’s Friday night show at the folk festival promises to zigzag across the chess board, presenting a wealth of material from his entire career. The most exciting performance for music enthusiasts will be the next day, when he takes to the stage with the talent powerhouse of Andrew Bird, Calexico and A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Part of the festival’s often amazing workshop series, the collaboration, arranged by organizers and dubbed Sweetly Undone, promises to be one of the weekend’s best.

“I don't know what Sweetly Undone means — I'm hoping it’s a striptease,” quips Callahan. “I don't think there will be any pre-planning. The festival sent a funny list of suggested behaviour, such as ‘Don't spend the whole set asking for a better monitor mix.’ OK, I won't.”