For Bill Callahan, writing and singing are as essential as eating and breathing
12.02.2020

For Bill Callahan, writing and singing are as essential as eating and breathing

Photo by Hanly Banks Callahan
Words by Kate Streader

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Bill Callahan is perched in a tree on his property in Austin, Texas.

Considering his latest record, last year’s Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest, embeds itself within scenes defined by sprawling mountains, valleys, rivers and seas, it feels fitting to find him here.

The theme of nature is prominent in much of his work, though it is especially present in Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest. The album’s sleeve depicts his face protruding from the earth, the sun shining from within him, as if he were part of the landscape rather than someone simply existing in it.

After six years without new music, he has found his place within the world again – harmony has been restored.

It sure feels good to be singing again/From the mountain and the mountain within”, Callahan muses in ‘Writing’, a song he says anchors the record for him.

“It gave me permission to be myself,” he explains. “It’s kind of a Wizard of Oz moment – you know, behind the screen there’s the writer – and I think that is the heart of the record. Maybe when it started to really flourish was when I realised I could root the songs in my daily life or in such basic desires as writing.”

It wasn’t lack of want or inspiration that kept Callahan from putting pen to page in the wake of 2013’s Dream River; in fact, he admits his unfulfilled need to write drove him to seek therapy.

Rather, it was becoming a husband and father which required him to put music aside for a while.

It wasn’t until his son grew older and he could dedicate hours, rather than minutes, to his craft that Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest began to take shape.

“That’s when my mind could relax and grasp the songs that were floating around in there. It’s really just a matter of time.”

He speaks slowly and with purpose, as if carefully considering each word before saying it aloud. Having dedicated the past 30 years to crafting lyrics that read like vivid, epic poems, his respect for language and ability to wield it is artful, even in conversation.   

I sing for answers/I sing for good listeners”, he purrs on ‘Call Me Anything’. It’s subtle quips such as this and the smile in his voice as he describes what music means to him that best reflects Callahan’s innate need to write, sing and play.

He describes it as “a nervous system type of feeling” and it’s such a fundamental part of his being that not six years out of practice, nor his new roles as a father and husband, could cause him to lose his groove.

“My creative life was so ingrained in me because I’d been working and living a certain way for decades,” he says. “Then I just had to figure out how to be a different person and then figure out how to bring that old person back into the fray, also.”

It was never that the magic had gone, it was just a matter of giving it space to come out.

“It’s hard to really tell anybody what I do because it’s a mystery to me. I don’t really take credit for it, I think I’m just able to see things that someone from some other force made and wants me to channel,” he chuckles as he considers this notion. “Creativity isn’t really about trying, it’s just about being open.”

So, will it be another six years before we see the next Bill Callahan record?

“No,” he says without hesitation. “The gates are open and the songs are free to come out now, again.”

Bill Callahan will perform at WOMADelaide on Sunday March 8. Find tickets, the full lineup and more information at womadelaide.com.au. He also plays Hamer Hall on Wednesday March 4. Grab tix for that show here.