Bill Callahan Finds an Elder Perspective on New Album
Paternal dynamics paint the Austin virtuoso's new Gold Record
Bill Callahan's new album pushes off with an invocation of the greats: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." The lead song finalizes, "Sincerely, L. Cohen."
Throughout Gold Record, which came out Sept. 4, the Austin singing and songwriting virtuoso embodies a cast of wizened individualists – an angry late-night TV viewer, a Ry Cooder fanatic, and an observant traveling troubadour. Whereas fans waited six years for Callahan's generous 2019 masterwork, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, his latest took a week to record locally at Estuary Recording. Guitarist Matt Kinsey, bassist Jaime Zuverza, and drummer Adam Jones recorded live with the former Smog maker, who also hastened pace by releasing a song off Gold Record every Monday for 10 weeks in a row.
Austin Chronicle: You started tweeting in March. Enjoy it?
Bill Callahan: I'm taking a break right now. All the sea of voices started coming up. Well, I guess that's what Twitter is already. Once the lockdown started, it was kind of hard to think of anything to say that wasn't already being said, in order to flatten out the time. It's fun sometimes, but it's also totally stupid.
AC: Last year's Shepherd took much longer, and you spoke about having writer's block. What facilitated this album coming together more quickly?
BC: In retrospect, I've been redacting the writer's block statement. I realized it was just that I had no time to do any writing. The task of writing Shepherd was a huge one that wasn't writer's block, just writer's difficulty – going through so much change and trying to turn it into a song.
Getting it done boosted my belief in myself back to its normal level, and with Gold Record, I wanted to get it done before I started touring for Shepherd. I just knew if I could get a record in the can before I hit the road, I would feel like a million bucks. I'm the type of person that can only do one thing at a time. Once I start focusing on touring, I can't just take a couple hours out of the day and focus on something else.
I made a special calendar and only let myself work on each song for 10 days. I had to be finished in that 10 days. It all fell into place. It'd be the 10th day, I would somehow be finished and go on to the next one.
It was a pretty magical time for me, and then that extended into the recording time, because it was just recorded and mixed in seven days, whereas Shepherd took like three months. But recording was a breeze and I could do no wrong, you know?
AC: A lot of the new songs seem to come from the perspective of an older person. What interested you in that?
BC: Probably because I'm getting older. You're not really supposed to write about things from an older perspective, I don't think. Sometimes I wonder, because a lot of young people do listen to my music. I don't know if they give a shit about an older perspective, but that's what I'm going to give them.
AC: Many of those older characters are engaged in a father-son dynamic, like "The Mackenzies." What inspired that story?
BC: As humans, the family dynamic of being parented and parenting something is in our cultural DNA. I've always seen all relationships in my life as familial. You're always looking for a fatherly and motherly aspect of different people, and different works of art. In the song, the narrator is missing a father figure, and the couple is missing their deceased son.
A lot of relationships are like that, I think. Any woman that a man meets can be a mother to him, and he can be a father to her. She can be a daughter, and he can be a son. That's just the way that I look at the interactions of humans.
Even with Trump, I see him like he's about 5 years old. Something happened. He needs a daddy to tell him he's a good boy.
The first thing you know is your family when you're a kid. But it extends beyond that, as mother, universe, everything. I see in that a familial structure.
AC: Did you touch on Trump in any songs? "Protest Song" isn't what one might expect right now.
BC: Well, I wrote "Protest Song" before all this. I don't think I've specifically written anything about Trump yet. There's already been enough said about him. There's enough voices. Too many voices, so that I don't feel a real need to add to that right now.
AC: Did you draw the single covers? I like the hamburger picture with "Protest Song."
BC: Yeah. I drew them very quickly without thinking and then kind of tried to take them back and replace them with something else better. But [my label] Drag City really liked them, so they wanted to keep using them.
AC: The new songs have built-in references to elder statesmen of music: Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Ry Cooder. What space do those people occupy for you?
BC: I like a polytheistic view of the world, like Greeks had many gods that you would consult for many reasons. I feel that's what those figures are to me – gods to consult when I need them.
AC: Is career longevity something that you think about in terms of those guys?
BC: Yeah, I mean they all pretty much never lost it. Kept their integrity, and kept making interesting records.