Introspective songwriter Bill Callahan spent almost 20 years at Drag City recording as Smog, but he released his second album under his given name last week, to a shower of welcoming reviews. Having shed the alias, you would expect to encounter a new sound or vision, but what Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle reveals — like the expressive Woke on a Whaleheart before it — is yet another layer slowly removed from the man. With a balanced production, seasoned session players and his reassuring baritone, Eagle fleshes out the repertoire but doesn’t complete the picture. A mature installment, Callahan still has a firm grip on his mystique.
You live in Austin. Were you around for any of the recent South by Southwest craziness? Get turned on to any new artists?
I went to one day this year. People have fun at it, which is nice. I got to see the latest fashions. Lots of feminine new-wave clothing on the males. I didn’t see any new artists.
How do you like living in Texas? Do you think you will you stay there permanently?
I like it a lot. I’ve talked about it a lot in interviews recently. I would probably like to live somewhere else sometime. I miss the ocean.
You worked with a number of folks from Texas on this record. Do you generally pull from a regional pool of talent?
I pull from wherever the best player might be. It so happened that the people I thought worked best for this record all live in Texas.
Your lyrics often reflect the natural world. Is it accurate to say that you find a good deal of inspiration through your observations of nature?
As metaphor, yes. I’m not a biologist or nothin’.
I love the predator/prey bird imagery in the song “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast.” How much is this record about mortality, the death of ideas?
I stayed well away from death with this record, even the death of ideas. My mind was always readily conscious of it in the past. But I have been thinking less about it lately. It’s a rich topic and not necessarily always about fear. Death holds a lot of aspects. But I’m not afraid to die lately. I don’t have any kids to look after. I don’t hold any great worth for humanity.
Your approach to recording has evolved distinctly from your early days as Smog. Now that you record as Bill Callahan, has the songwriting process also changed for you?
No. You write words on paper and then put music to them. You do some editing. You play the song a hundred times in a row because you’re excited about it, then you know it’s done. The process really just boils down to two things moving against each other. Like cogs, maybe. The vocal and the instrument. They both need to be spinning to make the song work.
Under what conditions would you record as Smog again?
If Obama said I needed to do it to help the country, I would.
There’s a recognizable, singular tone on Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle as opposed to the varied styles of Woke on a Whaleheart. Are you satisfied with the result and would you consider a similar approach for your next album?
I loved the process. It was totally exciting. But I don’t want to get too comfortable. I’m interested in all sorts of methods of recording. I’d like to do a recording that was all completely live, and I’d like to do one that didn’t really have performances, something more pieced together, like an R&B or hip-hop record. I would also like to work again quite close to how I made this last record. I would also like to try recording just the guitar and vocals for a whole record by themselves and then add the rest. I’m not so sure I’d be successful at that, but it would be a good way to get musicians to not play too much.
Closing track “Faith/Void” is quite blunt with the refrain, “It’s time to put God away,” but its delivery is non-confrontational and self-assured, as if you’re easing listeners into being OK with the idea of letting go of religion. What kind of reaction have you received from the song so far?
I haven’t received much feedback from it. All I get is interviewers asking me about it in very open ways. You’re probably the first to put some adjectives to it. It just seems like most people are saying, “Hmm, OK.” The song was an epiphany for me. Or an epiphany led to the song. The arranger Brian Beattie was very pleased with it and thought it was a really important song. That pleased me, and it was really the only feedback I needed. He understood the mood and helped me expand on it.
Oh, I did get feedback from a fellow musician. He thought the record as a whole was great but didn’t “agree” with that song. But he’ll come around I’m sure.
Your label issued a release about Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle that was essentially a comic strip sketched by you; it reminded me of some of the sketch books you’ve published in the past. Any plans to go further with your drawings?
I don’t draw anymore. I just did it in five seconds because they asked me to draw a comic about making the record.
I am a big fan of a well-crafted, handled-with-care cover song, and I found your recent contribution on Loving Takes This Course: A Tribute to the Songs of Kath Bloom to be particularly reverent. Have you always been a fan of Kath Bloom, and is there a reason you chose “The Breeze/My Baby Cries”?
I love the guitarist Loren Mazzacane and got into her music through finding out about his collaborations with her. I chose it for the lyrics, I suppose. I like a song that can skirt through different scenarios seamlessly. And it has the words “puppy” and “baby” in it, which have a particular relevance to me. Kath wrote me after she heard it and said she and her husband were crying on the couch listening to it. I didn’t realize it was that bad.
Do you have other cover songs that you like to perform?
I have a few I will get to eventually. It takes me a very very long time to get a cover together. To find myself in it. That is the problem. If you write something it is from you. Covering a song takes some real spelunking into someone else.
The recording industry is struggling, but you appear to enjoy a certain amount of stability. You’ve maintained a committed, steadily prolific relationship with Drag City since the early ’90s, you continue to grow as an artist and you’re highly regarded in the music community. What are your impressions about the future of record labels, artist representation and bringing music to the people?
I think as we speak there are major upheavals. I don’t really know how this record will sell. It was an expensive record for me. More time, more session players. I don’t know if I will be allowed to make another record with this luxury ever again. But that’s OK. One of my fortes is working under limitations. As long as people are enjoying the music, I will keep making it. I slowly worked my way up with Drag City of being given a longer leash and more recording money. Maybe Eagle is my monetary zenith, and I have to shrink back down now. Who can say at this point? I think in a year from now we will know for sure.
The other aspect is, a label like Drag City, I don’t think they’re really interested in being a digital label. I don’t think they’re too excited about saying, “Hey, we’ve got some great new MP3’s for you!” You have to be excited about what you’re doing or you’re likely going to stop. I still buy a lot of records and CDs.
Any final thoughts?
Can I just say that I made a really great album?