NAME: Bill Callahan
PROGRESS REPORT: Releasing Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City), his 13th album (his second as Bill Callahan) on April 14. Recorded at The Track in Plano, TX and Cacophony in Austin, TX.
Maybe it’s his lyrics, which oscillate between downtrodden and vaguely threatening, or maybe it’s his rich baritone voice, but Bill Callahan — under his own name or as Smog — has always been a little intimidating. Both his albums and his interviews reveal a musician who believes in introspection without revelation. You got the melancholy and the almost-content inside his albums, but Callahan himself still felt unknowable. 2007’s Woke On A Whaleheart seemed to open him up a little bit, and his new record, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle feels more unfastened.
Callahan began working on the new record last summer, settling in the “small, quaint” town of Plano, Texas. While the town itself was nice, Callahan said the surrounding areas were “…a cornucopia of crap, all the big box and cinnamon donut atrocities. And they have their own version of Hooters there called Twin Peaks. I thought it was going to be a David Lynch themed restaurant because the billboards had these mysterious messages like ‘Come for the food but enjoy the view,’ he says. “I didn’t realize they were talking about breasts.” He says basic tracking ran for only four days, done live with virtually no overdubs. The short initial recording run fits with Callahan’s routine. “I get so wound up when recording that I usually can’t sleep much anyway, so it always seems to me like I might as well be in the studio,” he says. “I was going to try to take it easier on this record. It turns out we couldn’t, though, because there were several major technical difficulties that ate our time up, forcing us to pull the long days I love.”
Man about town John Congleton helped with recording, then arranger Brian Beattie took Callahan’s tapes and wrote the arrangements for the record. Neil Michael Hagerty did arrangements for Woke On A Whaleheart, but Beattie’s work — like the record as a whole — sounds more precise and subtle. “I had an overall idea of what I wanted the record to sound like, but I didn’t have any melodies for the arrangements, just a concept.” Callahan says. “I would say he ‘gets’ the songs I have brought him. And I don’t think he has a ‘go to’ arrangement.”
I found less straight meaning in songs like “Eid Ma Clark Shaw,” and “Rococo Zephyr,” two of my favorite tracks on Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Both are filled with alluring phrases that seem to resist interpretation (maybe in a way similar to Andrew Bird). But Callahan insists that he doesn’t write that way. “I’m more about literal meaning or clarity. I pretty much have to write the lyrics first and completely before I can try to set it to music with a pure heart,” he says. “I feel like a traitor otherwise. A traitor to what, I’m not sure — maybe a traitor to the word?” It’s true: “Eid Ma Clark Shaw,” may have a title and a chorus that sounds totally random, but many lines, like “I dreamed it was a dream that you were gone / I woke up feeling so ripped by reality,” and “All these memories are fucking me down” feel grounded in real experiences. Callahan says he writes by finding a few lines then figuring out if they lie in the beginning, middle, or end of his story. “Any good story can tell itself as long as you have one part of it. It’s like grafting a tree,” he says. “It is often an ecstatic experience. It feels really good but I don’t remember much about it the next day.”
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