The title of Bill Callahan‘s new album, out on October 14th via Drag City, is almost a game of mirrors. The word YTI⅃AƎЯ is reality in reverse. On his eighth album, Callahan confirms himself as one of the most fascinating and deep voices of American songwriting in recent years. It’s hard to believe how he can be so inspired record after record, but this is the miracle of great songwriters: Callahan’s voice is perfectly recognizable as a trademark. With his exquisite voice, Callahan dictates the narrative tempo and creeps in a natural way into the music. That’s why Callahan’s songs could be so addictive. The twelve YTI⅃AƎЯ’s songs are a new stage of wonders in Callahan’s inventory: tracks like paintings, sometimes minimal, meditations on life, death and love, and beautiful immersive experiences into the wild nature. The new album lasts about one hour, Callahan recommends listening without interruptions as an experience of pure involvement. I ask him if he is confident that the record will be listened without distractions, he smiles and confesses that it is difficult, maybe it won’t happen – but he hopes so.
I reach Bill Callahan for a call interview on a late summer day. Callahan, 55, lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and his children. He tells me that he ate a Neapolitan pizza just the night before, and for the moment there are no dates of his tour in my country, Italy. «I will play in the UK in November» he says, «there will be a saxophonist, even if there’s no sax on the record. In Europe we’ll probably play next spring. Now winter begins and it’s too cold» he jokes. «In Italy I had wonderful concert experiences, and others a little less. People talked too much». Perhaps he will come to play in Italy, but now Callahan doesn’t make plans.
The word YTI⅃AƎЯ is like resurfaced from an unconscious process. «I was doing some drawings a few years ago, unconsciously I wrote reality backward, and I thought it was cool. I just remembered that drawing after I made the record». The first track, First Bird, is a gentle awakening from sleep. “And where coming out of dream”, sings Bill Callahan lulling us in acoustic. The dimension of the dream, and the invitation to get out from a hypnagogic state, are two main themes of the whole album. YTI⅃AƎЯ reflects a sort of mysterious struggle between dream and reality. «I think our dreams probably show us reality in an abstract way, as only the language of dreams can do. During the day we somehow believe we can control our thoughts, but the night is just chaos. If you could really study and understand your dreams, you might understand what reality is a little better».
Callahan also tells how the last years affected his perception of reality. «During the pandemic, I began to see the world in a complete different perspective. The pandemic changed my view of reality, of people, and of politics. You know, countries have their leaders, president or prime minister, I was knew that those people are just figures heads, often they don’t have a lot of power, they are part of a larger group. They are like a father figure or mother figure. People tend to look to the leaders of countries to understand what is going on, what they will do, or how they gonna fix any problem. But it didn’t happen during the pandemic». Callahan smiles in his impenetrable way. His smile is just a veil, a Mona Lisa smile.
In an increasingly angry world, YTI⅃AƎЯ would like to be a sort of panacea for anger, the kind of “dissociated anger that destroy the community and causes only the individual to eat themselves alive instead of feeding others”. The new record wants to lift a better rage. «I think social media is mostly meant to make people angry», Callahan says. I ask him if he left Twitter for this reason. «Yes, partially because of that. I was looking for a voice of somebody I could trust, and I realized that just wasn’t there. It was too chaotic for me. Imagine if you walk down the street and could hear what everybody is thinking – you gonna go insane. Twitter was like that for me. Too many voices, I wanted to hear my own voice».
With his music, Callahan also invites listeners to reconnect with their inner voice. In the new record sometimes we find out backing vocals, as in Natural Information or Naked Souls. There’s a strong communion between Callahan and his collaborators, Matt Kinsey, Emmett Kelly, Sarah Ann Phillips, and Jim White. «I tried to make the record more enjoyable. Because I don’t get anything from listening to my own voice. You know, you can’t tickle yourself. You can’t get anything out of your sing. That’s was the spirit». Despite the choirs, the leading actor of the record is the baritone and additive voice of Bill Callahan. Some voices are a gift, I ask him if he does something to take care of his voice, he laughs because he knows there is no secret. «I don’t do much. I try not to go to bars where you have to yell to have a conversation, I try to avoid situations like that».
YTI⅃AƎЯ is full of inspired songs, the guitar is the center of the record. In the astonishing Partition, Callahan plays like an old folk-rock hero with hieratic touches, the intimate ballad Drainface has brief and sudden accelerations. However Callahan’s favorite song is Lily. «I really like Lily, mostly because the arrangement is very unconventional, and I wasn’t sure if it would work or not, if it was compelling or just random noises. It’s everything that I wanted it to be but I couldn’t really put into words, and it’s hard to achieve a goal when you can’t put into words. Lily is a feel song, the band had to leave space.» Like all the Callahan’s songs, Lily is recorded live: a process that tries to keep pure the instinctual component of the songs.
Bill Callahan’s musical world is also a fascinating immersive journey into Nature. Meanwhile men and women live less and less in contact with the wild nature, Callahan goes in the opposite direction: he is a singer of nature, a kind of cowboy with the guitar. Going back to his previous records – Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, or Dream River – we can notice Callahan’s universe crowded with animal figures, wild rivers or lonely valleys. He always had a strong attraction and connection with nature and animals, since he was a really young boy. «It’s like we are in the Garden of Eden» he says. «In Genesis, at the beginning of the Bible – and at the beginning of the world according to Genesis – all the animals are one of the first things. In the Bible, when there is the Flood, all the animals get on a boat. I think animals and nature make sense of this planet and world. Somehow our consciousness is just expressed to me through nature». In Coyotes, Callahan talks about his experience facing with coyotes. «Living in the hills can be scary. When the sun came up and when the sun went down, coyotes appeared and slowly tried to walk towards my house. I felt like I was their prey – they were predators and I was prey. You don’t always get that. Most animals are scared of humans, that situation was different. Probably it has something to do with how we domesticate dogs, they descended from wolves and coyotes.» Callahan talks about some sort of secret alliance between humans and canines. The song is a dazzling meditation on the guitar.
Coyotes aren’t the only animal appearance in the new album’s lyrics – horses have never stopped occupying Callahanian imagination since youthful great song like I Break Horses. Horses return as birds return restlessly, as in one of the most beautiful song in Callahan’s songbook, Too Many Birds. In a way, time goes on, but Callahan is faithful to his musical universe. He is the same Bill in chiaroscuro, the one who sang: “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again”. I ask him if today he feels darker or lighter. «I would say I feel lighter. We have so much control over our view of the world, it’s almost like a switch, you can turn to keep it dark or to keep it light. You can do the same thing in life, adjusting your perception a little bit, to make life easier or more joyeus.» Few years ago Callahan has met his wife Hanly Banks, and he also became a father. «They haven’t change my method of working or how I write, but (my wife) gave me different subjects to write about, different things to think about. My wife is a very astute listener, she understands music very quickly and very deeply. There was a song on this record, Everyway, that I played for her, in a demo stage. She told me it could be better, so I added some words and suggestions».
Something that hasn’t changed through the years is the strong connection between Bill Callahan and Drag City Records. Since he was Smog, a young lo-fi musician in the wave of Nineties, Callahan crossed America with his guitar and his songs – Daniel Johnston’s flashes of sincerity and the tense ballads of Lou Reed, the purest and most experimental indie movement, or Neil Young’s visionary songwriting – he just walked alongside Drag City with the same urgency of making music and writing songs. «We are very close in agreement. For a long time Drag City were the only label didn’t have streaming. We went through these changes together, a nice thing that in a way it’s so crazy». When I ask him if he feels some nostalgia for the Late Nineties, he thinks a moment and concludes: «I’m more excited about what will come next». He also remembers how in the Nineties there were less bands, less people on tour, and everybody took care of each other.
That synergy is still alive. Last year Callahan released Blind Date Party with Will Oldham, another main figure at Drag City Records. «It was during the pandemic, and I learned to record all the vocals mostly from my bedroom, or lying on my bed pretty much (laughs), which was nice. A tremendous experience. When I make my own music I start with the vocal and my guitar, and all the other music has to support my part. Here we had the music completely finished and I had to fit my vocal into that, which was impossible for me at first. I thought I just couldn’t do it, it was so different from how I usually work. Then I tried, tried, and tried again, and I finally got one song and it was a lot easier later». Blind Date Party is a cover album, a collection of very different songs, by Silver Jews, Billie Eilish, Iggy Pop. «When I play a cover, I feel a bit like a child playing. Because the songs are already made and written by someone else, it’s more a sense of adventure or play».
Bill Callahan’s covers sometimes are kind of tributes to people that marked his life, directly or indirectly – to get it, you should listen the breathtaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne, or his tributes to the memory of David Berman, who passed away in 2019. Callahan’s music world is a mixture of all these pieces, plus something dark, a shadow zone like Nick Drake’s magical ribs, resurfaces, epiphanies and meditations, repetitions of words, grabbed melodies, the old country-blues and the daring epic of folk-rock. Today Bill Callahan is a jazz enthusiast.
«I listen to a lot of jazz» he says. «I particularly like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I really like the blues scale, that’s my true thing – blues, scales, and all the different ways you can play it. I listen Miles Davis records from the Eighties, most people think they are terrible, I just love them so much. Ornette Coleman is my current obsession. He invented the Harmolodics scale. His philosophy is that music should be something energetic. Music is energy, and this vision of music struck a chord with me. A lot of my music in the past hasn’t been energy, it was more like pensive or still. But music should be energy because originally it supposed to make you dance. I have a two years old daughter, and she love dancing. If I put on a record, her answer is mostly to dance. She just dances, and that’s a very important aspect of music that shouldn’t be lost». Like Ornette Coleman, over the years, in his own way, Bill Callahan has given us a particular scale of gradations, from the dark guitar ballad, to the experimental track, that frees itself from the rules of language. The new album is a new part of the journey, a free folk, with energetic tracks such as Natural Information. Listening YTI⅃AƎЯ is as pure and liberating as possible – as darker as it’s lighter.