Pushed to Limits: Bill Callahan’s Newest Song Cycle

Bill Callahan delves into an unconscious dream world on Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest.

Photo by Oto Gillen

Bill Callahan isn’t one to waste words. Now 53, the enigmatic singer-songwriter and Austinite, recognizable for his distinctive baritone voice and his evocative lyrics, speaks slowly. He doles out words as if each one were precious, and perhaps slightly painful to give up. He pauses frequently, parsing his thoughts and deciding how he’d like to proceed. But the thoughts that emerge are clear, thoughtful, and weighty. Take his feelings on his impending U.S. and European tour in support of his brand-new release, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, out June 14.

“The new songs are all babies — they’re not in a real world yet,” he says. “I’m trying to mentally conceive of what the set or show is going to be like. It’s more than just writing down a bunch of songs and playing them.”

Of course, this isn’t Callahan’s first rodeo. Since coming on the scene in the early ’90s, Callahan recorded for 15 years under the moniker Smog, releasing 12 albums of songs ranging from discordant lo-fi to richly instrumentalized, slickly produced works of alt-folk rock. His first album released under his own name, 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart, leaned into the more acoustic-heavy sound evident on later Smog albums. Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle (2009), the live album Rough Travel for a Rare Thing (2010), Apocalypse (2011), and Dream River (2013, plus a 2014 remix album, Have Fun with God) followed, with Callahan’s sonorous voice anchoring visually rich dreamscapes of songs that covered topics ranging from deeply personal heartbreak to American politics.

This is Callahan’s first album and major tour in six years, and since a couple of significant life changes — namely his marriage in 2014 to filmmaker Hanly Banks and the birth of his now-four-year-old son, Bass. This development was somewhat unexpected for him, to say the least.

“I thought your life was over when you got married and had kids. I never understood why anybody did that, or would desire that,” he muses. “But the truth is … you never stop being a prehistoric man or woman. And when you have a kid, you get to see the real wild side of people, and yourself. You get pushed to limits.”

Becoming a parent has, in short, amped things up for Callahan.

“People talk about rock-climbing, but being a parent is a real extreme sport, I think.”

Shepherd reckons with this by rooting the song cycle “in a domestic setting.” On the album’s 20 tracks, Callahan reckons with themes that range from marriage and airplanes to his mother’s death.

“I wanted these songs to have a story that was made up of the most everyday details, but also included the crazy, unconscious mind: musings, dreams, the past, fantasies … All those things that are occurring at the same time, for everyone,” he explains. “That’s the most mind-blowing thing to me. We have to weave all of these things, all of these minds, into the fabric of being a decent human.”

Despite being more firmly connected to day-to-day realities than on his past releases, delving into that unconscious dream-world remains a signature of Callahan’s work. Connecting to it is still a major part of his songwriting process.

“It’s important to creativity, I think, to do nothing, sometimes. You need to give your subconscious a chance to sort things out. Even washing the dishes, or something, that’s still using a part of my brain. I need to just zombie out on the couch,” he says.

Naturally, parenthood has changed his capacity for zombie-ing out time, too.

“I used to get it seven days a week; now I get it maybe one or two.” He pauses. “It’s enough. I probably used to take it to the extreme.”

Regardless, the lyrics always come first for Callahan, as perhaps evidenced by the opening line of “Writing”: “It feels good to be writing again / Clear water flowing from my pen.”

The deceptive plain-spokenness of Callahan’s style — poetry delivered in clear, straightforward terms — will be on full display at his June 18 show at the Castro Theatre, with Meg Baird supporting. (Other nearby tour dates include June 17 at Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur and June 19 at Gundlach Bundschu winery in Sonoma, should a Bill Callahan-inspired tour of the area’s beautiful venues appeal.) The Castro is a venue with personal connections for Callahan, too — he used to go see movies at the iconic movie palace.

“I love the old guy with the toupee playing organ,” he says.

While an organ accompaniment is unlikely, an exploration of our many minds is a given. And, a view into Callahan’s unexpected, extreme sport-adjacent domestic bliss. As he sings in “What Comes After Certainty”: “I’ve got the woman of my dreams / and an imitation Eames / And I signed Willie’s guitar / He sang, ‘Hey good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’? / And I signed Willie’s guitar when he wasn’t looking.”

Never one to rest on his laurels, the song then posits, “True love isn’t magic, it’s certainty / But what comes after certainty?”

It’s a good question. But not the most pressing one: Did Callahan really sign Willie Nelson’s guitar when he wasn’t looking?

“Not yet,” he says mysteriously. “I’ll wait till he asks.”

Bill Callahan Tuesday, June 18, 8 p.m., at The Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St. $28, castrotheatre.com

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