Bill Callahan Wanted to Make an Album Encompassing "All of Life" on 'Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest'

Photo: Hanly Banks Callahan

BY Vish KhannaPublished Jun 12, 2019

"Don't you get sick of talking about parenting sometimes?" Bill Callahan asks, and then chuckles.
We're about half an hour into our interview about his new album Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, a beautiful double-LP that reveals much about his psyche — as a newlywed, a new dad, and a child who recently lost his mother.
"I've been handed a real big serving of human life in the last several years, in having a kid and people dying in my family," he says over his phone with Exclaim! as he wanders around his home in Austin, Texas. "I've had a lot to deal with. I wanted to make a record that encompassed all of life, as grandiose as that sounds. Beginnings, endings, the middle part, old parts, young parts."
Indeed, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest feels like a kind of stocktaking. Callahan, 52, has been a public figure most of his life. He initially began by making noisy rock experiments under the name Smog, embracing the limitations of his own knowledge about recording music.
The limits became part of his aesthetic, but as he gained access to "real" studios and practiced his craft, the music he made became a little more accessible or refined, and somewhere closer to country and folk ("I signed Willie's guitar, when he wasn't lookin,'" he boasts proudly on "What Comes After Certainty" from the new album, like a lifelong fan who's earned his keep beyond his wildest dreams). 
In 2007, he started making music under his own name, and with each record since, we seem to learn a little bit more about him. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, though, feels the most like the first serious conversation you've had with a neighbour after years of friendly small talk. 
"Yeah, I wanted it to be a little less veiled," Callahan says. "Everything that I write or that most people write could widely be labeled as 'autobiographical,' because it came from a person and everything that comes from a person is, in a way, autobiographical. But, in terms of details, I wanted it to be real details instead of metaphorical details."
Callahan moved to Austin after years of threatening to do so. Some time around the turn of this century, his label, Drag City, thought they'd see what SXSW was all about, and Callahan was in tow to have a look for himself.
"I got invited to a party. I had been living in Chicago for six years and no one had invited me to a party the whole time I was there. I still went to them, I just wasn't invited."
Social outcast, interloper, or whatever else, Callahan has been romantically linked to musicians such as Chan Marshall and Joanna Newsom, which is code for suggesting "they maybe dated." But earlier this decade, the photographer and filmmaker Hanly Banks became his wife and they had a son named Bass. These weren't the kinds of things he ever imagined for himself in his twenties or perhaps even later, when he warred against the road as a touring artist.
"I met the person that I was supposed to meet and have kids with," he says simply. "Once I met my wife, I didn't even have to think about it. It was like, 'Yeah, we should have a kid too.' It just made sense; I didn't even have to wrestle with it or anything: 'This is going to happen.'" 
Listening to Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest after listening to all of the other music that Bill Callahan has made, one notices changes in the enigmatic man. He recently joined Twitter, and he's very funny on that platform. He seems more open to people and his new songs find him, in turn, opening up to the universe, generally.
"I think having a kid really linked me to the community for the first time," Callahan explains. "I finally understood the value of community and neighbourhoods. Usually when you see a stranger on the street, you're like, 'What the hell is that guy's story?' But if they have a kid, it's like, 'I know your story a little bit; I know what you go through.'
"There's a common bond of just knowing a little bit about that person's joys and struggles," he adds. "So, I made the record for parents and also for people who don't have kids; maybe this will give them some idea about what it's like."
Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is available on June 14 via Drag City Records.

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