we are thrilled to have an interview with the phenomenal american singer songwriter… (originally appeared on paper in chickfactor 17, which came out in december 2012)
interview by connie lovatt and gail o’hara // photograph by kirstie shanley
chickfactor: what’s some of the best advice you’ve been given by a man about being a man?
bill callahan: I don’t think I’ve been given much advice man to man. I wish I had. I think it’s mostly women that have taught me about being a man anyway. a healthy woman wants you to be a man. I grew up with two sisters and they wanted me to be a man right from the start. they were so happy I was a little boyman – I could sense it from their faces. as soon as I could walk my sisters begged me to put on a tutu. this ballerina tutu we had lying around. maybe it was left over from when one or both of my sisters went through their little princess phases. seeing their reaction to me in the tutu was the first time I felt like a man. and I never looked back.
cf: what’s the best insurance against your own shenanigans?
bill: there isn’t any really. things always come back to haunt. and if they don’t, the looming spectre of threat is worse. if we let the shenanigans win….
cf: what were you like as a teenager?
bill: dumb. I was just in receiving mode, programming mode and I was kind of inoperable in that state. just taking things in or waiting for an opening in the race. it helps to have a soundtrack to such times and I listened to music 7 or 8 hours per day. classic rock radio, which I found some worth in but after awhile it started to feel like some drunk guy waking you up every time you fall asleep and just laughing at you and not saying anything. I realized a lot of classic rock is not classic at all. I had been taking their word for it at first. I was always counting the days until school ended, for years and years. and when it did it was even better than I dreamed.
cf: what was the first song you wrote and why and what was it called?
bill: when I was really little I wrote a song called, “peanut butter shoe.” the lyrics were, “it’s new, it’s blue, it’s a peanut butter shoe!” I think I wrote it, since you ask why, to mirror the life impulse inside a human.
cf: tell us about your songwriting process/ space/rituals.
bill: I’m not a ritualist and space is not something I really notice either. well, I guess I like electric light, no natural light and no window. I don’t like to know what time of day it is and I don’t like to see natural events happening. writing and music are human concepts—like electric light, so it helps to block out anything from the unadorned natural world. there is a pen I like, I buy by the carton. I just bought a carton yesterday. I couldn’t find black. It has to be black because of the primal black and white thing, primitive brain sight and film noir. I always turn down help from those big store employees because they never know anything but this time I said yes, where’s the black. he found it. It was in a newly designed box because now the pens are “made from recycled electronics.” I guess this is good but I don’t want to get cellular microbes in my notebooks.
cf: have you ever had to stop listening to a song or band because of a certain person or memory?
bill: maybe, but I wouldn’t think it was a struggle. if a memory or event was that strong then the song probably should go where that person or memory went anyway.
cf: does it bother you when your lyrics are misinterpreted?
bill: I think it happens all the time. I think I also misinterpret other people’s lyrics, other people’s everything. that is the lair of the audience, that is where you make your connection – from yourself. listening to music is not a passive act. when you’re a teenager and your parents wonder how you can just sit and listen listen listen. you’re making all your connections then. your head is dancing with it. so I think “misinterpreted” is the same as “interpreted” really. who can put the “mis-” on there? only the creator and half the time the creator can’t even concretize an interpretation. if someone has an interpretation of my lyrics that feels to me to be way off base, I just think that is the level that person is on at that time. that is where they are finding a connection to the song. but don’t get angry if I or someone else has a different interpretation of the song. I’ve often been told I am lying, when someone asks me what a line I wrote means. because songs become part of the body, part of the psyche, part of the filter of the way a person sees the world. when you tell them something else, they feel as if their essence is being negated. this is why people are so fiercely passionate about the music they love. the music is them.
cf: on most days would you prefer an elaborate breakfast or an elaborate dinner?
bill: oh man. an elaborate breakfast usually says, “I’m going to fuck off today” or “damn, life is good, ain’t it?” both of which are good sentiments. but mostly I like a simple breakfast cos I’m in no mood, you know? I think I like a simply elaborate breakfast. just toss a couple basil leaves in my eggs and I’ll be like, “damn!” breakfast should be simple but with a tiny zing. like raspberries in your oatmeal. food can’t stand on its own though, for me. I can’t have an elaborate dinner and think, “what a great day this is or was based on this meal!” it’s more of a bonus thing, like, “I had a great day of work and now look at this delicious hot pocket before me. it has basil on it.”
cf: what singer or songwriter do you feel is solidly romantic yet gets little credit for being so?
bill: I’m not sure about credit, as I don’t always keep track of public perception of things but—van morrison is quite the romantic scamp, I think. and I don’t feel like I’ve heard people talking about that.