Bill Callahan at the Edge of Uncertainty

In late February, Bill Callahan concluded his first solo tour in years at the Masonic Lodge on the Hollywood Forever Cemetery grounds in Los Angeles. The west coast jaunt began at a winery in Sonoma, California. “I started this tour in a vineyard,” Callahan tells his audience during the first of two performances that night. “Seems only right to end it in a graveyard.”

The Masonic Lodge itself feels anachronistic, which makes it a great place to see Callahan perform. On the lip of the expansive cemetery, the building is Spanish-style stucco with faded red clay roof tiles and ornate stone carvings of figures lurching up the columns. The graves and crypts of some of Hollywood’s golden age players surround it. Inside, a large Order of the Eastern Star is fixed above the stage. Sound hangs and sustains throughout the dark showroom like spirits refusing to dissipate.

Callahan stands alone under the Star with a candy-apple red Fender Stratocaster, bathed in yellow light. “Under your seats,” he continues, “each of you will find your own tombstone. Just like you’re on Oprah.”

In between sets, Callahan speaks to me in the artist loft, a dimly lit room filled with colorful pillows and coils of incense smoke. I ask him about the first show. “I’ve been thinking about performers in India who sit down with all these blankets around them and cushions,” Callahan says picking up a pillow. “It’s almost like nothing’s happening, and of course, the music is extremely moving and emotional, but there’s not a lifting up of a performer: the performer is on the same level as the audience.” He speaks slowly with a voice only shades away from the earthen baritone of his singing. It’s unclear whether he’s relaying a hope or a review.

In 2011, I saw Callahan perform in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s sculpture garden in Pittsburgh; he wore a powder blue seersucker suit and emanated assuredness with seeming ease. His only interaction with the crowd was to say “thank you” after each song. His bandmates (a seated guitarist and drummer) barely looked up from their instruments. As the trio solemnly played, the sun set red behind them. While it was an affecting show, the man was committed to austerity, to presenting as a capital-A artist; the result of which imposed a buffer between his abstract narratives and a listener’s ability to color the gaps with their own experiences and emotions. I’ve always found the hallmark of Callahan’s work to be in its capacity to share the yoke of unrest—his ability to distill nebulous thoughts we’ve all had into expressions of stoic simplicity. That night, however, I felt shut out from making a personal connection, as the presentation was filled with a gravitas that suggested Callahan was largely a vessel channeling wisdom, something separate from those in the audience.

Callahan’s demeanor in Hollywood, however–dressed in a loose Oxford shirt and telling Oprah jokes–is a new apparition of inclusion. His last album, 2013’s Dream River, even begins with a wink to the inaccessible persona presented in Pittsburgh: its narrator confesses the only words he’s said that day are “beer” and “thank you.” While there still exists the subtle, mordant humor that has always run through his music as an attempt to temper its existential distress, this affability is a new access point to join in on the otherness of his musings. Callahan crooks his head and sings mainly out of one side of his mouth, looking both strained and sanguine; he even do-si-do steps when the feeling boils over. He is communing.

Callahan live at Masonic TempleWhile much has been made of Callahan’s 2005 shedding of the Smog moniker he used for decades–and with it, the bedroom pop elements and abrasiveness of his back catalog–I believe the greatest tonal shift occurs during the time period between Pittsburgh and Hollywood, between the last Callahan albums: 2011’s Apocalypse and Dream River.

“I don’t recognize myself in any recording more than four or five years old,” Callahan tells me. “I feel like we, as beings, don’t move and also are moving extremely fast. It’s two things at the same time. That’s something that you never come to grips with, but you need to be aware that that’s happening. And you can’t, really.”

The gulf between those albums comes through the shift in Callahan’s point-of-view. Apocalypse riles against the captivity of being a human who has not actually made the choice to exist; the record confronts directionless unrest using pastoral imagery through a lens of personal reckoning. Dream River, however, with its use of flute and washes, presents consciousness as buoyant and untethered; as a result, the self is much more content. The album’s effect is comparable to idyllic scenery seen passing from inside a train. Also included is a concession: one can edge closer to knowledge, but can’t fully grab hold of it. Album centerpiece “Ride My Arrow” asks: “Is life a ride to ride? / Or a story to shape and confide? / A chaos neatly denied?” Here, Callahan is still tuned to the vibrations of timeless existential rumbling, but no longer angered by the enduring mysteries.

In Los Angeles, the mystery of “Bill Callahan” is all but dispelled for me. It is, to borrow from his 2009 song “Faith/Void”, time to put God away. In place of the monolithic dispenser of knowledge is a pensive man with the same longing for truth and vitality as is in me. (The difference between us being that he’s a brilliant songwriter who has sharpened his quandaries to precise and beautiful summations.) He asks me where I’m from and what I think of the cemetery; as our conversation progresses, I’m surprised–yet strangely comforted–that it feels more like speaking with a wise and friendly stranger than coming up against an artist who regularly moves me to tears with his work. “When I was up [on stage],” Callahan says, “I was thinking about how we all have these bodies that we’re in and they’re kind of a burden, and they do these things that don’t necessarily illustrate what our minds are thinking or where we’re at. So it’s okay if people are out there scratching themselves.” I get the sense that Callahan may not even be fully aware of his own profundity, that he doesn’t quite know why so many others look to him as a beacon of perception.

Between his last two records, Callahan married filmmaker Hanly Banks, which he says is the greatest thing he’s ever done. In addition, the couple has recently welcomed a son, Bass Callahan, into the world. While marriage and family life certainly contribute to his recent shift in perspective, the implicit collaboration also presents a newness of process with which he must grapple. “Marriage, being a father, and writing songs–all use different parts of my brain and psyche,” he says. “Each one has its own energy level and I’ve been pushing all of them to the max. Where as before all this, all I had to do was write songs. It was–in retrospect–very easy. I’m tapping into all the parts of me, so at the end of the day, I’m very tired. I used to always look down on sleep, and be angry at sleep. But now sleep is a god.”

Even though Callahan is tired, he still takes magnesium supplements before sleeping to probe his mind. “The unconscious is so fascinating to me,” he says. “If I can encounter that every night, I have to do it. I can’t just walk around wondering what’s in there, I have to take the opportunity. I can’t pass it up.” Simply sleeping is precious time wasted; if he’s exploring, it’s an accomplishment, a deepening of self through tiny flashes–no matter what they may mean. Lately he’s been dreaming he’s a passenger on a jumbo jet bigger than a city.

I tell him I had to stop my own magnesium regimen because my dreams became too vivid; I couldn’t shake them. “Let those beings be a part of you,” he says. “Most of the stuff you’re not going to figure out what the hell it means. Just let them be there and hang out with you.”

While the setlist at the early and late Hollywood shows is nearly identical, Callahan performs each song differently. “I can improv a little bit,” he tells me. “When I do that right, that makes me most happy. I tend to make too much of a division between writing and performing and I think I need to squish them together more, so I’ve been trying to learn something about writing while I’m on stage. With the songs that have flexibility, that is like writing, in a way.” He pauses. “That way they’ll never die.”

The coda of Apocalypse’s “Riding For the Feeling” is, at the first show, gentle and sung in the vein of a one-man round with words loping through the room; at the second, it is raucous and feels like primal scream therapy. Callahan explains his improvisation as taking each song to its outermost fringe. “That’s the way music should be,” he says. “Everything should be on that edge of uncertainty.”

callahanUncertainty is a distinct engine of all of Callahan’s work, both when uncorked live and bottled up neatly as an album. Whether it’s his ability to make a stray utterance bloom into an arresting moment (“Leaving is easy / when you’ve got someplace you need to be.”), or elevating an event to a level where awareness of experience is enough to bring solace (“I could tell you about the river / or we could just get in.”)–many of his lyrics feel like the deep breath just before something big. Of this idea Callahan says, “Tension and anxiety are the grease of life; where the two flints rub on each other and make sparks. It’s painful and very uncomfortable and puzzling and can make you crazy if you think about it. But that’s where everything comes from.”

Hearing his songs stripped down to their essences–a singular voice and guitar–is the closest one can get to the heat of those sparks. In Hollywood, Callahan locks eyes with several members of the audience as he sings: “Oh, I never really realized / death is what it meant / to make it on my own,” from “Say Valley Maker”. There isn’t another sound in the room. The majesty. During the later show he jokes that he wasted all his good banter at the first performance, and he’s not one to repeat himself. The crowd laughs. “I had a good one about Oprah, though,” he adds. The levity.

Callahan’s music has accompanied some of my life’s most distinct memories: Speeding through the alien landscape of southwest Utah belting the accretion bridge of “Too Many Birds” with my sixty-five-year-old uncle; a great friend relaying in a moment of vulnerability how hard the line “How can I stand and laugh with the man / who redefined your body?” hit him after encountering an ex-lover and her new partner; driving from Seattle through torrential rain at sunrise after the first weekend of a blossoming romance while listening to “Small Plane” on repeat for five hours; hearing “The Well” while on tour with my band in Tennessee and the entire van of us shouting our own well proclamations after the song ended; the drunken night before I moved across the country, vowing with my brother to get a matching pillar and beam tattoo taken from “My Friend”. The list of other artists who’ve ridden along with me this much is a short one.

In the loft of the Masonic Lodge, Callahan generously speaks with me until only moments before he has to play his second set to another full house. “I believe we have a destiny, but I don’t believe in fate so much,” he says. “Fate is a death sentence. You go towards your destiny and fate comes towards you. I haven’t felt like there is fate; or if there is, you should ignore it.”

Callahan tells me he’s been writing new songs and says that they change shape every couple of days. “There’s this amazing feeling of certainty when I’m done that is unlike anything else I encounter in my life,” he says. “I just need to believe that long enough to go into the studio.”

Michael McDermit is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. He received his MFA from the University of Oregon, where he also served as the writing instructor for the Oregon Young Scholars’ Program. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective that is based out of his flood-famous hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and currently teaches writing to underserved college students in South L.A..

*Concert photos taken by Rebecca Anderson