Bill Callahan Reveals the Story Behind His New Album’s Artwork and an Unexpected Vocal Guest Star

“I just really wanted to make music that wasn’t ambient; that had movement, rhythm, melody.”

At record stores this past March, the double LP of Bill Callahan’s YTI⅃AƎЯ (reality, spelled backwards), arrived. It came with a poster of a skeletal colonial figure gazing into the beyond. The image, a reprint of an oil painting by Australian artist Paul Ryan, was the art Callahan originally wanted to use for the album cover.

“I first saw that painting and really liked it,” Callahan says of the colonial gentleman. He then asked if there was another painting he could use for the back of the album to stay with that theme (hence the galleon on the back). “But once I realized the album was going to be a gatefold, I said, ‘Can I use two more paintings?’ and just decided to, you know, go all the way,” he concludes with a chuckle.

One month after the LP release (and six months after the album dropped digitally), Callahan spoke with WW by phone as he took a stroll near his home in Austin. Despite the poetry of his lyrics and the often intimidating stoicism of his stage presence, he was candid and kind, not interested in drumming up deep lines to quote. As he walked, the rhythm of his shoes was a pleasant offset to the symphony of Texan birds chirping mayhem in the background, as he spoke in the deep voice that was unmistakably that of Bill Callahan.

Callahan first found out about Ryan in 2011, when filmmakers Ray Collins and Sean O’Brien contacted him about a short documentary they were directing about the painter (who said he often painted while listening to Callahan’s records). Collins and O’Brien asked how much it would cost to use Callahan’s music in the documentary. At the time, Callahan had just finished the album Apocalypse.

“And I had no idea what the cover was going to be and I was really struggling with it,” he says. “So I said, well, you can use the songs for free if you give me a painting for the cover.” Since then, Ryan has allowed Callahan to use his work on other albums, like 2013′s Dream River and now YTI⅃AƎЯ.

Callahan speaks thoughtfully about other art that has inspired him in some way over the past year or two. When asked if he’s a reading man, Callahan says that for him, reading is among “the top three things in life,” though he confesses that between touring, family and homesteading, he doesn’t have much time for it lately.

One book he read in the past year that really impressed him was George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo. The novel (Saunders’ first) features a mind-boggling 166 narrators, many of whom are ghosts.

“You always wonder how someone can do something new with a novel; it seems so hard to expand the genre at this point in time, after it’s been expanded to many different places,” Callahan says. “But that book, I thought, really reconfigured the novel.”

As for his own reconfiguring, on YTI⅃AƎЯ, Callahan played with some things he hadn’t yet explored—like having his now-8-year-old son Bass (pronounced like the fish) sing backup vocals on tracks “Natural Information” and “Planets.” Though Bass was singing well at home or in the car, once they got to the studio, the younger Callahan froze up.

“It was too much of a foreign thing to him, to be standing in a room with a mic and headphones on,” Bill Callahan says. “He couldn’t really do it in the manner he’d been doing it at home.” Callahan’s wife, who hadn’t planned to sing on the album, appears on “Planets” to help coach Bass and make him feel more at ease on the mic.

YTI⅃AƎЯ, which Callahan has been touring off and on since its release last October, is more upbeat than anything he’s made before—a result of breaking away from some of the sounds he heard coming out of the pandemic.

“I got kind of frustrated because everything was ambient all of a sudden. Even hip hop became ambient,” he says. “And so I just really wanted to make music that wasn’t ambient; that had movement, rhythm, melody—all that stuff that music is supposed to have.”

SEE IT: Bill Callahan plays the Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., 503-234-9694, 7:30 pm (sold out) and 10:30 pm Wednesday, May 17. $35. YTILAER posters available at Music Millennium while supplies last.

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