Bill Callahan’s celebrity is the kind that doesn’t attract a lot of casual fans. Those who like the singer-songwriter’s music—released since as Smog since his first recordings in 1990, or, more recently, under his own Christian name—really, really like it. Everyone seems to have a story about when they started listening to Smog, and these stories all contain some or all of the following: feelings of severe alienation, purposeless travel, romantic failure, boredom, and drinking to excess. Fun!
For me, it was somewhere around the time that I moved away from home. I decided that “Cold Blooded Old Times”—a song off of 1999’s Knock Knock that, so characteristic to Callahan’s work, couples these really bleak lyrics with deceptively palatable music (“how could I stand/ and laugh with the man/ who redefined your body?”)—would be the song I would choose, given some desert island situation, if I could only listen to one song forever.
Chris Taylor’s introduction to Callahan relies on some of these same tropes: he left Spain, bought a Smog CD, returned to his hometown of Victoria, BC, broke up with his girlfriend, turned 30, “all of these clichés like my life was some horrible indie movie,” he tells me over Skype. “But for some reason I started listening to a lot of Bill Callahan. I got on the computer late one night and started sending emails.”
Taylor, a photographer, contacted Callahan’s record label, Drag City, with a proposal: to be allowed to make a book of photographs of and around the musician. He drove overnight to Calgary, Alberta, to meet Callahan at a show he was playing, taking photographs along the way. Upon arriving, Taylor showed Callahan some of these pictures. A few months later, Callahan contacted Taylor with a request: could he use that photo, the one of the horses in the mist, as the cover of his new album? Taylor agreed, and so the image was published on the cover of 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle.
Following that, Taylor traveled down to Austin, Texas to visit Callahan at home. “He would pick me up and he would say, ‘where do you want to go?’ ” says Taylor. “I would say, ‘I don’t know, let’s go to a park.’ So we’d walk around, take some pictures. I’d usually go to his house.” The photographs captured in what would eventually come to be titled The Life and Times of William Callahan communicate this same combination of domesticity and aimlessness: photos and papers cluttered around a piano, a surfeit of unorganised books, backyard gardens, public monuments, and, of course, portraits of Callahan himself.
One of the things that makes Callahan’s songs so compelling is how they act as a self-portrait for a sort of anti-hero character; certain images repeat across Callahan’s otherwise disparate 16 albums: horses, rivers, women, trees, birds, America, self-loathing. Here, he is “drinking at the dam/ holding back what I can;” there, he is dragging you out of bed, imploring you to “let me see the colts/ show them to a gambling man/ thinking of the future.”
“There’s a lot of myth going into it,” Taylor tells me. “I heard he wasn’t like, an easy guy to get along with, or a nice guy.” Taylor’s photographs both confirm and deny the fictions established in Callahan’s songs. There are the gingham shirts on hangers, dirty boots, and a cowboy hat forgotten on the floor: every aspect for a cartoonish cowboy getup. Alternatively, there’s colour TV, a vacuum, Callahan’s paintings arranged on carpet. There’s a sparseness to the photographs that parallels Callahan’s songs: both are deceptively approachable.