The Songwriters at the End of the World
Brushing his fingers across six strings, his words practically stop time: “I don’t ever want to die.”
It’s a phrase that binds nearly all of humanity, but performing at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Bill Callahan sings it as if the idea belongs exclusively to him. He sounds sincere, serene and, above all, singular.
But when it comes to conjuring new mysteries from old guitars, he’s not entirely alone. Along with Dan Bejar, Will Oldham and Cass McCombs, Callahan stands among the greatest songwriters alive.
All four are beloved in the world of indie rock, an insular world that doesn’t really deserve them. They’re actually the heirs of Bob Dylan. But spelling that out feels lofty. And reductive. (Plus, it suggests that only white guys can embody the legacy of a white guy.)
But like Dylan before them, all four are asserting their gravity in the North American mystery zone where cosmopolitan sophistication and folk mysticism overlap. They each write songs that feel deeply familiar and profoundly unknowable. They’re each in love with weird jokes, the English language and deep stares into the void. And while they each operate within the grand, exhausted tradition of the singer-songwriter, their work feels mysteriously unprecedented.
It’s growing stronger. As the 21st century collapses around them, the quiet magnetism of their music seems to increase exponentially. They hoard mystique in a mediascape designed to obliterate it. They hoard words, too, refusing to burn them in gratuitous interviews, or compulsory stage banter, or 140-character hiccups to the universe. The less they say, the more powerful the songs become. The fusty, patrician, expired idea is reborn as the filthy, hidden, renegade idea.
They each visited the Washington area late last year and agreed to explain how their songs come into existence. Or at least try.
Bill Callahan at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Oct. 2, 2013. (Michael S. Williamson)
Listening for the mysteries
With each new album – he’s up to about 20 now – his voice sounds a fraction deeper, as if he’s excavating life.
But when Bill Callahan speaks, his words arrive in higher, dreamier clusters. Now 48, he speaks as if he grew up on the California coast, even though he was raised in Silver Spring, Md., by parents who worked for the NSA.
He’s handsome and composed, like a zen version of Wes Hightower in “Urban Cowboy.” In a few hours he’ll be seated up on the bimah of a synagogue in Chinatown, singing about death, dirt, love, rivers and regret. For now, he’s backstage, slumped in an armchair, slowly searching for the right words.
He locates them effortlessly in song. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” he sings on a recent album in cosmic deadpan baritone. This is Callahan at his best, using quiet observation and uncomplicated language to trap life’s weird chaos in a place that’s calm and clean. “That has been the main driving force, I think, for me,” Callahan says of his craft. “It’s just nice to have one little thing squared away. Temporarily.”
Callahan doesn’t avoid the press like he used to. But he still feels that too few interviews resemble actual conversation. “I can get a bad reputation because there are bad interviewers out there,” he says. “Or maybe just interviewers who are having a bad day. I have no voice against that. Someone can just write, ‘Oh, this guy is this way.’ But they never put any criticism on themselves. Nobody ever writes, ‘Oh, I really f—ed up this interview.’ . . . I get asked a lot of almost impossible-to-answer questions. So it may seem like I’m holding something back, but I just don’t know the answers.'”
The goals were much different back in the ’80s. That’s when Callahan first began making music as Smog, issuing messy bursts of electric guitar and four-track tape hiss that helped stoke a wider underground fascination with low-fidelity rock recordings. But his strides as a lyricist quickly earned him his own cult. He’s been called an ascetic, a sphinx, a dreamboat, a jerk , a genius. But as his music cooled, his lyrics began to carry the more mysterious freight. “Twenty years ago, I wanted the music to be just that: chaos,” Callahan says. “A haze of noise and then a clear voice. A lot of the songs were only two or three lines. Now, true clarity is to be unclear. If you can do it right, it puts [the song] into the listener more than just telling them something. Kind of give them a little puzzle, almost. Mix things up a little bit so they have to figure out what it is. It’s more internal. They undo the puzzle, and it’s inside them.”
“I do think we’re living in a distracted time,” Callahan says of America’s dwindling collective attention span. “If you sit and watch a whole movie at once in a theater, or sit and listen to a record, or read a book, it’s so nourishing. It’s like eating food that’s good for you. I need that to be sane. If I put on a record in my house and I go into another room, I feel really guilty that someone’s done all this work and I’m doing something else for a second. It’s disrespectful. A waste of work.”
That explains the enigmatic generosity that’s bloomed in Callahan’s lyricism since he abandoned the Smog moniker in 2007 and began recording under his own name. Every year since, his songs have asked more of the listener’s patience  and have delivered bigger rewards. If the music feels more delectable, it might be because it’s actually starving you. Last year’s “Dream River” is among Callahan’s most spartan and finest work.
“The only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ ” he reports from a bar stool on the album’s opening cut, “The Sing.” It’s a moment of bewildering intimacy; we’re invited inside the singer’s lonesome head only to bask in its stillness. It makes the melodies feel more beautiful. It makes the jokes funnier. Beer . . . Thank you . . . Beer . . . Thank you . . .
Cryptic punch lines are sprinkled shrewdly throughout Callahan’s songbook. At the finale of his 2011 album “Apocalypse,” when the singer croons, DC 450 funny for inexplicable reasons, even to its author.
As for poetry proper, Callahan has no use for it. “I mostly hate poetry,” he says. “It’s no fun. I think it’s the most presumptuous art. I always feel like people are lording their knowledge or their connectedness to the language over me when I’m reading it. I mean, 80 percent of the poetry I’ve read, I don’t understand it. So what’s the point?”
“Partially, it was like [film] credits – the catalogue number – it’s something that no one pays attention to,” Callahan says, pacing his explanation with long silences. “I was trying to elevate the catalogue number to poetry.” 
Now living in Austin, Callahan has been taking a more disciplined approach to songwriting, playing guitar for a minimum of 20 minutes each day and, as ever, finishing every song he starts. Some songs will go through revisions that abandon their foundations, but it’s important that no work is wasted. And here, the calm in Callahan’s voice carries the slightest whiff of boredom.
“There’s not a lot to say about the process because it just kind of happens,” he says of songwriting. “I think that’s why people are so interested in it. Music is such a mysterious thing, and we don’t really know why it does what it does to us. [Listeners] think because you made it, you have some key to that secret of why. But we don’t.”
All he knows how to do is wait and listen for it.
“If you’re writing a song, you’re not really writing it,” he says. “It’s just like a band, a ribbon floating through the atmosphere. And if you concentrate or relax enough, you can hear it. You can see the words and hear the music. It’s almost like letting go of yourself, I think. It’s very hard. That probably sounds crazy to people.”
And then he smiles because he knows it isn’t.
Dan Bejar at Washington’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Nov. 11, 2013 (Michael S. Williamson)
Hating the guitar enough to play it
He’s taking his sweet time because when dinner is over, he’ll have to go on stage. “I’m just a working stiff,” Dan Bejar says. “This is my lot. I gotta go on tour. It’s what I do.”
Self-deprecation is typical of Bejar, a 41-year-old from Vancouver, B.C., who goes by Destroyer and records his best work by lashing himself into obstructions of his own creation. “I enjoy a conceptual framework, even if it’s really negative,” Bejar says. “Even if I know it’s a terrible idea, I have parameters.”
Ditching the guitar for a cache of synthesizers seemed like a terrific idea in 2011 when Bejar unveiled “Kaputt,” a creamy soft-rock album on the verge of curdling. But two years later, he picked his guitar back up for “Five Spanish Songs,” an EP of Antonio Luque covers that forced him to abandon something else.
“The English language seemed spent, despicable, not easily singable,” Bejar wrote in a press release for “Five Spanish Songs,” renouncing his native tongue. “It felt over for English; good for business transactions, but that’s about it.” Like all the great Destroyer songs, this press release triggered laughter and despair.
“I love English,” Bejar says hours before a gig at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. “Anyone who knows me well will read the one-sheet and be like, ‘Oh, that’s just Bejar being a clown.’ ”
For instance, on “European Oils,” a standout tune from his standout 2006 album “Destroyer’s Rubies,” Bejar uses an obscenity to punctuate an already-demented narrative: “When I’m at war I insist on slaughter/and getting it on with the hangman’s daughter/She needs release/She needs to feel at peace with her father, the f——- maniac!”
Lyrically, the closer Bejar tap-dances toward absurdity, the more authority his music projects. But across the dinner table, he’s a purely commanding presence, dark hair corkscrewing out of his scalp like coils of wisdom. He speaks in conspiratorial tones, and he knows how to wield the delicate power of profanity in conversation as skillfully as he does in song. 
And while his music makes him sound like an interrogator of the form, Bejar says he’s ultimately a student. “With songs, you’re never going to get around how old-fashioned or quaint they are,” he says. “A song doesn’t have to be that way, but there’s a part of songwriting that’s a tradition that I really love. It’s hard for me to pinpoint where I am in that tradition, but my favorite songwriters are all very conscious of the history of singing words.”
Here’s Bejar on Van Morrison: “That’s not one I try to argue because, besides ‘Astral Weeks,’ most people don’t want to hear about that guy.” On Joni Mitchell: “She is massive but still incredibly underrated.” On Bob Dylan: “I end up thinking about his s— all the time.” On Lou Reed: “Even when it’s something harrowing, he seems very much in control.” On Bill Callahan: “He’s like a portrait of mastery. I think he’s so good, and it’s so cool to watch someone get better and better.” On David Berman: “He’s a sports freak so he’s always using sports metaphors. He [once said in an interview], ‘Music is the defense, words are the offense.’ I found that kind of emboldening. You need the music to be good, but you need the words to be great. If the music’s not good, you’re f—ed. But if the words aren’t good, you’ll only ever just be good.”
He volunteers his trinity: Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.  He also cites Lou Reed, Bill Callahan and David Berman of the Silver Jews. “Pretty traditional choices,” he says, as if apologizing. But Bejar’s songs don’t march in his forebears’ footsteps so much as kick and spit and pull their own hair out. There’s a lavish wordiness to his verses, a dark humor in their content, and an almost paralyzing acidity in his singing voice. 
“Watch notorious lightning surround you.” goes one refrain from 2004, which sounds gawky, feels overly ornate and contains a tangential joke about Metallica.
“I did like the idea of putting really awkward language in songs because I thought that it created a weird rupture,” Bejar says. “I don’t really do that anymore, though. The songs are more standard. It’s more like me talking to myself now. Before, I was a more of a pamphleteer.” Bejar released his first Destroyer album in 1996 and four years later, he joined the New Pornographers, an all-star rock band featuring Neko Case and A.C. Newman. The first masterful Destroyer album, “Streethawk: A Seduction,” came in 2001. He seemed to be outlining his career with “English Music,” a lilting, piano-driven song that starts with a pep talk – “Find something difficult to do and do it” – and ends with a dressing-down – “Brilliance has a taste for suffering/And you’re softer than the Western world”
“It doesn’t really matter if I’m singing in a really loud abrasive way or cooing into a microphone as softly as I can – the fact is that my voice is strange,” Bejar says. “It’s like having a hump or a physical weirdness that gets in the way. Obviously, I’ve totally come to terms with it, and I think I’ve probably contorted it somehow. There’s a choppy quality or a diction-heavy quality to my singing that is the only way to sing some of those words. I don’t know if I gravitated toward that. Some part of me might have thought, ‘You could gravitate toward that style because Sinatra is not available to you.’ And Frank Sinatra is probably my favorite singer.”
One thing Bejar has kept consistent since then: He scribbles his lyrics down first and assigns melody later. And he does it in aggressive, instinctive bursts.
“It’s weird,” he says. “The animal part is supposed to be the music part. While the constructed, crafted part is supposed to be the lyric sheet you slave over. I think that’s generally the way it works? I’m the exact opposite. If I can’t just whip it off, I wouldn’t even consider it something I should remember. . . . It’s just blasts. It’s just a joke that I can’t, at this point, sit down and craft something. Whenever I do, it feels like such a hoax.”
But in order for those gusts of language to crack open, there need to be irritations.
“My reaction to my limitations is generally to bombard it with my own laziness,” Bejar says. “[Preparing for this tour], sitting down and strumming the guitar and trying to remember how old songs go was such a daunting and unpleasant idea to me, I actually wrote songs to avoid doing that! I’ll even do something as horrible as write a new song instead of practicing an old one.”
All of this psychic chafing results in music that’s entirely unique – a songbook populated with freak descendants of the tradition Bejar has studied so industriously. And while uniqueness is something every artist is presumably striving for in this world, few anticipate the consequences of actually achieving it.
“I’ve had people inside the industry — in publishing, for instance — tell me that my music is unsyncable” for films or advertisements. “It’s all so confusing now because everything is supposed to be discussed as the same thing,” Bejar says. “Pitchfork is going to review [avant rock group] Sun City Girls. And Pitchfork is gonna review Katy Perry. And it could be the same writer doing it! This embrace of the gift that postmodernism gave us, which is to revel in the difference and not f—ing hate the difference. . . . ‘It’s all the same s—!’ But it’s not the same s—. It doesn’t have the same use.”
Will Oldham on the streets of Georgetown, Nov. 20, 2013 (Michael S. Williamson)
The voyeur in the mirror
Where is he today? Not in a recording studio with Johnny Cash. Not in a music video with R. Kelly. Not on the set of “Junebug” or “Jackass 3D.” Not crooning about sex and death inside a microbrewery. Not launching his own line of perfume. Will Oldham has already done those things. This week, he’s visiting the campus of Georgetown University, where he’s been invited to give a lecture as himself and a performance as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the prolific alter-ego he uses to sing Appalachian-tinted folk songs that squirm in infinite directions.
Oldham believes that as we get older, and as our tastes become more refined, we become more isolated and the embrace of one’s uniqueness becomes a greater responsibility. “What’s always mystified and disappointed me about a lot of artists — big artists like Elton John or Bruce Springsteen — is the way they continue to write for a shared space,” Oldham says. “Their music is less concentrated and feels less valuable as they get older. They have this unique position to address their specifics of experience, and they don’t. If we sat together with a six pack and some Adderall, we could probably write a Bruce Springsteen song now. And that’s a shame. We shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Just as Oldham’s career has been dotted with odd Hollywood cameos and bizarre creative partnerships, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s music maintains its steady commitment to the unexpected. “It’s all about joy and surreality and collaboration,” Oldham says of his work. But he’s also quick to point out his “unique and perverse way of looking at the world and that my musical tastes are not shared by anybody.” 
His latest stunt — which isn’t really a stunt at all — has been to release the new self-titled Bonnie “Prince” Billy album by hand. It can’t be purchased anywhere in the digital space  and he’s peddling vinyl copies to brick-and-mortar record stores personally. “Part of it is trying to put into perspective what ‘hard to find’ means,” Oldham says. “More than three-to-four minutes on the Internet means ‘hard to find.’ It’s really gross.”
The man wants to like his audience. So every step the music takes between his lungs and the listener’s ear is an opportunity to forge intimacy, even if it seems like bizarro hucksterism. He calls his 2007 cameo in R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” music video saga “one of the greatest achievements of my life” – his equivalent of earning a college diploma. He says coaching Johnny Cash through a cover of his 1999 doom ballad “I See A Darkness” was his PhD.
“You know I have a drive to live, I won’t let go,” goes the song’s first verse. “But can you see its opposition?”
“Nobody wants to hate modernity,” Oldham says. “But at a certain point, modernity will leave us all behind. You have to update your software just to keep up with your community? That doesn’t make any sense. So it’s a record in its writing and its recording and its distribution that’s meant to reflect something that is not necessarily shared by everybody. It’s trying to say that it’s okay not to be a part of the bigger group. Not only is it okay, it’s inevitable.”
Throughout Oldham’s sprawling catalogue, which includes at least 15 Bonnie “Prince” Billy albums and various recordings under other monikers, the singer, now 44, has been consistently drawn toward the weird and the eternal – which means he excels at singing about mortality and sex. “The Way,” a love song from 2003, features one of the most forlorn come-ons ever recorded: “Let your unloved parts get loved.”
To write these songs, Oldham says he sinks into the Bonnie “Prince” Billy character and then watches over the creative moment like a voyeur.
“I like feeling as if writing a song is a performance and I’m the only audience member at that moment,” he says. It allows for the “dissolving of an accepted reality around you and getting the head to feel comfortable and free in an alternate reality.”
Once Oldham gets comfy in that alternate brain space, he’s able to tap his abilities unthinkingly. “I can study song structures and intervals and approaches to lyric imagery, but ideally, it becomes reflex, like a soldier learning to kill,” he says. “If they hear a noise, they don’t think: ‘Noise-potential-enemy-where’s-my-loaded-weapon?’ They just do it. Stick a shiv up somebody’s throat.”
Catastrophe and despair can seep into Oldham’s lullabies quietly and completely, but he’s capable of wiping the slate clean, too. On “Royal Quiet Deluxe,” the final track of the new Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, Oldham sings, “Life is worth nothing/All my love is in a hole and is dead.” But a few moments later, the tempo picks up and the sun comes out: “This is the last song of its kind. . . .“Ain’t it the best?”
Oldham loves this kind of table-turning. Spend enough time with his music, and his eccentricity feels more like uncorrupted sincerity, a committed pursuit of the weirdest truth and an invitation to follow him there.
“Some things resemble barriers, but once you get close up to them, you realize they’re semipermeable and very welcoming,” Oldham says. “You look at some terrible lettering and say, ‘Oh, that’s a Keep Away sign.’ But you walk up to it and it says, ‘Free Candy!’ You were looking at the harsh, goth lettering and the razor wire on top of it. ‘Oh, the razor wire was on the house when I bought it and it was too expensive to get rid of it, so I just leave the gate open, you can come by anytime, there’s a pool in the back, it’s heated, I hope you don’t mind.’ It’s that kind of thing. It looks forbidding or it looks threatening, but the closer you get, you realize that the intention is to welcome.”
Cass McCombs at Baltimore’s Ottobar on Dec. 14, 2013 (Michael S. Williamson)
Reacting to fire and noise
Snowflakes bigger than bottle caps are falling on Baltimore, and Cass McCombs is onstage at the Ottobar with his band, totally ripping. During “Big Wheel,” the title track of his astonishing new album, the 36-year-old lets go of his guitar, puffs up his chest and asks a question about blue-collar existentialism: “What does it mean to be a man?” His arms chop the air like a preacher’s. His hair hangs in his eyes like a choir boy’s.
McCombs says he grew up singing in Northern California churches, but he’s happy to keep that story vague and brief. (“I was raised around many diverse systems of consciousness but the prevailing one was atheism,” he clarifies later in an e-mail. “Also: biography has nothing to do with craft.”)
Roughly 10 years ago, McCombs lived here in Baltimore, but he won’t talk much about that either. He’s spent the past decade wandering the country, packing the cosmos into brutally efficient folk songs, refusing to claim a permanent address. “It’s more of an avoidance of materialism,” he says before the Ottobar show, sipping tea at a nearby bar where he used to hang out. “The philosophy of keeping it light, keeping your step light, is more liberating to me. We belong to the earth; the earth doesn’t belong to us. Property is theft.” That nomadic freedom – geographical, mental, musical – is essential to McCombs’s songs, which use the vocabulary of 20th century folk, rock and blues to draft a spiritual retort to 21st century capitalism. But McCombs isn’t writing manifestos. He says his songs materialize through the simple act of incessant guitar noodling.
McCombs elaborates: “I don’t believe in the existence of thought. Or I don’t believe that thought exists on a personal level. What we call thought is really just a kind of neurotic hesitation. So if we eliminate the chances for hesitation and become totally primal, focusing on the techniques of your instrument, expanding muscle memory, then poof, a song just kind of makes itself. You don’t think songs. You can’t think a song.”
“There’s never a moment when I’m writing,” he says, as if the word was rotten. “There’s a moment when a song is completed, and I don’t know how. But I don’t sit down to write with any kind of professional mind-set. It doesn’t exist as an event. I don’t even call it writing. It comes from a place that’s hidden. There’s an occult reason. And I think, for myself, it’s about accepting whatever that is.” 
It’s resulted in songs that feel both balmy and perilous, a duality that came into sharper focus on his fourth album, 2009’s “Catacombs,” which included “Don’t Vote,” a breezy ballad about American disenfranchisement and disengagement.
“You had a lot of friends but no peers/Could you imagine this could drag on four more years?” McCombs sings. “If one day you had more peers than friends/It’s because your means had caught up with your ends.”
Since then, McCombs’s albums have only grown more evocative, but he resents his work being defined by how it’s packaged and sold.
“If I could destroy all my records, I would,” he says. “For an eternity, anyone who wants to have a relationship with my music is beholden to an object. An object is coming in between us as people. That’s why the live [performance] thing is just chemical. You have your body with its own orbit, and I have my body, and we’re engaging each other on a physical level. With this object, this recording, it’s a piece of data. It doesn’t represent how you live. It doesn’t represent how anyone lives.”
He also calls the idea of writing lyrics on paper “ridiculous,” hesitating before describing his approach to lyricism. “I’m not going to give up all my secrets,” he says, “but in a heightened state of emotion, maybe a car crash, no matter who you are, even if you’re the coolest m—–f—– in the world, you’re reacting to fire and noise. What you’re gonna say is going to be very specific. You’re not gonna monkey around. You’re going to use your language to try to help people, or warn people. I think making lyrics is like that. You only need to say what’s essential for you to say.”
“I think life, for all of us, it’s essentially troubling,” McCombs says. “So I’ll never run out of things to write about. For me, positivity and complacency are all tied to materialism and conservative politics.”
McCombs’s gift is his ability to smuggle all of that urgency and violence  into such handsome, even-keeled balladry. “County Line,” from his 2011 album “Wit’s End,” patiently recounts a homecoming permeated with dread.
“On my way to you, old county/Hoping nothing’s changed,” he sings. “That your pain is never-ending/That is, it’s still the same. County line.”
During the chorus, his voice lifts into a wounded falsetto: “You never even tried to love me.” And in the final verse he extracts abstract terror from a pun: “County line, I can smell the columbine.”
But to McCombs, explaining how he decided on those words would be pointless. Explaining anything might be pointless.
“It’s not helpful,” he says. “It’s probably detrimental. That’s why I don’t really like doing interviews. I think it’s actually the destroyer of music. The destroyer of anonymity. The destroyer of the freedom of the listener to think on their own.”
Doesn’t he have the desire to be understood?
“Probably. But I’ve never felt understood in my whole life.”
In any aspect?
“In all aspects.”
Does he understand himself?