Bill Callahan (musician)

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Bill Callahan
Performing at ATP Festival, April 2007
Performing at ATP Festival, April 2007
Background information
Birth nameWilliam Rahr Callahan[1][2]
Also known asSmog
Born (1966-06-03) June 3, 1966 (age 54)
Silver Spring, Maryland, United States
GenresLo-fi, underground rock, alternative country
InstrumentsGuitar, vocal
Years active1990–present
LabelsDrag City, Domino, Disaster

Bill Callahan (born June 3, 1966[2][3]) is an American singer-songwriter and guitarist who has also recorded and performed under the band name Smog. Callahan began working in the lo-fi genre of underground rock, with home-made tape-albums recorded on four track tape recorders. Later he began releasing albums with the label Drag City, to which he remains signed today.


Callahan started out as a highly experimental artist, using substandard instruments and recording equipment. His early songs often nearly lacked melodic structure and were clumsily played on poorly tuned guitars, resulting in the dissonant sounds on his self-released cassettes and debut album Sewn to the Sky. Much of his early output was instrumental, a stark contrast to the lyrical focus of his later work. Apparently, he used lo-fi techniques not primarily because of an aesthetic preference but because he didn't have any other possibility to make music. Once he signed a contract with Drag City, he started to use recording studios and a greater variety of instruments for his records.

From 1993 to 2000, Callahan's recordings grew more and more "professional" sounding, with more instruments, and a higher sound quality. In this period he recorded two albums with the influential producer Jim O'Rourke and Tortoise's John McEntire, and collaborated with Neil Hagerty. Callahan also worked closely with his then-girlfriend Cynthia Dall in his early career,[4] and they contributed vocals to each other's albums. After 2000's Dongs of Sevotion, Callahan began moving back to a slightly simpler instrumentation and recording style, while retaining the more consistent songwriting style he had developed over the years. This shift is apparent in albums such as Rain on Lens, Supper, and A River Ain't Too Much to Love.

Smog's songs are often based on simple, repetitive structures, consisting of a simple chord progression repeated for the duration of the entire song. His singing is characterized by his baritone voice. Melodically and lyrically he tends to eschew the verse-chorus approach favoured by many contemporary songwriters, preferring instead a more free-form approach relying less on melodic and lyrical repetition. Themes in Callahan's lyrics include relationships, animals, relocation, nature, and more recently, politics. On the subject of voice in his albums, Callahan has said, "It's usually one character per record. So, the character appears in all or most of the songs on one record and then is gone. Though it makes me feel weird to talk about. Because I don't really think in clear terms of characters. My albums as a whole could be seen as one character with many voices."[5] His generally dispassionate delivery of lyrics and dark irony often obfuscate complex emotional and lyrical twists and turns. Critics have generally characterized his music as depressing and intensely introverted, with one critic describing it as "a peep-show view into an insular world of alienation."[6]

Cat Power (Chan Marshall) recorded Callahan's song "Bathysphere" on her 1996 album What Would the Community Think and also covered another Callahan song, "Red Apples", on her Covers Record, released in 2000.

In 2007, Callahan released Woke on a Whaleheart, his first solo album released under his own name. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle followed in April 2009. Both recordings were released through Drag City, worldwide. In 2009, Callahan contributed cover songs on four separate tribute albums to Judee Sill, Kath Bloom, Chris Knox, and Merge Records. In 2010, he released his first live album Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, which was recorded in 2007 at The Toff in Melbourne, Australia. Apocalypse, was released in April 2011 to favorable reviews. Critic Sasha Frere-Jones called it "my favorite of Callahan's albums, not because it has better songs—those are scattered among at least five others – but because it does exactly what he wants it to do: it conveys an album’s coherence."[7] A tour film chronicling Callahan's 2011 Apocalypse tour was released in 2012.[8] His followup to Apocalypse, Dream River, was released in September 2013.[9]. In 2018, Callahan was featured in the Live at Third Man Records series. This was his second live album, featuring songs from Callahan's last three studio albums.[10]

Callahan's most recent album, Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, was released on June 14, 2019.[11] It received favourable reviews, with Pitchfork contributing editor Jayson Greene referring to it as a "highlight of his career".[12][13]

Personal life[edit]

Though he was born in Maryland, Callahan's family spent a total of eight years living in Knaresborough in England's North Riding of Yorkshire, with a four-year return to Maryland from 1969 to 1973.[3] His parents worked as language analysts for the National Security Agency.[14]

Callahan previously dated other high-profile musicians Cynthia Dall, Chan Marshall, Lisa Crystal Carver and Joanna Newsom.[15][16] In 2013, he became engaged to photographer and filmmaker Hanly Banks; they were married the next year. Their son, Bass, was born in March 2015.[17]

Works in film and television[edit]


In July 2010 Drag City published Callahan's Letters to Emma Bowlcut, an epistolary novel.

A book of photographs of Callahan by Chris Taylor, titled The Life and Times of William Callahan, was released in January 2013.[20]

In October 2014, a collection of ink drawings by Callahan and lyrics spanning his first album as (smog) to Dream River was released, titled I Drive a Valence.


As Smog[edit]

As Bill Callahan[edit]



Year Title Role
1999 Pola X Musician
2012 Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film[21]


2013 I Used to Be Darker Composer


Year Title Role Notes
2017 Animals Narrator (voice) Episode: "Worms Birds Possums"[22]


  1. ^ – Bill Callahan – Honeymoon Child Lyrics. Songwriters: Callahan, William Rahr
  2. ^ a b USA People Search – William Rahr Callahan Age: 44 – Retrieved March 17, 2011
  3. ^ a b Ben Thompson (May 11, 1997). "Bill Callahan spares nobody in his songs – himself least of all". The Independent. p. 18.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Raymond, Jon. "Bill Callahan", BOMB Magazine, Summer, 2009. Retrieved August 1, 2011.
  6. ^ Bill Callahan at AllMusic
  7. ^ Sasha Frere-Jones. "Apocalypse review". Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  8. ^ Bill Callahan Tour Chronicled in Documentary | News. Pitchfork (January 26, 2012). Retrieved on September 18, 2012.
  9. ^ "Bill Callahan's Dream River". New York Times. September 18, 2013. Retrieved September 19, 2013.
  10. ^ [1] Pitchfork (November 9, 2018). Retrieved on November 18, 2018.
  11. ^ "Stream Bill Callahan's New Album 'Shepard in a Sheepskin Vest'". Spin. June 14, 2019. Retrieved July 29, 2019.
  12. ^ Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest by Bill Callahan, retrieved July 29, 2019
  13. ^ "Bill Callahan: Shepherd In a Sheepskin Vest". Pitchfork. Retrieved July 29, 2019.
  14. ^ Ratliff, Ben (April 8, 2011). "He Can Sing It, if Not Speak It". New York Times.
  15. ^ A Window That Isn't There: The Elusive Art of Bill Callahan. Pitchfork. Retrieved on April 23, 2014.
  16. ^ [2]. Cafe Oto, Retrieved on May 25, 2018.
  17. ^ Bevan, David. (September 17, 2013) Bill Callahan Rolls on Like a River | SPIN | Profiles. Retrieved on April 23, 2014.
  18. ^ Swimming – Starring Lauren Ambrose of HBO's Six Feet Under. Retrieved on September 18, 2012.
  19. ^ Cadillac: Driven Retrieved on February 16, 2015.
  20. ^ Preview The Life and Times of William Callahan, a Photo Essay by Chris Taylor. The Fader (June 7, 2013). Retrieved on April 23, 2014.
  21. ^ "Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film". Retrieved September 18, 2012.
  22. ^ "Worms Birds Possums". Retrieved September 4, 2019.

External links[edit]