INTERVIEW: The Antithesis of Escapism – Kirin J Callinan


It’s a busy time for Sydney’s Kirin J Callinan as he prepares to release his debut album embark on an American tour supporting Ariel Pink. From the streets of New York he gives Chris Familton an insight into his emergence as a solo artist.

Not long into our conversation Kirin J Callinan pauses before painting, with an element of concern in his voice, the picture in front of him as a very drunk girl stumbles down a New York street, struggling to walk and attempts to get into a car. “I hope she doesn’t try to drive or I might have to intervene” he says. Fittingly that is exactly what Callinan has been doing for the last eight years, intervening with musical and stylistic creativity and dissonance as a member of Mercy Arms, Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders and now finally as a solo artist.

Through the various musical vehicles he has chosen to be part of Callinan has always stood out, whether it be his striking physical appearance (a young Sean Penn let loose in a costume shop) or his unique approach to the guitar where for the most part he disregards standard rock forms and deals in texture and nuance. Now on the eve of the release of his debut solo album Embracism Callinan is stepping out from beneath the skirts of other songwriters and baring his own sonic soul where all responsibility, praise and critique will fall on his shoulders.

“I’m excited. It is something that has been very close to me and not many people have been involved with. It’s mainly been Kim (Moyes of The Presets) my producer, just me and him in a room working away on it. Now I’m hearing it with a different set of ears and really looking forward to other people getting to hear it. It’s been a long time coming, at least to me it feels like an eternity. I couldn’t care less if people like it or hate it really, though of course I want them to like it. I’m just excited about being able to let go of it.”

Promotional activities for the album are already in full swing with interviews and a string of shows in Europe and America (supporting Ariel Pink). Being on Chris Taylor’s Terrible Records label no doubt helped secure a Paris support slot with Grizzly Bear (Taylor is the band’s bassist) but it was Callinan’s other French show, a performance at David Lynch’s exclusive Club Silencio nightclub that sounded more akin to his sensibilities.

“It was great to get to Paris where I’d never been. The last time I was in London was with Mercy Arms five years ago and that was a pretty miserable time so to get back there now with a new label over there it was great. I played two shows in London, one was supporting PVT so there were a bunch of Australians and some curious Poms at that one. I also played my own show at a small venue which was full. There were people requesting songs and singing along which is bizarre at the best of times. If you exist on the internet then people find you so it was great. It’s all early days for me overseas and I anticipate I’ll be touring much more for the next fifteen years so this is a good start.”

The starting point for a musicians solo career can take many forms. For some it is a brace of new songs written as an album, signposting a point in time and heralding a new start. For others it is the culmination of their creative work up to that point and though Callinan sees Embracism as a contemporary representation of himself the songs are drawn from a number of different places.

“It is definitely where I am right now but at the same time some of the songs are quite old to me. Playing in bands for a long time, especially not as the primary songwriter, meant I’d built up quite a few of my own songs over the years. Some of those made this record, some will be on the next and some probably on the one after that. Some songs only had lyrics written the day before recording them and we made some things up as we went along. More than anything it is a nice document where I’m at now and what I’ve been through to get to here.”

That stepping off point into a solo career can also be a daunting one as the safety in numbers aspect of playing in a band is stripped away, especially when the artist becomes the sole performer on stage. In Callinan’s case he isn’t beholden to any one live configuration in which his music is presented but at the same time the attraction of and enjoyment he gets from playing in a band is still a real attraction.

“The solo thing really started out as a thing to do in my spare time, writing and recording at home and then I started to do the occasional show. It has never really had a lot of pressure which has allowed it to gestate and grow in an organic way and hopefully people sense that when they hear the record or see a show. It comes from a personal place. I love playing in a band, I love playing in Jack Ladder. I’ve been trying to incorporate a band into my solo live thing, that’s something I’m still working out. All these recent solo shows I’ve been playing the newer songs from the record by myself, with drum machines and samples. I feel I haven’t lost anything by doing it solo. If I get the band right it will be a step up but there is something engaging and exciting about playing solo as well. I don’t plan to ever play exclusively with a band or solo. There are pros and cons to both.”

What will surprise those who have preconceived ideas about Callinan from his confronting videos and reports of staged interruptions at his shows is the accessibility of the music on his album. Sure it is full of visceral twists and turns but it never cuts the umbilical cord to traditional songwriting.

“It is a balancing act between the two and one without the other wouldn’t be as strong. That’s what my solo shows have really been from the beginning, more of the traditional balladry but then some have just been instrumental ideas or violent noise. I wanted to bring them up to more focused ideas and pieces. One without the other would be way less interesting. The form of the album was on my mind from the beginning, how to incorporate these different styles, influences and sentiments and still make it a cohesive record. For the most part we got there with a nice flow of peaks and troughs, some really high and some really low.”

Embracism as an album heralds the coming out of Callinan as a singer. His voice carries a strong and emotive weight inhabited by the spirit of Bowie, David Sylvian and as he readily admits – Scott Walker. Finding that voice has been a process of slow evolution, allowing Callinan to develop his own style and with that a confidence in his ability.

“That is something that has evolved over the years. I never thought of myself as a singer, I was very self-conscious about my voice and lyrics. I was hearing people like Scott Walker and David Sylvian in Japan and they validated how I heard my voice, especially when Walker’s The Drift came out when I was 20 years old or so. I didn’t think anyone would want to hear a voice like mine and maybe not many people do but that helped me feel less self-conscious. This is the first time where it is all my voice, my songs and lyrics and I’m looking forward to where I can take it from here.”

The confidence that Callinan exudes in his music and visual image comes from his desire to create art that will cause a reaction, good or bad, big or small. Some have interpreted Callinan’s performances, image and videos as courting publicity or leaning on ideas of shocking the audience and though that isn’t his intention Callinan doesn’t shy away from the notion of any publicity being good publicity.

“Asking questions is important to me. What is good, what is terrible, is this exciting or boring. I don’t set out to be abrasive or controversial but if people hate it that can be good too. You draw a line in the sand and see who crosses it.”

That of course all ties into the title of the album which among other things is defined as the non-cynical act of change. Callinan accepts that as one of a number of meanings that fit with the themes and intentions of the record.

“It came about before we had lyrics for the song of the same name. Kim and I had the instrumental and the name just happened, it presented itself and looking it up we found it isn’t technically part of the English language. The antithesis of escapism is what I think is a broader idea of both the album and my shows. It isn’t washed-out dreamy nothingness, it is hopefully engaging and asks a few questions. The opposite of escapism – embracism.”

this review was first published in Drum Media and on

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