Photos: Yana Yatsuk

G’day: A Q&A with Kirin J Callinan

The best part of talking with Australian singer-songwriter Kirin J Callinan is that you can never tell what he’s going to say or do next. He might break into song, he might rummage through belongings to show off a gift he recently bought for a friend or he might say something outrageous or hilarious or, more likely, both.

The artist, musician and performer is set to release his third solo record, Return to Center, and is currently on tour. He’s known for his over-the-top performing and songwriting that sits between art and provocation. A recent press release describes him as an “apex predator, a butterfly, a grassfire, a beautiful baby boy wandered curiously into trouble,” and it’s all true. We got to video chat in anticipation of his Tuesday April 23 show at DC9 where we discussed Return to Center, the prospect of having kids and the prospect of covering opera. Oh and he showed off a gift he got for his friend and sometime collaborator Connan Mockasin.

On Tap: I wanted to start by asking you about your family. I feel like you talk about your family more than most artists do, and I was wondering are you what they were hoping for?
Kirin J Callinan: [Laughs]. Look, I don’t know what they were hoping for. I didn’t know them when they were sitting around and hoping. You know what, I don’t think they were hoping for anything. I was an accident. In terms of my childhood, I don’t think I’ve really felt that pressure to be, I mean my old man was a musician, still is. From my mother I’ve really only felt love; I’m very lucky.

I’ve had a few fuckups in my life, definitely. But no, my parents are very supportive. I love ‘em dearly, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, or certainly [my] inspiration and confidence would come from a different place, if I didn’t have them. Does that make sense?

OT: Yeah, that’s a good situation, that’s lucky.
KC: Yeah, very lucky, incredibly lucky, it’s not lost on me. In fact I consider myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth. You know, it’s not like they came from money or anything; dad’s a musician, and mom worked mostly, and dad was a stay at home dad. You know it moved me to tears recently actually, thinking about [this], the sacrifices my parents, especially my dad, made. You know he had his own hopes and dreams as a musician, and some worked out and some didn’t, but at some stage, with myself and my sister at a young age, he sort of quit the band and got a dayjob. [He] has worked so hard, six days a week to this very day, as long as I’ve known him, as long as I can remember, really just in devotion to my sister and I and my mum. It just kind of blew my mind. I don’t know if I could [do that]. I mean, I think things just change when you have kids, but in my sort of world that revolves around myself at present, I don’t know if I could quit the dream and get what is otherwise a monotonous [job]. I mean I know people do it all the time, [but] it blows my mind.

That said, I think that’s the reason I’d like to have kids, if there’s any potential mothers out there reading this. I’m up for kids because I’d love to have someone else in my life that’s my number one priority, other than myself and my work. Then again, maybe I’ll just be a prig forever. So, no guarantees.

OT: Are you the most Callinan Callinan, are you as Callinan as it gets?
KC: Yeah, you know, the Callinan side, particularly my dad’s side, is very arty farty. My dad’s a musician, uncle and aunty [are] all in the arts, his brother and sister. [They’re] kind of usually pretty weird, kind of lefty environmentalist, you know. I’m trying to think of the stereotype within the family; most are bookworms. I’m not in that sense, [I’m] terrible with reading; I’m trying to get better.

My body shape is a bit different too; I’m sort of the tallest in the family. The rest can be quite small or rotund, and I’m tall and thin, and I’ve got a bigger nose than the rest of them too. Suspected I might have had a different father for a little bit there, but you see young pictures of my dad, [and] it’s me.

OT: Were you born Kirin or did you become Kirin?
KC: Well, it’s on my birth certificate, although it’s spelled different, but I’m fairly true. I haven’t changed that much, I would say. I was a bit of a show pony in school, you know primary school, high school and that hasn’t really changed.

OT: Have you ever found that hard?
KC: Yes, yes, yeah. Yes, [laughs].

OT: Can I ask you to elaborate a little bit?
KC: Well you know I never really felt like I fit in, but you know for me that was a point of difference. I enjoyed being a freak. A lot of culture today, especially online, people talk about community a lot. That word comes up in basically every sphere, about finding your people. For me, I’ve always wanted to be different, I’ve always wanted to feel singular, it baffles me actually. But of course, feeling isolated is certainly different and much more difficult than simply feeling different, and I’ve had times where I felt pretty isolated and alone. You know, being verbally or physically attacked ‘cause you’re different is a different thing and there’s times where I’ve felt that. But for the most part I’ve gotten by being funny and nice, you know. But who hasn’t felt different or alone?

OT: Is this something you experienced in high school or younger?
KC: Younger as well, [I] definitely felt very different, but you know this sounds like I think I’m special or something and that’s not necessarily what I’m getting at.

OT: But you always seem to be in company. Do you get a lot of alone time?
KC: No, [laughs] no, no not at all. I’m working on that. Trying to devote more time to being comfortable in my own skin without other people around, devote more time to reading, like I said, certainly devote more time to writing, which go hand in hand, you know, if you don’t read, it’s hard to write. For a long time, I’ve been always surrounded by people, often drunk.

OT: “The Whole of the Moon” is fucking great. I wanted to ask, when you’re singing that is there someone you’re singing to or thinking about?
KC: That’s interesting, because the song is a devotional song. I tried to break down all the songs on the new record to one word and “Whole of the Moon” is devotional.

There is a person I was thinking about, don’t think I want to say who they are. There were a few people I was thinking about actually, one was the producer François Tétaz, who I made the record with, he’s a visionary, and then there are more romantic faces in mind who I don’t think I want to mention.

OT: How do you mean devotional? Specifically religiously devotional?
KC: Well, could be. “I saw the crescent you saw the whole of the moon.” You’re talking to God or at least someone with an all encompassing vision, but you know that’s what love is. When you really love someone, they’re the greatest and they show you things, they see what you don’t see. But, no I didn’t mean it necessarily as religious. It’s big picture stuff.

OT: Have you heard any feedback from The Waterboys?
KC: No. However, a couple years ago I did some of these David Lynch shows, music from David Lynch films that was put together by David Coulter, who was in the The Pogues and worked with everyone from Tom Waits to Yoko Ono, and Camille O’Sullivan was a singer on that, as was I. She’s actually the mother of Mike Scott’s children, the singer-songwriter from The Waterboys, so I wrote to Camille to see if she could put me in touch and she wrote back right away saying she would, but I haven’t followed it up since. I need to be in touch. I actually have an idea for a show involving the original writers of the songs on the record.

I haven’t heard from him, I wonder if he’s heard it. I do know that if you type it into Spotify or Apple Music you get my version and not The Waterboys. So you know, who knows, it’d be nice to hear from him. I think it’s a nice rendition, it doesn’t stray too far from the original, it’s just a little bit better isn’t it? [Laughs] No, I think a lot of those Waterboys records, I love them I love the band, [but] the production is a bit of a barrier, it’s so 80s, which for me, I love 80s music and even then I find those big snares and some of the bombastic, big verby production on there a little difficult to listen to. Good songs though.

OT: What does Return to Center mean?
KC: It is a wholly encompassing idea for the album. There is a sort of spiritual core to the record. I say the album is my “corporate spiritual record,” neither left nor right, neither red nor blue, it’s return to center, which you know, it’s about balance. It’s about patience and humility, but also in terms of the process, the way we made the record is we went to Guitar Center, spent the entire budget for the album, which was $8,888.88. I chose that number because 8 is a nice return to center as well, sort of turns in on itself, and you know it’s more fun to say than $10,000.

So, at $8,888.88, we were just shy of that actually, I bought a bunch of gear from Guitar Center and had the length of the return policy to make the album before returning to center and giving the gear back and getting the money back, which you know is kind of a funny idea but was also a very practical one, you know it gave me the palate to make the record. I was only allowed to use this gear that we bought, everything from mics to mic stands and cables, we didn’t use a laptop, we bought a TASCAM digital 24 track from there as well, everything’s on SD cards, and we had fourteen days from purchase, as is the return policy on pro audio gear. We had 14 days from the purchase and pulling out of the boxes, setting it up in the garage, to then make the record before packing it back down on the last day and returning it to the center.

My previous record I worked on and off for four years and could have worked on it for another four. At the end I just had to let go of it and throw it out, and so this one, it made me show up at 11 a.m. every morning down at the garage and work on it every day till 12 a.m. or 1 a.m.. [We] had to make this record, spent the money, wanted to get the money back and wanted to finish the album, and to make it great, most importantly.

You could argue that it’s a punk guerilla attack on capitalism, I took advantage of this company and used their policy against them, or you could argue I’m celebrating their only-in-America, customer-first model, which is a big selling point of the brand and made a beautiful record using only their gear. It could’ve been, like I said, me fucking with them or me celebrating them, and it’s both really.

OT: What I love about being able to interview artists is feeling like I have something to learn from you all and I’m wondering if there are people you’re still learning from?
KC: That I’m inspired by? Learning from? Absolutely. All the time. My favorite artists past and present. But at the moment, you know I’ve been a big drinker, and occasional drug user in my life, and right I’m really inspired by people that are sober and focused, and I’m trying to do the same thing. Musically? I’m really inspired by people with work ethic and focus. I think I got away for a long time with really being sort of just good, being able to put on a show, being able to write a good song from time to time without really working at it, and it’s not good enough. So, you know, I’ve mentioned Natalie Weyes Blood,inspired by her focus and her work ethic. And Mac, very inspired by Mac. [I] went to Coachella last weekend, was quite inspired by the Tame Impala show and those guys are all friends of mine as well. It was really quite amazing to see [them] grow into such an institution and so big.

The people around me at the moment, my friend Ashley Smith is inspiring me a lot lately. There’s a lot of acceptance of drug and alcohol abuse, especially within music, and it doesn’t help, it really doesn’t help. So, [I’m] trying to learn how to look after myself again, you know? If I spent half as much time as I poured into partying [instead] into working, we’d be talking about my back catalogue of 10 records.

OT: Could you ever cover opera?
KC: I’d love to. Yes. I kind of have this… the final song on Return to Center is “Vienna” originally by Ultravox.

OT: I love that song.
KC: Yeah, great song. But you know it wasn’t on my short list of songs for the record, it wasn’t even on my long list of songs, I just woke up with it in my head one morning and I was like “oh let’s do this one.” And I kind of regret it on some level because there’s a couple of songs that are super dear to me that I didn’t do, but you know, I can do them in the future.

But “Vienna” it sort of has this Andrea Bocelli quality to it, [sings] “Oh Vienna” and in the vocal performance that’s what I was really going for. I want people to listen to it and put me in the same breath as Bocelli or Pavarotti, coming from this pretty booming place in my belly.

Kirin J Callinan plays at DC9 Nightclub Tuesday, April 23. Doors are at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $15. For more information and tickets, visit www.dc9.club.

DC9 Nightclub: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; 202-483-5000; www.dc9.club

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Michael Loria

Michael Loria is a writer who focuses on art and music. For On Tap, his work includes a cover story on the Principal Conductor and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, for the December 2017 print edition, and features like his interviews with Carla Bruni and with Thievery Corporation. Collectively, he's penned more than 40 clips for the magazine.