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A Dirty Dozen with KATIE CALLAHAN – October 2021

| 26 October 2021 | Reply

Photo credit: Quinn Struke

According to a recent press release: “Baltimore-based Americana/folk singer-songwriter Katie Callahan is set to release her sophomore album, The Water Comes Back, on October 22, 2021. The album’s title is a nod to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls,” a poem about transience and life’s brevity, but also about the continuing cycle of death and rebirth. Recorded in a whirlwind two weeks at Gray Matters Studio in Nashville in January of 2021, The Water Comes Back boasts a rich internal landscape of churning currents, seasons changing, and the tide coming in and out, quietly challenging the narratives that keep people at odds with themselves. “When people hear my songs, I want them to feel seen and I want them to feel brave,” Callahan says. “Like they don’t have to hide anything from anybody or themselves.” Joining her in her work on The Water Comes Back were Matthew Odmark (recording, production, mixing, mandolin, acoustic guitar), Matthew S. Nelson and Avery Bright (strings arrangement and performance), Paul Eckberg (drums), Kevin Whitsett (drums), Louis Johnson (electric and acoustic guitar), Charlie Lowell (keys, organ), Dustin Ranson (Spanish guitar), and Pete Lyman (mastering).” We get Katie to discuss new music, influences, and more…

1. Tell us a little about your latest release.  What might a fan or listener not grab the first or second time they listen through?  Are there any hidden nuggets you put in the material or that only diehard fans might find?

This release, The Water Comes Back, gave me a lot of purpose through those long quarantine months. Knowing I had a songwriting session coming up or the leadup to my trip to Nashville to record was motivation to get up, to work, to honor my time as valuable. It’s about seasons and trusting the rhythms of living, it’s about feminine strength and identity, and it’s about faith transition, and I hope people see themselves somewhere in there. I also hope that people listen again. I write a lot of words and my producer Matt Odmark really helped me focus my lyric writing a lot, but sometimes there’s just a lot to the story, you know? There are certain things that maybe only my sisters or best friends will recognize came from specific experiences, but for the most part, I want people to look for themselves in the songs and feel seen.

2. What got you into music, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?

I come from a pretty musical family, many of my six siblings and I came up in the church and played on worship teams from the time we were young. My brothers are both incredible musicians (guitar, piano, drums, probably anything else they try), and I’ve sung since I was a kid, and when they both went to college I needed to learn an instrument to accompany myself, so I picked up one of the acoustic guitars around our house and learned to strum a few chords. I don’t think there was one Big Moment that led me to become a musician, but a series of small ones that led me here: that time at the all-state choir camp (I know, I KNOW) talent show I introduced myself as “the reluctant soprano” and people liked what I shared. Performing in college and feeling that electric buzz of folks coming to hear me. Watching the film Once with Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová and knowing as I walked out that I wanted to make music forever. Attending the Brandi Carlile concert that left me split wide open and showed me how people need permission to feel sometimes, and how music can do that.

3. Building on that, is there a specific song, album, performer, or live show that guided your musical taste?

I saw Brandi Carlile when she was touring By The Way, I Forgive You, and I took a deep dive into that album and was totally immersed for a time because of how succinctly she communicates human experiences. One day, I was listening to that album as I drove to do errands with my girls in the car, and I was feeling particularly down, isolated, purposeless, and “The Mother” came on. It just totally broke me down, said everything I was feeling and hadn’t realized I was holding in. Motherhood never felt like something I could write about because it felt as though I might back myself into some genre corner — “Oh, she’s that mom” — but it’s an enormous and significant part of my life. That song on that day made me realize how I felt both small and like I held multitudes in the context of parenthood, but also how idealistic, hopeful, and proud being a mom — and being all the other complicated things I am — makes me feel. It was a real invitation to write honestly out of how I live my life.

4. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, who would it be, and why?

Besides the incredible members of Jars of Clay that collaborated and worked with me on this record, I would love to collaborate with Joy Oladokun. I saw her open for Penny and Sparrow (who I’d also love to work with, honestly… we have that post-church kid thing in common) in Annapolis a few years back, and what I love about her is she’s so honest, she is so herself, and she is a combination of joyful, peaceful, sorrowful, soulful, and brave. Watching her career take off has been exciting and inspirational, and if one day we can hang out in a backyard and write together, I’d be pretty over the moon.

5. What is your favorite activity when out of the studio and/or not on tour?  What do you like to do to unwind?

I love to bake, and I love it because there is immediate gratification, immediate sharing, and it’s designed purely for pleasure. I love how you can take simple, ordinary ingredients and make them into something magic. I’m also a visual artist, especially painting and collage, and when I need time to myself or to disappear into something completely, I pick up my paintbrush or some scissors and glue and immerse myself in some other world.

6. How would you describe your music to someone who’d never listened to you before? What is the one comparison a reviewer or fan has made that made you cringe or you disagreed with?

I’d say I’m a folky singer-songwriter who writes about my insides in an honest way with the hope that somebody else sees their insides reflected there, too. My voice gets compared to Natalie Merchant a lot, sometimes my songwriting is compared to Carly Simon; both are very generous. When I was younger, I used to really hate it when people called me a country artist. It would happen a fair amount, and I couldn’t understand how anybody could mistake me for a country artist because “country” to me meant cowboy hats and honky tonk. What I didn’t realize then was how the genres I feel most comfortable embracing — Americana and folk – -have the same roots as country music. We’re storytelling songwriters.

7. When your band is hanging out together, who cooks, who gets the drinks in, and who is first to crack out the acoustic guitars for a singalong?

I’m laughing because it’s just me, and I do all of those things. Come over some time, and I’ll roast you a chicken and bake you a pie and pick out the wine and sing you a song.

8. When was the last time you were starstruck and who was it?

The experience of working with the guys from Jars of Clay, especially Matthew Odmark and Dan Haseltine, was absolutely a series of “what is happening, pinch me” moments. I’d get off a Zoom after working on a song with Dan or talking through logistics and fine-tuning with Matt and literally say out loud, “I just got off of a call with one of my music heroes, that really just happened.” I think pre-adolescent Katie would’ve turned inside-out thinking about diving into this sort of vulnerable work with people she admired so much, hearing those familiar voices sing back her lyrics. And then in the studio, meeting Charlie Lowell (Jars of Clay) and having him lay down the keys for my tracks, or seeing Steve Mason (Jars of Clay guitarist) walk by the door and give a thumbs up… my internal monologue was perpetually, “Be cool, Katie, don’t freak out, play it casual.” But inside I was absolutely losing it.

9. What is the best part of being a musician? If you could no longer be a musician for whatever reason, what would be your dream job?

The best part about being a musician is that I can keep being a musician anywhere and under any circumstance. Right now, my primary job is being a mom to my two daughters, and even though I work a lot in the margins of my life, I still get to do it and can reimagine what it is to be a musician every time life takes a different turn. If life had gone in a radically different direction, I think I’d like to be some sort of wine educator or food anthropologist. I spent a few years managing a wine shop (my now-husband was the owner and my boss, ask about that story another time), and I’m forever fascinated and moved by the connection of what ends up in a glass or on a plate to the literal roots of a place and the people who’ve made it.

10. What is one question you have always wanted an interviewer to ask – and what is the answer? Conversely, what question are you tired of answering?

That’s a tough one, I haven’t been interviewed a whole lot, so I’m not going to dismiss any question. I guess at some point I’d like to be asked, “What does a day of this work look like for you?” Because to be honest, it’s been a wild year of learning new things or things I somehow should have known beforehand. I’ve had really excellent guidance, from Matt Odmark’s mentorship to a publicist who really seems to understand where I’m coming from, but I still look back on this year and a half experience and think, “Wait, how did this all happen? How’d I do that?” So answering that question would be telling myself something new, too.

11. Looking back over your career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over,” even if it didn’t change your current situation?

My first record, Get It Right, was a group project and nobody’s day job: the songs came from 12 years of writing, my buddy Gabriel Roman produced and recorded it in his basement, and my friends were the studio musicians. And don’t get me wrong, I am totally proud of that project and that we managed to complete it, because so many like it never see the light of day, but I really wish I had known even half of what I’ve learned with this album. I wish I knew about how the timeline of releases work, I wish I’d known there are people out there who work as release consultants to help folks like me who don’t know what they’re doing. I wish I had known and believed that there are different ways of being a musician and that some of those ways have to be imagined. Because even if I’d done just one of those things, I think I would’ve had some perspective and the ability to see how putting out that first album was a really important and brave step.

12. If you could magically go back in time and be a part of the recording sessions for any one record in history, which would you choose – and what does that record mean to you?

I don’t have a lot of desire to be in the room when the albums I love most were made because I’d be afraid of washing away the personal significance with the experience of the artist. I wouldn’t want my experience in the studio to recolor somebody’s imagination around anything I’ve made, either. That said, one thing I struggled with in the studio was confidence because I’m fairly novice and did a lot of listening to those around me, the producer and other musicians more familiar with the order of operations. I wouldn’t trade the time or the things I learned for anything. But I think seeing strong female voices in the studio when groups like Trio brought together Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris in 1986, or like The Highwomen in 2019 recorded that title track with Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Yola. I think seeing professionally established women use their experience and trust their gut in production would have a profound impact on the way I’d move in the studio space in the future.





Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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