Kirin J Callinan on “Return to Center” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Kirin J Callinan on “Return to Center”

Cover Boy

Jul 31, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

This is the third time that Kirin J Callinan and I have tried to connect today. Two hours ago, a flurry of emails to his publicist, phone messages to Callinan’s two phone numbers, and a number of textsall rendered no connection. Finally, we’re on the phone but the line is so fuzzy we both hang up and try again. Then, again.

The Australian provocateur, currently residing in LA, is feeling discombobulated. A few days ago while on tour, a trailer with all his gear, belongings, and money was stolen from a parking lot. He still hasn’t figured out how he will play his next show, tomorrow night in Downtown Los Angeles. He recently sold a number of his most prized guitars to fund this tour. He’s had to reach out to Martin Johnsonwho he toured with last year and was instrumental to the sound of Johnson’s The Night Game recordabout buying back his old guitar rig. Mac DeMarco has offered him a guitar. He thinks he might have to do the next show, at least, as an acoustic set. “I don’t know,” he says as his voice trails off, “I’m sort of alone on this one.” It’s daunting on many levels.

And a shame considering his current record, Return to Center, is full of ‘80s synth flourishes and virtuosic guitar shreds that he delivers ballet-like with his impressive pedals rig, in soccer cleats. It’s also a big reason that his five-week tour has been such a success so far; the fans have loved it.

We both acknowledge the irony of how Return to Center came togethera concept record of covers to be recorded in 14 days using equipment bought from Guitar Center, then returned using for the money back guarantee. It was tenuous but he went ahead with the lark and pulled it off, it seems, until now. Karma is a bitch like that.

He agrees: “I thought about this stuff…in a spiritual sense…having all my material possessions taken from me. You know although it wasn’t stolen gear, and it was within the terms of their return policyin a way, I still took advantage of that company.”

Callinan’s honesty is not surprising. He is always all heart. A musical endeavor with a bit of off-kilter danger is a gauntlet worth taking on. Not because he is striving to be perceived as cool or some kind of indie rebel, rather that he believes there is value in what he wants to do. He operates in that liminal space of boundary pushing where people can’t discern if he is taking the piss. He’s not. He once did an interview in the nudethat had the air and mischief of a Monty Python skitand famously said: “just because something is funny, does not mean it’s a joke.”

There is no doubt that Callinan’s tongue is firmly in his cheek but at the heart of his music is always truth. When he pulls it off he comes across as an iconoclast, when he doesn’t, he’s a shock jock; jokey and in bad taste. You have to decide for yourself where that blurred line is but for the listener who engages, the emotional veracity can be refreshing.

Spend any time with Callinan and you quickly learn he loves a pose (ask for a selfie with him and he strikes a pose instantly). But he is no poseur. He is steadfast in the things he believes in, almost to a fault. As a performer, you can’t take your eyes of himeven when he’s posing as mere guitarist and another frontman is center stage.

And when he speaks, he’s like gravity: he pulls you in. That could explain why by the end of the aforementioned nude interview on the Australian TV show The Feed, the show’s host gives up his board shorts and closes the segment in his birthday suit too. Or why after being called in for an audition to play the small role of a villain, in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, starring Elisabeth Moss, casting directors saw beyond his bad boy persona and called him back to read for a bigger part, with more heart, that of Moss’ lead character’s brother. A portrayal stripped of his usual flamboyance.

Yet, after two albumsEmbracism and Bravadowhere he tried to be truthful but thinks for the most part many misunderstood him and his motivationsfor Return to Centre he’s changed tack. What could be more personal and revealing than an album of covers? Songs he didn’t write but are so artfully chosen that they tell his story more intimately. “I was going through a period in my life where I was feeling very judged, so by doing other people’s songs I couldn’t be judged for my lyrics because I didn’t write them,” he laughs. “I’d be judged more on the heart, the performance, and the delivery.”

Some of the lyrics are so precise, that on more than one occasion I had to double check that a song was indeed a cover. Sometimes, it was because the song was so obscure and others because he had adapted lyrics somewhat.

“Pretty Boy” by Randy Newman was a case when the lyrics seemed so spot on. Lines such as “Have we got a tough boy here?... With his cute little chicken shit boots/His cute little chicken shit hat/And his cute little chicken shit girlfriends/Riding along in back.”

“It’s been funny. I’ve been performing it live,” says Callinan, “and I’ve often had my boots, or my cowboy hat, or a beret, or chainmailit felt targeted at me or people like me, I loved it. Randy is such an incredible songwriter and there’s so much menace in that song.”

Another song that appears written for Callinan with the same wit and dose of menace is “The Homosexual” by Momus. The original is a scarring treatise Momus wrote pointedly aimed at a record label executive who’d refer to him as homosexualand he would some years later, exact sweet revenge by sleeping with said-executive’s wife.

His friend Jack Ladder had sent it to him. Callinan loves the song so much, he remembers exactly where he was when he first heard it. “I was driving down Bondi Road [in Sydney], going to the beach and I thought, ‘This song is about me!’” It not only speaks to his experience growing up in a culture that can be rife with toxic machismo but also to more recently, when he was attacked by what he saw as a “small-minded and sanctimonious group” who were telling him he wasn’t gay enough.

“Growing up…I got the shit kicked out of me for being effeminate and fluid,” he says candidly. “I am largely straight, I’ve had multiple female relationships and I’ve also been with men. I guess, it’s off the back of the ARIAs,” Callinan says, referring to when he walked the red carpet of the ARIA awards (kind of like the Australian Grammys) in a kilt and gave in to photographers’ taunts to “show us what’s under the kilt Kirin.” The answer was nothing.

“I got called everythingncluding homophobic or re-appropriating gay culture, which I found really hard to stomach because for starters my sexuality is none of your business, you don’t know who I’m with! And then am I just supposed to wear jeans and a T-shirt all the time because I have girlfriends? And what clothing am I allowed to wear? How am I supposed to hold myself based on my sexual preferences?” It was nobody’s business and he found the whole thing to be hypocritical and a personal affront. He thought “The Homosexual” was probably going to piss everyone of which was as good a reason as any to cover it.

At the start of his cover of Public Image Ltd’s “Rise,” with the help of news clips read by actors, Callinan addresses the clusterfuck that was his momentary lapse in judgment on the ARIA red carpet in November 2017. Unintended consequences soon followed. The next day, after he had left Sydney, the moral outrage broke online and soon police were turning up at his parents’ home. Eventually, he had to return to Australia for a court date, where he pleaded guilty to willful and obscene exposure, but not before the magistrate gave him a dressing down, telling him “he was not special.”

But the real damage was being kicked off a festival that he had a long association with, Australia’s Laneway. It affected how Bravado was rolled out and caused him all sorts of griefincluding very real financial losses. He went from riding the wave of an unexpected but well-received first album, into the excitement around his second, and positive reviews for his turn on Top of the Laketo persona non grata. “The hypocrisy around the whole situation absolutely gave me the shits. And the malicekind of surprised me,” Callinan admits.

Return to Center is not all ire and is much broader in scope. There’s the anthemic “Vienna,” originally by Ultravox, which was a spontaneous addition he’d been singing on the way to grab his morning coffee. And an all-time favorite of hisThe Waterboys’ “Whole of the Moon,” which retains that sense of wonderment Callinan exudes naturally. Mike Scott from The Waterboys once revealed that he was inspired to write this song after listening to the synths on Purple Rain by Prince. Things came full circle when Prince then covered it decades later, heavy on the bass guitar sans synths. A fan of ‘80s synth-driven music, Callinan’s version is infused with high drama thanks to ample synths and his distinctive vocals with shades of Berlin-era Bowie.

But the real standout of this album is “It Takes a Muscle (to Fall in Love),” originally by Spectral Display. It is a delicious slow burner with a meditative cyclic rhythm, Callinan’s Dave Gahan-like vocals sooth further; sexy, deep, hypnotic. And it belies the hopeless romantic in him. “I wanted to cover it from the beginning and then MIA did a version of it,” he explains. “Hers was an interesting take on it, a sort of re-invention. If anything for me, I was looking to go the other way…I wanted this earnest, heartfelt, devotional, religious musicyou know, all these acoustic guitars, like a Hindu music circle.”

He adds: “It’s pertinent to me, of my own obsession with physicality and the physical world and the heart and its capacity to love. And also loving things deeply and being hurt by it.” He pauses. “I’m still trying to unpack it to be honest.”

It illustrates the point he wants to make about a good songwhether performed by the artist who wrote it or as a cover, it can still have value and artistic merit. He thinks the cult of the songwriter is overrated anyway. “Disregard classical music for a moment, and the cult of the songwriter has only existed 50-60 years,” Callinan explains. “Even the first Beatles and Rolling Stones records were covers albums. Elvis’ records were covers.”

He feels strongly that star and songwriter are two different entities. He is always trying to improve his songwriting but far more natural to him is performing and embodying a character. “I’ve done a couple of interviews where people think a covers album is somehow artistically less of a challenge,” Callinan says. “For me, it’s a unique challenge and if it’s good, it’s good. It didn’t seem like a step back but part of a tradition that’s been lost a little bit.” Besides, he adds: “Why throw another 10 mediocre songs into the world when I can cover 10 of the best?”

Another Return to Center favorite that speaks to Callinan’s unique personality and quest for originality is “Signed Curtain,” originally by Matching Mole aka Robert Wyatt, a cult figure in British art-rock. Initially, it comes across as absurd and laughable, accompanied by indie guitar riffs, but gradually it plucks away to reveal a very real human truth—our need to be adored.

It begins with “This is the first verse,” then “And this is the chorus. Or perhaps it’s a bridge. Or just another part that I’m singing”which I took as a meta comment on songwriting. But Callinan sets me straight: “The intent is quite different from what you said…it’s more a tragedy about forming a band and trying to make that your identityand that’s why I made it into a style like a rock band.” The original is sparse with only a piano and Wyatt’s high-pitched cries.

Callinan likes the idea that it’s about someone so hopelessly in love that they form a band, write a song, do everything to get the attention of the object of their desire but it’s all in vain. “It’s like you’ve put on all these fancy clothes to impress this perceived group of people but it isn’t working at all because it was dumb to begin with,” he pauses. “Maybe, it’s a metaphor for my own career?”

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