Callaghan Revs Up New Concert Tour, Album
The British singer-songwriter, the spotlight of a 2013 Billboard feature, is back and ready to perform in a comfortable setting: your living room.
Callaghan knows where you live. And, she wants to perform in concert there.
Well, if not you specifically yet, she might soon, as she's become more familiar with American living rooms than perhaps any other musical artist.
On April 7, the British singer-songwriter returns with her second studio album, A History of Now. The set follows her 2012 debut, Life in Full Colour, which Grammy Award nominee Shawn Mullins ("Lullaby") produced; the opportunistic Callaghan had reached out to him as an unsigned, and largely unknown, artist in her native country and was shocked when he not only responded, but eventually signed on to helm the set, having quickly become a fan.
That entrepreneurial spirit led to Callaghan's ground-breaking 2013 touring idea: performing concerts in houses across the U.S. That tour was so successful that she spun off a similar second continental trek last year. Now, she's readying the 2015 version, which will take her to more homes than before, perfecting a model that few artists would dare endeavor, or possess the will, and skills, to pull off.
Two years after Billboard shined the spotlight on Callaghan, thanks to her innovative, DIY mentality that served to inform fellow indie artists, the affable and insightful artist discusses her new album, her latest ambitious road trip itinerary and why house concerts continue to be one of the most unique, and rewarding, ways for a performer to grow a following.
And, if your house isn't in this year's plans, it might only be a matter of time before it is.
Billboard: Please tell us about the new album, A History of Now. Do you notice any differences from Life in Full Colour?
Callaghan: I would say that on this album the style of production has moved a step closer toward pop from Americana. That's partly due to the songs I wrote for this album, and also, in part, because of the people I worked with on it. Dennis Matkosky, who produced the new album, has an amazing pedigree writing for artists including Diana Ross, Keith Urban and Leann Rimes. With his production, I feel we created an album which offers a really interesting blend of authentic acoustic music with a great pop sensibility.
I was really lucky to work with such talented people on this album who are all experts in their field with amazing track records. That's one of the special things about Nashville, having so many talented people in such a small area. That level of talent makes you keep raising your game and trying harder.
Recording Life in Full Colour with Shawn Mullins was definitely a dream come true for me and a highlight of my music career. So, for me, the second album had a lot to live up to. A lot of people told me that a second album is one of the hardest, and I can see why. You have your whole life to write the first one, and then, when that comes out, there's so much time spent on the road touring and promoting that it's hard to find the time to get in the right space to write the second one. I guess that's why I took my time and let myself write at a natural pace.
I always find that in order to be inspired to write songs you have to be out there living and experiencing life, so I definitely got a lot of inspiration over the last few years.
Any specific insights into the meaning behind the new album's title?
The title A History of Now took a while to come up with. I wanted a name that really encompassed the feel of the whole record.
Using the same process I did for Life in Full Colour, I typed out all of the lyrics for each song, printed them out and taped them to the wall. It helped to get an overall sense of what each song was about, and the links and themes running through them. A lot of the songs are about moments, emotions and stories we might all encounter in life, like the joy and hope of a child in "Noah's Song" or the reminiscence of a first love in "When You Loved Me."
Around that time, I had been having some interesting conversations with family about ancestors and their stories. We discovered that a distant relative, Uncle John, left the UK in the 1870s and, via Canada, moved down to Ann Arbor, Mich. Through the magic of the Internet I've now reconnected with distant cousins, descendants of John, who still live in that area and one who even lives very close to me in Nashville, which is quite incredible.
On my husband's side of the family, we went to a reunion in Kentucky. Great Uncle Buck who had been stationed in southern England during World War II married a local girl, Great Aunt Delsie, and she had moved back to the U.S. with him. Now 90, he has eight children, 13 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and 20 great-great-grandchildren! All because of a meeting brought about by the War. I recently also returned to the UK to celebrate my grandma's 90th birthday and she shared a lot of stories about her life growing up in the 1920s and over the decades since.
What occurred to me throughout these conversations was that it wasn't just the big world events which they were part of that drew me in. The happenings, moments and decisions which seemed routine to older family members are now fascinating to me. They make me think of who I am and where I'm from and wonder what I might have done in the same situations. They also make me think about how quickly the world changes around us.
So, the thought behind the title A History of Now is that we are all, right now, writing a story which will one day fascinate someone. The way we live, the decisions we make, and the moments of hope, grief and happiness which punctuate all our lives will one day make someone stop, think and wonder.
All of us are writing our own history of now.
That's so nice that you've connected like that … not to mention gotten an album title out of those interactions. Perhaps similarly, in terms of reaching out and making strangers closer, do you think that the new release was informed in any ways by your first two house concert tours?
I think that in order to feel inspired to write songs you have to be out there in the world experiencing things, so the house concert tours certainly helped me do that. The first tour, in 2013, was really a new idea and we had no idea if it was even possible to make it from coast to coast performing house concerts every night.
It was a real eye-opening experience for me in getting to explore the country and see some truly breathtaking sights, like driving through the Painted Desert and standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. There were many moments during both house show tours when I would look around me and be reminded how incredibly lucky I am to get to do what I love for a living. That feeling has definitely translated into some songs on the album, like "Crazy Beautiful Life," which is about soaking in every aspect of life and embracing the unpredictability of it all. And, "We Don't Have to Change the World" is about worrying less, taking a step back from the everyday stress of life and just living in the moment.
The other inspiring aspect of house shows is that they are very intimate. You get more time to hang out with your crowd, and people feel that they have heard your stories and want to share theirs, so people share a lot with me. Aspects of those stories help inspire my songwriting.
Can you share any of the most memorable highlights of your two house tours so far: most interesting houses … most engaging living room crowds … the best food …?
I could probably write a book about the number of experiences I've had during the tours. One of the main things that constantly strikes me is how open people are to welcome me into their homes and share my music with all of their friends. The passion for live music from the hosts and the audiences comes through so strongly and creates the most amazing atmosphere to perform in. The size of room has ranged between 20 and 200 people and house show guests have been among the most engaged audiences I have played for.
The amount of effort that so many hosts put into to the shows is incredible – I've definitely eaten a lot of great barbecue across the U.S.A.! One host made special cookies that were all iced with "Callaghan House Concert." One host had special souvenir t-shirts made for all their guests, and one host had a giant British flag hung on the wall for me to perform in front of!
One other very memorable concert host had hired a frozen margarita machine that was very popular. I'm going back there again on this year's tour …
One of the most amazing locations I've done a show at was up in the Northwest, in a house that directly overlooked Puget Sound. One entire wall of the house was glass, which we performed in front of, so the view behind us as the sun was setting over the water was just stunning. Another great location I remember was in a beautiful house in St. Petersburg, Fla, that had a jetty leading down to the water. In the morning after the show, we walked down to the water, which was only a couple of feet deep and saw some baby hammerhead sharks swimming around. It was amazing.
What's really fun is that you never know how each concert will be different and unique in its own ways, depending on the personality of the hosts and their friends.
Do you feel that your performing skills have sharpened considerably from playing such intimate shows?
Absolutely. I think that in order to perform in such an intimate environment you have to be very comfortable with the audience. There's often no special lighting like you'd find at a concert venue, so you can see every single member of the audience up close and personal. I'm sure it's not for everyone, but I really love having that level of connection with my audiences. I want to be able to see their facial expressions and feel like we're experiencing the show together.
When I play at "regular" venues I try to recreate that feeling of intimacy with the audience, even if we're physically further away from each other, so that people still feel as closely connected throughout the show. I want every person in the room, whether it's a living room or a concert hall, to feel like I'm singing to them directly.
Continued: You've put how many miles on your car?
Any specific do's or don't's for you during a house concert? It seems like there's a whole different set of rules for a show in that setting.
There are definitely fewer rules with the house concert setting. For one, you're in someone's house and probably a lot of the audience already knows each other, so they're already more comfortable. You can do fun things like interact with the audience a bit more; them asking questions in-between songs, and me sharing stories.
The one thing we always try to do is create as close to a true listening space as we can, so ensuring that everyone has a seat, a good view and that the sound quality is great. We're trying to create the same quality of live show that someone would expect from a traditional concert venue. In return, we want the audience to engage with the show and be part of it. That makes it more fun for everyone.
There's always more time to chat after house concert shows, which I like. Usually we're staying with the host, so we're there 'til the last guests leave, and you really get time to talk to people and get to know them.
When I'm on my regular touring schedule around the U.S., I quite often stay with people I've met at house shows. We've made so many great friends along the way.
Billboard's story about your 2013 tour noted that house concerts can build familiarity in markets so that in return visits, an artist can then play a public venue. Do you feel that your two house tours are resulting in that – or are you having so much fun with house concerts that you're more drawn to continuing them, perhaps in place of certain traditional venues? A look at your upcoming tour schedule shows a nice mix of both.
I love performing house concerts, but I also love playing the regular shows. They're two very different experiences and I would hate to give up either.
The house concert touring has definitely been amazing for me, being able to grow my fanbase in new markets and creating lasting connections with people who have then become real advocates for my music and want to help me spread the word. It's quite an empowering feeling as an independent artist to know that those music fans are out there, and even when you don't have a huge marketing budget, you can still take the time to go into people's houses and reach them directly. It's very satisfying to see the hard work paying off, and see my regular touring numbers growing each time I return to a venue.
As a rule of thumb, I have found that a combination of a couple of good house shows and one good opener slot [at a traditional setting] in a new market will allow me to go back and headline my own show in a public venue.
Do you plan to continue touring the U.S. in this manner each year for the foreseeable future? You devise a unique route each year. Any new mapped-out ideas yet going forward?
The 2013 tour went from Boston to San Francisco and was called "Callaghan Across America." Last year, we went from Key West, Fla. to Seattle and called the tour "Callaghan Across America: Corner to Corner."
This year's tour is already planned and it's going to be double the length: two months and 40 shows! We decided to extend it partly to give ourselves another challenge, but also because there were so many people who wanted to host concerts and we wanted to fit as many in as possible. The tour is called "Callaghan Across America: All Four Corners" and will go to all four corners of the country!
I'm not sure how we'll manage to top that next year, but I'm sure we'll think of something. I've visited 46 states so far, so maybe "Callaghan Across America: The 50 State Tour" would be a good challenge. Just watch my husband-slash-manager's face when he reads this …
What advice would you give to acts considering planning house concerts, if not an entire tour built around them?
I would say go for it. A lot of my musician friends have also done house concerts in between regular touring, which I think is a great way to get into it.
I would start with reaching out to your existing fanbase and seeing if anyone wants to host a show. If someone is an existing fan, you're already going to have a great time and they'll already have the passion to want to tell all their friends about it.
I travel with my husband/manager and sometimes also one other musician. I'd say always have someone with you. Not just for the peace of mind security-wise, but also just to help spread the workload. Setting up equipment, selling CDs and merchandise and even socializing with a big room full of people could be overwhelming for one person to deal with, on top of putting on a great performance. So, having a good team with you makes the experience a lot more relaxing and enjoyable.
And, make sure you have a decent little PA system, which you can easily operate, so that the sound is great. Also help any first-time hosts plan their show by offering advice on things like timing, making sure everyone has a seat and how to ask guests for a donation for the artist.
There are sites like ConcertsInYourHome.com that are great for people starting out in the house concert scene, to put you in touch with hosts, some of whom might also be first-timers.
From my experience, once you start performing house concerts and your fans get to know about them, your network of hosts will start to grow naturally.
I was told that you're still driving the same vehicle for the upcoming house tour that you used in 2013 and 2014. If true, A) How is that possible? B) How many miles is it up to? And, C) How thankful are you that gas prices have dropped at least a bit?
Yes, my faithful old car is still going strong! It's a 1996 Toyota 4Runner and it now has nearly 320,000 miles on the clock. I have joked around with tweeting Toyota and showing them a photo of the mileage and the car all packed to the roof with music gear … half-hoping they'll say, "Hey, Callaghan, let's sponsor your next tour with a brand new 4Runner!" No luck yet ...
But, in many ways I'd be very sad to see the end of "Wilson," as he's now been nicknamed, partly from the Tom Hanks companion "Wilson" from Castaway and partly inspired by the Wilson Phillips lyric: "Hold on for one more day!" Wilson did have a close encounter with a ditch in a blizzard in Iowa a few weeks ago but seems to be none the worse for it.
The drop in gas prices has definitely made a big difference. On last year's tour, we drove 10,500 miles, so that's a pretty massive savings when gas is half the price.
I have thought it would be fun one year to do the tour in a massive red London bus, or a traditional London black cab. Everyone would certainly spot it wherever we drive.