Kirin J Callinan’s debut album Embracism, released in June, has been met with near-universal praise on a critical level while simultaneously presenting its contemporaries with an intricate, experimental, and challenging work to match. Embracism mediates between Callinan’s trademark sonic experimentation, cathartic ballads, and nostalgic reminiscing, to electronic influences quite absent in his previous work. All of this is amalgamated into a starkly unique record that presents itself as one of the strongest of the year.
Known for his involvement in Mercy Arms, Jack Ladder, and briefly, Lost Animal, his debut solo work is the first time Callinan has been at the centre of a work. The result is something fresh, raw, distinct and cathartic – both for the listener, and for Callinan, after spending much of the last decade scrapping various incarnations of the record. While he stated that he “had very high standards for the solo album; probably more than any band [he’d] been in,” the positive reception on an international scale is still something completely alien to Callinan who genuinely reflected: “none of my bands have ever had any sort of traction overseas.”
In many senses, Callinan’s sound is defined by his attachment to detachment, which he expressed in his reasoning for remaining in Sydney despite the close-knit music scene flourishing in Melbourne. “Melbourne’s based around its music community in a lot of ways – communities in general – whereas Sydney, everyone’s isolated. You’ve got these little pockets that aren’t so connected – from Newtown, Surry Hills, Kings Cross, Bondi, Glebe – while Melbourne is more geographically, and physically connected, and accessible.” In person, Callinan is as distinctive as his music. Our interview began at “high noon” at the designated meeting spot of “the elevator at Kings Cross station, between platforms 1 and 2,” however, before long we were driving to Bunning’s Warehouse Alexandria to build a “Balinese shower board” for Callinan’s shower. Over the course of three and a half hours, the interview slowly transformed into something more synonymous with a casual hangout – driving from Bondi to the Inner West, stopping at various hardware stores throughout, with conversation frequently drifting away from the actual album and into something more genuine – with Callinan coming off as someone far more authentic, sincere, and polite than the enigmatic figure cast in his music.
Embracism is punctuated by Callinan’s fascination with physicality – in particular, the limitations of the human body, its expectations, and the division that exists between the two. The influence behind the record’s focus on reality and the body stemmed from what Callinan described as “an intense break-up, after an equally intense relationship”, leaving an emotional imperative to find some kind of ground to “rebuild [his] belief system.” On some tracks, this takes place in his examination of boundaries, transcendence, and frustration, and on others, the sense of heartbreak is more linear.
‘Victoria M,’ well-known for its comedic music video, was reserved for Callinan’s most poignant reflections on the breakdown of a relationship that inspired a significant portion of the album. ‘Victoria M’ was a very personal song, about very real experiences, and experiences I couldn’t talk about with many people – but by putting it in song, I was able to express it, particularly to the people it concerned and that I cared about. And we didn’t have to talk about it from that point on.” Callinan spoke most candidly in moments like these, when questioned about his songwriting process and the influences that have forged it. “It’s much more beautiful to put something in song than to talk about it. There’s something beautiful and undefined and romantic – you can leave a lot to the imagination, and you can create worlds that are far more interesting than reality.”
Even noisier cuts on the album, such as the pulsating ‘Come on America’, which features the shouted lyric “I cry when I listen to Springsteen,” are more inspired than they sound – often revealing the confliction that underpins much of Callinan’s approach to songwriting. “I love Bruce Springsteen, he’s one of my biggest influences,” Callinan pushed back, when I questioned whether the lyric was sincere, “and the American dream is something I did legitimately grow up with, and I still romanticise America and consider it an exotic place. ‘Come on America’ was borne out of my experiences of spending time there as an adult and having some of those illusions shattered.”
Bruce Springsteen, and the idea of the songwriter colliding with the rockstar – something simultaneously intellectual and explosive – has been absorbed and reinterpreted with startling originality with Embracism, but at the end of the day, Callinan stills categorises himself fairly bluntly: “Songwriting is very personal, particularly the cliché idea of a singer-songwriter. Even though there are a lot of boxes I don’t tick, I think it’s still essentially what I am – even if I’m the antithesis of that on one level.” Callinan’s debut album is defined by these contrasts, self-awareness and introspection. For most artists, it would be a recipe for disaster, but somehow Kirin J. Callinan has turned it all into something truly beautiful.