Role Models: King Hannah’s Reference Playlist is Full of Bill Callahan

The duo back-and-forth on their newfound inspiration.

Craig Whittle: The first time I remember listening to Bill Callahan, about three or four years ago, I was walking home from work. Hannah and I lived together, but something had happened with our flat — it’s very boring, but we had to move back to our respective homes. So I was walking back to my parents’ house after my shift at a coffee shop, and it was November, so it was very cold. I just had Spotify on shuffle, and a song came on from A River Ain’t Too Much to Love — “Drinking at the Dam.” That was the first time I heard him. 

There’s a line about “skin mags in the brambles,” like being a kid and looking at adult magazines in a bush, and he says, “For the first part of my life, I thought women had orange skin.” It’s just so visceral and relatable. He has this way of talking about childhood and singing about his past and his memories, which is something that we love to do ourselves. It was kind of like discovering someone who was doing something we felt like we were already trying to do — but he was obviously doing it a million times better than we could ever do it. 

I listened back to the album, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t ever heard him. He was one of those people I was kind of embarrassed I’d never listened to before. I think I must have shown Hannah pretty soon after that. 

Hannah Merrick: I remember the first time I listened to him, it was the end of 2020, and it was the song “Held,” from Smog’s Knock Knock. It was one of those moments where you go, Oh, my god, what is this? I was equally as embarrassed — Craig had tried to get me into him sooner, but it took me that long. But that’s it, isn’t it? It just takes one song for you to fall in love with an artist. 

I remember what first caught my ear was more so about the sound of it. I thought it sounded so ‘90s, and Craig and I are big ‘90s music fans. It’s so raw sounding. And that “big old baby” line — that got stuck in my head. I also remember thinking how much I loved his voice. It’s just so deep and rich and moving. 

Craig: I think sonically, his music definitely resonates with us. I think, maybe subconsciously, whenever we hear music we love for the first time now, we’re thinking, How can we get that into our music? I think that’s always at the back of our minds. So when I first heard that album, I was ultimately thinking, how can we make our songs more honest, and more raw and more personal? How do we get ourselves across in our music in the same way that he manages to do it? 

 One of the things that we love most about him is that his stuff with Smog and his stuff now is so different, but they’re both on par. There hasn’t been a drop off in anything — we look up to him because he’s one of those people who have been making music for so long, and have evolved and developed. As he’s gotten older, his songs have become maybe slightly more sentimental. Judging by his music when he was younger, he seemed a lot more angsty and angry — maybe a bit more rude and miserable. But now he seems to have mellowed out, and that’s resulted in his music being a lot more sentimental, romantic, warm. That’s one of the things we admire most about him: You can drop into any album and know that you’re going to get an honest reflection of who he was at that time. His latest album, when you listen to it in full, kind of plays as short stories. He’s such a visual storyteller, and that’s something we try to do as much as we can. 

Hannah: Something else we love about him — which is also something we’re trying to do as well — is that he just does what he wants, and you can so hear it. No one has told him how to write a song, he’s just doing what he wants and the making music that he wants. He does bare, bare, bare songs the best. You listen to something and it’s so bare, there’s barely anything to it, but it’s so clever and you’re hooked. 

Craig: If you listen to “Dress Sexy at My Funeral,” there are hardly any instruments on it. It’s mad. He comes across, as a person and a musician, as very sure of himself, very confident. He doesn’t seem to doubt himself. I think that’s what allows him to just write whatever he wants. 

Hannah: From a writing perspective, he definitely inspires us. We try our best to write in a stream-of-consciousness writing style. We don’t know how he writes, obviously, but it comes across as if he just lets all of his thoughts out on paper, a what-will-be-will-be sort of situation. It’s a style we’ve always done — it’s not a new thing, but he’s a new artist for us. I think he also taught us that less is more in terms of the amount you put on a track. He has so many songs that don’t have a lot going on other than a voice and a story — a beautiful voice and a beautiful story — and just clever, clever guitar parts. The instrumentation is so simple, but it always compliments the moment so well. They’re perfectly placed. 

He definitely inspired the album. “Held,” having heard the song for the first time, triggered some ideas. 

Craig: I bought a nylon string guitar because he used one. The one song that I fully wrote — I don’t know how intentional it was, but it was sort of snapshots of very vivid things I remember from being a kid. When I listen back to Bill Callahan, especially songs like “Drinking at the Dam,” with lines like “warm beer and tearing up the cans,” he just instantly puts you in this very specific moment of adolescence.

Hannah: There’s a song called “Go-Kart Kid (Hell No!)” that actually a different artist inspired, but looking back, you can hear so much of that stream-of-consciousness writing style again, and the ‘90s sounding thing. 

Craig: Sonically, we had a reference playlist while we were making the album, and it was full of Bill Callahan.

Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle are King Hannah, a Liverpool-based indie rock duo. Their latest record, I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, is out now on City Slang.