Kirin J Callinan is one of Sydney’s most provocative and mysterious performers. Making his way through the live music scene alongside the likes of Donny Benet, Callinan is fast becoming one of Australia’s most sought after musical and theatrical exports.
With upcoming roles in the second season of Top Of The Lake, his widely-acclaimed second album Bravado, a tribute performance to The Go-Betweens and a tour scheduled with band The Night Game alongside John Mayer, to say that I was keen for this chat would be a massive understatement.
If you haven’t heard Bravado yet, I highly suggest you get deep into it – right now. A huge leap in tone and production from his debut record Embracism in 2013, Bravado is filled with dance elements, huge threads of pop and features the likes of Jimmy Barnes and Neil Finn. Intentionally weird and indicative of a shift in the artist’s vision, my curiosity had been sparked. “It was more about two things; it was about production and setting that benchmark, but also I wanted the feeling to be electric and euphoric and ecstatic and when listening to it that was the way we treated it,” Callinan explains. “Less about stylistic or genre, really it was an emotional thing.”
This change in dynamic also speaks to the aesthetic and performative style of Callinan as an artist, with critics on the fence as to the legitimacy of his music. I ask whether, as an audience, we should take his flamboyance and satire seriously, to which Callinan exclaims “I’m deadly serious! At the same time, I’m also a bit of a class clown – I like to have fun and when you’re making music that is a reflection of who you are and where you’re at as a person, that’s obviously going to shine through. I’m surprised that more music isn’t funny. Musicians are generally pretty funny people, and why people are afraid to put that in their music I don’t know. Maybe it’s a fear of people labelled as a joke artist.”
Not to say that Callinan doesn’t have high expectations for himself, in fact, his approach to collaboration and the respect he has for his peers and influences is paramount. Callinan is about to feature in the Queensland Music Festival’s tribute event to iconic ’90s band The Go-Betweens, and it’s not an opportunity that the artist is treating trivially. “It’s huge for me. The Go-Betweens are arguably my favourite Australian band of all time. They’re so nuanced and complex but also simple and beautiful, and on my very first 7″ that I put out years ago under my name, I had a Go-Betweens cover on there and I had this loose idea that every record I put out would have a Go-Betweens cover on it. I didn’t stay true to that, but to be able to now befriend Lindy [Morrison] and Amanda [Brown] and have me sing along, and having the pleasure of making some music for them as well. It’s surreal. There’s a song on the record that was written with Lindy Morrison and it’s a tribute to her and a tribute to the friendship. I’m honoured.”
If you don’t manage to get to the tribute performance, Callinan’s face will be appearing again very soon, but this time in a very different frame. Gripping Australian crime drama Top Of The Lake is returning for a second season and, known for his cavalier and indulgent performance style when in musician-mode, it seems that the foray into acting was somewhat humbling. “My girlfriend Molly just made me do it – she filmed me doing this scene and I hated it, I couldn’t even watch it back. We shot a handful of them and at the end of one of them Mol turned the camera to her and flashed her tits at the camera and so I sent them that video. And they loved it. I don’t know if they loved my performance or got a little chuckle out of Mol taking her top off. And they had me come in when I got back to Australia and I, sure enough, I got the part.
“I didn’t have any idea what I was doing and just jumped in there and made it up as I went along. I got to see the whole series and it wasn’t as weird as I thought it was going to be. I was terrified, absolutely terrified, especially acting with the calibre of actors – Nicole Kidman was in there, most of my scenes are with Elizabeth Moss and Gwendoline Christie from Game Of Thrones. In the end, it was alright, it was the least subtle performance. When I was acting in the show I felt like it was the least acting I’ve done in my life. It was pretty downplayed.”
Callinan is putting a self-deprecating and pantomime perspective on pop music, bringing new life to Australian music, something that he feels we need after reflecting on the tone of Australian sound over the decades. “I love Australian music, I grew up with Australian music. At the same time there’s always been a culture in Australia of pastiche or imitating what’s going on in America or the UK and that continued in the ’60s, through the ’70s, and it wasn’t really until the ’80s that we started building our own identity and still to this day, you listen to the radio and there’ll be this Australian version of some American band or some British band. What’s most important to me is originality.”
The Sydney live music scene has been the playground of the biggest artists in Aussie music, and Callinan sits within this cohort, not without recognising the huge part his early days in the industry played in shaping the performer he is today. “I mean, success is relative,” he muses. “I’d love to be more successful and playing to larger audiences around the world. But back then I used to play so many shows, I’d be playing constantly around Sydney. I didn’t know how to play the guitar and sing at the same time so I developed this style where I just put heaps of delay and reverb on my guitar and strum a chord and let it ring out and then deliver my vocal and let it ring out, and then over time my style developed, but I couldn’t have done it if I was getting pushed and branded.
“Having the ability to learn and grow, the only way you get better is by doing it. It’s important to have that gestation period, keep you in the environment to strip it back. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t existed as a local artist, and by word of mouth. When you reach a level of success too early that can be crippling on you.” Having grown steadily through the ranks of the local Sydney scene, Callinan is now receiving calls from all over the world to collaborate. US pop outfit The Night Game, the newly formed group set to tour with John Mayer, are among them. “I knew I’d either love it or hate it, and either way it would be something. I asked how much they were going to pay me and they said a lot. I said double it and then they said yes and they flew me over there. I went into the studio and I heard one song, the song that was just released off the album and I heard that in its demo form. I
Having grown steadily through the ranks of the local Sydney scene, Callinan is now receiving calls from all over the world to collaborate. US pop outfit The Night Game, the newly formed group set to tour with John Mayer, are among them. “I knew I’d either love it or hate it, and either way it would be something. I asked how much they were going to pay me and they said a lot. I said double it and then they said yes and they flew me over there. I went into the studio and I heard one song, the song that was just released off the album and I heard that in its demo form. I was blown away, I was in hysterics laughing… every song they played me I loved it more than the last and I felt like I was hearing huge number one hits before they became number one hits.”
Kirin J Callinan is the fast-moving new face of Australian entertainment. With a massive year ahead and a wildly successful second album in Bravado, his bold and provocative personality is pushing pop to its limits. Honest and brilliant, this is an artist who is making sure he’ll never be forgotten.
14 July, 16 Lovers Lane, Queensland Music Festival, QPAC
20 July, Kings Arms, Auckland
21 July, San Fran, Wellington