Concert preview: Tim Rutili still tackling the big questions with Califone

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From the January 23, 2014 edition

There was a brief time prior to beginning work on Stitches when Tim Rutili wondered if he would ever again return to Califone.

Following the release of the band’s 2009 album All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, the current Los Angeles resident stepped back from the group, focusing more intently on recording music for film (“Here,” “Fully Loaded”) and television (“Boss”).

“Other things come up, and I was thinking about not doing [the band],” Rutili said in a mid-January phone interview. “Then one day I looked and realized I had 50 or so ideas for songs on the hard drive. Califone is where I’ve put my songs since 1998, so if I have songs that’s probably where I’m going to put them.”

In the past, Califone albums existed as eerie little worlds, defined as much by the musical textures (creaky, dense and mysterious) as Rutili’s cryptic words. With Stitches, however, the singer’s voice moves front and center — a shift he said was partly out of necessity (he essentially recorded the album on his lonesome) and partly because it’s what the songs demanded.

“With this one it was more about words and singing and being honest with myself,” he said. “It was about not overthinking it, and trying to spill things out as real and honestly as possible.”

As a result, the songs are among the most personal in Califone’s consistently impressive catalog, touching on a wealth of Big Ideas (religion, faith and the meaning of love all factor in) over the course of 45-plus hypnotic minutes. There are a number of biblical allusions (Moses, Mary Magdalene and warring brothers Esau and Jacob), and it’s clear throughout Rutili is wrestling with his own visions of divinity.

“A lot of it comes from trying to find … some faith and some spirituality without God,” he said. “The whole concept of God is really confusing to me, and a lot of that is coming out in these songs.”

That Rutili would question the existence of a higher power is little surprise to anyone who has followed his winding career. From his earliest days, the musician has consistently found himself drawn to those topics that present no easy answers.

“I tend to write songs about things I don’t understand and can’t explain in a conversation,” he said. “That’s the purpose of making music: You try to express those things you can’t necessarily just speak.”

Photo by Dusdin Condren