No Rules: Queen Kwong Talks Couples Only, Creativity, and Doing Art Your Way

Carré Kwong Callaway, aka Queen Kwong, does music a little differently. On her latest album, Couples Only, as with all of her previous albums, she went into the studio without any lyrics or music written up – it’s just her and her raw, unscripted emotions. The resulting sound is something uniquely her: genre-blending, unrestrained, and utterly captivating.

In the aftermath of a divorce, a cystic fibrosis diagnosis, and an overall upending of life as she knew it, Callaway recorded this engrossing and emotional album. But Couples Only isn’t just a “divorce record” – it’s also an album filled with cheekily humorous introspections on loss, change, and romance. A few weeks prior to its release, I had the pleasure of chatting with Callaway about her creative process and the emotions she channeled on the record.

Left of The Dial: For this album, and all of the music you’ve released, you’re going into the studio and improvising everything on the spot. Can you tell me a bit about what that process looks like?

Queen Kwong: You know, I didn’t realize how unusual that was until this record and this press cycle. But for me, music has never been about perfection or overthinking anything. I overthink everything else in my life, so art is something I’ve made a huge effort not to be a perfectionist towards. And Joe Cardamone, who produced the album, works in a similar way.

LoTD: Does that mean everything on the album is essentially the first take?

QK: Yeah, and I understand why people don’t record like this. It’s not the best, most complete version of the song. After I tour and play the songs hundreds of times, they become something else, and that’s the opposite of what most musicians or rock bands do. Usually, they write the songs, they complete all their parts, they rehearse it to death, and then they record it. For me, that process takes the life out of things.

The first record I did like this, Get a Witness…it’s really difficult for me to listen to because of that rawness. This is the third LP that I’ve done this way with Joe, so two records later I think we’ve honed our technique and it’s sonically easier to digest, but still has the honesty and immediacy to it.

LoTD: The way you’re describing it, it sounds like you’re bringing almost a live performance energy to the studio.

QK: Yeah, I played a lot of shows and performed live and did pretty big tours without ever recording or releasing anything. And every time I did record anything, people critiqued it and said it didn’t have the live energy that I bring when I play shows.

I had a manager many years ago who suggested I just do a live record, but that’s really difficult because you’re a slave to the room and the sound guy and the acoustics, et cetera, so I didn’t want to do that. For me, there’s no way to fake the adrenaline you feel when you’re in front of a bunch of people in a room playing really loud. The only way that I could do it in a genuine visceral manner was to just write everything on the spot and record it live.

LoTD: When you go into the studio, are you ever surprised by what ends up coming out? Like, do you listen to a song back and go, “whoa, I didn’t know I had that in me!”

QK: Always, probably. [laughs] It’s nerve-wracking to record like this because I worry that the songs won’t come. We pretty much wrote and recorded one song a day, and a lot of it was absolute crap that didn’t make it on the record.

But that’s what I think makes it exciting and challenging, or else I’d be really bored and you would hear that in my performance. When I was younger, I worked with some producers and never released the songs because it sounded like I was bored…and that was because I was! Doing ten vocal takes, twenty vocal takes, some people do hundreds of vocal takes…the same line or the same word over and over, it’s just soul-crushing. That’s not exciting and that’s not why I want to make art.

LoTD: When you put it that way, that is a weird way to approach art, huh?

QK: It’s really weird! There’s an element of acting that goes into performing and recording in that way, and I’m really just not a good actress. Plus, the more I do things, the worse they get. You start overthinking it. So that doesn’t work for me. I’m a first-take person. Even if it’s completely off-time or off-key or whatever, it comes across the best performance-wise.

LoTD: You have a few collaborators on the album, like Roger O’Donnell (The Cure) and Kristof Hahn (Swans). Were you able to get them all into the studio to riff with you?

QK: No, everything was pretty much finished by the time I sent out the songs for them to add their parts. And that’s when other people added to what we already had – they didn’t have to go through that creative process with me. I think they would die coming in to do that, especially Roger! My friend [Laura-Mary Carter from Blood Red Shoes] sings some backing vocals, and she was in L.A. at the time, so she did come into the studio to sing on “No Rules.”

LoTD: It sounds like this is the most personal release that you’ve put out. Does that sound true?

QK: I mean, the other releases were definitely super personal, but this one probably seems more intense because the circumstances that I’m writing about and singing about are pretty extreme. I’ve only ever been able to write personal things. With the pandemic, part of me felt weird making music about myself, but because it’s a therapeutic, cathartic thing for me, there’s no way around it. And there was a lot to pull from because I went through a divorce and was diagnosed with lung disease and lost all of my material possessions and had to start over again…it was a lot.

LoTD: Even though you’re channeling a lot of heavy stuff, it’s not a downer album. It has that wry, tongue-in-cheek quality.

QK: I’m glad you said that because I think a lot of people presume that it’s extremely depressing. On paper, I can see why. But I think people who actually take the time to listen to it will find humor in it. When things get that bad, they just become ridiculous and funny after a certain point.

Like with “On the Run,” it’s a slow dance song – doo-woppy and Phil Spector-ish. It sounds like “couples only” type song played at a dance or something, even though it’s lyrically not a romantic song. I thought it was better to have lyrics that kind of play against that.

LoTD: All the videos you put out for this album have a dark underbelly to them, too, but they’re not overtly dark.

QK: Yeah, there’s some tongue-in-cheek humor in there, too. Even with the “light-hearted content.” I always like to do really different things and try to go extreme in every direction.

LoTD: The video for “I Know Who You Are” was definitely extreme! Referencing Possession like that…that’s like, one of the most intense scenes I’ve seen in any movie! What was it like to channel such a visceral performance?

QK: Joe directed that video, and when he first talked to me about doing something based on Possession, it made sense because that movie has a lot of the same themes as my record since it’s an allegory for divorce. But I wanted to make the scene my own and have it be true to my story and narrative. I didn’t want to just be like, “yet another woman going crazy and losing her mind and then dying.” I kind of fought with him on changing it up a little so that I come out the other end of the tunnel alive and better than before.

Filming was really intense, but it was also really fast. We did it all in one take. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to snap into it, but I did, and I can’t really explain how it happened. It was kind of an out-of-body experience…I ended up hitting my head really hard against the wall within the first 10 seconds and then banged up my arm really badly and I didn’t feel any of it in the moment. But the next day I was definitely hurting!

LoTD: When you’re going into the studio, do you go in with any vibe for the day at all? Like, “I want to do a slow dance song. Let’s see what happens.”

QK: No, there’s never any intention when it comes to that. I never think, “I want to make this kind of a song today.”

One thing that’s really different about Couples Only is there’s a big electronic element that’s not on my other records. Joe made a lot of these drumbeats and a lot of the day’s improvisations would start with that drumbeat. In that way, he was the one who initially set the tone for the songs.

There’s a downside to this style, I guess, because people expect a certain sound out of me and I don’t always give it to them. I don’t know what I’m going to give! But then again, I’ve always done really different songs across the board. I think I’m lucky to have fans who understand that. From a marketing point of view, though, I know it’s been challenging. I think it’s easier when you can fit into a box. It’s easier for people to market you when they can say exactly what you are and what you sound like.

LoTD: I like the idea that you’re keeping everyone on their toes…

QK: Including myself! [laughs] I’m glad I’m talking more about the creative process than I have in the past because I guess it is unusual.

LoTD: It really is a different perspective; I think a lot of new musicians get hung up on that perfectionism or the idea that everything has to be done a certain way. It’s refreshing to hear other angles.

QK: I have friends who’ve spent years trying to finish their records and I just can’t even imagine. And if they ever ask for my insider advice on getting it finished, my advice is…stop! Like, stop thinking about it, stop working on it. It’s just lifeless after that long, do something else.

I feel like I’m able to discern when something isn’t honest or when something is contrived or too overthought. And I find I’m not stimulated by that. It’s really kind of boring and pointless to me. I’m not interested in making anything that’s middle of the road or listening to anything middle of the road. There are definitely a lot of people who just want something to be perfect, and if it’s not perfect, it really turns them off.

And those are usually people who are not fans of my music, which is fine.

Queen Kwong’s Couples Only is out today (July 12th, 2022) via Sonic Ritual. Support it on bandcamp, stream it wherever you listen to music, and check out the limited edition vinyl.

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