The Rise and Reign of Queen Kwong: It’s fair to say that Carré Callaway, the enigmatic talent behind improvisational art rock project Queen Kwong, has had a rough few years. She was married to the guitarist from Limp Bizkit, Wes Borland, and then she wasn’t (and who’s to say which is worse?) There have been very public court cases involving her ex, and all of the awfulness that comes with that. And while all of the chaos was raining down, she had to face a life-altering cystic fibrosis diagnosis.
She could be forgiven for being a bit down. In conversation though, she’s a fucking delight. Spritely, even. Awkward questions are met with grace and a dab of good humor. She’s charming, eloquent, very sweet and hyper-intelligent.
Her new album, not exactly cryptically titled Couples Only, helped. She admits that she was in a difficult place when she entered the studio for the first time at the start of these sessions, but the work was therapeutic. That’s not uncommon among musicians, among artists – that their art helps them work through various issues, including internal and external demons. So months later, with the album ready to drop, we ask Callaway a simple, “Are you OK?”
“I guess that’s subjective,” she says. “If you asked me if I was OK right before I recorded this or during or right after, I wouldn’t have been able to confidently say yes. But there’s been a lot of time. Even though it’s a very raw, emotional record, mostly about the most difficult time in my life, I’m not in that time anymore. I think it’s cool to be able to talk about it now because I do have hindsight and perspective, and I’m not as emotional and attached to it as I was going through it or making the record. So I’m OK.”
Callaway references “jazz, hip-hop, Suicide and PJ Harvey” when discussing her influences; the dark poetry of the latter is the most overt, but it’s the improvisational, feel-based nature of the music that makes the first two ring true. She doesn’t write music in the traditional sense – she doesn’t enter the studio with songs ready to present to a producer. Rather, she goes in there and literally makes music.
“Everything is in real time,” she says. “The music and lyrics are improvised. We didn’t have a live drummer at this point, so Joe [Cardamone, producer] would program some drum beats, I would lay down a bass line, loop it, then maybe a keyboard or synth part, loop that, basic guitar part, and that’s just improvising. Then I would go back and do second guitars, build some noise- scapes/sound-scapes. Do whatever it is I do on guitar. A lot of noise. Then the last thing in the day will be lyrics, which means just freestyling. Getting on the microphone and going for it.”
As a result of that ultra-organic approach, the emotions that emerge are incredibly raw. Callaway says that she found herself sobbing uncontrollably during the sessions, but all of that deep honesty benefited the record.
“I was really nervous to let myself feel anything,” she says. “I got into day-to-day survival, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that. Music has always been personal for me, and emotional. Joe made the point that I was compartmentalizing very well, but that all those feelings weren’t just going to go away – they were in there somewhere. They would come back to bite me in the ass. In that way, it was the safest way to confront and process those feelings because it was in a space with somebody like Joe who had been through everything with me and knows me so well, and through art. So I did it, and it was really rough recording it. From the first song I recorded to the last song, there was a huge difference in emotion. There are some things that are really traumatizing and I may not ever get over. But there was a visceral, physical onloading and a weight lifted. Just that alone was huge.”
Some have painted Couples Only as a “divorce record” but that’s incredibly reductive. There are songs that touch on the relationship that just ended, because of course there are. Who wouldn’t be feeling that? But it’s not a one-dimensional album at all – it delves deep into Callaway’s psyche. Some have accused her of sending messages to her ex on this record, but she says that this is a record written very much for herself.
“I honestly never, ever thought he would listen to it,” she says. “His people, his camp, his fans are not mine. There has never been a crossover. So I could have very easily made this record without people even putting two and two together. Of course, it’s about a breakup. People make breakup records. It’s a lot more than a breakup record, because it’s about mortality and myself, growing up and the music industry. Toxic masculinity within the music industry. Being self-aware enough to be accountable for my own stupid, petty shit. It’s all encompassing. I think the record is mostly about me and going through what humans go through. The end of something, mortality or betrayal. Just what we face as humans.”
Fair enough. The album certainly works as an examination of the human condition in that sense. Fortunately, Callaway has had other endeavors to keep her busy, too. And as we’re celebrating 420 here, it’s worth mentioning her Bathcult line of CBD products.
“My body was totally wrecked, and my best friend and partner [Christina Masterson] got me into CBD bath bombs, salves, etc. It really helped me. Just the inflammation and my skin – it really helped. We did a deep dive, just researching CBD, all natural full spectrum, non-THC CBD, and the benefits of it topically, as a skin and bath care product, and how we can incorporate other natural elements into those kinds of products. We built this brand from the ground up. Everything is responsibly sourced, organic, natural, all California, except some woods such as a Hinoki, which is a Japanese cedar. It’s our pet project that we’re really passionate about.”
Queen Kwong will release another single this year, and play a few shows without tying herself down to a full tour cycle. That doesn’t make sense for her right now. But the healing that has resulted from this album certainly does.
The Rise and Reign of Queen Kwong: Queen Kwong’s Couples Only album is out now.
The Rise and Reign of Queen Kwong
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