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Interview: Queen Kwong

12 July 2022

Photo by Darian Zahed

Imagine going through what we’ve all been going through the last few years after being diagnosed with a serious medical condition, cystic fibrosis, while also trying to put your life back together after a particularly brutal divorce from a relatively well-known musician (look it up yourself). It hasn’t been an easy ride, as of late, for Carré Callaway (aka Queen Kwong) but she channeled every bit of raw emotion she had into the 11 songs on her latest album, Couples Only. It might not be the prettiest thing you’ve heard in 2022, but the grittiness and darkness, and inability to fit nicely into one particular genre, represents the purging of many, many dark thoughts and feelings and, as Callaway says, wound up being extremely therapeutic and cathartic.

Rather than reciting Callaway’s Wikipedia page, which, while full of lots of interesting information, is a little light on details, I went straight to the source to understand how an unknown teenager who had no real performing experience wound up being discovered by Trent Reznor, taken under this wing, and given the opportunity to open arena dates for Nine Inch Nails while just barely out of high school. While Callaway has answered some of these questions before, she has a new appreciation for the role of a music journalist as she started hosting a podcast with a friend, and fellow musician, called Never Meet Your Idols during lockdown.

We started our hour-long conversation with a much-covered topic, a retelling of how she got hooked into Reznor’s world.

You’ve probably talked about this a million times but, how does a 17-year-old get discovered by Trent Reznor?

CARRÉ: I think I just had turned 17. I graduated very early from high school, I was really good at cutting corners. I wanted to move to New York and my friend and I went on a road trip and were just driving towards New York. We stopped in New Orleans and I met Atticus Ross and Rob Sheridan, who was Trent’s art director, at a snow cone stand, it was really hot, it was August in New Orleans, and struck up a conversation. I said something about how I played music and they said, “We’re working at a recording studio across the street, you want to come check it out.” It ended up being Trent’s studio and he was there with Alan Moulder, they were recording or in pre-production for the album With Teeth. I knew who Trent Reznor was but I don’t know if I recognized him right away, I probably did. I was never a huge Nine Inch Nails fan. There’s stuff that I love that he’s done and there’s stuff I really don’t love. I am not a fanatic. I think there’s great stuff there, obviously. It’s profound and prolific but it’s not my scene.

I met him and one of the other guys said, “She’s a musician,” and, it was on the spot, I think it was just for their entertainment, they thought it would be funny, so they said, “Why don’t you play a song for us?” and just handed me a guitar. It was Alan, Trent and Atticus and I played a song called “Low” and that was it. Trent was like, “We have this whole set up. Have you recorded before? Do you want to record that song and a few others?” I said, “Sure” and I recorded that night with them with his engineer, a guy named James Brown. I just had this demo CD with those recordings and Trent said, “I’m moving to L.A., what are your plans?” I said, “I’m planning on moving to New York and going to college” and he said, “Maybe you should move to L.A. and we can work together.” So, I never made it to New York. Well, I did eventually. A few years ago I went to college in New York. At that point, I turned around and we moved to L.A.

When I got here, I worked with him. Everyone was in one house, everyone that was working with him at that point. He kind of took on a fatherly … it’s hard to explain what roles he took on. I think people say he was my mentor or I was his protegee but it’s just strange because, creatively, we weren’t really in sync. We did record stuff together, I never released it, I don’t even have it anymore. It was on old hard drives. At the time, I was just such a punk rock kid. I was so stubborn and just the epitome of angsty teenager with a ton of attitude. I didn’t give a fuck about anything, definitely not famous people. I just did my own thing and didn’t like a lot of his suggestions. Not to say they were bad, they were just not for me. I was just doing something so different.

I am very Type A in a lot of ways, I did really well in school, I loved structure and organization. I’m a perfectionist in a lot of ways but not when it comes to art. It’s the one thing in my life that I’ve just let it be and it’s the most freeing, honest experience for me. It’s the most honest thing I have in my life where I can just be and do without overthinking and anxiety. That’s not how Nine Inch Nails is and that’s not how Trent operates so, for me, it was the opposite of what I wanted to do. It was really stressful to approach things the way he wanted to do.

From there, throughout the years, I’ve opened three separate Nine Inch Nails tours. I opened the With Teeth tour, just me and a guitar. That was before Queen Kwong. That was just me using my name. It was a weird pairing, not much sense can be made of it. My entire adult life, it’s been an association.

My daughter graduated high school a year early, at 16. I just can’t imagine being that age and deciding to pack up and move. And, just imagine if you had taken a detour or decided you didn’t need to stop for a snow cone. Your whole life my have gone an entirely different direction.

CARRÉ: Yeah, and maybe for the better. It is strange to think about. When I was 17, you think you know everything. I had left home pretty early, when I was 14, and spent most of my childhood unsupervised anyway so it wasn’t that much of a leap. But, it is funny when I meet other 17-year-olds and I think, “What?!?” If I had a 17-year-old daughter and she was like, “I’m moving to L.A. with Trent Reznor,” some red flags would go up, especially nowadays, I think it’s pretty problematic. But, I had an interesting set of parents, you could say, or lack thereof.

Hearing this story, it’s just amazing. You had a completely unique experience that very few people will ever have with Trent Reznor but, I suspect, for you, it was like, “Here’s a guy I’m working with. I see him every day. It’s not that big of a deal.”

CARRÉ: I just never liked famous people. I was so against authority and The Man and everybody as a teenager. So, Trent Reznor, I was like, “I don’t care.” And he would tell me things that I probably should have been more open to but at that point in my life I was like, “I’m not listening to you.” I have a lot of regrets in my life because of behavior like that when I was younger but that’s part of growing up I guess.

After that whole experience, you took a break from music. But, music isn’t your only thing, you have a lot of other creative outlets. If I’m just reading Wikipedia, it reads like you have a big gap in your recording career and makes people think, “What happened? Why did she take time off?” You create art, you’ve been in a movie and hosted a TV show. It’s not like you quit music and had to pick up a day job that wasn’t creative at all.

CARRÉ: I did have a day job. I’ve had a day job forever, it never ended. I definitely went through years of waiting tables and all sorts of crazy stuff. I did take a break from music right after the first time I opened for Nine Inch Nails. I was very turned off by the music industry in L.A., the higher ups, the dudes smoking cigars and offering record deals and wanting me to be the next goth Avril Lavigne. I was freaked out too. I probably wouldn’t have admitted it then but looking back on it, I was really freaked out because music had been something that had been so honest and innate and something I didn’t overthink and then the first real shows I play are opening for Nine Inch Nails by myself and having things thrown at me and having people troll me. Luckily it was before social media really took off. I still have incels that came to see Nine Inch Nails that leave nasty comments or troll me.

Back then, I knew I loved playing music and got something out of it. It was really therapeutic and cathartic but I didn’t know who I was as an artist. I hadn’t perfected a sound or figured out what genre I was even playing. To have that much exposure without really knowing truly what kind of art I wanted to make and then being judged and criticized and critiqued and people trying to mold me and tear me apart, it was a lot. I took a break from music but that didn’t mean I wasn’t writing it. I just took a break from pursing it. When I first opened for Trent, everyone was like, “Now you talk to Interscope and get a record deal and get management and get press.” I wasn’t ready and the whole scene was just really gross. I saw some really gross stuff very early on. I was making music but I decided to start Queen Kwong to not be associated with my name anymore. I went back to basics. I started making demos on a 4-track tape recorder and putting it on MySpace under the name Queen Kwong and trying to remember what I was actually into rather than letting people tell me what I should be into. I had a day job, I was modeling, which is another thing to be grossed out by.

I’ve always been really interested in school, so I ended up going back to school. I ended up not an actress but, more recently, I was in a film. I did a TV show with my ex-husband. I’m a writer. I started a bath-and-skin-care line during quarantine. I have a podcast. I also do a lot of visual art. Music is my number one thing in how I communicate, it’s the most therapeutic thing for me but I’m a workaholic so I am always busy doing something.

Do you think, when labels were interested, it was more of your “I’m punk rock, screw you, I’m not doing this” attitude or was it a maturity you had that age where you said, “This doesn’t feel right to me”?

CARRÉ: That’s a good way of spinning it, I should start looking at it that way. I think it was both. It’s a fine line to walk, I can only speak as someone who is a woman in my position. There are a lot of fine lines you have to walk as a person of color or a non-male. I know those are all trending right now but it’s real. I think one of those lines that, still to this day I struggle with, is having integrity and boundaries and saying “no” when things really feel wrong verses between stubborn or not open-minded enough or not seeing the bigger picture. It’s worked in my favor and it’s worked against me. When I was younger, I was all about having integrity and not compromising and then you grow up and realize life is all about compromise in order to survive. Sometimes compromise is a good thing when it comes to creative stuff. Other people challenging you to try different things is a good thing.

I look back on when I was younger and all the things I turned away from or said “fuck off” too. Most of them, I still stand by those decisions but there a couple of things I regret that maybe could have changed things for me. There’s nights where I stay up at night and think, “At least I acted with integrity” but it’s also, “I’m really bitter and angry and where did that integrity get me? It’s over-rated.” I like to think I made decisions out of maturity instead of being a contrary kid, but I don’t know. I don’t know if I made the right decisions. When you can’t pay your bills and you’re struggling to get your music heard and your art out there and having to do a day job, yeah, you start to think, “Maybe I should have taken that big lump of money. Would it have been that bad to make a pop record?” I couldn’t, it’s not in me. For the most part, I’m comfortable where I am and happy that I didn’t go down that route.

It must have been difficult, without your parents being there for you, having to make those mature decisions at such a young age.

CARRÉ: I was making all my own decisions. That’s why it’s validating to hear you say that because I think I need to cut myself a break sometimes in how I see my younger self. I was by myself and making pretty crazy decisions without any guidance. The guidance I did have was coming from Trent for a while and that worked for and against me because he’s in an entirely different position to make decisions. When you’re an adult man who has an insanely successful career, your options are different. He’s very smart and I’ve always taken his business advice to heart.

There’s a song on the record called “Sad Man” and you sing, throughout the song, that “I’m too old for this shit” but it sounds like, even at the age of 18, 19 or 20, you could have said that about some of the situations you found yourself in.

CARRÉ: Especially in this industry. “Sad Man” is a brutally honest song. I think that is the most straight-to-the-jugular for almost all of the men I know, especially here in music. I’ve had a couple of guys who are in bands who have heard that song who were actually pretty triggered. I use that word lightly because, come on. The video for it, we just made, starring Johnny Knoxville as the sad man and that will come out in August. I couldn’t have asked for anybody better because he was able to own that and not be tongue-in-cheek about it. That song is also pretty self-deprecating, or at least exposes some of my fears. I do feel too old for this nonsense a lot of the time and I’m dropping the same names, hearing the same old bullshit. There’s actually three more verses to that song. I got on this roll of just ranting. I went down some crazy roads. Now that I think about it, it’s a real good thing we cut those verses out. In ways, I’m the sad man too.

It feels to me like it was good for you to get all this stuff out as opposed to putting it in on the album and, before it’s released, thinking, “Oh boy, should I have put this song out there? Is it too late to delay the release?”

CARRÉ: That point is so relevant right now. There’s a few situations in my life right now that have been waking me up at night. There are a lot of times that I didn’t stand up for myself and now, in the current climate, people are more open to women “complaining” or outing people. Even when the #metoo movement happened, I didn’t participate and boy could I have. It was just too risky and I’ve always been a fearless person. I was driven by fear and scared to say things because how it would make me look or how people would think of me. That’s what keeps me up at night because I hold a lot of anger and resentment and bitterness because of that and I don’t want to be that person. I went through a really gnarly divorce. The record details a lot of it. When it was happening, I was silenced in a lot of ways, even by my own lawyers and people just wanting me not to talk about things and make things easy. “Don’t add drama. Don’t stir the pot.” When I made this record, it was just so necessary. I committed to whatever comes out comes out. This is the only way I’ll ever be able to reclaim my voice and set things straight. It was nerve-racking. My publicist and people said, “Do you really want to be open about that?” I know what the results are when I keep quiet and it eats me up inside. It was just the straw that broke the camel’s back and I couldn’t keep this stuff inside.

I think you know that there’s likely to be some fallout from the record but you wouldn’t have put it out if you weren’t prepared for some of that.

CARRÉ: I know the alternative and that’s worse.

Are there things you like now, or things that you do in your life, that the 17-year-old who was headed to New York would look at you as an adult and say, “Really? This is who I turn into when I grow older?”

CARRÉ: Not when it comes to music. I’ve been pretty shameless about what I like and I’m judged by it a lot. I’ve always preferred hip-hop and rap over rock and still do. I’m a fan of really bad TV. I’ve just owned it. I think though that there are lifestyle choices that my 20-year-old self would not be happy with or at least would judge me for. But, I think the reality of survivalism comes into play. “You’re really going to take that corporate job?” or “You’re really going to get married? You’re going to marry THAT guy?” My 17-year-old self definitely would not have been okay with those choices I made in particular. But, you grow up and your priorities change. When I was 17, I was like, “I’ll tour for the rest of my life. I don’t care if I don’t if I make no money. I’ll sleep on floors and as long as I can play music, I don’t care about paying bills.” And then you have bills. And then you have debt and health insurance and health issues. Shit gets real. That’s where I have to tell my 17-year-old self to shut up because she just doesn’t get it.

You mentioned earlier you co-host a podcast with Laura-Mary Carter (Blood Red Shoes) called Never Meet Your Idols. What inspired the podcast? Did you have a bad experience of meeting an idol?

CARRÉ: I mean, so many. We had toured together right before lockdown. Once the quarantine happened, we were trying to figure out how to still do stuff together. We just came up with the podcast idea. We wanted to do tour stories but Laura-Mary was like, “Someone is already doing that with a podcast called Tour Stories.” So that was off the table. Because I’ve had so many experiences of, “Oh God, I met that person and they were horrible,” people mention their idols and I always have some terrible story to ruin the idol for them. Initially, I was like, “Maybe we should out people, like people we’ve met. Like, that famous guy who slides into all of our DMs. Let’s just out people.” Laura-Mary is more polite than I am. She’s like, “No. What’s another way of doing that? Maybe getting famous people to talk about when they met their idols.” There’s some really funny stories and then a lot of stories that were shared and they asked us not to publish because they didn’t want to burn a bridge. The full circle thing is Joe Plummer, who has the Tour Stories podcast, just reached out to us and asked us to join his network so that Never Meet Your Idols Season 3 is going to come out later this year on his network.

Besides the podcast, which kept you busy, did you practice mental wellbeing throughout the pandemic? Was writing the album helpful?

CARRÉ: That was the most therapeutic and really the only time that I allowed myself any kind of cathartic outlet. I’ve compartmentalized pretty well the last few years with what I went through personally and what we went through globally and as a country. It’s just been so overwhelming. I can’t say that my therapist thinks that the healthiest way of dealing with things is to disassociate or ignore or shut down but sometimes you just have to, it’s too much. The record was big dumping of what I had been feeling and storing up but as soon as I was finished recording it I zipped back up. I’m still at a place in my life where I’m rebuilding and putting one foot in front of another. I don’t have the luxury of really focusing on processing feelings. I’m just trying to hold it together. I don’t have words of wisdom when it comes to mental health. Right now, I’m doing that thing where I distract myself non-stop and overwhelm myself with a ton of work and a ton of tasks so that I don’t have to feel. It’s not the healthiest, but whatever works.

What entertainment got you through the last two years?

CARRÉ: I do a lot of crossword puzzles. I’ve always done that. That’s the one thing I do that is an unwind thing. I watched a lot of bad TV during the pandemic, which I miss. That is escapism and I think winding down is really impossible at times and winding down when you don’t have distractions is too overwhelming. People are like, “Oh, meditate to Yoga.” I have to be somewhat distracted because I can’t deal with the flood of emotions. So, I re-watched Cheers. There’s like 30 episodes per season and 11 seasons. I started re-watching it from the beginning and now I’m at season 10 so almost finished. So, mostly bad TV and things like Bachelor in Paradise, just anything to zone out. I wasn’t watching heavy shows, real life was hard enough.

Fitting for the end of the interview. You made a video for the last song on the album, “Without You, Whatever,” which is interesting because the last song on an album often is one that people might not even get to in the first few listens. You’ve made a video which now highlights the song that ends the album and brings it to the forefront.

CARRE: That song nearly didn’t make it on the record, it’s pretty outside of my comfort zone. I’m singing way too high. When I was writing and recording, I was really annoyed by it. It got stuck in my head and I was like, “I never want to hear it again.” But then I was like, “Wow, this might be the first catchy song I’ve ever written.” It’s not like I have a bunch of catchy hooks, that’s not what I do. I didn’t want to put it out, it was almost a joke. The mixer, Tchad Blake, was like, “That’s your single. Why aren’t you putting it on the record?” He pushed me to put it on there. That is something I don’t think my 17-year-old self would have done but I figured, “This might be the only catchy song I will ever write” so I put it on there. It didn’t fit with anything else really so I put it at the end of the record sort of hoping people wouldn’t get to it. I was like, “Fine, I’ll put it on the record but I’ll put it on the end.” And people kept saying, “That’s the single, the one single,” so I decided, “Fuck it, I’ll just lean in and make it a single.” That’s why I made the video. It’s funny because initially I was trying to hide it and not let it be heard.

 

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