On The Run: Queen Kwong’s New Album Is An Act Of Defiance

The defiant resilience of this remarkable songwriter...

Queen Kwong is breaking her silence; after years of keeping quiet for other people’s comfort, Carré Kwong Callaway is here to speak her truth. Constructed from the wreckage of betrayal, loss and oppression, new album ‘Couples Only’ is a brutal confessional piece. Rather than sugar-coating the truth, every track is raw, an exposed nerve; Callaway’s ethereal soundscapes douse her history in gasoline before her sharp lyricisms strike a match, her torment howling and flickering before her. Stunning, uncomfortable and deeply moving, ‘Couples Only’ is a record that will have you spiraling – and definitely leave its mark.

“That title came to me at a roller skating rink,” Callaway explains, “I was there shooting for the cover of the record, and there was a sign that said ‘Couples Only’ – so I thought ‘well – that’d be a really funny title for a record that deals a lot with being alone.’” She takes a second to laugh,  before adding “it’s pretty tongue-in-cheek.” 

This mindset seems to be the defining feature of Callaway’s third album – a sense of irony carrying you through the pain. “That was a big thing with this record: balancing a little humor and cynicism and irony. At times, stuff that was so upsetting and tragic and traumatic that it just started to become ridiculous,” Callaway admits. “It was almost funny in a way – it all felt so unbelievable.”

When considering the circumstances surrounding ‘Couples Only’, it’s shocking that the album was ever even completed. The release touches on Callaway’s divorce, the life-changing impact of a cystic fibrosis diagnosis, and the limbo of being ejected from one’s marital home – as Callaway reels off the details of events that inspired this record, you can’t help but feel something inside of you ache. Speaking on the recording process, Callaway admits that “it was intense.” But her recording approach helped numb some of the possible sting; “luckily I record really fast, so I didn’t have to, you know… linger. It was really emotional, but we kept things moving.”

This quick approach also allowed the tracks to come out as raw as possible; “Joe Cardamone, my producer, has known me since I was 18, so I didn’t feel the need to be ‘careful’; I didn’t try to be poetic or beat around the bush. I just did it, and whatever came out, we just let it be. I didn’t want to go back and edit. There were some songs where I only did one take, I wasn’t able to do it again… But then I have to learn them again properly for shows – learn the lyrics and do all that. So I’m sure that will be… an experience.”

For Callaway, telling the truth was all that mattered. “Going through the divorce and the backlash of it all, it was really important for me to hold on to what the truth actually was,” Callaway notes. “For a couple of years I was being told that I was crazy, or I was lying – this was kind of my only way of speaking my truth. I needed to make a point of, like, ‘I know what happened’, pulling direct quotes like ‘you mean bitch’ on ‘EMDR ATM’, literal lines I had been told. So I think in that way, being blunt was really effective, because it’s just kind of keeping a record of what actually happened, you know?”

‘Couples Only’ doesn’t ask its listener to read between the lines – it forces them to acknowledge the reality of Callaway’s experiences. It’s not a comfortable listen by any means, and Callaway is well aware of this; “It wasn’t comfortable to record, and it’s not a comfortable listen… but, you know, it was uncomfortable for me to go through – coming out of a divorce, with divorce lawyers and people judging me for telling the truth. People kept saying ‘do you really want to talk about that?, ‘why do you want to make trouble?’ or ‘why do you want to stir the pot?’” 

“But… these things happened to me,” Callaway takes a moment to emphasise. “This all happened, I had to live through it – but people are always like ‘oh, but you’re making people uncomfortable by talking about it.’ And I think, as a woman, you just get used to living in discomfort for the sake of other people’s comfort levels; you avoid being confrontational, you never make a scene. It just got to the point where I knew I was being quiet for other people’s comfort, and I was about to burst. There was a year or two where I didn’t say anything – but then I was like ‘not anymore.’”

Rather than whimper in fear, Callaway is determined to make as much noise as possible. While Queen Kwong’s style is impossible to pin down, a thread of heavy, jagged rock and experimentation has always been a key element. ‘Couples Only’ takes a different sonic route than previous releases, but that heaviness is still blisteringly clear – and, in terms of lyrical content and emotional drive, the album is her heaviest yet. “On the surface, sonically speaking, this record isn’t as heavy or as aggressive as some of the previous stuff I’ve released. But, by saying the opposite, it means that you actually listened,” Callaway says. “I think, if you just listen, surface level, to the music and not really pay attention, it isn’t as heavy or aggressive as stuff on the previous two LPs, but I think it is a lot heavier in terms of content and themes – and there was no way to get around that.”

Callaway reflects on one of the toughest phases that fed into the creation of this record, harking back to touring in 2018. “There was one show with such bad feedback. It was like the highest pitch – my guitarist actually threw up afterwards. Like, my teeth hurt, that’s how bad it was,” Callaway recalls. “That whole tour was a big blur to me – it was literally when my marriage was ending. I think I really put my bands through a lot on that tour because I was literally like, sobbing all the time. I was a nightmare. They had to carry me – sometimes literally, physically carry me – through that tour.”

“The whole time, I just wanted to go home and save my life – it was like watching my home burning to the ground, but I couldn’t do anything about it,” Callaway admits. “I was on the other side of the world when everything was falling apart. Finding out about all this betrayal, cheating – it was horrendous. I felt like I wanted to save my life, save my marriage, but it wasn’t possible.”

The tour was, however, a blessing in disguise. “It would have been a lot worse if I were just at home – because I didn’t have any control over the situation anyway,” Callaway says. “It was good that I was surrounded by friends and fans and doing what I love to do. It was forcing me to DO something, going onstage. Being in a situation where, like, ‘you have to exist right now.’ That was a blessing, but it was not easy.”

The emotional intensity and honesty funnelled into ‘Couples Only’ is unlike anything Callaway has put on record before – and she hopes people can connect with that. “I think on a human level a lot of people can relate to some aspect of this record, so I hope it reaches those who might need it,” she muses. “ It’s important to me – I want that connection with people. I’m not sure I’m going to make another record after this one, so I want it to be heard.”

“I also really want it to reach a less ‘masculine’ audience, if that makes sense,” Callaway adds. “The women in my life really supported me through my divorce – they were there for me when I was more vulnerable than ever, going through the divorce, being diagnosed, losing everything. And I wasn’t used to that. I was used to having a bunch of dudes as friends, being in bands with dudes – but the people who weren’t dudes were the ones who empathised the most. Some ‘friends’ worried too much about burning bridges, wanting to be on good terms with the ‘right’ people. And then so many women were just like, ‘fuck that,’ you know?”

And, of those encouraging Callaway’s silence, there were a lot of men saying to keep things under wraps. “It often feels like the world is built for men,” Callaway says, “built for their comfort, their convenience, their praise”. Callaway goes on to further consider the role of masculinity on her art; “I once had a boyfriend say to me, ‘gosh, you’re so bitter.’ And… yeah. No matter how many instruments I play, no matter what I do, and how hard I work, it’s still downplayed in some way. I remember, for my last record, I got a great review – and then it credited my guitar playing to my ex-husband… who was only in my touring band,” she pauses to laugh. “As a woman, you’ll do everything and it will still be credited to a man.”

As we start to wind down, Callaway takes a moment to reflect on her latest body of work, and what it represents to her. “There was a point a few years ago where, you know, everything felt impossible. I didn’t think that I could get through anything ever again,” she admits. “But I think humans are built to survive as long and as well as we can – we’re resilient innately. There was never a point when I was going through all this where I felt like I was ever going to make this record, ever going to come out the other side. But it exists… it took a long time, but we’re here.” 

‘Couples Only’ will be released on July 12th.

Words: Emily Swingle

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.