Queen Kwong has today released her new album titled ‘Couples Only’. Staring her personal demons and skeletons in the face, Queen Kwong (aka Carré Kwong Callaway) offers an unapologetically introversion into herself with a bare skin account of the things we always think about but never speak of with a varied blend of liberated angst, post-punk professionalism and somber social soliloquys. ‘Couples Only’ is an album from someone who has lived every word.
There is something about the bad times of your life that stays with you even through the best of times. Sometimes they are a reminder. Sometimes they are a lesson. But, I’m sorry to say, they are always, in part, that portion of your soul that has given up. A paralyzed limb you can’t use but is always there to remind you that you can’t use it. I feel parts of ‘Couples Only’ is a score for that. Part lesson. Part solemn embrace. That tear with a smile below it. Catching that tear with your lips and engulfing it with that next moment, hoping it will be better.
‘Couples Only’ is that kind of album. Listen from start to finish while you think of that current situation. You will leave a better person.
A few years ago, Carré Kwong Callaway—aka Queen Kwong—was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and told she may only have a decade left to live. As a result of the condition, she’s prone to episodes where her lungs fill up with blood and she’s literally drowning. If that wasn’t bad enough, two months after her diagnosis, her musician husband jumped ship—to put it nicely. Within the year, everything else—her security and stability, her home and home studio, her cats—had also gone. This gave Carré no option but to leave Detroit, where she and her ex-husband had bought a house, with nothing but one suitcase and two guitars.
“I was homeless for nearly a year, just living on friends’ sofas, and I’m still in the process of rebuilding my life,” she says, “but it’s reassuring that we can survive things that feel un-survivable.” On the surface, then, Couples Only could be described as a divorce record, but, really, it’s much more than that. It’s an outpouring of pure feeling and visceral thought that captures every emotion that comes with both the grieving and recovery process. It’s a fearless account of facing the worst betrayals and accepting the deepest losses. It’s the realization of one’s mortality and the impermanence of everything we know and cherish. But, ultimately, it’s a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Because while this record is unashamedly about the darkest period of Carré’s life, it doesn’t wallow. It can be accusatory and violent, but there’s no time wasted on self-pity. “It’s not a fun record,” Carré admits, “but, at times, it’s a funny one.”
Indeed, there’s levity here. Just ask her what song title EMDR ATM stands for. Even the album title itself is a tongue-in-cheek dig at herself. It seems as though losing everything ultimately liberated Carré— perhaps because, as she says, “it makes you realize what truly matters, and the things that don’t matter end up meaning even less. It frees you from a lot of bullshit.”
Needless to say, Couples Only is Carré setting the record straight, and across these 11 songs, she takes no prisoners.
As with every Queen Kwong album, Couples Only was entirely improvised and recorded on the spot— nothing was pre-written lyrically or musically. For three weeks, Carré and longtime producer Joe Cardamone (The Icarus Line/Skeleton Joe) crafted about one song a day, which would eventually be whittled down to the final 11 songs. The pair would usually begin with a drumbeat Joe programmed, followed by Carré tracking guitar and bass lines that she would then freestyle lyrics and vocals over.
Interestingly, Carré hadn’t picked up an instrument for nearly a year before going into the studio. Instead, she was filling her time with other projects—after graduating from university with honors, she founded an all-natural skincare line, co-starred in American Primitive film series Quarentina, launched the immensely entertaining music podcast Never Meet Your Idols, and is nearly finished with her first collection of sculptural artwork scheduled to show next year. Despite being so preoccupied, however, Carré found herself needing the cathartic purging that only music has been able to offer her. As she explains: “I don’t play music because it’s fun. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s for survival. I have to keep playing music because it’s my way of allowing myself to feel.”
It’s the maelstrom of those raw feelings recorded in real-time that serve as the common denominator on a record that spans multiple musical genres, refusing to settle for just one style. Opener, I Know Who You Are heavily throbs like Swans, while Sad Man, an ode to the music industry and LA “fuck-boy-clowns,” is reminiscent of Blur’s 13 and showcases Carré’s effortlessly cool and noisy guitar style, as well as her biting lyrics. On The Run has elements of traditional doo-wop, and the album’s closer, Without You, Whatever, can easily be defined as a pop track circa David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. And due to the improvisational nature of the record, most of the vocals and lyrics feel like laidback, almost jazzy, Beat poetry-esque ruminations. Dig deep enough and you may hear surprising influences from Carré, a rock musician who admits “I hardly listen to music but when I do, I prefer hip hop.”
Indeed, The Biggest Mistake was initially written as a rap song, but then morphed into the wonderfully sleazy, penultimate track on which Carré fiercely throws her cards down on the table. Yet as much as the song is about her break-up, it’s also a caustic indictment of the culture of fame, of celebrities and the sycophants that hang around them. That’s something Carré has been on the periphery of for a long time, ever since Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor discovered her when she was 17.
“I’ve never been interested in fame, despite being around it,” she says. “However, I also never understood how profoundly flimsy and cowardly it makes people until my divorce…How quickly people will forgo integrity just to avoid burning a bridge. I’m calling out those fuckers. I’m not afraid of burning bridges by telling the truth. I’ll happily sacrifice the Instagram likes and fake friends to keep my spine intact.” For all that fury, though, there’s also vulnerability. Possibly the most heartbreaking song on the record is Stanley RIP, which was recorded in a single take while Joe was taking a smoke break. The studio doors were open to Joe’s backyard, resulting in outside noise and birds chirping in the background bein captured on tape. Then there’s The Mourning Song, a stinging but humorous clap-back at her ex-husband that becomes an almost uplifting, breezy singalong. It tells, very bluntly, the story of how she lost everything but how she kept going anyway.
The finished record features guest appearances from some of Carré’s closest friends and longtime supporters, including The Cure’s Roger O’Donnell playing keys on On The Run, Swans’ Kristof Hahn playing lap steel guitar on EMDR ATM, and Blood Red Shoes’ Laura-Mary Carter singing backing vocals on No Rules. Queen Kwong’s touring bassist Drew Rollo played the final bass tracks and drummer Devon Ashley, who was drafted in for a day of recording, provided live drums. Those people were chosen very carefully—Carré wanted to include her friends and touring band members on this particular release as a way to credit them for their overall support and loyalty during her darkest hours.
“I’ve always been a bit of a misanthrope,” she says, “but the people who came through for me and had my back these last couple of years are the ones to thank for this record…and perhaps even my survival. They gave me hope and perspective and, most importantly, they reminded me who I am.”
Couples Only could be described as a divorce record, but really it’s much more than that. Carré’s third album is a fearless account of facing the worst betrayals and accepting the deepest losses; it’s the realization of one’s mortality and the impermanence of everything we know and cherish. Assembling a notable cadre of contributing musician friends including the previously mentioned Roger O’Donnell, Swans’ Kristof Hahn (lap steel) and Blood Red Shoes’ Laura-Mary Carter (backing vocals) who appear on assorted tracks on the upcoming LP, Carré worked closely with friends and allies, including Joe Cardamone of The Icarus Line, and Tchad Blake (Arctic Monkeys, Elvis Costello, Fiona Apple), who mixed the record.
Interestingly, Carré hadn’t picked up an instrument for nearly a year before going into the studio. Instead, she was filling her time with other projects—after graduating from university with honors, she founded an all-natural skincare line, co-starred in American Primitive film series Quarentina, launched the immensely entertaining music podcast Never Meet Your Idols, and is nearly finished with her first collection of sculptural artwork scheduled to show next year. “I don’t play music because it’s fun,” she explains. “It’s a coping mechanism. It’s for survival. I have to keep playing music because it’s my way of allowing myself to feel.” Queen Kwong has been making music since 2005 when she was discovered by Trent Reznor who invited her to open Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth tour (2005), and again in 2009 and 2018. She has released two albums (Get a Witness in 2015 and Love Me to Death in 2018) and two EPs (2013’s Bad Lieutenant and 2019’s Oh Well).