Queen Kwong
Photo by Laura-Mary Carter

The powerfully cathartic 2022 album Couples Only was created in the wake of monumental changes in the life of Queen Kwong, AKA Carré Callaway. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Everything about this diagnosis was atypical. She was born with it, but spent most of her life unaware of it. Her symptoms – which Callaway describes as “extreme and rare for other people with cystic fibrosis” – include life-threatening occurrences where her lungs fill with blood. Thankfully, she is doing well and hasn’t had an extreme life-threatening episode for over a year, but she makes sure to knock on wood even when stating that fact.

A few months following her diagnosis, her rock star husband – “Google it” – jumped ship. This would be a lot for anyone to handle. Callaway processed it all the best way she knows how, through music. With the shared trauma Covid has caused us all, Callaway’s collection of songs connect grief, anger, and liberation in a raw, emotional, and universal way that finds added satisfaction in shades of humor.

“For this record, I wasn’t trying to be poetic about anything,” Callaway explained by Zoom while staying at her friend, and Never Meet Your Idols co-host, Laura-Mary Carter’s Brighton home. “There’s not much reading between the lines for a lot of it. I think that with everything that happened with Covid and also growing up and experiencing life, everybody whose lived a certain amount of life can relate to themes on this record about survival, loss, betrayal, and overcoming the odds or seemingly so. It’s the struggle of every day and how we just keep going. Everyone can relate to one of those themes and also having to, in hindsight, have some humor when you look back on trauma, loss, or things that felt seemingly impossible to overcome. Then, when overcoming it being like, ‘Holy shit that was crazy.’”

More than with her previous records, that found the industry labeling Callaway with a hard rock image, Couples Only has been especially well-received by Queen Kwong’s female fans. Callaway connects this with the realization that going through a divorce made her appreciate her female friends more than ever.

“When I went through my divorce, it was really my female friends who showed up for me the most,” she said. “When I made this record it was great that it resonated with other women because those are the people who I think could really relate to what I was going through. Not only someone going through a divorce, but as a woman in the world right now.”

Couples Only opens softly and sweetly with “I Know Who You Are” as Callaway sings, “Ginger, sweet Ginger, Don’t lie to me,” which she explained was an improvised serenade to an elderly dog sleeping in the studio. About 30 seconds later she unleashes a “throat punch” of a riff that sets the stage for the entire record.

“We decided to keep [the opening] in because it makes a cool juxtaposition to start it that way,” said Callaway. “What the song evolved into being with ‘I know who you are’ in the lyrics and how heavy it was and driving straight to the throat punch, that’s when I thought this should be the first song on the record. It opens up with that punch to the throat, no fucking around, I know who you are. Just calling fuckers out from the get-go.”

Callaway has a unique way of recording an album. Everything is completely improvised and recorded in the moment. She, along with longtime producer Joe Cardamone, grab onto the inspiration of the moment regardless of the source.

On the heartbreaking track “Stanley (RIP)” the vulnerability of Callaway’s almost whispering vocals is cut with the sounds of birds happily chirping outside the studio doors.

“Those bird sounds are the actual outdoor sounds from outside the studio.” explained Callaway. “He (Joe Cardamone) was taking a smoke break so he was outside and I just kept playing guitar and was rolling the Pro Tools session to record whatever ideas were coming to me. That’s when I wrote that song in real time. I wrote it and recorded it there. It’s clearly a really emotional song for me and I struggled to do another take. When we listened back to it there was a ton of noise because the doors were open and all the birds that were outside were chirping away. We decided it made it a more vulnerable track. It’s pretty much as vulnerable as you can get, really. I couldn’t fake that or redo that in that way so we left it.”

Pairings of soft and hard, light and dark can be found throughout the album. The final track, “Without You, Whatever,” is both beautiful and eerie. You can practically see Callaway performing the song at the infamous Roadhouse from Twin Peaks as you listen.

Callaway elaborates, “There’s a vibe to [“Without You, Whatever”] that’s very Lynchian and it has that juxtaposition that’s kind of poppy and dreamy but also dark.”

The most recent single from Couples Only, “Sad Man,” is visualized in the form of a Bad Lieutenant-inspired video starring Johnny Knoxville. Callaway explained that the song – which takes aim at the grind of being in the L.A. scene – wasn’t intended on being a single, but when she put the pieces together for the video, she knew it was a vision that had to be shared.

“Famous guys, there’s usually a big lack of self-awareness there,” she said with a laugh. “I feel like if I approached any other famous guy I know and asked him to play that part, he would be offended, but Johnny Knoxville wasn’t. He just embraced it. I had no idea he was such a good actor, but he’s such a good actor. This guy should be in real, serious roles. He did a great job.”

YouTube video

There’s still more to come from Couples Only. For the next video, Callaway is turning to “The Mourning Song” which in many ways is the start of the entire album.

“The song is really sad. It was the first song I wrote and recorded on the record. It kind of set the tone in a lot of ways lyrically and sums up the entire record in one song. It was the most literal song in terms of not beating around the bush and just telling it how it is. It’s kind of a step-by-step, blow-by-blow account of how my marriage fell apart,” said Callaway.

For the song’s video, Callaway is revisiting a piece of her past with an empowering story filmed at L.A.’s famous bikini bar, Jumbo’s Clown Room.

“The video seems like a balance to [the song] because it’s a strip club video essentially, but there’s a deeper inspiration or meaning to it. My ex-husband had a very hard time accepting – I found out later that it really bothered him – that I was a dancer. I was a dancer at a bikini bar in my early-20s. It was very brief but it really rubbed him the wrong way.”

Callaway goes on to explain that the judgement from her ex-husband – also a performer – caused her to feel shame around it and that is something that she just can’t abide.

“It’s very funny and ironic for him of all people to be judging me for that job I did. I don’t have any shame about it. I really enjoyed it. It was really empowering and all the women I know who dance are amazing, strong, wonderful, extremely talented people,” she said. “The video is a way of me owning it but also, because the song is so literal, it’s a big fuck you. The song’s a fuck you. The video’s a fuck you.”

Whether you are a fan who knows someone who needs a big fuck you or you are coping with life and simply looking for connection, Callaway feels a closeness with every listener.

“I really want this record to be heard, not just because it’s important to me but I do think it’s a sign of the times in a lot of ways,” said Callaway. “I know it’s really resonated with people and it’s helped people who’ve struggled with their own loss or mortality or betrayal. I think it’s nice to have a connection to something – a deeper connection to music – but also it’s helped me find friends and find people. Knowing you’re not alone. I get as much of a benefit from that as the listener, so I do appreciate the listens, the streams, and the support. It means a lot to me, but on a deeper level, it’s about the connection with people.”

Couples Only can be streamed everywhere and Queen Kwong can be found at Queenkwong.com.

Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and...