Spit, sneer, thrash, snarl, grind. These are the words most commonly used to describe Queen Kwong, the 25-year-old L.A. musician (born Carré Callaway) who is being heralded by many as the “savior of rock ‘n’ roll.” Without even an LP to her name, it is truly Callaway’s visceral live shows that have struck a chord with critics and connoisseurs, drawing comparisons to The Stooges and early Courtney Love and a little Linda Blair in The Exorcist. “I just do what I do and whatever comes out comes out,” she says of those beautiful inner demons that surface on stage, while also oversimplifying her innate ability to not give a shit.
Let’s rephrase that. It’s not that Callaway doesn’t care or have firm control as a musician—she is both practiced and professional. It’s just that she doesn’t care to control other people’s opinions of her or her decisions, like growing up as a teenage barback, recently dying her hair cotton candy pink, recording her latest EP in a bathroom, and skipping out on college to move cross country when Trent Reznor advised her to (but more on that later).
“I’ve never had any boundaries for myself. Risk-taking just comes natural to me,” she divulges in a recent conversation, telling all to Boxx from a public bus. “There’s a real hard-headed, stubborn side of me, the non-conformist that doesn’t listen to people and isn’t afraid of everything… Some people don’t like it. I don’t mind, though, because at least I’m genuine.”
Authenticity has been the hallmark of her craft, too, ever since she started teaching herself to play guitar and laid out the early sketches of her masterful songwriting at 13 years old, which have amassed into a collection of singles and EPs like her latest, Bad Lieutenant, self-released last fall. On it she covers Chris Isaak’s sultry suede on “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” (coupled with a must-see music video that tarnishes Laetitia Casta’s sexual gyrations in the original with a whole lot of projectile black tar) and then calls out some wrongdoer for his little penis and gremlin teeth on bawdry ballad “Ike Turner.”
Although both could be assumed to be a step up to her own soapbox, Callaway declares, “I’m not consciously trying to broadcast any strong message with my music. I think if those underlying feminist tones come out, it’s because that’s just who I am. I’ve always had a lot of strong opinions,” like even back when the freckle-faced little girl had to have cops called to her home to calm her screaming fits.
The story of Callaway actually begins in a Denver hotel. The Oxford to be exact. Room 218. Her father was one of the main developers of the mountain town before it exploded, and so the girl grew up among transients, eventually earning her keep by bartending and barbacking on the all ages nights at the club the family owned a few blocks away. “I guess you could say my childhood was unique,” she says, laughing. But although unconventional, neither of her parents were “artists or anything like that. I don’t know where I got it from.” More likely, it was nurtured from her surroundings, the ‘90s hippie-dom of Denver: “Every other girl in town was playing folk music and covering Ani DiFranco. I was surrounded by it,” she says, recalling that those early ‘girl with guitar’ influences like Fiona Apple and Liz Phair have stuck with her today.”
Though she might never have followed her creative pursuits without some clear guidance, since it wasn’t coming from her parents. “I don’t know where I’d be without some of those integral people who came in my life at times when I needed to be reminded what my true path was,” she says, pointing to early music educators and choir leaders who were interested in what she was doing and sent her home with a guitar. There was also her sixth grade history teacher who recently surprised Callaway at one of her concerts in Atlanta.
“He showed up with a picture of me playing guitar and singing in his classroom. It was kind of weird, but also really touching,” she says. “I remember he was always very adamant about doing what you want to in life and not sticking to a path where you don’t feel true to yourself. Other classmates who had aspirations similar to mine ended up in the corporate world, so I guess I can take it as a compliment he came to my show.”
Another of her early champions was none other than Trent Reznor. Callaway met the Nine Inch Nails leader randomly when visiting New Orleans as a teenager. “I was abrasive. I didn’t give a shit about who he was,” she admits. But a tour of his music studio in the French Quarter led to a mini showcase of her own material. “He made me sit down and play a song, and that night I recorded a few songs. Later, he told me he was moving to L.A. and suggested I do the same, and I’ve been here ever since.”
At the time, Callaway had just graduated high school early and was set to head to NYU, but Reznor’s pitch was convincing—and ultimately the chance encounter was something she is grateful happened. “Music wasn’t a realistic path that anyone else supported until I met [Trent]. He turned my life around,” including asking her to open on his choice With Teeth and “Wave Goodbye” tours in 2005 and 2009.
If it’s difficult to picture the “March of the Pigs” singer as a mentor, Callaway says you have Reznor all wrong. “It’s a big part of him; he’s a very generous, caring person. Ten years later, he’s still the first person I’ll talk to when I have an issue or need advice when it comes to this industry,” she says, noting it was an immediate connection she calls almost familial. “I think he saw a lot of himself in me. We do have a lot in common, we are control freaks and stubborn and approach work in the same way.” Although don’t get your hopes up that they will be collaborating any time soon. “We tried in the beginning. He has his ideas and I have mine, and they weren’t exactly the same thing. Just because we’re friends doesn’t mean we are certainly compatible as artists.”
In fact, as Callaway learned making Bad Lieutenant, sometimes she’s better off working alone. “This EP came about because I failed miserably at making the record in the studio with an engineer and producer and high musicians. I had to do what I was comfortable with, which was me by myself recording in a little bathroom at my cousin’s apartment in New York,” she confesses. “And you know what, it was a billion times better because I was comfortable without the suffocation of having to do 10 more vocal takes because I didn’t hit a note perfectly.”
Personally, Callaway believes it is to the detriment of the music industry that they rely too much on perfection, having learned that lesson herself. “I’m not afraid of fucking up anymore, and when I let all the inhibitions go, I become a better performer because I can put emotions into my show,” she says, claiming her punk attitude was instilled by some of her all-time favorite performers like Darby Crash and The Stooges. “They were exciting live performers, they let go and let loose. Now seeing all the shows I do in L.A. with these modern indie rock bands, there’s a lot lacking on the live side.”
More frustrating, though, she says is the hunt to find women to play rock music without inhibition. “Everyone is so concerned with looking pretty, and I understand why, we’re judged by that. Men can be in their 40s in this industry and still be rock stars while girls have an expiration date of like 25,” she says, equating the reaction at her own shows. “People come in thinking they’re going to see a hot girl and then they see me live and I become an animal, a banshee, and I can tell you it’s not attractive. But if I have to drive myself insane thinking about what I’m wearing and wondering if I look hot enough, I’m going to balance it out by bringing some really tough shit.”
It’s that very quality that in 30 years, when we’re looking to crown a new Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, there will be Callaway already waiting on her throne.
Inset photo by Ward Robinson