Philly quartet discuss the passing of time, parenting while in a band, and their debut LP
Photo by Chris Sikich
“Protagonist,” the lead track off Callowhill’s debut LP The Way Out, kicks in with emphatic chords bursts, like a door knock to a room filled with memories both difficult and real. The call and response lyrics delve into the trials of maintaining relationships through time and changing life circumstances, and the need to perform in order to maintain agency through it all: “The thickened plot, the cracked shell / I play protagonist well / Kill off a character, she’s broken / I’ll foil you, I’m open.”
Katy Otto, Callowhill’s drummer, released The Way Out on her own label Exotic Fever Records, which has also released music for War on Women, Cool Moon, The Shondes, and many more. In the midst of running a label, being an outspoken activist, a mother, and a show curator, Otto’s drumming shines on the new record, providing punches and barrel rhythms that drive everything forward no matter what hardships the band takes on.
VICTORIA RUIZ: How did the current band come together?
Katy Otto: Julia and I met over 15 years ago through our old bands Del Cielo and XXs/True if Destroyed. She was a Ladyfest Philly organizer back in the day, and Del Cielo had played that event. From the moment I first heard her play I really wanted to be in a band with her. I loved her voice, her lyrics and her songwriting.
Nikki Karam: John and I met almost 10 years ago through mutual friends in the library/archives world, and I didn’t really meet Katy or Julia until our first band practice! John and I had been playing together for a bit with an eye towards forming a band, and meanwhile, Katy and Julia were doing the same thing. Since John and Julia knew each other, they connected the dots and brought us all together.
Katy, you run Exotic Fever Records in addition to playing in the band. What is it like to run a record label that you also have a band on? Why did you decide to be both at the front and the back of the record game?
Katy: My other band Trophy Wife has put out releases both on Exotic Fever and also not, for a range of reasons including the need for separation at times. It seemed to make sense with Callowhill to release both our seven inch and now our full length on Exotic Fever. I have been doing the label almost twenty years, and started it with my first bandmate Bonnie Schlegel. We grew up in the DC area and we had great mentors, including a lot of women who ran labels like Kim from DeSoto and Kristin and Jenny from Simple Machines. As a woman, I felt a real desire to control the means of production. I don’t just put out releases by women/POC/queer folks, but I definitely am artistically inspired by a lot of folks musically who aren’t white men and that shows in terms of what the label releases.
You all mention when your shows are kid friendly. I was just speaking about this with two friends who are in a band and also have a child together. How do you think shows can be inclusive of parents and/or kids?
Katy: For me it means having bandmates who understand that I need to get a kid from daycare and have him fed dinner before I can come to practice. It also means having bandmates who were into the idea of our recent kid-friendly show and helped me put the pieces in place to make it happen and make it a success! It was at a great venue in Philly that has been longstanding, The Rotunda, with our friends The Shondes. Louisa who sings and plays bass in that band is also a new mom! The show was the first time my two year old David ever saw our band, though he heard us in utero. I’ve often wished I got to use the title In Utero for an album of a band I was.
Nikki: There were so many elements that combined well together at our last show to make it really fun and successful as a kid-/parent-friendly show. It was a brightly-lit all-ages venue, so kids could roam free in the space while being seen by their adult people; it was held on a weekend afternoon, 3pm-6pm; a short bill of just two bands; very punctual adherence to the start and end times (and making those public well ahead of time); and having a small “kid zone” in the back with a simple box of toys. Maybe not every show needs to have every one of these elements, but each of these things can really contribute to an inclusive and supportive vibe for kids and families. Oh, and remind parents to bring headphones/earplugs for the kiddos, or have a few onhand! It was beyond adorable and inspiring to see little kids watching the bands closely, dancing wildly, head-bopping, etc.
What were you trying to get across on the new record The Way Out?
Katy: I want to show folks that you can still play music well into your 30s. I turn 40 next year. You may have to do things at a different pace than you did when you were younger, but making art with your friends can still be a part of your life. It is critical to me. I have been making music with friends I believe in since I was 17, and I hope to all the days I am able to. It feels really sacred and important the older I get.
Nikki: This is my first band, and therefore my first full-length album. I’m saying that sentence almost 20 years later than I thought I would back when I first picked up guitar at age 15, but that’s okay. Similar to what Katy said, I want to show folks that it’s never too late to follow up on these creative dreams you have kicking around your brain.
What can you tell us about the great lead track, “Protagonist”?
Nikki: One thing I love about this song is that the part that was the most difficult for us to create – the bridge – ended up being one of my favorite moments on the entire album. I remember working on writing this song and we were on the brink of giving up on it, because we couldn’t untangle all the ideas we were throwing into it. But then we had a moment of clarity and decided to remove elements rather than add or modify extant ones, and that made all the difference. Songs we wrote after that came much easier for me, because I learned the lesson of simplicity.
Julia: The lyrics to this song were kind of inspired by an old Cat Power lyric, “Would I be in your novel? Would I begin and end in it?”, and I was thinking about that concept that sometimes the apparent main character in one’s life will pass through and the chapter just ends. And I’m often thinking in general about the idea of performance in love and relationships, and just performance in everything.