Calÿpso talks understanding and accepting yourself through musical investigation
Written by David Paicu.
It’s apparent that English singer-songwriter Calÿpso is not going to be what you want her to be. Why? Because she knows exactly who she is. Exploring herself through her musical journey, Calÿpso has utilised the vehicle of music to find a greater appreciation for the individual, a statement that emanates from her songs.
"You want to level with [the audience] in a very human way, you want to talk about the subject of the song, but you also want to help them see themselves in what you’re doing. You want to connect."
A recent graduate from Oxford and a proud queer personality, Calÿpso blends her life experiences and understandings of Greek tragedies to create stories that amplify the joys and failures of life. Accompanying these ideas with her pop sound, her songs eventuate as contemporary statements on the smaller aspects of life in general.
A herald for self-expression, Calÿpso and Radio Monash sat down to meander through what music has meant in her life and what it might mean to her audience.
How’ve you been during this pandemic?
"Obviously, it’s had an effect on the old wallet because before COVID like everyone else I was making my money by interacting with people. From a musician’s perspective, you rely on your income from gigs. I was doing shows and busking, just playing in public, but obviously after the announcement of COVID we went into lockdown and all that had to stop. I had to sort out my finances a bit.
Apart from money worries, lockdown has been pretty good in helping people chill out a bit. If I was lazy before, I’m now super lazy which is kind of nice. I was in lockdown with most of my family, two of my brothers and my parents. It was gruelling to say the least, but most of the time I just stayed in my room and played Red Dead Redemption 2."
How exactly did you get into music? On your Spotify bio it says that you started writing songs when you were eleven - what prompted you to start?
"My family is quite musical. My dad used to be an opera singer, which he still hasn’t really let go, but he sang in a choir in a cathedral in England for nearly three decades, so he’s always making a lot of noise around the house.
I’m one of five kids - [we] were raised playing musical instruments. It was basically so that we could get scholarships to school. Some education in England is really expensive the only way to go to what my parents deemed a decent school was to try and afford the fees through bursaries and scholarships. Music was a good entry into that.
We just had to learn instruments. Then when I was around eleven, I saw my mum had a guitar which my dad had bought for her when they met at university. It was just in the corner gathering dust. No one in my family played guitar besides my mum, a tiny bit, and my brother a little bit. I decided to pick it up and start playing it. I enjoyed it and the fact that I was teaching myself, that it wasn’t something regimented or with practise times and I just went on from there. I listened to a lot of music - with older siblings you just inherit their music and their albums.
It was just a nice way to express the angst that begins when you start to become a teenager."
You mentioned your parents gave you your music taste, what kinds of inspirations have you had? Where does your sound come from?
"That’s a really hard question because it’s similar to when someone says what’s your favourite genre of music? Obviously, you get some die hard metal fans or people like that, but the truth is it’s been an absolute smorgasbord of things. There’s a lot of classical music but that really doesn’t appear much in what I write.
My brothers were obsessed with this band called Coheed and Cambria. They’re a really cool prog rock band from America, but they do some slower poppy stuff, I listened to a lot of that as well as seventies music. My dad got me into Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Carole King and James Taylor - the giants of the sixties and seventies. There was a lot of Fleetwood Mac as well.
In that regard, it’s really hard to say where the songs originate because there’s so many places where they could have come from.
The short answer is whatever I’ve listened to most recently finds a way to worm its way into my brain and get me going."
You have mentioned that you grew up queer and that you used music as a form of escapism and expression. How did music help you in that situation?
"I think when you’re queer in some cases you repress it to yourself so much that there’s nothing ‘conscious’ happening.
The only thing that manifests in a kind of Freudian awake way is the angst. You go through five stages of grief until you find acceptance. After that suddenly you have this new life in front of you and it’s great. It’s very different now compared to ten or twelve years ago, when it seemed like a much bigger deal. From that point of view, I was already dealing with growing up, full stop, which is just a horrible, horrible endeavour. But doing it when you are so unsure of yourself - and even if you have an inkling of what that self is - if your first instinct, your first societal instinct, is to despise it and suppress it, you need a way to tell people who you are without actively telling them. That’s why I think so many creative areas and industries are dominated by gay people. They’re just like, ‘I don’t wanna talk about it, I don’t wanna talk about it, I just wanna talk about it in a way that suits me’.
The bizarre thing about music, art or anything is that you get to keep the subject at arm’s length while having a great intimate silent conversation with your audience.
I think for me it was a way to connect to people and have people take interest in me beyond this thing that I had evaded and that I really didn’t know about myself.
It’s kind of paradoxical: you want to avoid it, but you really feel a need to talk about it as well."
Cover art for 'Mimi' by @ansmigone.
One of your most popular songs is ‘Mimi’. It is quite the oxymoron in the way it sounds and the lyrics that accompany it, what was the story behind the creation of that?
"Essentially, after uni I decided I was going to set aside two years to really nail my music. When I say that, I mean I wanted to find any success with it, or at least do as much as I can within that time limit because I’ve got all the future in the world to get a ‘proper’ job.
While I was having these conversations about the next step with my family members, I got a lot of mixed advice. I’ve got this one brother who’s very proactive and very conscious about procrastination. He was saying ‘you’ve got to get a job, you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to earn money, money is freedom’ etc, and it came from a really sweet place. In that line “always told I’m at a loss, both a slave and my own boss”, I’m talking about my unemployment basically. “I’ve made friends with the albatross”, sums up for me how you’ve got to understand and make peace with the fact that this is how your life is going to be.
‘Mimi’ for me was a narcissistic anthem where I just wanted to talk about how unsure I was. How one half of me was so uncertain about the path I was taking in wanting to lay a foundation for music and the other half had more of the fuck it attitude, the ‘I just want to do it because it makes me happy’ attitude. To be honest, it’s a musical internal dialogue between two twats.
With literary references in your lyrics such as the albatross, and considering you mentioned learning music for scholarships, what did you end up studying ?
"I ended up going to Oxford studying Latin and Greek, I graduated in 2019. In truth, I was good in Latin and Greek until A-levels, and then when I reached high school final exams I realised, wow there are people that are better than you - your confidence takes a knock. I actually, initially, applied to Cambridge - that’s where my parents had met - and I didn’t get in which was a clusterfuck.
So, I did my final exams in school, then had a gap year where I thought I’d do some music and then applied to Oxford, post-results, and got in. I ended up doing Classics at Oxford which was a humbling and traumatising experience, but also it was just great. It was an amazing place to meet creative people, the art-music scene was really booming. It was close enough to London to be relevant and it is a beautiful city. I’m here right now with my girlfriend and it’s dreamy really."
Would you say with that background that you gained an understanding and were inspired from literary figures from those times in Oxford?
"I have definitely. When I was doing finals, my Greek ones, one of the modules I chose was Greek Tragedy. It was great stories with horrible things like infanticide and people fucking each other. I thought shit there’s a lot of gold here that could be mined. I wrote a narrative folky song that I haven’t released yet called ‘Baby Brother’. It’s all about Electra, do you know Electra?"
Unfortunately, not off the top of my head. Could you give me a quick summary?
"Her mum, Clytemnestra kills her dad Agamemnon because he had been fucking around and sacrificed one of their daughters in war. When he comes back from the Trojan war she takes a lover and kills her husband. Electra who loves her dad Agamemnon was like ‘you bitch, I can’t believe you’ve done this’ - her little brother Orestes has been sent away by their little tutor after Clytemnestra kills the dad and so Electra, who’s kicked out of the house for picking dad’s side, is left praying for her brother to come back. Then the tutor turns up and tells her that her brother - now a grown man - has died in a chariot race and she’s like ‘well fuck’. But then Orestes isn’t actually dead but instead comes back and kills their mother and her lover. It’s this horrible, happy, twisted and fucked up dirty ending.
But yeah, for me that just sums up families really.
The sheer dysfunction that was captured thousands of years ago. The reason that Greek tragedies are good for song writing and art in general - the reason they’ve been the subject of those things - is because they hold human truths that’ll never die. Shakespeare contextualised the stories then Disney did the same. They’re good stories."
Looking at your discography, there’s quite a notable transition from 'Please' to your newer songs. 'Please' is more of a ballad in style, and you've since moved more into pop while maintaining that vocal edge. When did this stylistic development come about?
"The thing is that I wrote ‘Please’ when I was sixteen or seventeen. You can tell in the recording that my voice was quite a lot younger. I didn’t release it until a little bit later. ‘Please’ is one of a hundred ballads that I had written and eventually it felt like I was flogging a dead horse. You just think 'this is great', but there are plenty of other people in the world who are doing it. It was reflective of me at the time.
Music, art and film are media in which you show yourself. It’s just not me anymore, it was different phase of my life. As fun as it is to ask, ‘ugh why don’t you love me anymore?’, it’s much more fun to write other stuff.
I just wanted to change it up."
You’ve had a number of live shows, a number of which have glowing reviews and commentaries. How do you create the unique performance that you do in your live shows?
"My live shows allow me to harness this alter ego which is a hundred times more horrible than my actual self. She’s very flirty, she’s very mean, she’s very self-loathing. That’s it really - I put a magnifying glass on certain aspects of myself. I like to interact with my audience, let them know they’re looking sexy, ask them if they have any exes and if they raise their hand I’ll just let them know I fuckin' hate their ex.
You want to level with them in a very human way, you want to talk about the subject of the song, but you also want to help them see themselves in what you’re doing. You want to connect. The only reasons songs do well is either because they have a great beat to dance to - I can’t say that about mine - or they’re relatable in one way or another. The thing is that that relatability comes through from an innate feeling you create when you remove all the bells and whistles from it.
When I’m doing a live gig, I have a few beers around me, I ask the audience what they’ve been up to and we talk - it actually sounds like a therapy session. I wish I was paid that much. I just want to have a bit of fun and catharsis."
For the people who do listen to your music, what do you hope they take from it?
"Whereas my previous writing methods depended on how I was feeling, now I feel like I need to be a bit savvier and a bit more audience orientated. I need to be a bit less self-involved and start thinking about what people want to hear as opposed to what I think they need to hear from me - not in a hacky way. It’s just that if I’m only writing for myself there’s no point. There’s no point in writing music only you want to hear because then you lose the most important aspect which is the communication.
At the moment I’ve been focussing a bit more on the gays. They are a large chunk of my audience, I reckon lesbians make up eighty percent of my listeners. That’s great, I love it. When it comes to writing, people say, what comes first is it the melody or the lyrics: it’s actually completely random. Something I want to work on is discipline. I want to be able to sit down and just shit out a song. All the best writers have four hours in the morning to get a coffee, sit down, and write. It doesn’t matter what they write, as long as they write it - starting is the hardest part."
Seeing as how you are planning on changing your modus operandi, what are your plans for the future?
"I’m going to be releasing an EP which will have a couple of tracks that people have already heard. I might remaster them and mess around a bit with the production. There are also a couple of new bits as well which are currently in the safe in the back of my head. That’s the plan.
With regards to a long-term plan, it’s really all dependent on this year. It’s been a weird one. It’s called a pandemic because it fucks everyone up. I’m going to keep bumbling along, try and get more gigs, see what’s what, get some radio plays, but really just take it easy and try not worry too much.
I just want to have fun. Girls just want to have fun."