An Interview with Katie Calabrese of Little Gunpowder

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Little Gunpowder. Left to right: John Eng-Wong, Katie Calabrese, Sarah Dreyfus. Picture credit: Allie Bowerman.

Little Gunpowder is a band fronted by Katie Calabrese, a senior at Goucher. The indie fuzz rock band — which consists of drummer Kieran Dollemore, bassist Sarah Dreyfus, and guitarist John Eng-Wong — is currently working on an album titled Gasoline Girl, which will be released this winter. We sat down with Calabrese to talk about the new record, her songwriting process, and influences.

My first question is — when did you start writing music and what was your first instrument?

I started writing music probably when I was about 16 or 17 because I was having a really hard time in high school, and I went to a special boarding school for kids that were having trouble in high school. And we didn’t really have music, and there was nothing to do, so everyone learned how to play instruments. And that’s when I started writing music.

I started playing music much younger, though, when I was 6. And I started playing electric bass when I was about 6 years old until when I was about 10 years old.

You told me that you are working on an album right now, so I’m interested in hearing a little bit more about that. I’m wondering if you could describe the sound of your album, and I’m wondering if it’s any different than the sound of your previous projects at all.

I would say that it’s incredibly different than my previous projects because my previous stuff, the stuff I that have on Bandcamp right now, is acoustic, indie, pretty mellow singer-songwriter stuff. But this stuff, I would still consider it indie, but it’s more fuzz and it’s full band and it has more of a punk element to it, I think, than a lot of my other stuff has. And I’m really excited about it because it has this theme of femininity and mental illness and these images of how women or feminized people are demonized, yet also glorified and sexualized around mental illness. So it’s kind of a look at that and a look at the struggle of mental illness. It’s really important to me that there’s a message of hope without being overly optimistic. So there’s this message of “it’s really hard and it might not get better, but that’s okay that it might not.”

That all sounds really interesting; I’m so excited to hear it. What does your songwriting process look like?

My songwriting process, usually, it can start in a couple of ways. Sometimes it will be [that] I’ll sit on a verse or just two lines for a super long time. And then one day I’ll be playing guitar and I’ll come across something that I like and just apply it to that. I usually write songs pretty quickly, like over the course of a few hours or maybe I’ll take a break and come back to it, but usually the total time on songs is probably like 3, 4, 5 hours, so not incredibly long. But usually it will take me a long time to get to a place that I want to write. I don’t write super often, but when I do finally get something that inspires me, it just happens really fast.

What have you been using to record this album, like mics and interfaces and instruments, and things like that?

We’re recording at my drummer’s friend’s house. I don’t know that much about recording, but we’re live recording the drums and the guitar, and then the bass is being recorded at the same time, but it’s being recorded directly into the computer, and then I’m doing voice overdubs with it. It’s in a basement, you know; it’s nothing fancy, but I’m really excited about it because for me, in recording, it’s so much more important that you get the live rawness rather than really clean perfection, studio done.

And I think that’s really important to that fuzz sound that you were talking about.

Yeah, exactly.

What was the most fun song to write, or the song that was the most memorable for you?

We have this really fun song that we do called “Turn Me Off.” I guess I don’t really have a super fun time writing most songs because usually I’m in a mood. But that song was particularly fun because I hadn’t really been writing for full bands previous to now. So all my songs – I felt like I had to write them so that they really, really carried themselves lyrically and that they could be interesting without any accompaniment. But this song is incredibly simple. It’s four power chords, and it is really repetitive. But the thing that was really fun about it is that I was able to write it knowing that my band is really talented and it would be really interesting and crazy. So now it’s one of our favorite songs to play because we have weird breakdowns, we change speed, we start off with only some parts, we have this crazy drum thing going on, we have guitar solos. So I think that’s been really fun for me. Being able to transition from being a singer-songwriter artist to doing more high energy, full band stuff has been really, really fun for songwriting because it’s challenged me to write differently, but also it makes it easier to write because you don’t have to worry about “oh, is this going to hold itself by itself?”

Now, I’m really curious to know a little bit more about what the difference is between writing as a singer-songwriter and doing a solo thing versus writing for a band because it sounds like there’s a huge difference.

Oh, definitely. I feel like for writing for solo, I really liked using a lot of picking stuff. When you’re doing full band, you can make different things [go] on without having to change the actual core center of the music, without having to change the chords, or change the song that much. You can have a different type of drum beat, or you can have a guitar solo, or you could have the bass do something funky. So you have this option to play around inside the original structure of the song, whereas when you’re doing more singer-songwriter stuff, you really just have the guitar, so you have to have more moving pieces within the actual construction of the song itself. So I’ve been having a lot of fun being able to write songs that are more simple on the writing end, but more complicated on the instrumental end, rather than more complicated on the writing end and simpler on the instrumental end.

Who or what are your musical influences or inspirations?

There’s a couple different types of music that I like, but then there’s a couple that I feel like I emulate. So the stuff that I really listen to — I like Anderson .Paak, Gorillaz; those are my two favorites right now. But the people that I feel like I emulate, and also really love listening to [are] Hop Along or Angel Olsen. I really love Courtney Barnett. And I really love Mitski. And I feel like those are artists that I really identify with because I think that they do such a good job of having this intense emotion and power in their songwriting, but still keeping elements of femininity. I feel like it’s this power that doesn’t feel like it has to emulate masculinity, but is its own thing, and I really admire that.

That’s a good segue into my last question . . . what [have you] been listening to lately?

I’ve been definitely listening to Noname’s new album, which is incredible; that’s a no-brainer. I’ve been listening to Mitski’s new album, for sure. I’ve been listening to Pavement a lot recently. And I’ve actually been listening to The Killers a lot; I really love The Killers, and I’ve always really loved The Killers.

Skyler Aikerson is a Psychology major and Professional Writing minor. She has written for Phluff, and worked as a poetry editor for Horizons, Waubonsee Community College’s literary journal, and as a senior editor for Verge, Goucher College’s journal of undergraduate writing.

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