Calicoco is the moniker of multi-instrumentalist Giana Caliolo, who grew up in Long Beach, New York. After moving to Rochester in 2008 to study photography, they became involved in the city’s local music scene and decided to settle there. Their first release as Calicoco, Needy, arrived in 2017 via Dadstache Records, followed by their introspective 2018 debut, Float. That album’s striking honesty is all the more brutal on Underneath, Calicoco’s sophomore full-length, which grapples with the weight of depression and anxiety while finding new avenues for their soul-baring songwriting. Caliolo, who relocated to Long Beach in 2019 but recorded the album in Rochester in January 2020 with friends Stephen Roessner and Phil Shaw, brings a raw, explosive physicality to the performances, which can be cathartic in their intensity – “Just give me a goddamn lobotomy,” they demand on highlight ‘Heal Me’ – or suffused in crushing waves of melancholy and guilt, like the one on ‘I Was the Devil’ that carries the album to its end. The hurt is almost too much to bear, but Caliolo invites you on a journey that makes it worth enduring: “I’ll hold your hand baby, please hold my hand/ I can’t wait to be there with you, underneath.”
We caught up with Calicoco for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the origins of the project, the making of their new album Underneath, and more.
How do you look back on the time you spent in Rochester after you first moved there? Do those years occupy a similar space in your mind as a chapter in your life?
I feel like I’ve had different chapters in Rochester, starting off in college and doing this band Buckets that was with my college friends, and then meeting new people and being in this band called Secret Pizza, and then I was in a band called Pony Hand – I feel like they’ve all been chapters in my life. I didn’t really know that much about the Rochester community when I was in school, and I slowly started meeting people in the community and it just grew and grew and grew, and I finally felt like I was like in this really beautiful music community. It’s weird, it’s like I don’t want that chapter to close yet. I feel like I’m not quite done with Rochester, like I’m trying to figure out if I can get back here for a little while to sort of continue that journey. I have a lot of really amazing friends that I have played music with over the years and I still want to be making music with them.
What do you find beautiful about the community?
It’s just a really supportive community, and there seems to be a lot of people willing to help out. Like, when I was in college and I was first starting off in this band Buckets, I met this guy Tim Avery, who’s one of my good friends now. And he used to book at this venue called the Bug Jar, and that was sort of where if you had a band, you played. And he heard me play I think in a basement somewhere, and he was like, “Come play a show at the Bug Jar. I’ll get you in.” He made it super easy to take those next steps. And then when my college band ended because people moved away, I was sitting outside of the Bug Jar with my new friend Phil [Shaw], who I wound up being in a band with. He was like, “Don’t be sad, let’s make music! You’re done with Buckets, but this doesn’t mean that your music-making has to end.” And, and I was like, “Okay,” and we scheduled a day to practice we got my friend Kamara [Robideau] and Tim Avery, we got him to play guitar, and we just like started a band. And it sort of came out of something ending, which was really cool.
Did your approach to songwriting change when that shift happened and you started this project?
Yeah, I feel like the songwriting has changed over the years. With Secret Pizza, I wasn’t actually playing guitar, I was playing drums and singing, so that was a different sort of challenge. I was doing more lyric-writing and we were doing more jamming on the spot and trying to come up with stuff together as a band. And then, with this other band that I was in called Pony Hand with my friends Karrah Teague, Brandon Henahan, they wrote the music and I wrote the drum parts. And in between those bands happening was when I started writing solo stuff for Calicoco, and I don’t even think I had a band name yet. I started to realize that I had songwriting that I wanted to be doing that didn’t quite fit in with these other bands, and that’s sort of how the evolution happened, from being in all these different bands and then learning how to compose my own stuff. It was just different, and it was a lot more internal stuff, I think, that just didn’t work for those two bands.
In what way do you mean?
I think lyrically and sonically, just the fact that I was writing this stuff separately from the bands, and I just felt connected to the songs in a different way. I don’t know, I think there was just a little bit more internal, like, turmoil that maybe didn’t feel I was ready to share. I think I needed another creative outlet to get a bunch of other shit out that apparently I had, and I guess I felt like I wasn’t able to like get it out in that way, with the two bands that I was in.
What comes to mind when you think of your first releases as Calicoco? Are there any parts of yourself that you feel like you have outgrown, or that are still integral to the identity of the project?
I feel like I’ve seen a lot of growth going from Needy and Float to Underneath. I feel like I’ve found my sound a little bit more. And I still love those songs so much and I love playing them, but I definitely feel a little bit more removed from them. It was just such a different time in my life. Some of those songs I haven’t played in two, three years, but some of them I still feel really connected to. There’s definitely ones though that are harder to play now. Like, I don’t feel as much of a connection to them, which is okay. I think it’s okay if songs have a time and place for you, you know. I feel like I have a sound that has sort of continued from the beginning, but I definitely feel like it’s gotten more dense, like there’s a little bit more going on there. And I feel like I’ve let myself be a little bit more vulnerable with the actual songwriting.
I think that definitely comes through on Underneath. When you started thinking about the album, did you go into it knowing you wanted to do things differently?
I think I just wanted to go in there and really give it my all. The recording process was a little bit different for Underneath; musically I had more things ready and I had demos that I had mixed on my own, I knew a little bit more sonically where I wanted to be. I didn’t do demos and stuff for Float, and I kind of needed a lot more guidance and help – I couldn’t see as much before we actually recorded it. And I think, when I recorded with Stephen Roessner, who engineered and produced Underneath, we literally took some of my demos that I did at home in my bedroom and kept some of those stems and used them for the actual final product. So I think I learned a lot over the years, and I was starting to mix at home and produce at home, and I was just a little bit more prepared for what I was going to be going into when it came around to start recording Underneath.
I wanted to talk about ‘I Hate Living With Me’, because it’s a really striking and strong introduction to the album. Do you feel like it’s representative of the kind of headspace that you want to capture with the album as a whole?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to start off the album with that theme, because I felt that that feeling throughout the time that I was writing the music. I was just having a really hard time living with myself, and just a lot of pain and a lot of depression and anxiety. And I felt like it was like an honest way to set the tone for how the rest of the album was going to be.
A lot of the album revolves around feeling a loss of self as well as a loss of control. I’m wondering how you went about externalizing those feelings, and whether that creative process shifted that internal balance at all.
Yeah, I think it was really important to be able to write during that time. It was super cathartic for me, and it was the outlet that I needed. I was struggling a lot at that time, and I was spending a lot of time alone in my room, just sitting with myself. And I needed that – I wasn’t doing a lot of other good things for myself, like I wasn’t in therapy yet, and I wasn’t trying to get support from friends and stuff. I felt lucky that I could put this energy into something that was positive, even though the music is really dark.
I didn’t sit with a lot of the music for a long time. I feel like all of a sudden Ι would write a song in like two days, it was kind of crazy. In the past, it would take a long time to like to like really get the song together and compose it and figure out all the parts, but so many of the songs that are on this album, like I vomited them out of me. [laughs] It was very present, and when I was recording with Steve, that was when I think I did a little bit more reflecting.
When it came to recording these songs and bringing them to life, were there any challenges or pleasant surprises that came along the way that shifted the energy again?
Yeah, I think, again, having my having my really good friends work on this album with me brought a lot of positive energy and change into how I was feeling about the music. Steve, my engineer, who also produced it with me, and also our friend Phil Shaw, was also a co-producer, being able to really share what was going on during these songs and feeling really comfortable talking about them, and also them feeling comfortable really giving me feedback, even if it was tough – I wouldn’t have been able to make this music with people I didn’t know. It was really important to have friends that knew me through all the shit that I was going through, and also being able to help me translate it in a positive way.
Can you give me an example of a song where you felt like it turned into something positive?
Yeah, ‘Heal Me’, we recorded that in the middle of the pandemic, at the same time as ‘I Hate Living With Me’. Those are the last two that we did. ‘Heal Me’ is also literally like, “Give me a goddamn lobotomy,” like I felt rough during that time. And I came here and I was just able to have fun with it. Steve was like, “We need bongos in the beginning of the song.” And coming in and being able to play drums on the record, that was another really fun thing for me. On demos I had MIDI drums, so I got to bring the songs to life by playing drums live. Something like that, taking this heavy tune and putting the literal work of playing the instrument, makes it feel that much better.
Another example I could think of is ‘I Was the Devil’. That was on an EP of mine, and it was just an acoustic version, and we recorded it live with synth sounds in the studio, which is a classroom setup at the University of Rochester. And I got so emotional during that recording session, like literally started crying, but also the music came out so beautiful. And I feel like that energy, just in general, shifted, just from being able to share that moment with Steve and Will [Bellows], the assistant engineer. Just so many moments of taking these demos and making them feel so much more alive.
Speaking of positive elements, I know we’ve been talking about this more from a musical angle, but one similarity I noticed between the writing on Float and this album is that it kind of catches these glimpses of beauty and really holds onto them. I was thinking of the song ‘Shade of Blue’, where you sing, ‘“My head was underwater/ I muted out the tune/ The fog was suffocating/ But it was beautiful.” For you, how does a moment like this fit into the big picture of the album?
I think moments like that – the one that sticks out for me the most in that sense of finding a beautiful picture is ‘Melancholy’, where I’m literally saying, “Make me something I can feel again.” Like, this internal fight with myself where I’m telling myself, “Why don’t you give up?” and then the other part is telling me, “You shut up!” You know, like, I can get better, and I can – what’s the word I’m looking for – I guess, like, prevail. I’ve gone through periods of my life, multiple times, where I’ve had really big ups and downs, and I think especially ‘Melancholy’, I needed that song to almost shed some light on the rest of the darkness. I think with ‘Shade of Blue’, too, there’s those little moments that feel important to shed light on the dark stuff.
With darkness being the prevailing mood on the album, it’s easy sometimes to just focus entirely on that. What do you think helps you pay attention to those moments of beauty?
I don’t know, I think just… [pauses]. I don’t know, just holding on to the fact that I’m really lucky to be here. I’m lucky to be alive, I’m lucky to have the support that I have with my family and with my friends. I literally have a tattoo on my arm, it says, “Progress is not linear.” And it’s just this constant reminder that even though there are ups and downs, that doesn’t mean that you’re not growing and changing and getting better and becoming a better version of yourself. I think having the support and the desire to keep going and the love that I have for music, all of those things are what makes it beautiful. And I really have to hold on to that and remind myself that sometimes, when I’m really low. Like, Giana, don’t look at the glass half-empty. There’s good things. There’s good things around too. And just having the opportunity to create is a beautiful thing in itself, and I feel really lucky to be able to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.