Carly Ann Calbero got her start as a musician busking at Seattle's famous Pike Place Market. She was one of the top four finalists in Rolling Stone magazine's Street to Stage competition, and is now promoting her first full-length album, Science of Pride, which was released in November.
We spoke with Calbero, who is performing March 6 at Bainbridge Island's Eleven Winery, about what it's like to busk at Pike Place, her musical influences, and her new album.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You started out busking at Pike Place. Can you walk me through your trajectory as a musician?
I had started early on in school. I did a lot of choir and got interested in jazz really early. I did a lot of choral music through high school and took a couple years of music theory. I got into Berklee [College of Music] over in Boston for early admission in high school, but the cost was just way too out of what I was going to be able to afford, so I figured the best thing to do would be to just go down to Pike Place and start playing as soon as I could.
So right after I graduated I went down to Pike Place, started busking, and I think just a year into that I got picked up by Rolling Stone for the Street to Stage competition. Everything started snowballing from there. I started doing a couple tours: west coast tours, a national tour, with a duo that I was a part of, and then just before the pandemic I started doing my own solo stuff. And after the pandemic, I started picking up where I left off and it's been going from there.
What did the Rolling Stone competition entail? Were you featured in the magazine?
I think there were eight of us originally, and it was two rounds. So they had us featured in the magazine two or three times I believe. Once to introduce us, and for the final round they had us in there again. And the way it works was, people would vote for you. You'd carry around the sign and people would vote for you. They'd come out and take photos, take comments from people in the magazine and then people would vote online. And it was a national competition for street performers.
How did you get selected for that? Did someone from the magazine go around looking for the best street performers?
They were just kind of hitting the ground. There was someone in Seattle that, I think they just took a day, or a couple days, and they went around and talked to buskers. They were talking to me about it and I was a little bit unsure of it because, you know, somebody randomly comes up to you and talks to you about, hey, do you want to enter in this competition? I looked into it and then applied and got in, which is pretty cool.
You touched a bit on the pandemic. I know it's been particularly hard for people in entertainment, where your livelihood centers around live performances. Can you talk about the impact of the pandemic on you as a musician?
I got really lucky. Right before the shutdown happened, I had talked to a friend of mine who I knew who used to run Seattle Teen Music. I used to play with them quite a bit, and they are now running the School of Rock in Lynnwood. And I talked to them and said, hey, I think that I should probably start teaching or something, and have something else just in case the pandemic happens, or whatever is going on in the world right now. And they kind of kept me afloat throughout the entire pandemic.
And I also had a couple people who have been following me for a number of years reach out and give me a couple projects here and there. There was an indie film that I did a cameo in, where it was just busking, which is pretty cool. The Pike Place Market foundation came out and asked me to do some music for them. It's a number of smaller things which added up and helped me to stay busy, stay afloat during the pandemic.
How is performing as a busker different from performing on stage?
When you're busking, it's a lot more freeform. So I tend to have some issues with my tempo, and that isn't as much of an issue when you're busking, just because you have such a revolving door of people listening to you and when you're performing, you really want to hone that stuff in. So trying to be intentional about the way that I'm busking and making sure I'm paying as much attention to those smaller details is something I've been trying to focus on in the last couple years. Just having that revolving door of people coming in and out, you have a little bit more freedom to try things out and to mess up and to push yourself. And then when you go to a show, that's when everything gets all cleaned up and that's the thing you've been busking and practicing for.
Is your new album, Science of Pride, your first?
Yeah, that's my first full-length album. I've done a couple EPs before under some duos and some other projects, but this is my first full-length.
What's it like going from busking, where it's more freeform, to a studio where it's presumably more regimented?
For Science of Pride, I really wanted to do an album where from start to finish I had my hands on everything. From the writing process, it was a bunch of songs that I felt really in some way or another addressed pride, whether it be the good sides of pride where it kind of lifts you up, and the negative sides of pride that kind of hold you back. And so from the writing process, having that group of songs, it was then going into cleaning up some of my piano skills, because I'm in no way a proficient piano player. But learning how to play a little bit better, cleaning up some of my other instruments that I don't usually play, especially out in shows and busking, and then doing some more research into the production side of things, which I've always been interested in, but haven't necessarily had the time to do. The pandemic definitely afforded some time to learn and improve my skills in that area.
I really wanted to have my hands in everything from start to finish and I think it was a really enlightening process to see what goes into it at each level and why each level is important.
Describe your musical style.
I listened to Ella Fitzgerald non-stop. It was Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Krall. It had a lot to do with the timbre of their voices, the vibrato, kind of that deep gravelliness that happened in their vocals. And I feel like when I'm listening to music like that, I'm taking little things from there, and whether or not I'm conscious of it, it just kind of seeps its way into my vocals or into my playing.
One of my songs was featured on a podcast and they were talking about it and were like, "I don't know, it's kind of like jazz rock or something." It's because the chords and stuff in there just had a little bit of that jazz influence. I get compared to Brandi Carlile a lot, too, but it's just because that's the music that I listen to all the time, so it just kind of seeps its way in. So it's a lot of jazz, it's a lot of Seattle Americana, and Head and the Heart. I listened to a lot of Death Cab growing up, too. A lot of that just seeps its way into what I'm currently doing.
Are you a native Washingtonian?
For the most part. I was born in Hawaii but I grew up in Marysville from the age of 4. I've been here for a while.
I love Washington — it has its ups and downs, like the rainy winters, but it's such a cool state.
It's like every time I leave, I just want to come home. There's no place for music like Seattle. For busking, especially. It can be tough sometimes if you're on the quieter side to get ingratiated with the community, but at the same time, once you're in the community, you're in. And everybody kind of lifts you up, which is really cool. I love that skyline driving in from the southern side, so when you're coming back from Oregon or California or something, you're coming back into the city. It's like my favorite thing.
You've talked about how music was an outlet for your shyness, and allowed you to be more expressive. Can you talk about that?
I'm not super extroverted and I feel like putting on a guitar is like putting on a superhero cape. You get to step into this other person that you can really express yourself. I'm working on it, but I'm terrible about performing without a guitar strapped on my back or strapped on me. It feels different to be able to do that, like Superman taking off the glasses. You can really hone in and be like, "OK. I can do this."
And the lyrics kind of tell the story of things that I wouldn't necessarily talk about. And then you just get to meet people, too. I wouldn't go to a bar and just randomly start chatting with people, but I get to do that because I'm playing shows.
You have a tour of the western Washington area. Are you touring to promote your album?
I'm playing regularly in western Washington especially. I will be heading down the west coast to do a more extensive tour. The goal is just to play my songs as much as possible and get it into people's hands and into people's ears. I've been starting to play music with a band, which a couple of the instructors from the School of Rock have met ... there's a very talented violinist I've been playing with from Pike Place as well. And that's going to be the main focus over the next year, is playing with a band and performing the album together.
Is this album self-produced or are you on a label?
I'm completely independent. My brother ended up doing the photography and stuff for me. The lady that did my makeup for the album [cover] actually did my makeup for the M&Ms shoot, so I met her through that project, which is pretty cool.
There's always that tension between a label having certain expectations and wanting to have creative freedom.
I have had a couple offers over the years to join labels, but nothing fit right. Especially with my music, I'm very protective over it, as I think a lot of musicians are. I think, too, when I'm playing my music I'm influenced by jazz, by Americana, by classic rock — stuff like Pat Benatar and Joan Jett. And it can be hard to put that into — I'm solely in folk, or I'm solely in rock, or I'm solely in some type of jazz-pop type of genre. And with a label, I feel like they definitely want you to do that.
So having the freedom to express your music outside of that has been really freeing. It can be tiring doing the emailing and the production side of things, and the music side of things, but I know that I'm always going to be in the places that I want to be in, playing the music that I want to play, and that's a pretty good way to spend my time, I think.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
No, I don't think so. I'm super excited to be on Bainbridge. I haven't played a show over on Bainbridge since before the pandemic, so I'm excited.