Callie of All Trades: Finding victory within vulnerability
“When inspiration strikes, and suddenly the ugliness of the past, for a short while, turns into something beautiful, it gives you a real insight into the duality of everything.”
Callie Rose Donnelly, Photographed by Abi Ponce Hardy
Emotional vulnerability and full transparency can often be stigmatized. These actions can connote an appearance of being imperfect or powerless. Callie Rose Donnelly, 26, shatters this false fabrication and proves that being open, although scary, is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it appears that vulnerability and transparency demand high levels of emotional intelligence.
Callie is a leading light in Edinburgh, demonstrating that through adversity, you can succeed in almost anything. The transfemme musician does not limit herself to songs; she is known for her dynamism. Callie writes poetry, performs in theatre and pioneered queer inclusion within STEM at the Roslin Institute, winning pivotal roles and an award.
Minoricity had the privilege to converse with Callie Rose Donnelly about turning pain into art, balancing science and creativity, and the challenges of today’s lockdown.
Photographed by Abi Ponce Hardy
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR MUSIC OR POETRY IN THREE WORDS?
Queer, vulnerable narrative.
WHAT’S THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING TRANSPARENT WITHIN YOUR MUSIC? DO YOU THINK THIS CONNECTS WITH LISTENERS?
Transparency is perhaps the most important facet of my art. I take my experiences, which may have been traumatic, and turn them into open letters to myself, to us all, to the people who hurt me, to the people who made me, to the people I can never sit next to again and say what might be on my mind. My songs are usually born from a feeling of unease. A feeling that what’s within must come out. “How can I tell the untellable?”
This unspeakable feeling is felt by countless others around the world, and at a time when we are more connected - more disconnected than ever before - if I can just translate this inconceivable, universal loneliness into a discretely digestible musical package, then maybe, upon hearing it, those others - and by extension, I - might not feel so alone.
HOW DID THE IDEA OF A SONG-JOURNAL ARISE AND DOES IT WORK AS A FORM OF THERAPY, JUST LIKE A WRITTEN JOURNAL?
The song journal didn’t so much arise as an idea, it was the other way around; my ideas have always taken the form of diary entries and after a lifetime of making art in this format, I decided to make it an actual thing on Patreon. Poetry, art, music - whatever it is - my first and foremost motivation is to tear out my heart and hand it to whoever chooses to feel it beat. While a lot of the stories behind my pieces are buried deep under layers of allegory, I like to write about the song in an essay preamble and give the backstory as I would at a show. There are often multiple themes and devices that go into each composition, and my transparency, like that of a diary, is definitely cleansing somehow. Once the experience or emotion in question is contained within those 7 or so minutes, it’s more accessible. Not just to the outside world but also to the self.
WHAT HAS THE METHOD OF MUSIC HELPED YOU WITH THE MOST?
I think the overarching lesson from composing has been self-acceptance. Each seemingly terrible thing that has happened to me has given my artistic voice a new coarseness, a new richness, a new colour on the canvas. When inspiration strikes, and suddenly the ugliness of the past, for a short while, turns into something beautiful, it gives you a real insight into the duality of everything. Have you ever thought how scary it would be for absolutely anybody to be able to read your diary? For some, it might be the scariest thing they can think of. I have spent my life terrified by the opinions of others. As an artist, as a trans* person, it’s easy to be crushed by the onslaught. I spent two decades hidden away from fear of what others might think of the real me. So, the song journal is also exposure therapy. Exposure to exposure.
BEING TRANS IS A BIG PART OF YOUR MUSIC IDENTITY, WHAT UNIQUE EMOTIONS CAN YOU FIND WITHIN YOUR SONGS THAT YOU CAN’T, PERHAPS, IN SOMEONE ELSE’S?
That’s a really interesting question. I think everybody can relate to my experience in some way, no matter how queer it might be. My most satisfying moments include straight men approaching me in a pub and saying a song resonated with then. I’m like “Wow, even he related to those words? That song was about anal.” Art makes emotion accessible.
I really dislike the trans* trope of “being trapped” in one’s body, but I do definitely, obviously, feel a sense of limitation from my body and the dysphoria that comes with it - just as I do from my disability. Finding freedom from within some form of imprisonment has been a skill I’ve had to work hard to cultivate many years before this isolation began. This is a very common human experience. Perhaps the uniqueness of the emotion that fuels my art is its intensity. I feel everything a lot. [She’s] a bit of a wreck.
WHAT CURRENT ACTIVISM EFFORTS ARE YOU APART OF? DO YOU HAVE ANY ULTIMATE GOALS?
I am a member of the Spit It Out Collective, which is a coven of femme creatives focused on artistic expression and performance as a powerful tool to aid in the recovery of trauma, the dismantling of taboos, and the delivery of social education. Lea, an amazing filmmaker and one of the founding members, is currently working on a documentary about my life experience as a trans* non-binary woman. The ultimate goal of my activism is to start a QTPOC artist housing co-op/ shelter/ bookshop/ coffeehouse/ performance space that would be rent-free and simultaneously create and nourish the queer scene of Edinburgh.
YOU’RE ALSO A SCIENTIST. ARE THERE ANY COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS THAT PEOPLE HAVE OF YOU, THIS AND YOUR ART?
Many might assume me to be a logical person, or somehow organised and put together for being in science. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I worked at an animal research institute looking for a mutation for resistance to bird flu, but I’m vegetarian and a firm supporter of animal rights. I told myself, as I think all scientists do, that it’s all for the greater good.
For most of my life, people have assumed that I am conventionally "clever" and that STEM comes naturally to me. This is definitely not the case. By nature, I’m very artistic. The majority of my studies were spent making strange songs, drawings and diagrams to help me remember biology. I had to push myself very hard into a mould to get where I’ve got in academia, which was to the detriment of my body for sure. I had to make the decision to leave science for my own physical and mental health – I’m now compiling my two years of PhD research into a master’s thesis - and I’m much happier for it already.
Photographed by Abi Ponce Hardy
YOU’RE CURRENTLY DOING AN ISOLATION POETRY SERIES - HAS THIS LOCKDOWN HELPED YOU CHANNEL YOUR CREATIVE SPIRIT?
I’m agoraphobic and physical symptoms can often leave me housebound. It’s been strange to see the rest of the world being forced to adopt what often become my normal behaviour patterns. Not even having the option to jam with my collaborators, and hug and kiss my friends has been the most gut-wrenching thing. Gut-wrenching is usually where my art begins. So, I suppose it’s been a bit of an XP boost, though I would obviously much prefer it wasn’t happening. It’s definitely made me pick up my spiritual practice out of necessity.
My doctor believed I contracted the virus, and there were a few times I was terrified and unable to breathe in my flat, not wanting to go to the hospital as an at-risk individual. I wondered what drawings, what recordings, what arrangement of objects around me, I might leave behind in case I died. So, in a feverish frenzy, I made a series of poetry for each formal day of the quarantine and came to terms with the fact that these poems may be the last thing I ever make.
I’m through to the other side of it now, and while it’s exacerbated my existing health problems, I am doing okay and just praying I don’t catch it again. This flavour of adversity: battling an imminently crushing, faceless demon, is mirrored throughout my life and work. The external environment of my flat has become a microcosm of my internal environment for the first 20 years of my life. It is strange that I decided to leave virology just as a viral pandemic began, but it feels significant; like poetry somehow.
HOW HAS LIVING IN EDINBURGH INFLUENCED YOUR WORK?
I’ve always wanted to live here and felt I would. Something about the place drew me here, aside from my Scottish heritage. There is a deep history that seems to roll from the stone, and it’s absolutely awe-inspiring. You can see why so many scientific discoveries and artistic creations have been made here. I feel very privileged to have been at the interface of those two disciplines in a city like this.
Photographed by Abi Ponce Hardy
WHERE IS YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE TO PERFORM IN THE CITY?
There are few joys which compare to taking my digital piano to The Meadows and shredding keys in the sun underneath the blossom trees. I think my favourite places include anywhere that my art family congregates: in their cluttered flats, under blanket forts on their beds, on buses together or walking through the beautiful streets. The whole city is a playground for performance, and so many venues have welcomed me with open arms, which I never even dreamed about in Coventry. I do really love Paradise Palms – they really have been a second home for me, so queer and so chaotic – no wonder my collective has gained a residency there for after this all blows over!
DO YOU THINK THE QUEER SCENE IN EDINBURGH IS UNDERREPRESENTED?
Absolutely! Particularly, the scene for the trans*/non binary/QTPOC community is lacking in Edinburgh. It isn’t helped by the early closing of venues as we are a nocturnal bunch. Another musician and I are hoping to start a gender*ck cabaret in the city at some point, focused on drag-theatre-troupe-acoustic-esque performances by GNC people across the spectrum. This is a mid-term goal I’m very excited and enthused about.
ARE YOU OPEN TO ANY COLLABORATION OPPORTUNITIES?
I am always open to any collaboration opportunities. Perhaps my favourite collaboration to take part in is writing film scores. Writing soundtracks is one of the things I am most passionate about. I love to uncover what a scene sounds like, so any filmmakers feel free to get in touch.
I happily welcome any messages regarding all types of collaboration. My Patreon page is a big collaborative space, where I often get patrons to suggest song titles or contribute however they want. It’s a beautiful family that I would be honoured for anybody to be a part of.