Caitlin Barker Of Candy Ambulance On Depression, “Normalcy” and Making Music In Spite Of It All
Photos: Kiki Vassilakis
“I’m the most depressed I’ve ever been.”
Caitlin Barker of rock trio Candy Ambulance is basking in the sun outside of Troy’s Whiskey Pickle. Her fingers rest on a glass of a pink-tinged, floral cocktail–condensation gathering on its glass–as she flashes a somber smile. A crushing juxtaposition.
As of June 15, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced all COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in New York State. But that doesn’t mean everyone feels immediately ready to greet that brand new day. It’s been a year of deep grief, isolation and trepidation for most. For a lucky bunch, it’s been a freeing experience, lending time to truly operate and live on their own terms–a rug that’s being torn from under their feet.
“I feel very resistant,” Barker says. “I feel left behind, almost.”
“I’ve worked in the service industry my entire life, I think,” she continues. “Music is another part of that, too, where the separation of the bar or a stage is where it can be ‘this’ person. Until coming out of the pandemic, I was convinced that I was the most extroverted social person. I’m realizing I’m completely introverted, but I just never had any boundaries. Taking a year to let my hours be my own and then coming back–like a whiplash–into bartending and booking shows without making a ton of space to be slow is just freaking me out. Now that I come back, it feels so empty and sad.”
Over the past several months, we’ve seen the same articles plastered across major outlets. Have we forgotten how to socialize? Or, most importantly, for those who have found a sense of freedom and peace in the midst of this chaos, why is society pushing us to go back to “normal” if it makes us miserable? As one Vox article asks, “Will returning to normal life mean sweeping hard conversations back under the rug?”
For Barker, this sentiment is making her life–particularly returning to work to continue to afford, well, living–extra challenging.
“I still have those old social niceties that make me let people cross boundaries. But I’m reacting way quicker and maybe a little bit more disproportionately angry about a lot of the interactions. Everything just feels way more tuned up,” she says.
“Ninety percent of the conversations I’m having, especially working as a bartender, are just platitudes. I didn’t think I was gonna have to play this game again and I’m not doing it very well. My social battery is seriously drained, unless I’m having a heated conversation where I feel like I’m growing or learning or at least realistically engaged. It’s a completely different way of thinking.”
This has also been an issue for artists who have been navigating concerns such as fair pay, booking issues and the general level of respect from audiences, promoters and venue staff even before their year away from the industry.
What Barker and many of her peers want to know is: Did we learn anything at all from that time “away”?
“Maybe that’s a good thing, as an artist, to be feeling right now,” she considers. “We can keep that momentum up of ‘What are we doing?’ I’ve been saying for the past couple months, ‘If it’s not nutritious, I don’t want it and I’m very quickly rejecting it.’ So, there’s a lot that I’ve been considering in rejoining the music scene.”
What is nutritious to an artist, exactly? Obviously, fair pay for time and effort is key, but as Barker explains, what feeds them so much more is the genuine respect and engagement of their audience and industry peers.
For Candy Ambulance and other bands, the year of social distancing didn’t exactly mean they weren’t playing to an audience. So many artists opted to perform virtually from their studios, bedrooms or even live music venue stages operating in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. Locally, spots like Caffe Lena, The Linda – WAMC’s Performing Arts Center and The Hollow Bar and Kitchen kept fans at home entertained and artists on stage financially supported through a series of livestreams.
Candy Ambulance performed at Albany’s The Hollow with KWILLEO in February. (Filmed by yours truly, Mirth Films.) Barker says it was one of her favorite live performance experiences.
“We made the most money that we’ve ever made, like by a lot. People could watch from home, especially people who missed us touring and stuff, so we had a wider audience and the generosity was so good. Even in a room where there was only staff watching, the engagement and excitement–that energy–was so intense and good and I was home by 10 o’clock, doing something healthy and going to bed.
The next day we [the band and KWILLEO] were talking about it, saying, ‘This or better from now on or I don’t want it.’ I don’t want to compromise. I don’t want the venue paying their fucking bouncer or doormen our money. That was so common. Once, we got on a four band bill and we kept the crowd going the whole night. At the end we were handed $16. Mathematically, that doesn’t make any sense. And they were like, ‘Oh, well, we need to pay the bouncer and pay out the bartender and promoter.”
She shared a particularly upsetting memory from “before times” that exemplifies exactly what bands don’t want bouncing back in the reopening process. Candy Ambulance opened for a member of Dropkick Murphys’ solo project and stood her ground to the promoter, asking for $100 for her band.
“That’s not unreasonable,” she shrugs. “It’s cheap as fuck, actually. That’s selling yourself so short. At the end of the fucking night he held $100 up in the air, he’s way taller than me, and told me that if I took it I would be making sure the guy from the Dropkick Murphys wasn’t going to get paid his due. I said sorry and took the money. But we put up with that shit, right? Because ‘you’ve got to pay your dues.’”
“No matter what you’re doing, you need to get paid to live. That’s just crushing me. Probably a lot of people in the pandemic were like, “I actually just want to make a crocheted scarf. This is my passion.’ There should be room for that shit. You should have time to pursue the shit that you love. Part of me is just like, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we not fucking just tearing it down?’ And I know that’s easier said than done, which is also why I’ve been spending the past, truthfully, three weeks–all of my free time–with the AC on, in the darkest part of the apartment. While we’re in the middle of the fucking sunshine I’m inside with a blanket wrapped around me, watching ‘Intervention.’ That’s how I’m dealing.”
But that doesn’t mean Barker hasn’t found the energy to make something she feels is worth her while. After all, music is what feeds her. It’s a way she and her bandmates Jon Cantiello (drums) and Jesse Bolduc (bass) communicate genuinely and joyfully. Candy Ambulance wrapped up recording a new EP in October 2020.
“We recorded it in this big barn, all masked up. It was a strange experience, because of the pandemic, but it was super comfortable being in the big outdoor space. I felt something, actually,” she smiles.
Candy Ambulance worked with Nick Kinsey, a producer, engineer and drummer (Kevin Morby, Waxahatchee, and more) as well as Ellen Kempner of Palehound on the new work. Kinsey produced, recorded and mixed (all analog, which Barker loves) the EP as well as contributing synth to the project and Kempner played guitar on parts.
“I’ve been experiencing imposter syndrome the entire time that I’ve been playing music, at levels that I didn’t even understand. Working on this record, we’ve been circling the drain of all these people that we respect and I’m like, ‘How did we do this? How are we here? How is this happening?’ But then I realized, ‘Bitch, maybe you’re just good at what you do,’ and that was the end of that,” Barker laughs.
“How have I been in a band for six years and that was the first time I realized this for myself?”
Putting out the new project feels like a good step forward for the band, which actually almost split for good pre-pandemic. (“Five-year relationships are hard on even just two people. We were just exploring the idea,” Barker explains.)
But this past year gave them an opportunity to deeply reconnect and create, peacefully and at their own pace.
“There was this moment in the lockdown when we were sitting down, working through parts, writing songs–when suddenly I realized, ‘I haven’t felt like that or done anything like that since I was probably 15 years old in someone’s basement, where we didn’t have to be rushing off to work and running in different directions.’ It was this wash of calm, and it made me so happy. I realized, it can just be us three in the basement and still feel like, ‘You made it baby. Your life is fucking rad. You’re fulfilling your purpose.’ That’s cool as fuck.”
The finished product, Hard-boiled, will be independently released July 9. It will be solely available on Bandcamp for a week before hitting the usual streaming platforms.
And what’s in the name? The theme of this year of intense pressure inspired it for sure, but also, a band tradition.
“We eat a lot of hard boiled eggs on tour. It’s like avocados, nuts, peanut butter and hard boiled eggs every two hours. If you’re acting fucking cranky, one of us will remind each other, ‘Did you have an egg?’ We’ll go and stay in people’s houses and we’re like, ‘Can we just boil 12 eggs quick? Is that cool?’ It feels like a very funny thing, if you know us.”
The band has been sitting on the project and considered shopping it around since this spring.
Right before the 2020 shutdown, Barker says, the band was about to be signed by a label and put out on national tours. That was put on pause, indefinitely, but it made them consider casting a larger net to prospective takers. At least, momentarily.
“We were having a band meeting talking about submitting it for reviews and all these things and I just blurted out, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ We all agreed.”
Barker says they want to do things differently moving forward. They trust the quality of their work and the bond of the band to do the talking.
“It’s definitely our best. We’re really cohesive, it sounds like the three of us are super present playing together,” Barker says. “I think this special thing about us is our friendship. I think that’s what people relate to. They’re my emergency contacts. Jon and Jesse are my family and I’m just very excited about how we sound and how this EP came together. I think people will like it and I kind of don’t care about the results,” she laughs, explaining, “I care about playing shows and I care about the energy I have to put towards this. I know I’m way more confident.”
“We’re just popping [hard-boiled] out. It’s overdue, and then we move on. We’re booking stuff and that’s really what I want to focus on right now. When we play a show I don’t want to be caught scared. If you’ve ever seen me play a bad show, it’s because I was scared and I wasn’t confident. I had that imposter syndrome and hated myself.”
Candy Ambulance played their first show–with Stella and The Reptilians in support of The Vaughns–to an unmasked audience in a full capacity room at The Hollow at the end of June. Barker says she was terrified and nervous but, ultimately, it felt so good.
“It’s important to me that in addition to working, I’ve still had the energy to do my life’s work.”
Now, Barker is focused on letting herself have all the time and space necessary for putting out quality music that makes her feel fulfilled.
“I used to get really fucking down on myself for not being productive. I have to remind myself, ‘How about you even, just, wrote a song?’ Because I’ll be like, ‘Ugh, I haven’t hadn’t written in four months and I only have a couple half songs in the works, they’re not done yet. I don’t know why I can’t finish them.’ But Leonard Cohen would spend seven or eight years on a song, you don’t have to just shit out content all the time–though I felt like I did before.”
Barker is feeling the weight of the dark “return to normalcy” in a big way. It settles on our conversation in heavy pauses and rushed explanations. There are ways to fight back against, well, the Machine of it all, as an individual artist. Where that lands, I suppose, is that we just keep creating what feels real–authentic, terrifying and thrilling.
“If I’m not either excited or scared, then I’m not doing the right thing. I’ve never not been mostly scared, a little bit,” Barker says smiling. “ But I get excited for things, too. And I’m not bored with it. It still feels like this is what I want in my entire life.” She pauses. “And that’s never gone away.”
Order hard-boiled on Bandcamp July 9 and don’t miss Candy Ambulance with The Abyssmals, Battle Axxx and Pencildive at The Hangar on The Hudson in Troy July 30, 7 PM. $10 entry.