Giana Caliolo wouldn’t be anywhere without their people. It’s a fact the musician and songwriter, who records under the moniker Calicoco, underscores during a recent hour-long conversation about Underneath, their loud, bold, and bloodletting new album out Friday (September 3) that was created with eight fellow instrumentalists, some of whom also acted as recording engineers. Caliolo may not live in the same city as their trusted collaborators anymore, but everyone remains eager to pick up wherever they left off — especially in service of invigorating Caliolo’s emotionally probing songwriting. “We can always do it again. It’s just so easy,” Caliolo tells MTV News. “The community I fell into is just so strong and so supportive.”
Producers, engineers, former bandmates, and supporters, largely from Caliolo’s creative home base of Rochester, New York, get shouted out by name during our Zoom call; when Caliolo forgets to recognize one person, they send a quick email shortly after we hang up. In an age where pop songs have more credited writers than ever before and technology allows for unprecedented collaboration, Caliolo’s approach to making music seems to be less about process and more about the joy of being around a genuinely good crew.
That spirit is on full display throughout Underneath, a furiously fuzzy, nine-song collection penned by Caliolo and brought to dazzling life at a recording studio at the University of Rochester. The album continues the artist’s growth from homespun interior songwriting, as heard on 2018’s Float, into toothier terrain as they scrutinize their own mental anguish. It begins with “I Hate Living With Me” before speeding into hazy songs called “Melancholy,” “Haunting,” and lead single “Heal Me,” a frenzied climb up a never-ending mountain that concludes with Caliolo’s demand to be lobotomized.
“I’m usually pretty good about reaching out, I think, when I am struggling. And there was a certain point where I was just not,” they say. “And at that point, I was writing a lot of this music.”
Underneath doesn’t shy away from the agony that preceded its creation. But like a lot of great albums born from processing pain, the very act of writing and recording the songs ultimately played a part in helping Caliolo heal. “I just had moments of not wanting to be here,” they say. “I feel lucky that I was able to push through with the music stuff. I think that helped me so much to have that outlet.”
Part of Underneath’s great power lies in its forceful drumming, handled by Caliolo themself, which channels the rawness of their songwriting into big blasts. Percussion comes naturally for Caliolo, who played various instruments in several bands during 11 years spent in Rochester. They moved to the city to study photography in 2008 and remained after graduation as they settled into the local music scene in groups called Secret Pizza, Pony Hand, and Buckets.
But members moved away, left due to illness, or simply found other adventures — as bands often do — and Caliolo started writing new kinds of songs. The first Calicoco release, Needy, came in 2017, via the delightfully named local label Dadstache Records. Caliolo counts that collaborative time in Rochester as essential to not just their creativity, but their entire life.
Early on, a local booker asked them to perform at one of the city’s iconic underground venues, the Bug Jar; not long after, they played in a band together. “Having all those people just to give you opportunities down the line, I felt really lucky there,” Caliolo says. “It’s just really friendly, the music community there, and it’s just really supportive. I love it and I miss it.”
In 2019, they relocated back to their childhood home in Long Beach, New York, where the landline pings about 10 minutes into our interview. Caliolo apologizes for the noise, though their early songwriting work for Underneath caused far louder sound waves to ripple throughout the house. “I remember shutting my door in my room, putting my headphones on, screaming into the microphone, and going nuts on the keyboard and stuff,” Caliolo says. “I almost feel like I don’t remember all of it fully.”
Those initial tracks, along with additional guitar and vocal recordings laid down in their bedroom, helped when they ventured back to Rochester to complete most of the album in January 2020 with producer and recording engineer Stephen Roessner. “He pushed me with this music a lot. He was just like, ‘You’re fucking sad. Be fucking sad.’ And I was having a really hard time, even during the recording process, and he was just there and basically held my hand and also gave me little punches to be like, ‘You got this.’”
Without those nudges, the darkness on songs like “Melancholy,” which spans five minutes, might have been less palpable. Instead, it builds to its cathartic lyric, “Make me something I can feel again!” with immense bluster, while the title track finds just enough venom for its snakebite chorus talking about losing control. “I think it relates to how I was so up and down, and me going from depressed to feeling manic,” they say. “I feel like I was trying to paint a picture of my brain.” The high volume lends a necessary counterweight to the album’s quieter moments, like the nightmarishly sedate “Cuore Mio” and fog-filled closer “I Was the Devil.”
That closer, a reworked version of an acoustic ballad, found new life thanks to a synthesizer part played by Roessner in an empty classroom. The burning, Rothko-red sound fills the entire sonic frame, allowing Caliolo just enough space to deliver the heart-rending lyrics. “When he started playing the chords on synth, it was just so intense. It sounds so much more intense than acoustic guitar. It broke my heart again,” they say. They can even hear themselves crying during the second verse. “I’ve never cried recording before, but that happened.”
You don’t need to know that to feel how deep “I Was the Devil” goes, or to perceive the frayed emotion that lurches throughout Underneath, courtesy of Caliolo’s work with their benevolent creative corps. When they mention recording “I Was the Devil,” Caliolo offers a telling insight: “It felt really big, and my little voice was singing through it.” Their recording crew might disagree. When it’s amplified by a whole slew of collaborators, Caliolo’s voice is the biggest thing in the room.