The Obscura Object of Desire

Published June 3, 2013

ABOVE: CAMERA OBSCURA. IMAGE COURTESY OF ANNA ISOLA CROLLA

Camera Obscura wasn’t always given a fair shake in terms of time off. After an extensive tour supporting 2009’s My Maudlin Career, the band returned home and started writing music again. The writing period was unexpectedly extended to allow an unnamed member to recover from illness, and while singer Tracyanne Campbell might slightly resent that the time was construed by many as “a break,” she does think the band benefited from a little decompression time off the road. “I think we might have struggled with it if we had to do that straight away.”

She’s probably right. On Desire Lines, the band’s elegant pop tunes and tragic romantic lyrics remain intact; but the album moves at a considerably more meditative pace.

Interview spoke with singer Tracyanne Campbell about chatting with the namesake for their track, “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken,” opening the studio doors to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and fellow-lifer Neko Case, and Campbell’s latest project—her pregnancy.

MATT PUTRINO: I heard you had a chance to interview Lloyd Cole recently.

TRACYANNE CAMPBELL: Yeah, I did that about two days ago.

PUTRINO: How was that, being on the other end of an interview?

CAMPBELL: Well I was quite apprehensive about it, because unlike a lot of people I do actually think there’s a certain skill to interviewing somebody. A lot of people are absolutely diabolical at it, and I thought I would be in that category. So I guess I tried to avoid all the things that bug me about being interviewed, and do it in the way that I would prefer to be interviewed. It was more like a chat, and that was nice. He was easygoing, it was nice to talk to him.

PUTRINO: Can you tell me a little bit about recording in Portland? Did the whole band live together?

CAMPBELL: Well, we went in late November, and we were there about a month to track. We stayed in a big house that was split in two levels. The boys were downstairs and Carey [Lander] and I were upstairs. It was a bit of a spooky house, and it was a bit of spooky street. It had a lot of—we call them cupboards—I think you call them closets. Far too many. Creaky floorboards. Surprise little shafts. Quite creepsville. Like being in an episode of Scooby Doo every night when you get home. Waiting for somebody to jump around the corner. But it was nice enough, and it was in a nice area, nearby shops and stuff. We were there for a month and we’d go to the studio in the morning and work for eight or nine, 10 hours. Then we’d go home and relax. We went home [to Scotland] at Christmastime, and then we came back in January for a bit to mix the record. A month again, all in all two months.

PUTRINO: I’m curious about what it’s like making an album overseas. Does that mean you have to use a lot of different gear?

CAMPBELL: We brought some specific things, like guitars, but to be honest I wasn’t that precious about using my own stuff. I was quite happy to go see what happened. I took my own electric guitar, but I didn’t take my own acoustic guitar. I used a very nice acoustic guitar, I used Laura Veirs’ acoustic guitar. In some ways I wish I had taken my own, but hers was really nice. Carey took one keyboard, but we used a lot of the studio’s stuff. I guess that makes your record specific to that studio to a certain extent. I don’t think we’re too precious about stuff like that. I guess when people have their own pedal setup then things will sound kind of similar, but I think it was good for us to go and take a chance with the gear that was there.

PUTRINO: The title is Desire Lines. Is there a bigger metaphor there, or is it more of a curiosity about that strange kind of trail?

CAMPBELL: I think it’s exactly what you said, but I guess it’s a bigger metaphor as well. It’s difficult to name an album. I like the idea of an album all fitting together, but I don’t like to lead people into the thought that the album is all about the same thing, because it’s not. I think in general, it’s about me kind of assessing where I’ve been and where I’m going, in a vague way. It can also be thought of in a way where you think of your heart and your train of thought being a path, whether you’re in love with somebody, or it doesn’t work out. But you allow yourself to meander down the path sometimes and get into these kinds of feelings that are, you know, lost—when really you should be in your new path, that’s happier and a bit more positive and good for you. It’s about assessing that whole thing and the direction you take yourself and your heart in.

PUTRINO: You also had some pretty big guests on the record, like Jim James and Neko Case, but it still sounds very much like a Camera Obscura album.

CAMPBELL: For us, it was a pleasure to have those two artists on our record. In their own right, they’re great singers and fantastic songwriters. They do their own thing, and I’m a big fan of what they both do. I love My Morning Jacket, and I love Neko Case. I have all their records. So I guess in a way, I was a wee bit apprehensive about what would happen. Especially with Neko being another female. We’re very different singers. Neko’s just such an amazing vocalist, she’s got great range and great power. She’s a very different singer from me, we’re just completely chalk and cheese. I was a wee bit nervous about her just blowing me out of the water. But she added a sprinkle over it, and gave us lots to choose from. They did a great job. I still think they’re amazing when I hear them on the record. I haven’t listened in a while, so you sort of forget. And you listen and it’s like “Wow, that’s Neko Case singing my record.”

PUTRINO: Do you usually give yourself some space after making a recording

CAMPBELL: I think the thing is, people who make records usually have a different relationship with the album than other people. I tend—and I think this is the same for the rest of the band—I don’t really listen to my own music. I’ll listen to it in order to play the songs live, but I don’t go, “Oh, I think I’ll put a Camera Obscura record on.” I don’t get the same enjoyment. It’s a completely different thing. I’ll listen as more of a reference point. I’m more into a record when I’m creating it. When the songs are being developed, and when I’m in the studio recording. After that you have to close the door, and move on from it. I think that’s pretty normal.

PUTRINO: I think the only person I’ve heard listening to their own record is Kanye West.

CAMPBELL: Or the guy who wrote “Lady In Red,” Chris de Burgh. He listens to his own records.

PUTRINO: Right before we spoke, I had a chance to listen to your session on the Dermot O’Leary’s BBC2 show.

CAMPBELL: Oh did you?

PUTRINO: Did I hear you say that you were pregnant?

CAMPBELL: Yes.

PUTRINO: Congratulations!

CAMPBELL: Thanks very much. I did indeed.

PUTRINO: Did your pregnancy play into this record at all?

CAMPBELL: Without getting into the specifics, I wasn’t pregnant when I went to Portland to track the record, but I was pregnant when I came back to mix it. So it kinda worked like that. It does feel—not like a Portland baby—because I didn’t obviously “make it” in Portland, but it was there during the mixing, so it was kind of nice.

PUTRINO: Is this going to be your first time playing shows while pregnant?

CAMPBELL: This is going to be my very first time being pregnant and playing shows. I’ve never been pregnant before, so we’ll see how that goes. Fun and games.

PUTRINO: Do you think the new baby will lead to another break?

CAMPBELL: I think it’s a misconception that it was a break. We were on tour for a long time, people would have seen us on tour until 2010. We took some time on purpose after that because there were a few things going on. Someone in the band got sick, that took priority for a while and forced us to rest up a little bit. People say, “Oh, you’ve had a hiatus for four years.” Not really. We worked a lot of that time and had a forced break. It takes time to make records, it takes time to write songs, and it takes time to do it properly with integrity, and for it to mean something. We’ve always gone at our own pace, and to a certain extent we were forced to take a break, but in the end I think it was good for the creativity.

PUTRINO: I didn’t realize you were touring that long, that’s really not that much time between the end of the tour and now.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, not especially. If you’re overwhelmed, it takes a lot of time.

PUTRINO: Any far-off cities you’d like to play in?

CAMPBELL: I guess we’d like to play more South America. Maybe go to Argentina or Peru. Maybe go to Russia, I’ve never done that. We’re quite lucky, we’ve been to some far-out places. We’ve played in China, which is nuts; we’ve played in Indonesia and Taiwan.

PUTRINO: After 17 years, do you think a lot about how much you’ve played and recorded?

CAMPBELL: I guess. It’s strange to say out loud that we’ve been at it for that length of time, because we really didn’t feel it. I guess technically we’ve been making records for a much shorter period of time. The 17 years thing is a whole concept from the first few independent singles. Time flies, it’s crazy to me to think that it’s been that long. And what’s wrong with me? Like a dog with a bone, continuing to do this. I guess we’ve got endurance, in the true sense of word. Endurance, or lack of imagination. Maybe a little bit of both.

PUTRINO: Have you ever wanted to do any other types of art?

CAMPBELL: I pretty much just write music. I did sort of dabble in trying to paint for a while there, but I wasn’t very good at it. I did art in school, and in one point in my life, I thought about going to art school. That was before I thought I could seriously do music. I think I realized I was never going to be a great artist, or even a good artist. I was always going to be someone who could draw a nice picture, but that was about it. I’d quite like to get into it if I had a bit more time. I don’t know where the time goes, but music seems to take up so much of my time. I don’t spend a lot of time seriously doing something else. I probably should.

PUTRINO: Maybe with the new baby, you can do art together.

CAMPBELL: I know. I’m going to have my hands full, but maybe that’s a good idea actually. It’s probably going to open my world to endless possibilities. I’m going to have to start getting good at lots of stuff so my baby doesn’t say, “What have you been doing for the last 20 years? Kicking about in this band?

CAMERA OBSCURA’S NEW ALBUM, DESIRE LINES, IS OUT TOMORROW, JUNE 4, ON 4AD. THE BAND WILL TOUR THROUGH THE SUMMER, INCLUDING TWO SHOWS IN CENTRAL PARK WITH SHE & HIM ON JULY 6 AND 8.