Camera Obscura didn’t look far from home when writing their new album, but they did travel continents to get the right sound
Tracyanne Campbell should be careful what she wishes for. When her band Camera Obscura released their fourth album, My Maudlin Career, in 2009, their stock had never been higher. Over a dozen years, this Glasgow-based five-piece had blossomed from diffident indie wallflowers into a bold pop band who effortlessly oozed swooning choruses. But by the time they had met their touring commitments, their frontwoman couldn’t face another uplifting tune.
“I personally felt, ‘I don’t want to write another thing, I’ve got nothing to say.’ I was really conscious of not repeating myself and I knew if I started straight away that’s what would happen,” says Campbell. “And I was bored to death of it, the thought of saying the same stuff, so I had to wait for something to happen to get the ideas. Then Carey got sick and that was the answer to that.”
Carey Lander, Camera Obscura’s keyboard player, is sitting next to Campbell as she recounts the band’s “personal disasters” of the past few years. Chief among these was that Lander was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. She has now come through treatment but finds it “a bit of a grim topic” so doesn’t elaborate further, preferring to refer wryly to the band’s enforced hiatus as “our gap years”.
“That makes it sound like we’ve been off to Thailand, lying on a beach!” says Campbell. In fact, drummer Lee Thomson was in London, having relocated, while guitarist Kenny McKeeve was just getting used to fatherhood when his mother died suddenly.
“Oh, and I’m pregnant, that’s another thing,” says Campbell. “It’s like we’re just getting ready to go and then something else happens and we have to wait.
“I do think that we would have taken time off anyway but we were forced into having a longer break than we would have planned. But that’s OK. There doesn’t seem the urgency that perhaps there used to be. I think we just realised that we can’t do it the way people maybe expect us to do it, we just have to do it the way we can. We’re still going to do the tour. We just won’t be planning the next three years like we have done on previous records.”
With a new album, Desire Lines, finally written, recorded and in the bag, Campbell and Lander feel they can now take stock of all the disruption.
“It impacted heavily because we’ve been together a long time and we’re friends so we care about each other,” says Lander. “But that’s also the reason you get through it. If we were in an earlier stage of our career and all those things happened, you would just think ‘this is too hard’ and give up.”
“I think it’s made us stronger,” says Campbell. “It’s a real testament to us. We could have panicked and taken the easy option. But I think the band has always worked well when we’re out of our comfort zone. It worked for us when we were making Let’s Get Out Of This Country [their third album, and the one which represented a great musical leap forward for Camera Obscura] and we decided to go to a different country and make a record with a producer for the first time. So I like that we had the time to think and put ourselves in a vulnerable situation again.”
True to Campbell’s theory, Desire Lines signals another sea- change for the band. This time they worked with producer Tucker Martine, who operates out of Portland, Oregon, a city so indie to the core that it has spawned a cult comedy sketch series, Portlandia, which gently pokes fun at alternative and hipster culture and finds universal humour in a specific environment. Were you to set the UK equivalent in Glasgow, the only thing you would need to change is the accents. Camera Obscura certainly felt at home among the buzzy music scene and vintage clothes shops. Lander counts the ways that Portland reminded them of home: “It rains all the time, it’s quite small for a city, you don’t have to drive everywhere, and musicians can afford to live there.”
After everything the band had been through, they were determined that what they produced in these Portland sessions (with a little guest vocal assistance from Martine associates Neko Case and Jim James) should reflect the upheaval they have weathered in recent times. If Campbell was struggling for lyrical ideas before, she certainly didn’t have to look too far for inspiration on this album. “It’s very much about the band,” she says. “There’s a lot of me thinking about us and where we’ve been and where we’re going and what’s right for us. I’m not cruel, I’m not writing evil lyrics about the drummer. But when it’s your life, what else are you going to write about? I’m not the kind of person who thinks, ‘I want to write a song about this.’ I write what’s in front of me, but I hope I’m subtle.”
Desire Lines is musically as well as lyrically subtle, evoking nuanced moods rather than making outright pop overtures. It’s not as immediate as their previous releases, but it certainly reflects where Camera Obscura are coming from these days. “There are a couple of pop songs on the record but I was trying to fight the obvious poppy chorus and still be melodic and catchy,” says Campbell. “We were definitely going for the laid-back thing. We needed it to be less emotional. That was how we were feeling. The mood was sombre.”
Lander sums it up neatly with another droll observation: “We want to chill people to death to make them feel good.”
l Desire Lines is released on 3 June by 4AD. Camera Obscura play the Liquid Room, Edinburgh, on 4 June and RockNess on 9 June.