Tracyanne Campbell has discovered a new career strategy. “Maybe I’ll just start writing songs that I think everyone will hate,” she sniffs, partly with her characteristic dry sense of humour and partly due to the heavy cold she’s picked up on the plane back from SXSW. This statement is not unprovoked but a response to my never-ending questions about ‘James’, the emotional core of Camera Obscura’s latest album, My Maudlin Career. Described by Tracyanne as the “surprise song” of the album, it has rapidly become a fan favourite despite her prediction that it would be poorly received.
Let’s take a moment first to catch up on recent Camera Obscura history. When we speak, the band has just arrived back from a hectic mini-tour of the USA which encompassed five shows at SXSW and two in New York. For anyone thinking that SXSW is a glamorous event, Tracyanne is quick to point out that she had time to see only one band, and by that point was so frazzled that she now can’t even remember their name: “Gosh, that’s terrible.” Then again, you don’t last for ten years as a band with schedules as punishing as this without a wry appreciation for irony.
While Camera Obscura are a wonderfully romantic band, they’re also incredibly hard workers. Though it may seem awfully grown up, it’s worthwhile discussing the more mundane elements of being a band, not least because My Maudlin Career refers in part to just how tedious and fickle the music industry can be: “We were having a bit of a joke because maudlin sounds like modelling and modelling is obviously a job that some people think is glamorous, just like the music business.”
Indeed, it’s a little known fact about Camera Obscura, especially given their larger popularity Stateside, that My Maudlin Career marks the first album where the band can proudly say that they are full-time musicians. “The band has never been a profit making business. The money that we did make we put into recording and going on tour,” Tracyanne explains. So, a decade on from their debut EP, they have finally made the long-awaited transition to making a living from their music. “Everybody’s happy about it,” she sighs, “we deserve it after all this time.” It’s hard to disagree with her, particularly once you find out that the album was self-financed.
At the root of their persistence is the aforementioned imbalance in popularity on the two sides of the Atlantic. Though championed by the late John Peel in the UK, Camera Obscura’s core audience has always been in the States. As Tracyanne points out, Peel’s influence has, to some extent, been overestimated: “It’s good to be played on the radio but I think a lot of people who buy and enjoy records are younger people who don’t care about radio DJs.” But she is quick to clarify that being more popular in the States doesn’t perturb her or the band one bit: “I think it’s kind of nice. I don’t mind where we get the crowds, so long as we get the crowds. I think more and more we are playing to bigger crowds in the UK, but there’s still a step up when we go to the States.”
They are ambitious, however, to grow the UK audience, and once they completed their contract with Elefant Records (experts in the Spanish market but not so well versed in the UK) the band decided to self-finance My Maudlin Career in order to have their pick of the record labels: “We wanted to be in a position where we could choose.” This is how they ended up on 4AD, a label currently in possession of one of the most attractive rosters in the business. “It just felt right – the right label for Camera Obscura,” says Tracyanne, but points to other influences, including the Cocteau Twins formerly working with the label, and the roster at the broader Beggars Group: “The Beggars Group generally have millions of people that I like – we are in fine company I think.”
Tracyanne is incredibly fluid and sharp as we chat our way through these topics. This is surprising as I never expected to find myself caught up in a conversation about the ins and outs of the music business with someone who is, let’s face it, the author of some of the most romantic songs in said business. Mindful of needing to come away with some understanding of her personality and her songwriting, I turn towards a discussion of My Maudlin Career. It should be noted for newcomers that Tracyanne is a confessional lyricist. The press release for the album quotes her as saying: “I’ve never been so brutal when it’s come to writing lyrics. I wouldn’t even call them lyrics. Just documentation of what was going on with me for a while.”
That’s a misleading quote, insofar as it might lead you to think that Tracyanne is an open book. She is, in fact, the opposite. The canniness that informed the business planning that has put Camera Obscura in such good straits comes into play here. At some point, she’s worked out that you can be perfectly open about the nature and shape of your feelings but extremely private about their origins. When we talk about ‘James’, I ask if there is a story behind the song and know at once that I’ve overstepped the mark when she responds with an uncomfortable pause. Then: “I think it’s pretty self-explanatory – I’m never trying to be clever with the words.”
And, to be fair to her, the lyrics are pretty straightforward: a tale of two ex-lovers who are trying to be friends but finding it difficult going, it’s sweetly melancholic and bitterly, lovingly human. There is a tendency with songs that you love and identify with to want to know all the gritty details. Tracyanne is private, however, and, I suspect, also aware that no matter how ‘documentary’ the lyrics become, they can’t be too involved; the listener always needs to be able to put herself in the place of the “I” who sings, and too much detail can obstruct that. As she points out: “I’m not going to say for a moment that I’m laying my soul bare and that everybody knows everything about me – I think that would be absolutely ridiculous.”
You sense that there’s a fine but strictly patrolled line with Tracyanne that demarcates what is private and what is public, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where that line falls. For example, she’s almost at her most animated when it comes to Twitter. The band has one account but every member posts, indicating who is tweeting with the initial of their first name. “I think it’s extremely weird!” she gulps, though she offers the occasional cryptic tweet.
The other members of the band are far more forthright, mauling music journalists who get the names of album tracks wrong and sharing stories of drunken baking. “I’m surprised that something’s been invented that would get some of our guys to tell people as much as they are telling them,” she says. Then, almost out of the blue: “But who am I to say that it is wrong? I write songs and I sell them to people to make a living.” That’s a kind of self-awareness most musicians would be uncomfortable expressing to friends let alone journalists.
But this is Tracyanne all over: disarmingly funny about the topics you think will be taboo. On the subject of her being a ‘melancholy’ songwriter, she is especially amusing: “I do write songs that come from a sad time or a sad place, but at the same time,” she pauses for dramatic effect, “I must enjoy that! There must be something in me that panders to that, you know? I think I can accept that about myself.” She even goes so far as to cheerily say, “I seem to write better when I’m feeling a bit down.”
I ask her if she is enjoying playing My Maudlin Career live, and she snorts at once then corrects me: “I’m enjoying learning to play it live. ‘Cos, you know, it’s a weird thing making a record. Yesterday we were in rehearsal and we realised that we had been playing ‘James’ wrong. We had been missing out four whole bars. We thought we’d better fix it before people actually have the record.”
It’s this kind of willingness to laugh at herself that makes Tracyanne so refreshing. You can tell she adores the new record – “it should be our best. Just like the next one should be the best” – but she’s never precious about it. In fact, she’s almost the opposite of the romantic persona that you hear on the album, which just makes it a more enduring, complex, and enchanting listen.
There’s only one point at which she displays that same kind of restless yearning, so to speak, and that is on the topic of Sweden: “Stockholm is where we’ve been a lot over the last few years. It’s the one place in the world that I really feel very comfortable and very at home. And it’s the one place that I actually long for, which I think is kind of strange because usually people just long for their own city or town. Stockholm is a great place.”
It would be fair to say that Tracyanne Campbell is a bundle of contradictions, though pleasantly so. Case in point: as I am putting down the phone, I have the strange sense that I haven’t actually got to know that much about her, but that I like her a lot. On listening back to the tape of our conversation, I realise that for most of the interview I’m laughing, making it hard to hear what she is actually saying. There is no better example than this: asked if she’ll ever make a record about being happy and in love, Tracyanne pauses (and it is as though you can actually hear her cocking her head) then says: “Probably not – I’ll probably be too busy being happily in love to write anything down.”
As much as the music would be missed, you can’t help but feel that would be the most appropriate turn of events for the first lady of the forlorn.
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Camera Obscura begin their UK festival season on Friday at T In The Park. A full UK tour begins in October. My Maudlin Career is out now on 4AD.