When Tracyanne Campbell sang to Lloyd Cole that she was ready to be heartbroken on the opening track of Camera Obscuras third album, Lets Get Out of This Country, she was certainly no stranger to the sentiment. By that point, heartache, sorrow, and love had already been well established as staple ingredients in her particular recipe of sweet-and-sour pop. Over four albums, whether working with a producer or doing it themselves (contrary to popular belief, Belle & Sebastians Stuart Murdoch did not produce the groups first album, only the early single Eighties Fan), Campbell and Camera Obscura had crafted and maintained what can now be recognized as a signature sound. Then the band went quiet.
When asked what the highlight of 2012 was, Campbell responded by saying, The end of an unexpected hiatus. Though the group had already begun working on material for what would become Camera Obscuras fifth album, Desire Lines, while touring 2009s My Maudlin Career, everything was put on hold when organist Carey Lander was diagnosed with cancer. We had to take some time out because she was very sick, Campbell explained, and that became the priority.
When the group was prepared to return to work, the downtime had given them time to re-evaluate what they had already done and what it was they wished to achieve next. The decision was made to forgo the proven formula that produced what are arguably the groups strongest releases, Lets Get Out of This Country and My Maudlin Career. For the groups fifth record, the band members chose to challenge themselves rather than simply repeat what works. And though the band changed locations and producers, the result is still signature Camera Obscura.
Consequence of Sound caught up with Camera Obscuras frontwoman to discuss the groups new album, Desire Lines, working with producer Tucker Martine, and what was behind changing the routine.
[In addition to the hiatus] you also said that this album was hard because you are constantly setting the bar higher and higher. How does it make it more of a challenge for you?
I think its important to try and make changes even if they are small changes. I think the worst thing we could do is repeat ourselves. Weve tried not to repeat ourselves with this record. I think you need to try and beat the last one, and thats what we tried to do. We could have made life very easy for ourselves by going back to Sweden and making a record with the same producer and getting a similar sound, a sound that we like very much, but I think we decided it would be better if we just tried to work somewhere different with someone new and do something a bit different while still maintaining the core of the group.
Im glad you brought that up because I wanted to get into the changes that you actually made for this album. When you revisited these songs, the decision was made to record the album in Portland. What was it in the songs that inspired the change of location? Why Portland, in particular?
Well, to be fair, we chose Portland because we chose to work with Tucker Martine, and hes based in Portland. Hes got a studio called Flora in Portland, so thats really why we chose Portland.
Tucker came first, not the decision to move?
Tucker came first. We had an idea that wed quite like to record in the States for a change, and he was top of the list. He was in Portland, and that pleased us because we like Portland. I think Portland was more appealing to us than maybe obvious places like LA or New York. I think we wanted something a bit “not-too-obvious.”
As you said, you changed producers this time, working with Tucker instead of Jari Haapalainen. How did you decide upon Tucker Martine? Ive read that it was something as simple as M. Ward suggesting it; is that true?
Yeah, it was as simple as that. Carey and I had dinner with him one night when he was in Glasgow. We were talking to him about making a record, saying all the things we wanted and all the things we didnt want. He had recently worked with Tucker and mentioned [him], so we started getting interested after that. And then we realized people like My Morning Jacket (who are one of my favorite bands) just made their last album with Tucker, and that was appealing. And he was working with Neko Case. He was an exciting prospect.
So, working with Tucker is how you got Jim James and Neko on the album?
I guess so, yeah, definitely. Ay, absolutely, actually because Neko was working with him and Neko and the band would Twitter things. She had offered to do some singing for the record, and we were absolutely amazed that she had done that. So, obviously [laughs] we snapped her hand off. And Jim being a pal of Tuckers–that was amazing for me because he is my favorite male vocalist at the minute, and My Morning Jacket are practically my favorite band.
Have you ever gotten to play with My Morning Jacket on a tour or a festival?
No, no, never at all.
Maybe these collaborations will lead to something like that. That would be pretty cool. You, Neko, and My Morning Jacket on a triple bill.
Thatd be nice. That would be pretty cool. I would like that.
How was Martines approach different than Haapalainen’s?
Well, there were a lot of differences. For starters, we had much more time to spend with Tucker in Portland than wed ever had with Jari in Sweden. Our Swedish records [Lets Get Out of This Country; My Maudlin Career] were made pretty fast in a short space of time, where the time pressure was pretty intense. It was all done high energy. With Tucker, in Portland, we allowed ourselves a more it wasnt laid back; we were still under pressure of time, but we gave ourselves more time to track and then more time to mix than wed ever had.
We basically tracked the album in about a month, and then we mixed the album in just less than a month. Whereas the Swedish albums were done, all in all, pretty much, in terms of actual days, probably a couple of weeks. So, it was less spontaneous. It was more, not completely methodical, but it was a bit more relaxing; it was a bit more thought out. We could afford to concentrate and get the drums perfect and stuff like that, whereas the Swedish records were more like a live vibe thing.
Did you want to switch it up and make it more relaxed, or was it working with Tucker that made it more relaxed?
No, we did, we did definitely want to do that because weve always, since the band started, weve always recorded live; thats how we do it. So, we basically all play together, and we get a live tracking and do some overdubs. With the Swedish records, they were really live so live it was unreal. There might have been mistakes in them, but we kept them because we had a good vibe; we got a good feeling from it. It was all in the spirit of sort of Wall of Sound, kind of Motown making that big reverb-y sound.
Its quite forgiving; you can actually get away with a lot. But we wanted to test ourselves. We didnt want to hide behind reverb and that wall of sound. We wanted to be a bit more exposed. I guess we wanted to show that we could actually play. Test ourselves and see that we can play and be a bit more, I dont know, sophisticated, or something. We definitely wanted to do it like that. Im sure Tuckers capable of working in many ways, but he was very methodical. He was very careful with fine detail because he had the time to do that as well.
His music [produced or played] has a dream quality to it, not ethereal, but a light, gentle quality to it that Ive always found very warm and comforting, inviting almost.
Yeah. Hes got a really great studio for starters. Its one of the most comfortable in fact, its probably the nicest studio Ive ever had the pleasure of making a record in, and weve been in some nice studios. The Swedish studios are really fantastic as well. Tuckers studio is just so beautiful and comfortable. Hes really thought about making a band at home. You automatically feel really comfortable there and welcome. Hes got such a mild manner, and hes very creative, very thoughtful. And hes a real good listener.
Thats important for a producer.
It really is. Weve been so lucky with the choices that weve made producer-wise. Up until we met Jari, Jari was the best thing that ever happened to us. And now Tucker, hes not the next best thing to Jari, but hes the best thing thats happened to us now because we just managed to click, and he helped us make the kind of record we wanted to make.
Ive seen some places still listing Nigel [Baillie] as part of the live band. I understand that he is no longer a full-time member, leaving to focus on family and fatherhood, but is he playing trumpet on Desire Lines, and will we see him on tour?
Nigel is not playing trumpet on Desire Lines, and you will only see Nigel on tour in the UK. He plays European and UK stuff. We were rehearsing today, and he was there, and Friday were playing Primavera. In the States, well play with Tim Cronin, whos been our trumpet guy in the States for the past few tours.
Is Tim on the album? Whos on the album?
Neither of them is on the album, and Im ashamed to say that the name of the trumpet player escapes me at this moment, but he was basically a session trumpeter. We didnt actually meet the trumpeter. The brass was done I mean, theres very little brass on the record
Thats why I was asking, because I heard the trumpet, and I started looking for information to see if it was Nigel.
[Laughs.] No. Sadly not. I suppose we tried to make a record with the five of us, and its not too heavy with brass or string arrangements this time. Its more the things that we could bring to it.
You once said, We’ve always been asked in the past about the Glasgow music scene and denied all knowledge of it. We don’t necessarily see ourselves as being a part of it, because we’ve never been that cool or that in. But wasnt not being cool kind of the point? Outside looking in, I would have thought that that bookishness or nerdiness was part of the charm of the Glaswegian scene and many of the bands in it.
I think the basic thing is that nobody is really trying to be something theyre not here. Weve certainly never tried to be something were not. If were in, were in. If were cool, were cool. If were not cool, were not cool. If were seen as bookish, whatever. We dont have a big plan to come across any way other than ourselves.
Kenny McKeeves said in 2010, around the time of Lets Get Out of This Country, that the band became more solid about things, and possibly that if it wasnt for you making that record, you may not have signed to 4AD.
Yeah, I guess so. Lets Get Out of This Country was a big turnaround for us. Making that record in Sweden with Jari it was a really big, big important record for us. It was the turning point I suppose. Things started to get a lot better and a lot more serious, and later we started to enjoy it a bit more. It was the first time that we actually thought that we were quite good at this and we can do this. It was an important record.
I think theres a big misconception that we were a Merge band and that we left Merge for 4AD. We were actually an Elefant Records band, a [small] Spanish record label, and we were licensed to Merge. So, we were never signed directly to Merge. If we were signed to Merge all over the world back then, then maybe we would never have had to make the change. But the fact was we were on a small independent from Spain. We werent even on a British record label, never mind an American record label. We really needed representation in the UK; this is where we live, where were based.
It was really important to us to sign to a label that essentially, first and foremost, was a UK label. If you sign to a big independent, they want you for the world. You cant pick and choose your territories. So, sadly, with regret, if we were going to sign, then we couldnt stay on Merge, basically. Merge is a great record label. We had a great home there. Theyre brilliant people and a great bunch of folks that work there. Were still in touch. Its just thats the way it goes; its business, and sometimes you have to make business decisions.
And nowadays, with the music industry as it is, you definitely want to make the best decisions for yourselves that you can at the time.
Exactly. Not everybody needs to be privy to every single detail, but theres a lot of stuff that people dont understand about why bands are on record labels or leave record labels. Its not just as simple as leaving. More often than not its all tied up in different things.
Well, speaking of tying things up, I know its been asked before, but do you think your Peel Sessions will ever get released?
I would really like to think so. I think we thought we might have done it by now. Some of them are very old. I dont know. We really need to get on to that because I think its something we should do, so I hope so.
What prompted you to respond to Lloyd Cole in song?
Just pure and utter love for the song. I love Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and I guess I had been writing songs around that time when I was obviously relistening to Rattlesnakes. I just thought Id go for it.