Q&A with Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura

Early on in its career, Camera Obscura endured endless comparisons to revered fellow Glaswegians Belle & Sebastian. At this point, however, any comparison threatens to make the latter look bad: Among scholars of the heartache and growing pains of bookish, precocious youth, Stuart Murdoch's got nothing on Camera Obscura vocalist/guitarist Tracyanne Campbell. Her band's new album, My Maudlin Career, swathes Campbell's melancholy yet droll lyrics in the warm glow of Motown/Spector '60s pop and classic country, making for one of the year's most lovable records so far. Our Rough Mixes piece in this week's issue only gave a taste of our interview with Campbell; when we rang her up recently at home in Glasgow, she took time between playing with her niece and playing her new guitar to talk to us about, among many other things, David Lynch, the irreplaceable John Peel, and jumping around on stage (or not). Read the full transcript after the jump.

Westword (Kyle Smith): You're about to leave on your big tour in a week or so. What are you doing until then?

Tracyanne Campbell: Tomorrow...oh, I'm going to sneeze, hang on a sec. No, it's gone. Sorry. [Sneezes quite forcefully, laughs.] Sorry! Tomorrow we're rehearsing, then we're recording a B-side on Thursday and rehearsing Friday, and then Saturday and Sunday I'm just going to try and get it in my head that I'm actually leaving the house for six weeks. You know, pack a bag. I think I'm a little bit in denial or something. [Laughs.] I'm looking forward to it; it's just that I hate to pack. I haven't mastered it yet.

WW: You've said that your last tour was kind of a big transformative experience. Do you think this one has similar potential, or is your life a little more settled now?

TC: I think there's always something to learn, and I guess that's what we're interested in, getting a bit better at stuff in relation to the band, 'cause hopefully that'll make us more relaxed and better at what we do. You know, we've been to the States quite a few times now, and we're quite comfortable with it, but I think we all hope that our performances will be better, and that people will have a better time than they did the last time. I think we're just really looking forward to it; we'll try to have fun and maybe not worry about things too much.

WW: I read a review of your album recently that called you "sincerely ironic." Would you say that's a fairly accurate description of your M.O.?

TC: I don't think that's all I am. I'm not always trying to be ironic. I think sometimes people think I write lyrics where I'm always trying to hide behind irony or something, and maybe I am and I just don't know.

WW: There definitely is a sense that sarcasm comes across as a defense mechanism in your lyrics.

TC: Yeah, maybe. I don't know; I don't think too much about that or really analyze it. I think that sometimes I'm being sarcastic, but not as much as people seem to think I am.

WW: What about the irony that you're taking songs that are at least occasionally very bitter and dressing them up in the sounds of swooning '60s pop--how much do you think about that?

TC: People bring that up a lot, but it's not that calculated. People say, "Oh, do you write really sad songs, or songs that are sort of down about romantic love, and do you choose to make the music happy?" I don't think so. When the band gets together we just do what comes naturally. We don't have meetings and I go, "All right -- I've written ten songs, and they're a bit miserable, and I really want to write ten classic stomping pop tunes." I don't really think it's like that. I think we want to be able to write pop songs, songs that people can sing along with, songs that make people happy. It just sort of happens by accident. I think songs start off a lot more miserable when I do demos and things; sometimes they're rather -- if I was doing these things myself, maybe things wouldn't be as upbeat at times. But I don't do it myself, so...

WW: Another thing that made me think of irony is that you've mentioned that you like David Lynch and would like to see your songs used in his films. He uses those songs in really kind of a creepy way--you'd like that?

TC: Oh, I'd love to, because I think that some of the things that he likes, and the music that I think he likes, because I hear it in his films, are things that are along the lines of what we like. And we like his movies and we like the fact that he doesn't just give it to you on a plate; he wants you to think, and take whatever you want from his films. I'm not saying I understand David Lynch, but I think we could easily make sense in a scene in one of his films. There's sort of a darkness to our music, but there's also sort of a lightness, and also, like you say, irony and sarcasm, and a lot people don't give us credit for sometimes.

WW: On your profile on the band website it also mentions that you were taken with [recent Swedish film] Let the Right One In, which caught my eye, because I really liked it. Do you like those sorts of, hmm...weird movies in general?

TC: I don't really think of myself as somebody who likes vampire movies, especially; I mean, they're really clichéd and kind of a joke and stuff, but--and I had just seen it when we put that up, so that's kind of why I put it up--but I wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did, and I wasn't expecting it to have as much depth as it did. It wasn't a clichéd vampire movie, you know, there was more to it, like for starters the children, and their sort of innocence, but also how evil they can be. [Laughs.] It was a beautifully shot film as well; I love Sweden, I loved seeing Sweden, so that sort of made my stomach jump a wee bit. I really do miss Stockholm a lot. I haven't been this year, and I guess I'm kind of longing for it a wee bit.

WW: How much time do you typically spend in Sweden?

TC: I've spent a lot of time there over the past few years, but less and less; last year I think I only went two or three times, and the year before I went loads, and I've got friends there and stuff. Last year I went in November -- or maybe October? -- but I haven't been for ages, and I really want to go. I was supposed to go a couple months ago, and I just didn't get to 'cause of being in Canada doing the record, and it's looking like we won't get there until we play there, but I hope to get there for a holiday, maybe.

WW: Do you speak Swedish?

TC: No, it's a bit of a disgrace, but I don't speak Swedish. I understand--I can speak tiny, tiny, tiny bits of Swedish. I can't hold a conversation in Swedish. But when people are around me, I understand a lot of things that are being said; I know a lot of words, but I'm just not really ready to go for it.

WW: I wanted to ask you about two things that we just don't have here in the U.S.--

TC: [Laughs.] What? What could it possibly be that you don't have?

WW: I know, I know. Well, the first is John Peel, who I guess you don't have anymore either, but he was pretty important for the band early on, right?

TC: Yeah, he was. He was a big supporter of the band, and it gave us a bit of a boost, a bit of confidence, that somebody like him liked the band. He was very instrumental in getting some people to notice us. Yeah, he was a big part of the early days.

WW: Is there anyone in the U.K. who can take up that role in any sort of way?

TC: I wouldn't really like to say that someone could take John Peel's place, but we do have champions, we do have people who champion the band. There's a journalist called Paul Morley, who is an incredibly intelligent, well-respected music journalist in the U.K.; he's very bright and loves music with a passion. He been a fairly recent champion of the band, and we almost can't believe it, you know, that he likes us so much.

But there's lots of people; there's a few British DJs who really like the band and have had us in their stations, and it's clear that they really do genuinely like us, and that's a great feeling. But John Peel--I think it's amazing that, for instance, I'm doing an interview and you're asking about him. Word just keeps getting out there that he really was an exceptional character.

WW: Does the band get much airplay in the U.K.?

TC: We're getting more and more; it's been quite unbelievable, actually. It's still really difficult to get played on [BBC] Radio 1, especially during the day, but we have quite a lot of stations jumping aboard and really getting behind the band. It's brilliant.

WW: You've said before that the band probably wouldn't exist without the internet, which is probably true for a lot of bands, but do you have your eyes set on the radio?

TC: Yeah, absolutely; I mean, that's what everyone wants, right, to get played on the radio? We don't want to think of ourselves as an internet band; it's certainly helped us, but before the internet there was radio for us, and that was what we wanted, to get played on the radio. People still do listen to the radio. I listen the radio; I don't spend all day on the internet listening to music. That's just not what I'm about. I think that's not what lots of people are about, and I think it's still important to have it, and to get played on the radio is still a bit of an important thing.

WW: The other part of my question was about the Scottish Arts Council. You've all recently become full-time musicians, right?

TC: Yeah.

WW: Certainly hard work and talent have helped, but the Scottish Arts Council has helped too, right?

TC: The Scottish Arts Council helped pay for the recording of our album. They don't give us a wage or anything, but they have helped with the record and they have helped with a couple of trips, to South by Southwest, for instance. It's great to have that kind of system, where you feel like at last you're in a band that's being taken seriously by its country. In other countries, in Sweden for instance, their government really does help its artists a lot, to where artists are really encouraged to get out there and put Sweden on the map by playing music, and they do that by financing them and letting them be full-time artists, and it's wonderful that they do that.

WW: Even if the U.K. doesn't quite give that level of support, do you feel like the U.K. is at least fairly supportive of its artists?

TC: I think it tries to be, but it's difficult to get the balance right. You know, if you're going to call yourself a songwriter or a musician, but your band isn't really doing anything to back that up, then it's hard to blame the government for not giving them a lot of money. It's a tricky thing, though, and I think if you can prove you know what you're doing, you should get more support. Because it makes people feel useless, and makes people feel like what they're trying to do isn't valid, isn't good enough, when actually the whole country--there's a lot of making music and being creative and making film and painting and all this--we're a very creative country, you know? We produce a lot of art and I think we're a very artistic people, but it's difficult, you know? It's hard. So it could be a little better. But at least on the Scottish Arts Council they're trying. They're doing a wee bit.

WW: Can you talk at all about your move to [record label] 4AD?

TC: Well, obviously in the States we were on Merge Records for a while, and it's a fantastic label, but we were actually signed to a record label in Spain that licensed our records to Merge, so we weren't actually directly signed to Merge. And I think we were getting to a stage where the band wanted to be signed to a British record label; we're a British band and have never been signed to a British label, and it's important for us to make that step. But we needed to figure out what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go, so we started looking around for a label to sign to.

4AD was one of the labels that approached the band, and I guess it just looked like a one-stop solution, something we could sign to universally. It was a very tough decision to make, because it meant leaving Merge. We didn't really want to leave Merge; we had no reason to leave Merge; Merge has been great for us and we've been good for them. But it was something we needed to do to get on and do what we wanted to do, which was become full-time musicians and really go for it, and that's what we did, and it was brilliant. 4AD's got such a fantastic roster of bands; we've all been big fans at one point or another. Cocteau Twins and Pixies and all that. It feels pretty cool.

WW: Not to keep harping on the perception that you're this sad person, but you have said so a few times recently. Do you ever worry about your art becoming dependent on this sense of melancholy?

TC: Well, that's what My Maudlin Career is really all about, because I'm a very self-aware person, and I'm having a bit of a joke at myself. I'm not just a sad person, I'm not just a melancholy person; I tend to have a bit of a naturally melancholy aspect to my personality, but it's not something I want to sit around and do more of, you know? It's something I'd like to get rid of, and I try constantly to do that. I think it's important that one doesn't just sit and wallow and accept that.

I may be prone to feeling a bit blue, but I try very hard to fight that. I want to be a happy person, because I think those are the best people to be around, and I don't want to just wallow in self-pity. I don't want people to think that I'm this miserable girl who sits at home and writes miserable songs and wants everybody to be miserable--anything but that. I've had times in my life where I've felt sad, and everybody does, but I just happen to write songs about it, you know? It's not everyday that I'm like that. I'm also very happy. [Laughs.] I've experienced it; I know it will happen again.

WW: I recently saw a video of the band playing "Lloyd [I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken]" live, and during the guitar solo in the middle, you start da-da-da-ing along to the melody--

TC: Oh, God.

WW: It seemed so uncharacteristically unreserved.

TC: [Laughs quite hard.]

WW: I mean, that sounds sort of presumptuous, but I was like, wow, yeah, that's surprising.

TC: It surprises me that you're telling me this. I don't remember it. It must have been some sort of spontaneous moment.

WW: Do you have many spontaneous moments on stage?

TC: Sometimes I do, but...yeah, I think so, because I don't want to look like a robot. I don't know, maybe I do to other people. I'm not as spontaneous as I'd like. You're only up there for a short while; it's hard to completely be spontaneous. But I hope that people see us and feel like it's real, that we're just doing what we feel like doing, that it's not some big act. We're not a bunch of showoffs, but hopefully we're not awful to watch because we're not jumping around. We'd be embarrassed if we were.

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