When Tracyanne Campbell sang to Lloyd Cole that she was ready to be heartbroken on the opening track of Camera Obscura’s third album, Let’s 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 & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch did not produce the group’s 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 Obscura’s fifth album, Desire Lines, while touring 2009’s 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 group’s strongest releases, Let’s Get Out of This Country and My Maudlin Career. For the group’s 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 Obscura’s frontwoman to discuss the group’s 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 it’s important to try and make changes even if they are small changes. I think the worst thing we could do is repeat ourselves. We’ve tried not to repeat ourselves with this record. I think you need to try and beat the last one, and that’s 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.
I’m 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 he’s based in Portland. He’s got a studio called Flora in Portland, so that’s really why we chose Portland.
Tucker came first, not the decision to move?
Tucker came first. We had an idea that we’d 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? I’ve 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 didn’t 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 Tucker’s–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.
That’d be nice. That would be pretty cool. I would like that.
How was Martine’s 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 we’d ever had with Jari in Sweden. Our Swedish records [Let’s 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 wasn’t laid back; we were still under pressure of time, but we gave ourselves more time to track and then more time to mix than we’d 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 we’ve always, since the band started, we’ve always recorded live; that’s 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.
It’s quite forgiving; you can actually get away with a lot. But we wanted to test ourselves. We didn’t 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 don’t know, sophisticated, or something. We definitely wanted to do it like that. I’m sure Tucker’s 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 I’ve always found very warm and comforting, inviting almost.
Yeah. He’s got a really great studio for starters. It’s one of the most comfortable – in fact, it’s probably the nicest studio I’ve ever had the pleasure of making a record in, and we’ve been in some nice studios. The Swedish studios are really fantastic as well. Tucker’s studio is just so beautiful and comfortable. He’s really thought about making a band at home. You automatically feel really comfortable there and welcome. He’s got such a mild manner, and he’s very creative, very thoughtful. And he’s a real good listener.
That’s important for a producer.
It really is. We’ve been so lucky with the choices that we’ve made producer-wise. Up until we met Jari, Jari was the best thing that ever happened to us. And now Tucker, he’s not the next best thing to Jari, but he’s the best thing that’s happened to us now because we just managed to click, and he helped us make the kind of record we wanted to make.
I’ve 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 we’re playing Primavera. In the States, we’ll play with Tim Cronin, who’s been our trumpet guy in the States for the past few tours.
Is Tim on the album? Who’s on the album?
Neither of them is on the album, and I’m ashamed to say that the name of the trumpet player escapes me at this moment, but he was basically a session trumpeter. We didn’t actually meet the trumpeter. The brass was done… I mean, there’s very little brass on the record…
That’s 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 it’s not too heavy with brass or string arrangements this time. It’s 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 wasn’t 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 they’re not here. We’ve certainly never tried to be something we’re not. If we’re in, we’re in. If we’re cool, we’re cool. If we’re not cool, we’re not cool. If we’re seen as bookish, whatever. We don’t have a big plan to come across any way other than ourselves.
Kenny McKeeves said in 2010, around the time of Let’s Get Out of This Country, that the band became more solid about things, and possibly that if it wasn’t for you making that record, you may not have signed to 4AD.
Yeah, I guess so. Let’s 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 there’s 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 weren’t 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 we’re 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 can’t pick and choose your territories. So, sadly, with regret, if we were going to sign, then we couldn’t stay on Merge, basically. Merge is a great record label. We had a great home there. They’re brilliant people and a great bunch of folks that work there. We’re still in touch. It’s just that’s the way it goes; it’s 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 there’s a lot of stuff that people don’t understand about why bands are on record labels or leave record labels. It’s not just as simple as leaving. More often than not it’s all tied up in different things.
Well, speaking of tying things up, I know it’s 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 don’t know. We really need to get on to that because I think it’s 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 I’d go for it.