Do It Again: An Interview with Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura
Desire Lines

With the release of Desire Lines, their fifth studio album, Glasgow-based Camera Obscura have consolidated themselves as the reigning band in the indie pop universe. The critically acclaimed album marked their longest gap between new records (My Maudlin Career was released in 2009) because during these years off — “an unexpected hiatus” as it’s been called — band members faced life threatening illnesses (Carey Lander was diagnosed with cancer), moved to different countries (drummer Lee Thomson moved to London), and faced other issues that had fans believing they might not be listening to new material for a while.

Desire Lines is filled with the usual dream-pop melodies the band is so good at, but take a closer listen and you’ll notice their melancholy lyrics are tinged with deeper sadness and a dark sense of humor that sometimes verges on satire: “I Missed Your Party” for instance is both tender and also stings with what seems to be a lover’s passive aggressive choice for revenge.

Earlier this summer, Camera Obscura toured the United States in support of She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s project). I had the opportunity to see them perform in New York City’s Summer Stage at Central Park, before getting the chance to talk to frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell. Their concert at Summer Stage marked the first time I’d seen them live and I was surprised by how their sound is exactly what they sound like in their albums, “in order to achieve this you have to have a very good soundstage manager” acknowledged Campbell, “because there is nothing worst than having things go wrong on stage.”

“We rehearse a lot, which is also very important” she added and you could in fact tell how much effort the band was putting into each song, fan favorite “French Navy” seemed reinvigorated and a perfect cool melody for 95 degree weather.

During their performance of “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” (their lovely masochist anthem from Let’s Get Out of This Country) at SummerStage, something was off with the guitar sound and Campbell stopped singing, forcing hundreds of sweaty audience members to stop bobbing their heads and dancing around. I’m sure few of them expected what continued, as Tracyanne decided to start the song from the top, sending fans over the edge after apologizing for the delay. When I asked her about this she conceded that sometimes there are “inevitable problems” but said in the end they’re just “trying to please the audience and avoid disaster”.

Part of their tour was marked by a request that enraged some fans: photography of no kind would be permitted during the show. This created an awkward mood given that you could see security staff walking all over the venue, hunting people who were using their phones and digital cameras and proceeding to escort them outside. Many of them returned minutes later with nothing but a warning, but not without setting up an uncomfortable mood in days when people tweet, Instagram, and Vine all throughout any sort of performance.

“To be honest the request came from She & Him” explained Campbell, “but I respect this being who [Deschanel] is.” She continues: “Personally, there is nothing worst than looking at cameras when you’re playing, it makes me feel that this is not somewhere I want to be, as audience members watch the gig through the eye of the camera.”

“Security was over the top though,” she added “I don’t wanna see anyone at my gig being taken away, but if I go to a show I watch with my eyes and most artists think this way.”

Keeping up with the way audiences perceive their music I asked her about the melancholy content and how she thought listeners interpreted their music, “I have no idea, I’m not a listener” she said. “I like how our music sounds but sometimes the music or the lyrics are more important” she added.

Desire Lines marked a first for Camera Obscura as they recorded the entire album in Portland (Tucker Martine’s studio called Flora), being the first time they’ve recorded completely out of Scotland led me to ask about how the process affected their sound and their composition, “the studio definitely transformed our sound” she added. On working with Neko Case and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Campbell expressed “it was a great honor working with them because we love their voices and music.”

The shift from relaxing Portland to busy New York City in the summer, must’ve been interesting but Tracyanne said that in general “it was nice to be back in the States.” Given that she’s in the third trimester of her pregnancy must’ve been a challenge but she shyly conceded that “playing while pregnant wasn’t as stressful as I thought.”