Traceyanne Campbell interview: No flash in the pan
TRACEYANNE Campbell has to be the most reluctant frontwoman in pop. Here in this Fifties-style diner in Glasgow's West End, just around the corner from the church hall where her band Camera Obscura played their first gig 12 years ago, is a shy, fretful 34-year-old woman who still can't quite believe she's a singer, let alone a great one. It's funny because she looks the part: smoky eyeliner, sleek fringed bob, vintage smock, don't-mess attitude. And she sounds it. My Maudlin Career, the band's cracking new album, is their best yet and kicks most of those Sixties-infatuated songstresses in Campbell's wake to the kerb.
Convinced of all this are the hordes who have followed Camera Obscura for years, John Peel, Pat Nevin and most of America among them. But Campbell is still plagued by uncertainty. "I can't think of doing anything else but it's a wee bit of a worry," she says over coffee and a tattie scone roll. "At the back of your mind you're always thinking, what next? What happens when it all falls apart? What happens when they find out you're faking it?" And I'm sensing this is Campbell on a good day.
"All I ever wanted was to write songs," she adds. "I didn't want to be the singer. That's why I struggled for a long time. All of this wasn't me. It wasn't in my nature. I never felt like the singer in the band until we made Let's Get Out Of This Country."
That was only four years ago, so for almost a decade Campbell didn't feel like the singer in her own band. "I'm never convinced by it. I am better at singing and being the frontperson now but it's a fairly recent thing." She tells a story about the family singsongs at home growing up in the south side of Glasgow. "I would never sing," she says. "I didn't sing until I was 23."
Yet part of the reason why Camera Obscura are such a fantastic band is Campbell's cut-glass voice. It is at once sweet and sultry, a little bit Carole King, a little bit Dory Previn, with that lovely Sixties-sounding, low-slung breathiness. Carey Lander, Camera Obscura's keyboardist, says: "We know the band is about Traceyanne's voice but she doesn't." Lander, by the way, might be even more of a mouse than her bandmate, arriving before Campbell and sitting alone at a table despite my exaggerated smiles and the notepad and Dictaphone in front of me. Eventually, I feel embarrassed that I've been gurning at a stranger and am taken aback when she slinks over after Campbell arrives.
The band's lack of confidence is why Camera Obscura have remained under the radar in the UK. While outfits around them have come, grown and gone – Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, Glasvegas – these six shrinking violets, now five, continued to timorously plug away with their shimmering indie pop that not enough people hear. Their album titles give it away: Underachievers Please Try Harder, Let's Get Out Of This Country, and now My Maudlin Career. "Keep the negativity going," laughs Lander.
"It fits us so well," says Campbell of the new record title. "I realised I had been writing songs that people thought were melancholy or depressing. I sort of realised... aye, that's what I do. I write songs when I'm miserable and try and make a career out of it. It's a bit of a joke."
And boy, does the joke hurt. My Maudlin Career may sound all lush and breezy, the sonic equivalent of the ice-cream van trundling down the street towards your house in summer. But the lyrics are another matter. On the title track: "In your eyes there's a sadness enough to kill the both of us / Are those eyes overrated? / They make me want to give up on love." On 'Away With Murder': "How many times have you told me you want to die? / How many times have you told me now that you've tried?" The salty west coast humour may give it buoyancy but it's brutal stuff.
I read these lyrics back to Campbell. "I tend to write when I'm having a hard time and luckily for us I was having quite a hard time of it," she says. Lander adds: "I'm very grateful for your constant misery." They both laugh.
"I don't know what's going to happen now because I've been all right for a while," Campbell continues. "But I haven't written a song for a while. I had a particular phase in my life when I was involved with somebody and it was difficult. And being in a group was difficult, and being away from home on tour was difficult. But I don't want people to think I'm always bloody breaking up with people. It's happened a couple of times and it happens to everybody. The person I'm talking about had trouble... I was pretty unhappy and sad but I don't feel that now. People look after themselves, don't they? But I won't lie. There were times when I probably said to you, is this too much?" She looks at Lander.
"I am shocked, as your friend, sometimes by what you say," she replies. "But I think it's great. If you went too far I would tell you." In fact, Campbell has become a talented enough lyricist to pull it off. She's too self-knowing to go in for bloodletting and all the glorious strings and horns undercut the melancholia.
Camera Obscura are just back from their second outing at SXSW, the music industry showcase in Austin, Texas, and they don't seem very taken with it. To be fair, it's a bit like selling coals to Newcastle and at least on this point they know it. "Everyone's perception of SXSW is you go to get found out," says Campbell. "We don't need to do that. People were queuing up to see us." They are huge in the States and recently played sold-out shows in New York, whereas when I say I'm coming to their forthcoming Barrowland gig, they tell me to bring everyone I know.
"There was so much less struggle in America than here," says Lander. "They treated us like a real, normal band." Campbell says: "We've always had a wee bit of a chip on our shoulder here. We've always felt less confident, almost like we're not a real band. It's like we're embarrassed."
What's changing the fortunes of Camera Obscura is the relationship with their Swedish producer, Jari Haapalainen, or "wee Gary" as he is known to the band. He has given them the confidence they need, realised their lush, produced sound, and made Campbell understand that she is most definitely a singer. Haapalainen produced their last breakthrough album, returned for this one, and has become a kind of Lee Hazlewood to her Nancy Sinatra. "He came along and blew the cobwebs off," says Campbell. "You can't regret what you've done in the past but I wonder if we had made the first two albums with someone like him around what they might have sounded like."
Twelve years on, it's finally starting to happen. They recently signed to a UK label for the first time, the legendary 4AD. Their popularity in the US has been followed by success in Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, South America, and, yes, now Britain. "I love reading about bands that have broken America and then we go and play bigger venues than them," says Campbell with a smile.
Two months ago they finally became a full-time band. This, for Campbell, is what constitutes success for Camera Obscura. She gave up work two years ago, but it has taken longer for the rest of the band to follow suit. "You're almost not a real band when you're still working," she says. "Our drummer says he felt like Superman. We would go away on tour, play all these massive gigs where people were running down the street after us, and then come home to Glasgow where he would put on his suit and go back to work. Now, we can say this is what we do." v
The new single, French Navy, is released on April 13 with the album, My Maudlin Career, to follow on April 20. Camera Obscura play Glasgow Barrowland on April 26www.camera-obscura.net