Tracyanne Campbell on Camera Obscura and working with Crybaby
We speak to Tracyanne Campbell about the tragic circumstances surrounding Camera Obscura's hiatus, leading to new creative ambitions in Tracyanne & Danny with Crybaby's Danny Coughlan
“I realised there wasn’t going to be something coming out of the ocean telling me to hurry up and finish the record. You’ve got to do it yourself.”
For a long time, Tracyanne Campbell and Danny Coughlan’s debut album looked like it might never reach fruition – one of those creative projects that sounds like such a good idea at the time, until life gets in the way and forces the brakes on. The duo toured together in 2013, when her band Camera Obscura took his solo venture Crybaby on the road with them around the UK, but the seed of the idea had been planted a little earlier, when he sent her a handwritten letter asking whether or not she’d like to collaborate on a song.
Perhaps he thought that method of correspondence would appeal to her retro sensibilities; after all, Camera Obscura’s calling card was always sparkling, 60s-indebted pop. Campbell liked the idea of writing with somebody new and invited Coughlan up to her native Glasgow from his hometown of Bristol, where they nailed down one track and decided to keep firing ideas back and forth. The question of a full-length record was still a long way off being raised, not least because Camera Obscura were about to whir back into motion; after a prolonged break enforced by keyboardist Carey Lander’s first bout of cancer, they were now ready to finish and promote their fifth album, Desire Lines.
“It was a fluid thing because we didn’t have to be in the same room to work on it,” explains Campbell. “But I became really busy with Camera Obscura, which was obviously my priority, and it took quite a while before this project that Dan and I were working on began to grow arms and legs. He’s actually really prolific, and he’d write songs all day if you let him – which isn’t to say he hasn’t got high standards, because he really has. I’m quite choosy at the best of times though, which slowed things down. I’ll discard things really easily, which made the process feel laborious to begin with.”
Camera Obscura played their final shows in Hebden Bridge and London in August 2015; Lander’s cancer had returned and she died two months later, aged just 33. There has, understandably, been no activity from the group since, save for their social media channels sharing news of the progress of Lander’s remarkable charity drive – she raised over £100,000 for Sarcoma UK. She was the beating heart of the band, their sound and aesthetic only ever taking shape after she joined in time for 2003’s Underachievers Please Try Harder, and there’s been no appetite so far to carry on without her: as Campbell puts it, “we haven’t broken up, but we are broken.
“After Carey passed away, there was a period of thinking, 'What am I going to do now?'" she explains. “Outside of the band, all I had was this thing with Dan, and I knew I couldn’t abandon it. I felt like I had an obligation to see it through. When massive things like that happen, it does give you a new perspective on life. I’ve never been the sort of person who’s been very good at making deadlines for myself, and my manager’s always said that we don’t really have meetings; it’s more that we have coffee and vaguely talk about how many songs I might have ready. Once it seemed like we had ten of them, we started thinking about recording; we looked at a bunch of places in Bristol and we talked about making it in Glasgow, but we didn’t really get a feel for any of the studios we went to.”
The pair’s manager, Francis Macdonald – who also doubles as Teenage Fanclub’s drummer – came up with a different idea; decamping to the Scottish Highlands, where Edwyn Collins had not long since opened his own recording facility in Helmsdale. The erstwhile Orange Juice frontman has always seemed like an ideal fit as producer for Campbell’s throwback pop stylings and it’s really a wonder they’d never worked together before.
"I love Edwyn and his own records, Gorgeous George especially,” she says. “But it’d never occurred to me to work with him before. To be honest, it’s always a gamble, whoever it is, but when I first met Edwyn, he was so warm and unpretentious that, I knew straight away that, if I were to go there I’d be alright to make mistakes. If Edwyn was to produce, I could show up, not be entirely on the ball and it’d still be fine – it’d be a safe place for the songs. That was the motivation, not the idea of working with 'Edwyn Collins the Indie Legend.' That would’ve been too much pressure.”
So began the process of cutting Tracyanne & Danny, and it was a swift one once underway, even if it did involve self-professed technophobe Campbell wrestling with GarageBand to make it happen: “We didn’t ever used to demo in Camera Obscura, but once you book the studio time you get the fear.” That decision, though, did see her cast off some early doubts; having had a “bee in her bonnet” early on about avoiding sounding too much like her old band on her own songs, she let go and allowed them to seep into her writing, particularly on the thoroughly countrified Alabama, a tribute to Lander that captures the spirit of “the country where we spent most of our working lives together.
"It was never going to be Camera Obscura with some bloke singing. I wasn’t interested in that” – Tracyanne Campbell
“I don’t want to keep banging on about the band, though,” says Campbell, as she details Coughlan’s contribution. “In many ways, he’s put a lot more into this album than I have. He’s a very generous songwriter; he won’t keep an idea to himself just because he doesn’t want to share. I’m honest to a fault, really, and I can be brutal, but he was always so great about that, and he had to be, really, to make it work. Tracks like Jacqueline and Cellophane Girl – they’re almost all him. It wasn’t a case of me holding the reins by any means. It was never going to be Camera Obscura with some bloke singing. I wasn’t interested in that.”
The future of Camera Obscura remains unclear. “To be perfectly honest with you, we just haven’t discussed it. We’re all just continuing with the loss of Carey, which hasn’t ended. It’s still very new, and fresh, and painful, and difficult. I don’t think any of us even have a desire to get back into a room together, so it’s a sort of permanent hiatus. In the meantime, everybody’s busy doing things that they didn’t have time to, or that they hadn’t thought of, while the band was still going.”
As for Tracyanne & Danny, Campbell doesn’t mince her words. “We’re not pissing about, you know? It’s not a vanity project. We do want to take it seriously and we want to play shows, and if all goes well maybe make another record. We’re both parents – I’ve got a four-year-old – so the old thing of spending six weeks on the road in the States, having a few days at home, then going to Europe for a month are over.
“I’m not naive," she continues. "I know it doesn’t make any difference if I’ve played in a band that’s had a following. We need new people to come and listen, and enjoy this record for what it is. We’ll play these initial dates and if anybody turns up, we’ll play some more. And then we’ll keep on taking it slowly. Just like it’s been from the start.”
Tracyanne & Danny is released on 25 May via Merge
Tracyanne & Danny play Saint Luke's, Glasgow, 31 May