Judging by her winsomely downbeat lyrics and determinedly low-key stage presence, one might assume that Traceyanne Campbell isn’t interested in being the life of the indie-pop party. Don’t go thinking, though, that the soft-spoken leader of Camera Obscura doesn’t have a sense of humour.
When the Georgia Straight gets Campbell on her cellphone, she’s relaxing in her bunk on a tour bus that’s rolling out of Nashville toward Kentucky. Even though her delivery doesn’t exactly give Robin Williams a run for his money in the hyper-manic sweepstakes, it quickly becomes evident that she’s quick on her feet.
Asked if, based on past visits, she finds the inbred quotient in the Bluegrass State higher than in the rest of America, she snickers and responds, “Well, you said it, not me.” Suggest that the best thing about the video for Camera Obscura’s 2006 single “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” was the way—in direct contrast to the clip’s perma-peppy tone—Campbell looked monumentally bummed out, and she dryly retorts: “I was asked to do that by the director. I was acting. I found it really difficult.”
And when it’s noted that she’s actually quite amusing with her on-stage banter, she’ll self-deprecatingly agree. Sort of. “Some nights I’m funny,” Campbell says. “Some nights I’m not funny. I don’t think I was very funny last night. We just started the tour and everyone was sort of like, I don’t know, a zombie. That was too bad for the fans. It usually takes us a couple of gigs to get into it, to remember what you’re doing.”
Campbell is likely being too hard on herself here, something that won’t surprise anyone who’s heard Camera Obscura’s uniformly excellent new album, My Maudlin Career. Sit down with the lyrics sheet and you’ll quickly conclude that the Glasgow-based bandleader would make a perfect drinking partner for Morrissey. Like the former Smiths main mouth, Campbell has a gift for taking soul-crushing self-pity and spinning it into black-humoured art. Indeed, you can practically see Manchester’s fabled messenger of misery smiling at lines like the “Swans” offering: “There are flowers in my house/I bought them myself.”
My Maudlin Career is an unabashedly personal album, with the singer allowing that many of the songs were directly inspired by a devastating breakup while she was on the road for 2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country.
“I was on tour and having a bit of a weird relationship with somebody,” Campbell says. “I decided that there was nothing that I could do but write about it, and that helped me get through something that, at times, was very difficult. It’s a really weird situation to be in, where you are basically unhappy but you have a job to do every night where you have to entertain people.”
What Campbell can be considerably sunnier about these days is that, after nearly a decade of looking like fey-pop also-rans, Camera Obscura has officially emerged as a legitimate breakout band. The gushing started with Let’s Get Out of This Country, a record that saw Campbell and her cohorts—keyboardist Carey Lander, guitarist Kenny McKeeve, bassist Gavin Dunbar, and drummer Lee Thomson—leave Scotland to work with Swedish producer Jari Haapalainen. After years of being written off as a less lovable version of Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura clicked with Haapalainen, flooding its retro-flavoured songs with orchestral strings and Wall of Sound production flourishes.
“We first decided to work with Jari after I sort of realized what I’m not good at, which is producing records,” Campbell says.
My Maudlin Career finds the producer working more of his magic. Check out the way a DIY orchestra explodes out of nowhere on the Technicolor marvel that is “Careless Love”. Or the way that vintage organs and springtime-in-Paris horns transform the breezy jangler “French Navy” into something impossibly grander. Elsewhere, “James” veers briefly into jazz-lite territory, while “The Sweetest Thing” blends vintage doo-wop with strings-saturated pastoral pop.
As great as everything worked out, Campbell had doubts about reteaming with Haapalainen for My Maudlin Career.
“I’m very self-conscious about not repeating myself, about not getting into a kind of safety zone, which I think is dangerous for bands,” the singer says. “I was worried about how we were going to be perceived. So we decided to go back, but to look at it as another challenge, which it was. And I think we managed to raise our game a little bit again.”
That’s understating things. In fact, if you want to talk about meeting a challenge, consider that Campbell’s managed not only to work classic country into Camera Obscura’s songs, but has done so without sounding like someone who goes to work in a tartan skirt and a 10-gallon hat. She admits to having a serious thing for giants like Patsy Cline, a love that her grandmother passed down to her. And she acknowledges that there’s a definite twangy undercurrent you’ll hear running through My Maudlin Career tracks like the faux murder ballad “Away With Murder” and the golden-era-flavoured “Forests & Sands”.
But, wouldn’t you know it, she sees nothing funny about the idea of a bunch of Scots wholeheartedly trotting out their inner American shit-kickers.
“We’ve sort of talked within the band that maybe I should stop writing these country-style songs,” she says. “But I’m not going to stop. I’m not doing it because I’m pretentious. I’m doing it because country music is something that’s really inside of me. It’s definitely around in Scotland—if it wasn’t, my granny wouldn’t have been listening to it in the ’60s.”
Camera Obscura plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (June 5).