Camera Obscura’s Timeless Appeal

Look To The East, Look To The West Is Their First Album In Eleven Years

By Jeff McCord

FOLLOW CAMERA OBSCURA

Look to the East, Look to the West is out now on Merge Records

There aren’t many precedents to point to when examining the American success of Scotland’s Camera Obscura. There’s nothing in the way of conscious branding or marketing gimmicks, no viral videos or Tik Tok tsunamis. Yet here they are, back touring on their sixth album and first in eleven years, Look to the East, Look to the West, and the enthusiasm is palpable. 

“It feels like that,” agrees Tracyanne Campbell, Camera Obscura’s lyricist and soft-spoken front person, who’s sitting with me after their recent Studio 1A appearance. “The crowds have been very enthusiastic. I feel like we’ve always had enthusiastic crowds here, but I think maybe this time more so. That makes sense because we’ve been away. I think people probably thought we were finished.”

It did look that way. Following the 2015 death of their original keyboardist Carey Lander, everything Camera Obscura ground to a halt.

I think that that just took over everything, you know? It was just devastating, actually, and that is a word I don’t use lightly.” Campbell seems visibly pained discussing the time of Landers’ death from osteosarcoma. ‘Sugar Almond’ is Campbell’s moving tribute to Landers on the new album. 

”It was devastating for us and for her family, and for our fans. It affected a lot of people. When I get to talk to the fans these days, they tell me that there’s been a lot of crying on this tour, from fans just absolutely overwhelmed. It’s amazing to think that they cared so much about Carey.”

This dedication extends beyond normal fandom. Camera Obscura’s music is about songcraft, not about flash and excess. So what explains the devotion?

Campbell has a theory.I think we’ve been lucky. We probably just got in there in time. We’ve toured a lot for a band. I don’t know how many times we’ve been to the States. A lot. We just kept coming back and building the fan base. New bands, I think they’re [finding] it harder to build up a fan base. A band starting now that tried to do this would find it impossible to get on the road because they wouldn’t be able to afford to, unless somebody was funding it. We’re fortunate to have built up the fan base and to have kept them.”

Camera Obscura comes from the fertile Glasgow scene, a seeming safe haven for understated rock. 

“I think Glasgow’s a special place for music. There’s a lot of intrigue and mystery surrounding it, bands like The Pastels and Teenage Fanclub and, you know, Belle and Sebastian, especially Belle and Sebastian, have created this vibe, this new genre of music, even though they wouldn’t probably agree with that. Glasgow is such a wonderfully creative place, and I think growing up there and seeing bands like the Fan Club or Altered Images, Lloyd Cole, whoever, you know, thinking they can do that, we can do it. People come to the city to get creative. I know loads of folk that have done that. I think that’s great.”

It was Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian who first brought Camera Obscura into a recording studio, producing their 2001 debut album. And decades later, Murdoch’s invitation to Belle & Sebastian’s 2019 Boaty Weekender cruise festival coaxed the band out of their hibernation. The show made them realize all they had missed. Keyboardist and vocalist Donna Maciocia joined stalwarts Kenny McKeeve, Gavin Dunbar, Lee Thomson, and with Maciocia working alongside  Campbell on songwriting, soon there was enough material for a new album. 

The band brought back producer Jari Haapalainen (who produced 2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country and 2009’s My Maudlin Career). Yet the sound of the new record is noticeably less ornate.

“More intimate,” says Campbell. “Jari knows us, and he would have been remiss to try to do what we’ve done already. We made our last record before this was made with Tucker Martine here in the States, because we wanted a different sound. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves. Getting back together was quite a delicate thing. There was a lot of emotion and  trepidation. We needed our hand held a little bit. And we felt that Jari was the guy for the job. He knew Carey very well. He’s a real creative person, very instrumental at the start with the songs. He’s got big opinions about, even lyrics. He was coming over and spending time with me, getting the songs ready. He’s somebody that we really trust.”

And the lack of orchestration?

“A lot of it was logistics, to be honest. Back in the day, I was very obsessed with 60s sounding songs in big rooms and reverb and the whole wall of sound thing, very influenced by big orchestrated music. Because of how we had to do it, we started before lockdown, but lockdown happened, and so we couldn’t all be in a room logistically. We couldn’t, we didn’t have the time. People have got kids, families, jobs. We had to have a plan. And the plan was, let’s just do it with us. That makes it simple.”

Less studio ornamentation brings Campbell’s heart-on-her-sleeve lyrics to the fore. Behind the pop arrangements are some fraught emotions.

“Some of it’s quite brutal,” she admits.

On tour, does she find it difficult to dredge all this up night after night? Or can she perform the songs with a certain remove?

Camera Obscura soundchecks in Studio 1A at KUT Public Media Studios on Saturday, June 15, 2024. Renee Dominguez/KUTX

“It depends. For the most part, yes, because you’ve got to. But sometimes I’ll catch myself. The song ‘Liberty Print’ is about my brother who died quite suddenly, he was very young. It was very tragic. I didn’t have a strong relationship with him, it was a bit erratic and difficult. Sometimes I’ll find myself singing that and I’ll get to certain lines and I will literally have to sort of step over the lyric. I do find that sometimes quite difficult. That’s not really happened in the past. I guess that’s just something that I’m still processing. When you play the song, you’re not hearing them the way the listener is hearing them. There was part of me that thought maybe I shouldn’t really write those lyrics. Maybe this is too much for folk. But at the end of the day, if you’re coming from a truthful place and you’ve got something to express, then you got to get to it.”

And Camera Obscura’s straightforward approach to music making invites the listener to pay closer attention. When you do, you catch elements of American country music, and a strong influence of the late Christine McVie.

“Fleetwood Mac is my favorite band,” Campbell admits. “And when I grew up, my granny, most of her records were country records. We listened to Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Skeeter Davis, loads of country music.”

Known as twee, this country/folk/pop hybrid is at home in their Glasgow homebase. But what happens when their understated music is brought to a big noisy country like the US? Do Camera Obscura become a different band?

“We feel more exotic here. [We’re] definitely a bigger deal over here than we are there. [But] I think we’re the same bunch. I want to write the best song that I can write. That’s all I’m interested in. And [we’re] just interested in writing the best parts that we can write. If we like it, and we’re having a nice time, that’s all it’s about. It’s not about an agenda or trying to be cooler. During the making of this record, the song ‘Big Love’ was sounding like Waylon Jennings and I’m [thinking] people are going to think we’re old folkies and we’ve not got a clue what we’re doing. Can this music be liked by young people? We felt old. We’ve all got young kids listening to lots of modern music, and we’re kind of in between, not really knowing where we fit. But it doesn’t really matter, does it?”


Set List:

“Look to the East, Look to the West”

“Denon”

“The Light Nights”

Musicians:

Traceyanne Campbell – vocals; Kenny McKeeve – guitar, vocals; Gavin Dunbar – bassist; Louis Abbott – drums; Donna Maciocia – keys; Tim Cronin – trumpet

Credits:

Producer: Deidre Gott; Edit: Renee Dominguez; Audio Mix: Rene Chavez; Audio Engineer: Rene Chavez, Reyna Sevilla; Cameras: Michael Minasi, Renee Dominguez, Ryan Olszewski; Production Assistant: Confucius Jones; Host: Deidre Gott

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