Tracyanne Campbell, the lead singer of the Scottish pop group Camera Obscura, won me over at Starbucks some time ago when several singles from Camera Obscura’s CD “Underachievers, Please Try Harder” were on heavy rotation at the coffee giant’s stores. When you consider how many Starbucks there are, that’s better airtime than Clear Channel.
The seeds for the 6-six piece band were planted back in 1994 when Tracyanne met John Henderson at Glasgow College in Scotland. After recruiting members via an ad in a record store, they recorded the single “Park and Ride.” After going through the usual growing pains of new band line-up changes, Camera Obscura recorded its first full CD in 2003- “Big Blue Hi-Fi.”
This seminal album featured the wry “I Don’t Do Crowds” and the heartbreaking “Eighties Fan.” The latter caught the attention of the late BBC DJ John Peel who promoted Camera Obscura on his radio show; clearly something was afoot. In 2003, Carey Lander (“our resident English rose” according to Tracyanne) replaced Lindsay Boyd on keyboards. In 2004, this line-up recorded the second CD, “Underachievers Please Try Harder.”
This release received glowing reviews and praise was heaped on Campbell for her clever songwriting and honey-dew voice that harkened back to Karen Carpenter and Shelley Fabares. However, with every favorable word came the invariable comparisons to another Scot group, Belle and Sebastian. It didn’t help that B & S keyboardist Stuart Murdoch had lent a hand on the first CD “Big Blue Hi-Fi.” Fed up with the parroting press, Tracyanne told German radio that comparisons between the bands were “lazy journalism.”
Slacker scrolls aside, “Underachievers” stood on its own. The sophmore effort mixed sweet 60’s pop with bittersweet lyrics. “Teenager,” “Number One Son,” “Sister’s Social Agony”, and “Keep it Clean” cleverly reflected the high school mentality that adults revert to. The flirty “Suspended from Class” was the most visible of all the tracks with a turn on the WB series “The Gilmore Girls.” “Underachievers” relied on heavily the vocals of Campbell and Henderson, who sang the lead on “Let Me Go Home” and “Before You Cry.”
However, for reasons unknown, John Henderson departed in late 2004. With his absence, the singing chores fell completely on Tracyanne, who silenced doubters with a single release “I Love My Jean,” an archaic Robert Burns poem put to a bouncy arrangement and cheeky winks. The single scored on the U.K. indy charts.
Their newest CD “Let’s Get Out of This Country” features more sweet tunes laced with sour and sassy lyrics. This third effort has received glowing reviews, including big pats from Billboard Magazine, which called it one of the best indy albums ever released. As Camera Obscura begins to embark on a U.K./U.S. tour, the 30-year-old songbird demonstrated her off-stage bravery by enduring a Q & A session with this highly annoying writer.
QUESTION: Have you always wanted to be a singer/songwriter?
TRACYANNE: I seem to remember wanting to be a songwriter from around the age of 20/21.
QUESTION: Are your songs inspired by heartbreaks in your life?
TRACYANNE: My songs haven’t always about romantic love believe it or not. I know it seems like they might be, but it’s honestly not the case. I have written quite a few for the next album ( “Let’s Get Out of This Country”) that are about heartbreak though. I guess I waited until I got heartbroken to do it.
QUESTION: I read that you liked the 60’s hit “Do You Believe in Magic?” Who are your musical influences?
TRACYANNE: It’s true, I do love that tune. I like music from all eras though, but I guess a lot of my favorites are from the sixties. Petula Clarke, Dusty Springfield, The Supremes, and the VU.
QUESTION: How did your latest single “I Love My Jean” come about?
TRACYANNE: We were asked by John Peel to put some music to the poems of Robert Burns for a ‘Burns night’ that John and his wife Sheila were holding at Peel Acres last year. I guess we got carried away and ended up recording some of the songs. We liked them, John liked them, and our label liked them, so we decided to release “I Love My Jean.” We felt that we wanted to dedicate it to John because without him the song would never have been written. He was a great support to us and will be sadly missed by us.
QUESTION: You toured the U.S. last year, how did you like American audiences compared to European crowds? Who is ruder, the Americans or the French?
TRACYANNE: We had a brilliant time touring the USA and Canada. I didn’t find any of our audiences rude, they were brilliant in fact. We’ve never played to a French audience, apart from Montreal, and they were fine, if a little reserved. The Troubadour was great, if a little surreal. It was very exciting playing L.A for obvious reasons.
QUESTION: You look very serious on the pics of the CD covers and in press shots, are you a serious person?
TRACYANNE: I’m only on the cover of “Underachievers” actually, but I am aware that I can look serious when we play shows. I don’t mean to really. It’s just that I’m concentrating so hard.
QUESTION: Can you discuss John Henderson’s departure from the band? Was it due to any Fleetwood Mac-like romantic entanglements?
TRACYANNE: I won’t discuss it apart from to say that it had nothing to do with romantic entanglement.
QUESTION: Is comedian George Carlin right when he says, “The wrong two Beatles are still alive.” Which two do you wish were still alive?
TRACYANNE: That’s not a very nice thing to say is it? Eh, I don’t really wish any of them back from the dead. Is that bad?
QUESTION: Is it true the Rolling Stones keep touring because they keep going broke? Cher recently said this in the Los Angeles Times.
TRACYANNE: Is that funny? I don’t get it. I’m terrible with jokes; I guess I am serious after all.
QUESTION: Doctors may be reading this article for scientific reasons, what are your measurements/and or bra size? No cheating, now, this is for science.
TRACYANNE: Hmm, nice try.
QUESTION: Are you currently single? Do you like the manly man strong silent types or the neurotic writer types?
TRACYANNE: Who says I want either of those options?
QUESTION: Hypothetically speaking, would you consider a long distance relationship? This would actually be very long-distance, a 13 hour time difference and a transatlantic plane flight? (I’m hoping she doesn’t see through my clever ruse.) Can you be trusted to be true?
TRACYANNE: I think it must be extremely difficult to maintain a long distance romantic relationship. Some of my friends do it, but I don’t think it’s for me. Can I be trusted to be true? Probably not.
QUESTION: Isn’t this the best interview you’ve ever had, be honest.
TRACYANNE: Yeah, It wasn’t too painful.