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Chosen One: Calexico

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Interview with Joey Burns & John Convertino (Calexico).

So much of what we do comes from tone and timbre, what the sound waves are doing that day in the room with the moisture or lack of. How high is the ceiling? The wood in the walls or the adobe, the thickness of the strings, the loudness of the amps, they all come together when the silence is broken the tide comes in.

— John Convertino

Words: Mark Carry


The arrival of a new Calexico record is always a cause of celebration and pure joy. Since first discovering the Tucson, Arizona collective’s shape-shifting music – circa 2000 with the mariachi infused opus of ‘Hot Rail’ – Calexico’s songbook has proved the most pivotal and endearing of artistic creations that seamlessly seeps into your veins and hits directly to the heart’s core. Last spring saw the eagerly awaited new full length release, ‘Edge of the Sun’; a sonic marvel of a record that stands tall as the band’s strongest work to date. Like a river finding its sea, a natural ebb and flow ceaselessly permeates from the well-cultivated sounds and timbres cast by the core duo of Joey Burns (singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist) and John Convertino (drums, songwriter, percussion, vibes).

It’s their windswept, breathtakingly beautiful instrumentals (is there anything more pure and beautiful as ‘Minas De Cobre’, ‘El Picador‘ or ‘Above The Branch’?); heart wrenching ballads (‘Bloodflow’, ‘The News About William’, ‘Fortune Teller’); brooding cinematic opuses (‘Red Blooms’, ‘Black Heart’, ‘The Vanishing Mind’); life affirming symphonies (‘Quattro’, ‘Epic’, ‘Victor Jara’s Hands’); songs of hope etched in the heart of darkness (‘Para’, ‘Crooked Road And The Briar’, ‘Not Even Stevie Nicks…’, ‘Trigger’); and momentous rejoice (‘Crystal Frontier’, ‘Guero Canelo’, ‘No Te Vayas’, ‘Inspiracion’). As always, the deeply rooted music telepathy between Burns and Convertino, combined with the peerless musicianship of the greater Calexico ensemble (spanning continents and encompassing worlds of sound) and producer supreme Craig Schumacher, means that true art is endlessly created.

The jubilant album opener ‘Falling From The Sky’ contains the stream-line approach the band previously utilized on the highly under-rated ‘Garden Ruin’ record with a rejuvenating brass section and the mesmerizing synth-led melody (courtesy of multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Sergio Mendoza). In addition, Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell adds vocals. The lyric of “like a bird lost inside the cloud/cut off from the stars” evokes the vivid sense of searching that flickers like rays of sunlight throughout the record’s sprawling canvas. A brooding atmosphere exudes from ‘Bullets & Rocks’; reminiscent of ‘Bend To The Road’ (live cut) from the ‘Carried To Dust’ tour. The multi-layered electric guitars conjures up the timeless sound of ‘Zuma’ era Neil Young (or vintage Iron & Wine whose frontman Sam Beam joins Burns & co, in turn, forming a fitting parallel to 2005’s collaborative ‘In The Reins’ EP). “Families disappear to the dark of the night” evokes a loss, pain and suffering; lying at the heart of the “devil’s highway” but the light of hope undeniably prevails through the shimmering darkness.

When The Angels Played‘ is a stunningly beautiful country lament recalling Gillian Welch and the heart of the great American songbook; a Dylan-esque folk splendor which could be a distant companion to (the previously recorded Pieta Brown duet) ‘Slowness’. The sublime ‘Cumbia de Donde’ brings the whole latin world to new dimensions, as Manu Chao and off-shoot Buena Vista sound systems flicker onto the horizon. The arrival of Spain’s Amparo Sanchez is akin to a spiritual journey as a lost brother to ‘Guero Canelo’ comes to the fore. ‘Cumbia de Donde’ somehow sits at the intersection between ‘Roka’ and ‘Guero Canelo’ creating, in turn, a spiritual journey: a road trip of epic proportions.

Tapping On The Line’s chorus refrain resonates powerfully as Burns asks, “could you step a little bit closer to the line?“: a song which shares the spirit of ‘Nebraska’ era Springsteen; charged with a gripping immediacy and vital pulse. ‘Miles From The Sea’ represents one of the album’s defining moments and undoubtedly one of the most formidable Calexico recording ever put to tape. The chorus refrain is immaculate as Burns sings of “dreams about swimming miles away from the sea“. The vast blue seas of the human heart is explored from the skies above to the seas below. ‘Woodshed Waltz’ is a pristine slice of divine americana. Sonically, it takes me to ‘Toolbox’ (the band’s towering instrumentals-only album) where the burning spark of creativity and spontaneity radiates throughout. The rise/bridge is one of the album’s endearing moments. A song about letting go, moving on. Another songwriter’s song. ‘Moon Never Rises’ is steeped in new and compelling sounds. The nuances and textures added by guest vocalist Carla Morrison brings forth a cinematic feel as new sonic terrain is masterfully explored.

The opening section of ‘World Undone’ – Burns’ hypnotic acoustic guitar is beautifully melded with Convertino’s meditative drums – shares a similar sound world to the band’s instrumental cut ‘Above The Branch’. The (singular) aesthetic created by the duo of Convertino’s drums and Burns’ guitar unleashes a staggering beauty that creates a resolutely unique and singular sound (kindred spirits such as White/Ellis/Turner and Davis/Coltrane also come to mind). There is something magical about how ‘World Undone’ unfolds. The stunning vocal delivery of Burns (joined by Devotchka’s Nick Urata) is a joy to witness as Burns sings “waiting for the devils to come“. The way in which this tour-de-force builds and evolve, represents the immense power and glory of the ‘Edge of the Sun’ as a whole. The cathartic energy of ‘Black Heart’ is likewise emitted here: “the world’s coming down“.

Follow The River‘ is another milestone in the sacred songbook of Calexico, reminiscent of ‘Epic’ where a healing quality and power of redemption abounds. In the liner notes of the band’s retrospective ‘Road Atlas’ (1998-2011), Fred Mills wrote: “But it’s not until you take in the entirety of the group’s sprawling discography that the sights, smells, textures and timbres of the Calexico experience fully reveal themselves.”  As ever, one feels the emotional thread embedded deep in the songs: a common thread that connects all the band’s studio albums, tour cds, collaborative releases to date.


‘Edge of the Sun’ is out now on City Slang (Europe) & ANTI- (USA).


Interview with Joey Burns & John Convertino (Calexico). 

Congratulations on the truly inspiring and captivating new record, ‘Edge of the Sun’; a sonic marvel of a record. You, John and the entire Calexico family should feel deeply proud. A world of detail and intricate layers of immaculate instrumentation are rooted in these songs; some new elements that I haven’t heard before in a Calexico studio album. As ever, an emotional depth of rich intensity & magnitude permeates the headspace and a cosmic spirit that captivates the heart.

Please discuss the making of ‘Edge of the Sun’ and particularly the Mexican city of Coyoacán where the album was recorded. Similar to how you decided to record ‘Algiers’ in the aforementioned New Orleans neighbourhood, as ever you all must have soaked up the surrounding city’s culture and neighbourhood that seamlessly tapped into the album’s twelve gems?

John Convertino: Thanks so much for all the compliments, careful listening, and insights to the new record. As with ‘Algiers’, we felt we needed to get to a place that had the space for us to focus on the album and songs, to put ideas down whatever they may be, and to spend some time together without having the responsibilities of home life. Coyoacán like Algiers has a great vibe and history to think about as you go for walks or runs in the park. Where we lived and recorded there was a courtyard and big trees that gave you shelter from the big city outside, we had two meals a day prepared for us with love, so we never had to worry about what and where to eat, the energy was strong, and we were able to get a lot work done and some sightseeing as well.

Joey Burns: It was important just as it was making ‘Algiers’ to go somewhere for 12 days where we could eat, sleep and breathe music. It really helps to get the ball rolling when we can focus on writing like that. Being in Mexico City was a plus. The food, people and sights all help make for a special experience. One day we went with a friend to see the work he had been doing on Pedro Reyes’ art piece “Disarm”. He was helping Reyes build musical instruments out of pieces of broken weapons seized by the Mexican government from the drug cartels. We got to see a rehearsal and even try playing some of the instruments. I tried the electric bass, guitar and cello, John checked out the percussion which was all midi controlled and Sergio was intrigued with the violin. The symbolism was beautiful and inspired us all.

What is most special about the Calexico songbook (and indeed becomes the essence of the band’s rich legacy) is the deeply enriching narrative that flows throughout each record where one flows into the next like a river finding its sea. ‘Edge of the Sun’ continues this search for hope in the depths of despair; a strive for a better life; dreams of better days. I would love for you to discuss the themes of the new album and what ideas and concerns you felt were important to address on ‘Edge of the Sun’?

JC: I agree with you Mark, I think Joey and his brother John, as well as Pieta Brown and Sergio Mendoza all came up with some of the best lyrics yet for the record. I find that immigration and borders have been continual themes throughout all of our records, and now that we have become so familiar with those themes I believe there is greater clarity in how we feel about these issues therefore translating into the songs in a natural way. As we all get older, it becomes more and more apparent that it’s not always easy being a human on the planet. There are so many misunderstandings and communication can so easily break down, what may be such a brilliant thought comes out sounding completely wrong, it takes time to formulate how to verbalize what your feeling, maybe it comes easier as you get older, maybe not, it could just be more familiar ground. I think this is an apparent theme in the record.

JB: I wanted to acknowledge the difficulties in life, the things we all share and have to endure and yet I wanted to the music to help balance that and give a sense of hope. Near the end of the album sequence the song “World Undone” shows signs of grief from the character’s perspective and by the final track “Follow The River” that same character has found a way out of despair to recognize there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Transformation is part of the process and every album takes on a slightly different direction. Sometimes they parallel the world around us and other times they map out the emotional paths we are on.

The ocean (and possibly your upbringing in LA) and “dreams about swimming/miles away from the sea” on ‘Miles From The Sea’ feels a distant companion to similar themes explored on ‘..Not Even Stevie Nicks’, ‘Sinner In The Sea’ and indeed several aspects on ‘Carried To Dust’. Please discuss these re-occurring themes that are wonderfully re-visited here? 

JC: I’ve always wondered about that too, I know it’s really a question for Joey, but having lived in the desert for so many years I have thought of water and the ocean more than when I lived in Los Angeles. Water is such a huge part of life, it is life, water and sun and all the elements. Living in El Paso Texas now, I have visited the wonderful Chinoti foundation a few times and have become a fan of Donald Judd. The massive concrete squares with the bright blue desert sun behind them bring to my mind the beginning of creation, that bang, the snare drum crack that sparked us all into being….there is that moment when the silence is broken, the wave crashes and the world keeps moving.

JB: I wasn’t sure about this song lyrically. I sent it to my oldest brother John who is a good source for feedback and inspiration. He helped with some of the lines in the verses and was supportive for keeping the lines in the chorus which I wasn’t so sure I wanted to keep. For sure there are themes of nature and specifically the ocean that have made an impact on my writing. However recurring they may be I try to shed new light on them with each song. I was surprised when doing some interviews in Europe that this song was some of the writers’ favorite song.

Collaboration has always been integral to your work but with ‘Edge of the Sun’, the spirit of collaboration is taken to new heights and possibilities. I feel this spirit of togetherness and an openness radiates throughout these soaring songs. Talk me through please the songs and the guests on each track? One of the formidable highlights is Mexican chanteuse Carla Morrison’s vocals on ‘Moon Never Rises’. It is also beautiful to witness the many special souls who have served a vital pulse to the Calexico songbook, including Amparo Sanchez, John Burns, Sam Beam and Neko Case. It is hardly surprising that ‘Edge of the Sun’ quickly becomes a source of comfort and solace.

JB: The idea of inviting guests was something that Christof Ellinghaus had once suggested a few years ago. “Make a record of duets with guest singers” is what he suggested. It wasn’t until after Sam Beam sent his vocals for “Bullets & Rocks” did I even consider asking other musicians to sit in on this album or for it to become such a developed theme on this album. We for sure wanted to invite some of our favorite musicians from Mexico on the album. Having Carla Morrison was a big deal as she is super busy and we had never met before. Fortunately we know her manager, Gil Gastelum who used to live in Tucson and he helped arrange for her appearance as well as Gaby Moreno’s. We were really hoping that Camilo Lara could contribute some tracks since he was in a way responsible for us getting to Coyoacán and working at his friend Ro Velazquez’s home studio.

Having Neko Case on one of our albums definitely was something we had always wanted to do since we do so much work on her albums, so we were extremely grateful when she took time out the day she played Tucson with her band The New Pornographers. She nailed it and then gave us all hugs and ran onstage. Incredible! Sergio’s lap steel player in his band suggested that we contact members of Band of Horses and made the introduction. He knew that we were trying to get someone to sing on “Falling From The Sky” and when he made the suggestion to ask Ben Bridwell, I instantly knew it could be a good match and it blew me away. It still stands out as one of the most impressive collaborations for me. Pieta Brown is another good friend who has offered up lyrics in the past, “Fortune Teller” for example. When I read her first lines of “When The Angels Played” I felt a connection immediately. Sure enough it came together quickly and John and I tracked the song one late night in Coyoacán.

Amparo Sanchez has long been a big influence and we were excited to hear her bring some fire to “Cumbia De Donde“. Sergio has been performing with DevotchKa on tour for several years and he suggested asking Nick Urata to sing on “Follow The River” which again was a big surprise to hear his incredible vocals take the higher harmony and make the song go somewhere else. “Coyoacán” features an outstanding harp player from El Paso, Adrian Perez who we’ve worked with at live shows with Mariachi Luz de Luna here in Tucson. He comes to town a fair amount so I had him come in and try not only a pass on this song but add some Kora style lines on “Bullets & Rocks“.

JC: All the guests came about in such a natural way, there towards the end of the recordings when the songs were established Sergio would encourage us to add vocal guests, as in the case with Carla and Gabby, who we didn’t even know, and from there inviting our friends who we knew could help us out so much, it was always such a treat to hear what they would come up with, Ben and Sam living with the songs alone in their own home studios and coming up with parts that took the songs to different places. Neko taking the time on tour to drop by the studio and make one of my favorite moments on the record in “Tapping On The Line”. It really became a part of the whole record to have guests.


The stunningly beautiful ‘Follow The River’ brings the album to a fitting close. The immediacy and honesty hits you profoundly, where a soul’s heart is laid to bare. The harmonies, striking vocal delivery, accordion, lapsteel, drums conjures up a timeless and mesmerising sound. Can you recount your memories of writing and recording this particular track please?

 JC: One of my favorites too. Being there in Coyoacán and hearing Joey and Sergio playing guitar and vehuela outside in the courtyard, and then stepping into the studio and recording the idea in that natural cut time feel, it quickly became a favorite because of its ease, like it was so meant to be here. And then to have Nick Urata from Devotchka add his vocal layer put the song into that blue mood even further.

JB: This was based on an idea that we came up with while writing in Mexico City. Sergio started with playing a vihuela rhythmic pattern, and I came in with nylon acoustic guitar suggesting certain chords to follow his motif. We re-recorded the idea in Tucson with a full drum sound and upright bass with a few overdubs of piano and vibraphone. John really liked the minimal arrangement, but I heard some other parts that could help make some of the transitions from verse to chorus and to bridge sections. So we added very minimal trumpet parts from Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela as well as a gorgeous pedal steel part from Paul Niehaus. Some of the Brian Eno sounding synth parts were from a pocket piano synthesizer that wound up on a lot of tracks on this album.

‘Cumbia de Donde’ feels a lost sister to ‘Guero Canelo’ from ‘Feast of Wire’ or even ‘Roka’s Danza de la Muerte. I feel the energy of Calexico’s live concert is effectively translated to the sprawling canvas of ‘Edge of the Sun’. I’m sure it is an extremely exciting prospect to be in the midst of touring this new record. Talk a bit please about the space and aesthetics that inhabits each and every Calexico song? I feel this remains the trusted constant and magical spark to the unique sound of this ever-evolving ensemble.

JB: We wanted to show the variety inside our band, and so every track takes its own path and highlights different sides to the band’s musical styles. The last album “Algiers” was more focused style wise and this time out and reflecting the vibrant spirit that Mexico City exudes, we wanted to change it up. I will speak about “Cumbia de Donde” a little bit. This was influenced from spending time in Mexico and was written after the trip and recorded the first day at Wavelab Studio in Tucson. I had an idea of recording a few snippets of instrumental cumbia tracks to have come in and out of the record. This one turned out so good that we decided to make a full on song out of it. There’s a lot of distortion on the bass, percussion and vocals. We wanted to give this song the werewolf treatment and give it some teeth.

JC: Another fun one for me, I came in the next day after they had recorded this romp to a click track, and found myself a beat to play over it. In reality the beat I am playing is not a cumbia beat, it’s something else I don’t know what, but it’s not cumbia, and playing the song live I am still figuring out what to play….maybe I could try a cumbia?

Beginning back in the 90’s, you’ve been collecting musical instruments, which has been an important part to the creative process. I’m curious to know what new instruments or new tones/textures were added to the sonic palette of ‘Edge of the Sun’? One of the striking aspects to the new record is indeed the wide range of sonic timbres utilized on ‘Edge of the Sun’.

JB: The most impressive addition to the sounds on this album are the jalisco harp featured on “Coyoacán” and the Greek instruments; the kanun and bouzouki featured on “World Undone“. Oh yeah and how could I forget the addition of the pocket piano by Critter & Guitari. It’s an addicting little keyboard. Be careful when you bring it to the studio. My twin daughters Genevieve and Twyla loved playing with it at home.

JC: I did get a new drumset, something I thought I would never do, I love my vintage instruments so much. But this father and son company called C&C make these drums so much like the old ones, and even better, the tones gave me great inspiration. So much of what we do comes from tone and timbre, what the sound waves are doing that day in the room with the moisture or lack of. How high is the ceiling? The wood in the walls or the adobe, the thickness of the strings, the loudness of the amps, they all come together when the silence is broken the tide comes in.

In terms of the production, it was very much a shared experience between the core duo of Burns, Convertino, but this time out, Sergio contributed a lot to this side of the music. I would love for you to recount your memories of this process of the music-making process?

JC: Sergio is positive force; he is ready for the challenges. Coming up with something out of nothing can be like digging ditches some days, you got to have the strength. He has it. I think too, I was not there this time for a lot of the process, using email and texts don’t always translate well, so for this it was great have Sergio there to bounce ideas off of in the mixing process.

JB: It was helpful having both Ryan Alfred on bass and Sergio Mendoza on keyboards in the studio while recording the foundation for the songs. I know it helps out a lot with locking in to the groove. In addition I really enjoy recording with just John and myself as well. So we did some sessions as a two piece and came up with a bunch of basic tracks for songs like “Miles From The Sea“, “Woodshed Waltz“, “Bullets & Rocks” and “When The Angels Played”. John was there for the recording of basic tracks and Sergio was super helpful for me personally being there everyday and supportive on finishing the whole album including reaching out to guests. The studio engineers get overwhelmed with all of the ideas and possibilities, and I am sure the other band members do as well. But Sergio was good at helping me make decisions on what songs to focus on and to finish.

Please pick one song you feel most proud of and reminisce for me the song’s inception and blossom into its final entity? 

JB: “World Undone” was started at home with a simple melody line. While I was driving into the studio that morning I listened to Bill Callahan’s ‘Dream River‘ album and thought it would be interesting to try a similar minimal approach. Tracked live, Sergio Mendoza and Ryan Alfred accompanied John and I on ambient guitars instead of keyboard and bass. This helped free up the form and allowed us to experiment more with a live take between my guitar and John’s drums. I like this version of the song and even though I kept wanting the dynamics to build more. That is the beauty of a live take. We did however make an edit so that the song was 4 minutes long and not 7. I think that helped a lot especially in wanting to release so many songs on the album.

Months later while on tour in Greece we added some musicians from the band Takim which really helped outline the melody with bouzouki and oud, plus doubling an electric guitar part with violin. The harpsichord sounding texture that weaves in and out of the track is the kanun, a traditional hammer dulcimer type instrument. When Craig Schumacher went to mix the song he noticed there was no bass and so he added a Moog synth bass which I like a lot and was a nice surprise when listening to his mix. When I played the album to our live engineers in Holland both Patrick Boonstra and Jelle Kuiper commented that this was their favorite song. It was hard choosing which songs out of the 20 we had finished were to be on the album. I’m glad that “World Undone” made it to the album.

JC: I like them all, and that becomes a problem because I was thinking they all should be on the record, but that makes a record long and who has time to listen to long records??? People download songs now, and that’s the world we live in. I have to believe that if all the songs are available in the digital world, people will find them and like them if they take the time to dig.

What books, records, films have served inspiration these past few months for you?

 JB: Buddy Levy “Conquistador“, Natalia Lafourcade “Mujer Divinia – Homenaje a Agustín Lara, Mexican Institute of Sound “Politico”, painter Rodolfo Nieto and writer Carlos Fuentes.

JC: As I mentioned before the Donald Judd exhibit in Marfa was in my mind. I’ve been reading the Morrissey autobiography and loving it. His writing and insights to poetry and music is something I can relate to very closely. And I appreciate so much his honesty, even in the most difficult of situations being in a band, the business, fame and all the rest of it.



‘Edge of the Sun’ is out now on City Slang (Europe) & ANTI- (USA).

Written by markcarry

July 1, 2015 at 9:58 am

Chosen One: Camera Obscura

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Interview with Tracyanne Campbell, Camera Obscura.

“I had a dream in my head and sort of the idea of the heart following the head and the head following the heart. Sometimes they’re like paths that don’t quite meet, where like being on one path instead of being on the other. And then I thought about that whole desire lines thing, you know, in public places where instead of going down the path that’s been laid out for them, they sort of wander off and they end up making a new path. And then people follow it and it becomes a proper path that people have followed. It’s quite difficult to explain but I was thinking just about the sort of idea of the choices you make, leading you somewhere and that kind of thing.”

Tracyanne Campbell

Words: Mark & Craig Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Camera Obscura’s sublime fifth album closes with the heavenly title-track ‘Desire Lines’, where its second verse includes the lyric “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” – a nod to the novel of the same name by American writer Carson McCullers. These subtle in-song references feature across the album elsewhere (from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” to Billy Wilder’s “The Seven Year Itch”). The inclusion of McCullers’ debut novel (published in 1940 when McCullers was only twenty-three years old), though, is particularly evocative. “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” is set in America’s South – taking place over fourteen months – and features thirteen year old Mick Kelly, a restless dreamer who falls in love with music in a profound way. As McCullers stated in her outline to the publishers: “To Mick music is the symbol of beauty and freedom.” What’s particularly memorable in the book are the passages describing Mick’s deep new-found love for music:

“Every afternoon she stayed after school for an hour to play. The gym was crowded and noisy because the girls’ team had basketball games. Twice today she was hit on the head with the ball. But getting a chance to sit at a piano was worth any trouble. She would arrange bunches of notes together until the sound came that she wanted. It was easier than she had thought. After the first two or three hours she figured out some sets of chords in the bass that would fit in with the main tune her right hand was playing. She could pick out almost any piece now. And she made up new music too. That was better than just copying tunes. When her hands hunted out these beautiful new sounds it was the best feeling she had ever known.” 

(—”The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”, Carson McCullers, 1940)

This magical beauty inherent in the making of music is forever to the foreground when listening to Glasgow’s Camera Obscura. They have firmly established themselves as one of those rare treasures in music today. Over the years, they have mastered the art of a perfect pop song, where each record has become a cornerstone to music lover’s record collections worldwide. What lies at the heart of their blend of precious pop music is the remarkable voice of Tracyanne Campbell. Like fellow-Glaswegians, Belle & Sebastian, Tracyanne Campbell and co. write irresistible songs about love. The stunning compositions over the years, ranging from heart-wrenched ballads (‘James’, ‘Desire Lines’, ‘Country Mile’) to Spector-esque pop symphonies (‘French Navy’, ‘This Is Love’, ‘Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’), have dealt with the universal theme of love, in all its strengths and flaws. As with all true artistic creations, an emotional depth exists at the core of Campbell’s penned songs, creating in turn, deeply affecting pop music. Pain, longing, hope, fear, loss and heartache are beautifully etched on the canvas of sound. A rare treasure indeed.

Nearly four years have passed since the release of the wonderful (and the band’s 4AD debut) ‘My Maudlin Career’. The long-awaited follow-up, ‘Desire Lines’ represents a career best for Glasgow’s finest, where a bold spirit and artistic brilliance radiates from the recordings. A new direction is ventured on ‘Desire Lines’. The finished songs are sparse and guitar-based, moving away from the lush string and brass arrangements of previous records. As ever, the beguiling vocals of Tracyanne Campbell provides the aching pulse to the sonic creations. Her voice has never sounded so immaculate, as the vocal melts over the delicate lap-steel on album title-track and album closer, ‘Desire Lines’. The country gem is steeped in unwavering beauty that centers on a road trip to California:

“I went to California
I needed sun, I warned you
When the green of your eyes met my blue by surprise
There was a storm yeah”

(‘Desire Lines’)

The lyric of ‘”The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter”, I feel epitomizes the music contained on ‘Desire Lines’. In much the same way as the idea of desire lines, where the compass of your heart guides you to new pathways and possibilities, the sheer poetry of Campbell’s lyrics heightens all your surroundings. As Campbell sings “I’m going to love you as I know how” on the song’s chorus, a sun has risen on the skyline before my eyes. It’s music to truly savour and appreciate.

‘Desire Lines’ was recorded in Portland, Oregon by producer Tucker Martine (Laura Veirs, REM, The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens), having first written and composed the songs in their native Glasgow. The timeless power of pop music graces these very songs with the endearing and everlasting appeal of all things rare and true. A formidable cast of musicians guest on the album, from the pedal-steel prowess of Paul Brainard (Richmond Fontaine among many others), Neko Case and Jim James on backing vocal duties. The ensemble musicianship of the group’s core five-piece lineup creates the perfect backdrop to Campbell’s songwriting. ‘New Year’s Resolution’ contains glorious touchstones of soul and pop that has a feeling of nostalgia permeating through Campbell’s masterful lyrics. The closing refrain of “Stay now / I wish you would stay now” brings the song to a fitting close.

‘Do It Again’ is an uptempo guitar-pop tour de force with an urgent beat and dazzling rhythm. ‘William’s Heart’ is another masterpiece, where Campbell croons “to die in the arms of a twenty year old”. An intimate feel radiates throughout. “William where have you gone? / Will you return to me?” are the closing lyrics. The song is a glistening pop gem that sparkles from the intro’s clean guitar tones to the closing crescendo of electric guitar notes. ‘Cri Du Couer’ contains a gorgeous 50’s feel a la Roy Orbison but with a very much contemporary twist. The opening lyrics are perhaps an insight into the creative process behind Tracyanne Campbell’s songwriting; observing the world that surrounds her:

“I like to think when I’m driving
I like to daydream a little
I like to think about the people
The faces of the young and the old
I want to watch the whole story unfold”

(‘Cri Du Couer’)

‘Fifth In Line To The Throne’ is one of the album’s centerpieces, alongside ‘Cri Du Couer’ and ‘Desire Lines’. For me, the ballads often are the songs that I hold most dear to me, from all of my most cherished records. The song has it all. The feel. The depth. Such power and beauty. I think there is a lovely parallel between ‘Fifth In Line To The Throne’ and the songbook of The Smiths. The distinctive blend of mesmerizing instrumentation of guitar bears the hallmarks of Johnny Marr. The voice of Campbell shares the glorious spark of Morrisey and particularly, the song’s phrasing. My favourite lyric on the album ‘Desire Lines’ is “I have seen your deepest flaws” on the opening line of the second verse. It’s beautiful how such few words can make such a profound impact. I am reminded of Morrisey’s songs such as ‘I Had No One Ever’ and ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ when listening to this tower of song. The purity of Campbell’s voice is simply breathtaking, where the heavenly instrumentation of guitars, drums, keys and backing harmonies, makes for a fulfilling journey.

The origins of Camera Obscura happened sometime back in 1996 in their Glasgow hometown, where founding members Tracyanne Campbell and Gavin Dunbar first began rehearsing together. Their career has spanned two decades, releasing several timeless records that has been championed by the late great John Peel, who welcomed the band to do five Peel sessions. A testament in itself. Debut album ‘Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi’ was released in 2001, with the follow-up ‘Underachievers Please Try Harder’ further developing their unique blend of intelligent pop music. On the next two records, Swedish producer Jari Haapalainen came aboard, whose acclaimed work included The Concretes and Peter, Bjorn & John. The albums ‘Let’s Get Out Of The Country’ (2006) and ‘My Maudlin Career’ (2009) are both milestones in the band’s universally acclaimed body of work. 2013 sees the band create yet another work of art in the form of ‘Desire Lines’, where the pathway continues to lead us to new horizons.

“New year’s resolution – to write something of value
New year’s resolution – to write something would be fine
All I ever wanted was someone to rely on
All I ever wanted was somewhere to call home”

(‘New Year’s Resolution’)

Listening to the sublime beauty of Camera Obscura’s consistently impressive songbook reminds me of legendary arranger and producer Jack Nitzsche. The linear notes to “Hearing Is Believing 1962-1979” (Ace Records, 2005) reveals a man forever obsessed with music and its endless discoveries. His pride and joy was his collection of 45s (kept in special books on a high shelf “so young hands could not touch”). What’s particularly moving is an essay from Nitzsche’s son – Jack Nitzsche Jr. – who eloquently recounts his lasting memory of his father:

“The image of my dad that will stick in my head for the rest of my life is the one I saw over and over again. He’s in the middle of the living room on his knees, gently rocking back and forth, humming and making little comments and sounds as he listens to an album alone. His head bent down, reading the linear notes.

Like his father, he loved records. He loved music. A fan to the very end…”

Of course, everybody has their own paths they undertake in their quest for building a record collection; bands, labels, producers, sleeves, genres, a particular timeframe or decade, rarity, value, recommendation etc. Whilst not forgetting the beauty of chance and serendipity, the process of finding one’s way through a universe of music – new and old – is endless. While I can only roughly estimate what my own record collection will comprise of when perhaps one day a new generation will curiously seek to unearth music from a bygone time, I know one thing for certain: while young ears will seek to hunt out new music, I will happily point in the direction of those records by Camera Obscura. “Who?” I imagine will come the response, when I will reply: “Camera Obscura, a band from Glasgow, who, at the start of the 21st century made some of the most beautiful records I’ve ever heard.” And with a satisfactory, silent nod, new, unfamiliar sounds will begin to fill the room. And what could possibly be a more beautiful pathway – and desire line – than that?


“Desire Lines” is out now on 4AD.



Interview with Tracyanne Campbell, Camera Obscura.

(This interview took place on the eve of Camera Obscura’s U.S tour in support of new album ‘Desire Lines’).

Congratulations on the new album, ‘Desire Lines’. It’s really amazing, and I think it’s your best album so far.

That’s very nice for you to say so.


I was interested to see you went to Portland, Oregon for the recording of this album. I’d love to know more about the songs themselves, whether you had them pretty much written before you headed out?

I think that’s always really the case when we’re making records, you know. If you don’t have a lot of ground-work done then you’re basically spending money in a very expensive studio to write songs, so that’s not a good way to spend your money, you know. They were mainly written – there may have been an odd thing here and there that wasn’t set in stone-the basic structure and basic chord progression and basic vocal melody and basic lyrics were there. There was the odd thing that finished off in the studio but we had them finished in Glasgow. Tucker Martine, the producer came over for a couple of days and we set the tempos and stuff like that and then we practiced on that and we went to Portland and recorded them. The only song that really changed structurally in the studio drastically was the first song ‘This Is Love’ ’cause that wasn’t really working out when we came to track it. We weren’t quite happy with it so I wrote a new chorus in the studio.


My favourite song at the moment is ‘Cri Du Coeur’. It has a lovely feel of Roy Orbison.

Yeah, well I think we were going to this sort of classic 50’s American style but with something that was a little bit more contemporary at least, and less pastiche or retro than usual.


Over the years too, I love the songs on your albums that are the slow ballads. On this album I feel the title-track is really strong with a deep impact. I love that feel to it.

I think that quite often for me on albums, my favourite songs end up being maybe the less obvious singles, you know. I think a lot of the time they are more interesting and have got hidden depth. I’m glad when people say they like those tracks, you know as someone would like songs like ‘Do It Again’ or ‘French Navy’ because they are the sort of tracks I look for in people’s records as well.


Camera Obscura are so brilliant at creating pop songs, in the true sense. There’s always very much a real feel to them and real depth to all the songs. You must have specific albums or bands that you’re really inspired by?

It’s hard to pinpoint. I do have bands and albums that I love but it’s hard for me to draw a line directly on the records I listen to along the songs that I have written. I don’t think you set about going, I really like that song, I want to make a song like that. It doesn’t work like that, I think your influences are with you along the way, you keep them with you and you’re not always aware that you’re using them.


In terms of the arrangements, you can never tire of the layers of sound embedded in the songs themselves. Is that I suppose more the final stages of the song?

I think strings and brass and things like that, for us have always been added last. Definitely the band record live and we’ll get a basic song and we’ll do our overdubs on our particular instrument. We never really put many strings on this album. We purposefully avoided that ’cause we didn’t really want to go down that road. And we’ve obviously used a lot in the past. They may have been written in mind during the recording but they’ve always been added later on.


How has your touring been going? Primavera Sound must have been unbelievable, what a lineup.

It was a good lineup. It’s been a long time since we played Primavera. We played about twelve years ago. It’s one of our first proper gigs, actually, one of our first gigs outside of the country definitely. So it was nice to go back there, having progressed a little bit more, on the ball a little bit more. It was really great. It was lovely to play in Spain and we always get a really fantastic reception when we play in Spain probably due to previously being on Elefant records in Madrid.


Did you get to see any band yourself while you were there?

I have to confess I did not see any other band. I was quite busy doing press before the gigs so yeah, I never really got a chance. I guess the main person I would have liked to have seen was Rodriguez but actually he cancelled. It’s nearly always the way with festivals, it’s very rare to see bands.


The title of the album, ‘Desire Lines’, I’d love to gain an insight into the title? It’s a lovely title for the album.

Well, the song ‘Desire Lines’ was one of the first songs written for the record, if not the first because I wrote it when I was on tour in 2009. We just played Coachella. Again, I was being a bit of a bore and instead of staying and watching other bands, I decided to go on the bus back to the hotel. I sort of had a dream in my head and sort of the idea of the heart following the head and the head following the heart. Sometimes they’re like paths that don’t quite meet, where like being on one path instead of being on the other. And then I thought about that whole desire lines thing, you know, in public places where instead of going down the path that’s been laid out for them, they sort of wander off and they end up making a new path. And then people follow it and it becomes a proper path that people have followed. It’s quite difficult to explain but I was thinking just about the sort of idea of the choices you make, leading you somewhere and that kind of thing.


I love the lyric “the heart is a lonely hunter”, you must be a big fan of Carson McCullers?

Yeah, I read a lot of Carson McCullers on the last American tour which was back in 2009. I loved that book, I was quite taken by it. And obviously that line is quite evocative and I guess the idea of tying it in with desire lines is the thought of the heart on this fruitless path to somewhere. So I guess that was the meaning; looking for something that was never going to bring them any joy or solve any problems. But I love Carson McCullers.


You’re on your U.S. tour tomorrow, Tracyanne?

I just started to do the dreaded packing. So, we leave Glasgow at 9AM and to tour for two months. I’m looking forward to it. It should be good. It’s been a while.


It must be lovely, with music to tour around the different parts.

I think we’re really lucky, you know. We feel very graced in that we get to travel. Obviously there are different aspects to that but actually, mainly it’s a great privilege to catch other people’s existence, basically. It’s really fascinating and I think for me personally, I’ve drawn great inspiration from the States especially because we have toured there so much. I think that a lot of the songs written on the past three albums have definitely drawn great inspiration from the States. I don’t think that half of those songs would have materialized without those trips. I have a great fondness for it, you know. It means a lot.


I hope you’ll come over to play Europe afterwards.

Yeah, I think that will be later on next year. I’m actually five months pregnant, so I’m due to have a baby in September. Obviously, I need to take a bit of time off and get back into it. We really want to go all over. Sadly we only got to do one small section of the UK but hopefully next year we’ll be able to get a lot more done.


That’s great. The last time I saw you was actually in Cork, alongside Midlake and Grizzly Bear.

That was a nice show. That was great actually, I like both those bands, especially Midlake. It was a real treat for me to actually play a gig and then watch a band I really love. It was lovely.


“Desire Lines” is out now on 4AD.