The ethereal music of Tropic of Cancer (TOC) has been increasingly growing on me for the last couple of years. One of my favourite things about this cult band is the contrast in the music – especially the way the dramatic elements get mixed with the calming romantic tunes together.
Since the day I heard this beautifully crafted music for the first time, I’ve always felt that I needed to listen to it in a dark underground club. And finally, I experienced it in Lyon last week. Surprisingly, the venue – which is called Sonic Lyon – was a boat with a capacity for 200 people! Although it was packed and the atmosphere was a bit airless, I think it was the perfect venue for the Tropic of Cancer’s dark romanticisim.
Camella Lobo was joined by Taylor Burch (Dva Damas) and Joshua Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv) on stage, and their brilliant performance was short – only 45 minutes- but it was quite intense.
Before their sold out gig, I had a chance to meet Camella Lobo and interview her. It was that moment when I realised she is seven months pregnant. The music in the club was too loud to talk over but she was nice enough to come outside to talk to me about her music dealing with love, loss, suffering and grappling with the past.
So we sat by the River Rhone and chatted for half an hour.
Louder Than War: You’ve been on tour for some time now and you’re seven months pregnant! How is it going so far?
This is probably the hardest league of the tour just because we have seven shows in seven cities back to back which is nowadays great, and we were up very late last night. In Geneva, there were some unfortunate circumstances around our apartment there. Yeah, it is pretty tiring. We have two more shows before we have a break and we go to Tel Aviv just for two days and then we go to London and I think no more then. We are almost done.
You started Tropic of Cancer with Juan Mendez in 2007 and after a couple of years it became your solo project. Can you recall the moment when you first realized that you had this music you have made inside your head? What was the feeling like?
I think it was quite some time before Juan and I started making music together. I’d just hear songs and my head would know kind of what vocal part should go to the song, you know, just kind of those things as I was listening to music, and I always wanted to make music on my own and then it came up like we had the fortunate kind of circumstance of having access to a studio space and he had been working on a new electronic project at that time. So we just started working together and I think it was pretty immediate like within 20 minutes or something, I was like “Oh! We should keep doing this. This is cool!” So we just kept working.
Could you give us a little insight into your upbringing? I read somewhere that you grew up singing in Catholic church choirs. How did it affect you?
Music was always a big part of my childhood and growing up. I grew up in a Catholic household. I was doing like church choirs and and singing in elementary school. Especially my dad -he is from Brazil, was super encouraging. He would record me singing alone in tape recorders and always tell me, “Camela, you need to keep pursuing this. I really think that you could have a musical career,” and I was always like, “OK!”. And my mom was always the same, she was into New Wave when I was growing up. So his side which is traditional choir, Catholic, you know stuff like that, Brazilian music; and then from her I was getting New Wave.
That’s a good mix!
Yeah, maybe that’s where everything comes from! She was really into The Cure and Morrissey. She loved pop music too, like Madonna, David Bowie and stuff like that. It was cool. I got a lot of eclectic kind of experience from them.
You grew up in Los Angeles and currently reside there. LA seems to be such a broken place that allows all the characteristics that art needs. But how has growing up and living in LA affected your overall writing?
I don’t know if it has had a direct effect on what I make. I don’t know if Los Angeles itself had a big influence on me just because I grew up outside LA proper. I grew up in a LA county, mostly in San Pedro which is kind of an industrial port town, which is very dark but also has blue color, and the beach is there, lots of cliffs.
It seems that it has all the contrasts.
Yeah, it has got a lot of different stuff going on. I think San Pedro in itself, just the nature of the city was more probably more influential to me but also you know, my close friends and people that I grew up with had a big impact on the music that I make more than Los Angeles itself.
Have you ever considered recording an album in a different country?
I’ve thought about it. Because at one point I’d really like to go away somewhere to record. I read a lot about people doing that and in general, I think it was Galaxie 500 used to go, oh, was it Luna? I don’t know… One of Dean Wareham’s bands, they used to go to this cabin in the woods of Minnesota, like block of for two weeks of something just to record an album. I’ve never been able to work like that.
Where would you go if you had a chance?
I’d definitely go to Sweden, Stockholm or some other city in Sweden. That would be ideal for sure.
Maybe you can do it one day…?
I hope so. I could probably make it happen. I just need to keep the money together and try to get a studio. Yeah, I’d love to do that.
I read an interview in which you said, “I honestly have little control over the core aesthetic in my music – it simply is what it is.” So what controls your aesthetic?
I think it just naturally what happens when I sit down and start writing music is that music is very comforting for me. I really use it as a means of working through issues that I’m going through or things that happen to me. Even if I am not going through anything at that time, I use the music as a time to kind of tap into something that I’m figuring out emotionally, surreal always comes from that place. I’ve never been able to write a song out of some concept that was more abstract to me. It’s just not the way I work. And when I have tried to do that, the songs don’t have as much impact on me personally and I’ve also noticed that they don’t have as much impact on the listeners as well. A lot of the songs that I’ve tried to write haven’t really got much attraction with listeners, which is fine. But I think it’s like, the songs that really resonate with people are the ones that mean a lot to me at the time, that were really important to me going through whatever…
There’s a quote from Oscar Wilde where he says, “There are two tragedies, not getting what you want and getting what you want.” Which is worse for you?
That’s a really good question. (Laughs). I think getting what you want sometimes can be a lot harder because personally, a lot of the time I’ve struggled to not struggle but what I spent most of my time doing, at least in my adult life, was setting goals for myself and then achieving the goals and sometimes achieving those goals have had broader impact on other things in my life. And those are the things when I’ve suffered relationships and stuff like that. So yes, it’s tough to get what you want because it is never you can have it all. You know, sometimes you think you do and then something could get taken away and you’re humbled to remember, “Oh, this is life!” You can’t have everything you want…
Is writing songs sort of therapeutic for you?
Yes, definitely. That’s pretty much all that is. Because of that it even prevents me sometimes from wanting to work on music. Because after I’ve gone through something, I know that once I go into the studio and start writing, it is going to bring all that stuff and it is kind of hard to go through. It is like the same way people don’t want to go therapy, because they don’t want to deal with things that happened to them. It is kind of the same for me.
Bob Dylan once said, “Being a musician means -depending on how far you go- getting to the depths of where you are at. And most any musician would try anything to get to those depths.” What is your way of getting to the depths of your soul? I am asking this because you translate powerful emotions so accurately into your music.
It really is like a literal recording of my emotions at that moment. I mean I can hit a certain core, the note of something and the way that it ascends would just bring this thing out of me. I know how to keep it, moving forward and forward. Whenever I haven’t been able to do that this way, I don’t think the music resonates with people as much as the other songs.
Your vocals are not so much sung but sighed and they are heavily affected. Do you like to use your voice as sort of an instrument?
It is just generally how I like them. Now with the latest stuff that I’ve been working on, although the vocals are higher in the mix, they are still really affected. I think that probably comes from my love of coral music and that’s how it sounds in like a church; you know, when you’re singing in a church choir or like those really large spaces. I feel like that has a bigger impact and it calls from beyond or something. It just feels a little more like comforting to me. I guess some people can’t get away with it, a lot of people can’t get away with it, but I don’t particularly like knowing exactly what an artist to say. Because then sometimes you can’t connect the song as much. I like the idea of people feeling what I am saying more rather than taking it literally.
So what’s the role of microphone for you? Morrissey says it is his tombstone. If you used a metaphor for the microphone, what would it be?
(Laughs) Really? I’ve never heard of him saying that. Cool! I think for me, there’s really a long period of my life before I started working on music where I used to think what I am going to do, what I am going to live behind. I’d always feel like I had this, for the lack of a better word, like a fire inside of me. But I needed to do something I just couldn’t figure out a medium for what I was writing. I was trying to do art and working with friends and doing cover songs and stuff like that. I knew that I needed to contribute something. To the rest of the world, whether or not anyone is paying attention, just to live something there that meant something to me. All the things that I tried didn’t really touch that. But when I started making music, I felt that it helped me. You know, I don’t want to die tomorrow, but I do feel like if I die tomorrow I’d be OK. I’ve accomplished something while I was younger and hopefully made something that impacted other people and helped them in some way. Maybe they would discover it in a five years from now, ten years from now. That’s all comforting.
What is the one thing you always focus on when you’re composing, something that your music can never lack?
I’d say like my low-end tones, things like that are really deep, sound-wise, sonically. Outside of the emotions that I am trying to convey, it is always like this very kind of narcoleptic process where I am sitting at the keyboard and at times I am almost psyched, falling sleep on playing, and I know that when I am certain to get calm and relaxed and starting to kind of drift off and feeling like, “OK. That’s where I need to be.” That’s where I like to create the songs around so that they feel kind of a warm blanket or something. It is hard to explain but that’s always a constant piece to process of composing for me. It is really impossible for me to write songs that are fast. So for me the beats are always very slow, very methodical. Otherwise, it just doesn’t pull out the right part of me.
Are you planning to work with some other producers?
No, I think for the time being, I’ve started to work with Joshua Eustis a few months back, so we’ll probably work on the next record together and kind of see where it takes us. Because I really like the production he brought to the tracks. He was able to take things, like movements in the tracks, further with the production than I wouldn’t have been able to. The way he produced the tracks allowed those things to each other’s space without kind of crowding one another. So I think we’ll work together in the near future.
Your sound is quite cinematic. How important are visuals for you? Do you imagine particular scenes and settings for the music while composing?
Not really. It’s so personal to me that I’m not thinking about anything else. I have a hard time characterizing my music around or writing my music around other characters. I don’t know, maybe it is just narcissistic or immature… I really have hard time thinking about another persons or another scene. I kind of know how to create a mood, but as far as storytelling and thinking about stuff visually, I don’t think that comes through as much. Natural things come out when I am writing and fixing it on. I see things a little bit when I am writing but nothing that really sticks. Like when you’re sleeping at night, at the first couple of minutes of falling sleep, you don’t know if you’re dreaming or if you’re awake. That halfway state happens to me a lot when I’m working.
The cover arts of your records has been changed after Tropic of Cancer became your solo project. I still love the minimalistic photographic images on the sleeves of your records. But you have ditched the black colour and went for green colour for the covers of “Restless Idylls” and now “Stop Suffering”. For some reason, the black colour has some positive associations for me but it might be the evil colour for some people. What is your ideology about black colour?
I think for a long time black colour, black and white colours and monochrome things like that really appealed to me. But as I started to work in the same way that writing the same songs becomes tiring, you know, having the same aesthetic around the music becomes tiring for me. I like change, I like to change things a lot. Although I still love black and white colours, I still love that aesthetic a lot, I am not turned off by other things like that, like going in the direction of colour… I don’t even know if it is particularly about colour but more of a mood that’s conveyed through an image. Because I feel like a colour image can convey the same strangeness or interest that a black and white image can convey. It is really about seeing passed out. But also there was a time where the black and white aesthetic was like everywhere. You couldn’t escape it, so in order to make an album to feel new to me I wanted to transcend that colour. It stuck a little bit.
If you could associate Restless Idyllls with a landscape, a book and a painting, what would they be?
It has got this kind of romantic, Gothic tone to it. When we were making that cover, what was in my mind was just old Hitchcock films, things that I watched with my mother, kind of like that Technicolor Dreamworld that is comforting and that is big part of my childhood and also frightening at the same token. I don’t know, it comforts me but it is also scary. And I think that’s where album cover came about. It wasn’t so much about a literary motive or a painting. When you’re looking at, the new EP cover strikes that same chord as well. It is like, “Wait, what’s going on in this picture?” I feel like I’ve just walked in this room and I am like, “What is this person doing? What’s happening?” You always come in the mid of an action. I like that too.
Your music has been released on some independent labels such as Downwards, Mannequin and recently on Blackest Ever Black. Today, some bands see being on an independent label as a career step toward being signed a major label. To you, what’s the best part about being on Blackest Ever Black, one of the most forward-thinking labels in the field of experimental music?
I definitely feel the same way which is why I’ve stuck around the label for so long. That and there’s a lot of collaborative stuff that happens when you are working with an independent label. Kiran and I have a pretty good relationship in the sense that like we really do feed each other’s ideas. We always feel like we’re kind of in line, like on the level with what we’re thinking and saying about certain releases. That’s been really nice because I’ve worked with other people here and there, not just labels but people in general on whatever, art or music or whatnot; and it is actually really rare to be on the same page with someone the entire time. He doesn’t question me and I don’t question him and it always works. So I am hesitant to move from that label to a bigger label for a lot of other reasons that being of them. I feel like I lose excitement around working with someone else.
Sexism in the music industry is nothing new. In the past few years, some of the musicians such as Björk, Grimes, Nina Kravitz, talked about male chauvinism in the music industry. What’s your take on this?
There’s a lot that comes along with that. I think for early on I cared a lot more about what men thought about my music in particular and what men thought about me as a musician and a performer and a woman in general. There was a lot of stress, getting nervousness around that. Now as far as my music goes, I feel really confident. You know, I’d say there’s still a lot of, I’d say like male-centric get all voice network that takes place in the music industry, which it always will. But I really just try not to pay attention to it and I don’t like competing with other people. That’s not why I make music. I don’t like paying attention to what people are talking about. I really try to keep my head down and work on just my own stuff and try to ignore it. But there are some definite things that you experience especially when you are on tour.
Even when you’re dealing with people day to day who don’t know much about your music, that’s very clear, you know you see how polarizing ideas can be around man and woman. For the most part, a lot of the men in my life have been very supportive. I used to work with Juan and now am working with Joshua, but there’s also people that come to me outside and they probably will attribute everything to those men. I just had an interview last night with a guy who was like, “Oh, the new direction of the music, the percussion is so interesting. It is totally new. It sounds like really electronic… bla bla bla.. I bet it has a lot to do with Joshua coming in.” And I was like, “Actually, no. I wrote that song and then I went to Joshua and we carved things out of it.” It had nothing to do with him actually. I just got a brand new drum machine and it was the first pattern I had programmed from the drum machine. So this kind of things are weird. You’re like, “OK…”
And then specifically around being pregnant, everyone has been cool about it but there’s something literally liberating about it because you don’t really feel like you are a sex object. You know, I’ve never wanted to feel like that. So now it’s kind of like I am almost even more like I don’t want to be ashamed of my body. If they do have a problem with me being pregnant or if they only like my band because for whatever reason like thinking Taylor and I as sex objects, I don’t even know if people think that, but there’s something really liberating about just not giving a shit anymore. We’ll see what happens after the baby.
And finally, when will you start recording your next album?
Not until April, I’d say, probably I will start recording in April or May. Yes, it is definitely in the works!
Tropic of Cancer’s new EP Stop Suffering was released on Blackest Ever Black on October 30, 2015. Find them on Facebook.
All words and images by Zülal Kalkandelen. Read more from Zulal on Louder Than War here.