Camera Obscura: The Little Blue Key

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Story by Adam Daniels
Photography by Dorothy Hong

David Lynch is not twee. In fact, it’s hard to argue against the idea that he might be the anti-twee. So it may come as a surprise that when referencing her musical philosophy Camera Obscura frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell kept coming back to the polarizing auteur. She initially mentioned the director in reference to Mullholland Drive, the trippy neo-noir thriller about an aspiring actress and a mysterious little blue key.

“It just has a message to it, and like all his films, it starts but it doesn’t really end and I think that’s the way music should be,” Campbell says. “I don’t think I should write music that should tell you how to feel or what to get from it. You should take what you want, you know? Art should be interpreted in so many ways. You should get what you need to get, rather than what somebody tells you. I think that’s one of the main things that appeals to me about David Lynch.”

But then again, maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Camera Obscura formed in 1996, and now for going on a decade and a half they’ve been fielding a daily barrage of questions on twee, Stuart Murdoch, heartbreak and the shadows of Belle and Sebastian (“Oh my God, you guys are from the same country? What’s that like?). So one can imagine this cycle could make Campbell feel, well, particularly untwee.

Lynch’s name came up within the context of a conversation on the band’s communal passion for film (Campbell herself entitled a recent blog post of the landscapes of the American West “My Own Private Idaho”). She says she believes people underestimate how much films can influence artists in their songwriting and storytelling.

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“I think that is something that I’m sure is true for everyone but they don’t talk about, maybe because people don’t ask,” Campbell says. “But people, writers and such, always assume that music is just the be-all-end-all thing that people are inspired by when they’re writing songs and it’s just bullshit.”

And aside from the inspirations, people tend to make the same assumption about Campbell’s lyrics as well.

“That’s the thing people always assume, that I’ve had my heart broken like 100 times,” Campbell says. “And I just haven’t. That makes me sound like someone who just goes from person to person to person. Maybe I don’t have as many relationships as people like to think. I’m not a hopeless romantic.”

For the record, Campbell says she has had her heart broken before, twice, maybe three times romantically. But these instances don’t define the records.

“People will try to say ‘Oh this is a break-up song’ or ‘Oh this is a break-up album.’” Campbell says. “And you can’t really do that because that’s not the way life happens. It can never be like that where every thought is about break-up or heartbreak or even love. It’s never just one or the other. It’s a million things. It’s about walking down the street, catching a glimpse of yourself and realizing you hate someone one minute and absolutely love them the next, so many things.”

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While Campbell speaks in general music terms, it’s easy for these words to point at the uniquely endearing quality in her band’s music: the moments where you’re being tugged in three different directions before you even had time to stop and think about the meanings of each path. But while she may not want you to cram her songs into a box, whatever else you want to make of them seems just fine by her.

“People ask what the songs mean all the time,” she says. “”I know what the record is about. But I’d never want to write a passage about what every single song is about exactly. That’s not what we do when we write music.”

And once again we’re back on Mullholland Drive. It’s easy to assume a director like Lynch would revel at the chance to divulge secrets and meanings that lie within his intricately woven plotlines and idiosyncratic details. This seems like just the sort of thing directors commentaries were created for. But Lynch refuses to give anything more than a tagline into the deeper meaning of the film. allowing and even encouraging room for the multiple interpretations audiences and critics alike placed on the film. The Guardian famously called together six esteemed film critics to interpret the film and its ending and essentially got five different answers.

Such a concept would seem quite novel to Campbell.

“There’s no wrong answer to what the songs are about,” she says. “That’s the beauty. People could say 100 things and they’re all right because that’s what they mean to them. They mean exactly that.”

So whether you use “Let’s Get Out of This Country” as an excuse to flee your native land or view the relationship in “French Navy” as an allegory for socialism, it all seems pretty peachy to Campbell. Just don’t ask her what the little blue key means.

POSTED August 3, 2009 10:15AM IN THE TRIPWIRE Comments (5) TAGS:

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