There’s a piece of received wisdom surrounding the making and selling of pop music that says musicians are generally happy to talk about that process, or at least about something – how they feel about the world, the human condition, pop culture, their life story – that might help potential listeners frame the music they’ve made, and so derive deeper enjoyment from it. On a simplistic level, Nicky Wire talking about Marxism might enrich interpretations of ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’; on a more diaphanous one, listening to Stuart Braithwaite discuss Scottish independence arguably influences how someone understands an album like ‘Come On Die Young’. But almost regardless of the sentiment and scale of discussion – from quiet Stipean epigrams to Kanye-sized rent-a-quotes – the theory goes that a bit of discussion helps everyone get along: the artist gets to explain their creation, the listener adds another dimension to their experience, and of course the bloodsucking journalist gets a sprinkling of stardust on their otherwise drab, miserable life.
Accordingly, therefore, there’s also a received wisdom when a musician won’t talk: that they’re haughty, holier-than-thou, too good for this shit or maybe just plain stupid. Indeed, so ingrained is the former assumption – that the musician will play ball – that another explanation surrounding the latter one is often overlooked: that the problem lies not in unwillingness, but in inability. Because while a lot of artists clearly create because it’s a satisfying expressive outlet, a smaller cohort also exist who do what they do not because they enjoy it, necessarily, but simply because they have to. They make their art as a coping strategy, as some hard-wired response to life, because if they didn’t they’d struggle to get by. For that sort of mind, the idea of having to converse with a nosy stranger about the very thing that keeps them afloat is understandably daunting – and then actually doing it, on the industrial scale demanded by the modern-day promotional juggernaut, on top of the already potentially uncomfortable act of actually making and publishing their material, is a step too far.
And with that sort of framing it’s probably a good juncture to introduce a musician like LoneLady – or Julie Campbell to her landlord – who regrets that her stage name has become “a self-fulfilling prophecy”, who admits that she pays for the way she writes (alone and intensely) with damage to her own psychological well-being, and who has made her second, wonderfully engrossing album of organic, propulsive and techno-flecked post-punk by herself in a “quite oppressive” tower block, populated by recovering alcoholics and people with mental health problems. Because although ‘Hinterland’ is full of effortless hooks, skin-burrowing basslines and that sense of perpetual groove that oozes from the most moreish of dance music, ripe for low-ceilinged rooms with masses of people, it also works as solitary music for walking through deserted building sites at yellow-skyed dusk, past graffitied skips and fly-tipped sofas.
There’s an accompanying desperation to the album, particularly in Campbell’s singing voice: uncertain and fragile, it yelps and yearns through tracks, paradoxically stoic but needy, and when certain lines jump from their moorings of cowbells and chiming guitars, the dislocation is striking: “To function, I had to build a room to contain all the panic,” she repeats in one song. In another, she asks: “How did I become so pared, typing SOS in an empty square?” The latter, she explains, is about “reaching an extreme, and not a pleasant one.” For Campbell, this artistic process is something darker than a fun form of expression, and consequently, understandably, not the most comfortable topic for discussion.
When we meet in her dressing room just before the soundcheck for her first London show for five years, Campbell is friendly, and her soft Mancunian burr is welcoming and warm. But she’s also mouse-like – nervous about the coming gig and clearly uncomfortable: she answers each question succinctly and then waits for the next, reluctant to volunteer unrequested information and seldom feeling able to turn what is, admittedly, a charade of human interaction into a full-blown conversation.
Sam Walton: It’s been five years since ‘Nerve Up’ [Campbell’s debut], and ‘Hinterland’ is a lot more expansive – was the long wait a result of breaking free of the previous enclosed, bedroom aesthetic?
Julie Campbell: Actually ‘Hinterland’ was even more intensively a solo and bedroom endeavour than ‘Nerve Up’. I didn’t have a rehearsal space, just a home studio set up in the same room as my bed, so I basically spent a great deal of time there, alone, making this record, writing all the parts, playing all the parts. It sounds like there are more voices on this one, sure, but a big part of that is because I had the drum-machine beat just doing its thing, forming a core groove. That made all the songs longer, and allowed a bit of space for me to be quite playful, and take twists and turns. So there are more voices, but not more people: it’s still just me, writing and playing alone.
And despite the gap, it certainly wasn’t five years in the making – I’d say closer to 18 months really. After ‘Nerve Up’ I did various bits and pieces, but it got to a point where I had to just pull the shutters down and turn inwards.
SW: Is that how you work best – quite intensively, with tunnel vision?
JC: Yeah, I can’t do two things at once. I’m not a multi-tasker in any way and I have to shut everything off completely.
SW: Do you have a day job or anything, to make ends meet?
JC: No. I manage to eek out a living – the place I live is very, very cheap, in a tower block in Manchester. It’s a sort of halfway house for people who are sort of mentally ill and alcoholic – all the dregs of society rock up in this place.
SW: Oh right… so how did you end up there then?
JC: Oh I’ve just been in there for years really – it’s the first place I lived when I moved out of my parents’ house. But because it is – was – social housing, that’s where we all end up. Those are my neighbours.
SW: Those surroundings must inform your writing…
JC: Well, I don’t tend to write about people at all – I write very much about place – so definitely living in a tower block has massively impacted on me. This sense of being compressed into a concrete cube has affected me, and not in a good way. Living next to the motorway on the outskirts of the city centre, just being surrounded by concrete… I just had to be resourceful – you know, write about what you know – so I would write about a blank wall, projecting imaginary scenes onto it, or write about concrete because there’s so much of it around me.
SW: It sounds like your day-to-day situation can get quite bleak. Is it difficult to stay resilient?
JC: Well I think it’s tipped over now actually and is starting to be something that’s negatively impacting on me after quite a few years. I find it quite oppressive at the moment, my surroundings. It’s paradoxical because I’m compelled to retreat into it and into writing – and part of me almost likes that. But you do also pay for it with your mental well being – all the connections to the outside world kind of become severed.
SW: That sounds quite lonely – do you live by yourself too?
JC: Yeah. Well, I don’t really have a choice. And I know a lot of artists go through that immersive experience, but I definitely felt like I was in a cell when it was happening to me. But then again it did feed the creative process, and helped inform the sounds I’m attracted to.
SW: It sounds like there’s a real conflict between you trying to pursue your artistic visions and being driven mad by that very pursuit. Do you ever have moments where you just long to live somewhere comfortable, and relaxing, maybe, among some friends?
JC: Oh yeah, I’d like those things, sure. But it’s not to be.
JC: Well, not seemingly, no. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a solo artist, but I’m doing it now, and I don’t know how to do it in any other way.
SW: I suppose you do style yourself as LoneLady though, so there must be an element of intentionality to it somewhere?
JC: Oh I chose that name when I was young and foolish, and it’s now become a self-fulfilling prophecy – I think you should beware what you name yourself; now, I just don’t know how else to be. I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life in cold, damp mill spaces and I sort of now feel uncomfortable or unhappy in places that aren’t like that. It’s become a comfort zone: I’ve made these places work for me and can be myself in them. It is a sort of rejection of the shiny city centre, which doesn’t have anything for me, I think
SW: So you prefer to loiter around the outskirts of cities?
JC: I do, yeah, like a semi-vagrant.
She smiles with that last response, but as I try a few more questions, Campbell’s sighing pauses and frowns between sentences become more frequent. And these aren’t signs of irritation or boredom – instead, Campbell’s demeanour has more in common with a recently bereaved spouse having to fill in administrational forms with a council employee: there’s an acknowledgement of having to endure a necessary evil, even though the intrusion, here, now, is unwelcome. I attempt to examine a different side of her album instead.
SW: ‘Hinterland’ feels like a club record to me – it has that sense of collectivity and propulsion. In fact, it’s interesting that you wrote it in one concrete box as it could so easily be transferred into another…
JC: Ha, yeah. I’d like to visualise the music happening in a slightly subterranean club vibe – that would be cool.
SW: Do you ever go clubbing?
JC: In my mind, and in my music, yes, all the time. But actually, in real life? No. I do think that’s something I should probably do, but I sort of don’t know where to find it.
SW: The one track on ‘Hinterland’ without any beats is ‘Flee’, and that aspect makes it sort of an album centrepiece. What were your thoughts behind producing it differently?
JC: Well that was just a landscape for me – a very interior landscape, mind – and I suppose it was just the most exposed one. I’d reached an extremity by that point with this kind of solitary writing process, and wanted to mark it. That’s what that song’s about: reaching an extreme – and not a pleasant one.
SW: It sounds like quite a painful experience…
JC: Yeah. It’s quite a desperate place. I think I’d had enough by that point.
SW: How do you feel about those experiences now that the album’s finished and you’ve got something to be proud of?
JC: Well, people are telling me how it makes them dance around their kitchen or whatever, and that’s good. It’s joyful, the record, but there are also haunted moments on it too, and I like that too. But that’s that record – I’m thinking about the next one now.
SW: Do you think you’ll do things differently next time? Will you seek to avoid the kind of uncomfortable headspace that you encountered while recording ‘Hinterland’?
JC: I don’t know. I’ve certainly learned from the experience. After the first album, it was a hard transition from only making music for yourself and playing local gigs. I hadn’t travelled that much at that point, so to be suddenly pushed into this world, this machine, by yourself – I didn’t adapt to it well. But I’ve got more experience now, and I’m handling things better these days, so this one will be okay I think.
SW: Does it help having more people around you, too, now you’re touring?
JC: Well yes, I now understand the importance of having a posse, and it’s not just some posturing thing – it’s actually really helpful and important, on a mental, psychological and practical level…
“Anyway, listen,” she cuts across herself, “I can hear rumblings from the other room. I think I’m going to have to go.” She’s right: the sound of warming amps and drums being tuned heralds her soundcheck, and barely 15 minutes after sitting down, Campbell escapes to a place where she clearly feels happier.
When she performs a few hours later, her diffidence and discomfort in the spotlight lingers, but she manages to batter that anxiety into a forceful, bloody-minded, almost combative shape when on stage. It’s a persuasive and punchy show, where Campbell’s decision not to acknowledge the crowd or give any sort of encore feels empowered and artistically deliberate, rather than something borne of self-doubt or unease. One senses, though, that any sort of public interaction, musical or otherwise, doesn’t come easily to Campbell – her music is expression enough. It’s not that she doesn’t want to do all the other stuff that received wisdom says that she, as a jobbing musician, should; it’s just that she seems prevented from doing so by herself.