Interview

Izzy Camina – finding the sweet spot between obvious and abstract

Kill your local indie softboy

Last year, Izzy Camina posted a cover of Frank Ocean’s ‘Ivy’ to Soundcloud. It’s one of the deeper cuts from Blonde but, beyond the fact that she might have picked ‘Thinking Bout You’ or ‘Nikes’ instead, it’s a choice that makes sense; her own sound is heavily indebted to Ocean, a thickly atmospheric blend of dark RnB and gauzy dream-pop. She’s insisting, though, that she takes her cues from a far broader cast of characters. “I mean, I’ve recorded a Bauhaus cover, too, but my manager told me not to post it,” she complains. “I did ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, but apparently that’s not pop enough, so it’s not out there.”

Still, it’s every bit as indicative of her range of influences as Ocean is. “I like a lot of things. EBM, I love that,” she says, and clarifies that she means electronic body music, the heady blend of industrial, synth-punk and dance popular in Germany in the ’80s “that makes you feel like you’re exploding from the inside”, before reeling off a list of her favourite artists – Gesaffelstein and Boy Harsher both get shoutouts. She is evidently keen to avoid pigeonholing before her career makes it off the ground, and she isn’t afraid to say so. Funnily enough, it’s this sheer force of personality that sets her apart from her peers on her second EP, Nihilist in the Club, which is scored through with wry, knowing wit. 

You can practically hear her rolling her eyes as she wearily slaps down nice-guy beta males on ‘Kill Your Local Indie Softboy’. ‘Up n Down’ is a searingly self-aware treatise on millennial angst. She took delight in naming the title track, convinced it would rile philosophy and psychology majors. “It’s super jokey, it’s super tongue-in-cheek, it’s me being a really emo bitch,” she laughs, before suddenly snapping to attention. “Obviously, I’m not actually a nihilist. I understand that it’s a corrosive foundation for one’s worldview.”

She does this repeatedly over the course of a forty-five-minute conversation – laces her affable, laidback demeanour with a piercing piece of insight, like when she plays down her love of Ocean’s music but then goes off on a tangent about “how brilliantly he’s navigated our capitalist America as a feeling artist, and I use ‘feeling’ as a verb.” In that respect, she talks like she writes, both within her songs (‘Up n Down’’s deceptively simple chorus conceals the blistering references in the verses to drugs and violence) and within the wider context of her work: a scroll through her Soundcloud sees her tracks broken up by poems, with titles like ‘Fentanyl’ and ‘Digital Lust’. It is not an unusual contradiction in those in their twenties; one minute cloudy, the next clear-eyed, mired in a purgatory halfway between insecurity and self-assurance.

In Camina’s case, if her obvious talent would justify the latter, her experiences in the industry so far might explain the former. It already feels like she’s taken the long way around: having been raised in small-town New Jersey, she arrived at her current Los Angeles base via a stint in East London, where she never quite got off the ground musically. “When I first set up my Soundcloud, all of the early interest I got was from people in the UK,” she says, explaining her move. “Which I think was purely because my profile picture was taken at Brighton Pier. Everybody who saw my page assumed I went to BIMM, or whatever the fuck that school’s called.”

The photo had, in fact, been taken on one of many family holidays; Camina’s dad hailed from Bow, and the dual citizenship that afforded her meant she had few qualms about accepting the invitations that came her way – “fuck yeah, sick, let me just drop out of college.” She spent three years in London, a period that bore fruit in the shape of her debut Battle Royale EP, but that also involved frustration, isolation, and the kind of day-job monotony that would inspire ‘Up n Down’. “I did not become a superstar,” she notes drily, “but it was a positive learning experience. It’s a good place to be as a young artist; there’s a big difference between the way music is consumed in the US and in the UK. There seems to be way more hunger for new music in the UK, and there’s a tendency to take the side of the underdog more. You’ve got scouts absolutely ravaging the internet for talent. You’ve maybe got more of a shot there.”

Which begs the question as to how she ended up not just back in the States, but about as far as it’s possible to be from her hometown and still be on the U.S. mainland. “Through the miracle of the internet, I was discovered by somebody over here who is really well-connected,” she explains, declining to name him but helpfully providing us with a postage-stamp-sized list by describing him as “a major music industry guy, but not a complete asshole.” 

As much as LA will serve as the launchpad for Nihilist in the Club, the groundwork was mostly laid in London. ‘Kill Your Local Indie Softboy’ was penned for a very specific type of Hackney inhabitant; Camina was in for a shock on crossing the pond, finding herself encountering a very different kind of man from those back in New Jersey, who “like to vape, go to car meets, watch Joe Rogan and drink at sports bars.” Like most of her writing, it’s brilliantly cutting. “I’m banging my head against a wall about that, though,” she groans, swatting away reassurances that indie softboys have by no means become an endangered species in East London since her departure. “I feel like that trope is over now. I should have put that out two years ago. Not everything is timeless. Sometimes we want things to be fresh and poignant, and have teeth and bite and relevance. And, you know, again – you shouldn’t take it too seriously. I wrote it as a joke, really.”

Camina exclusively self-produces her music, another aspect of it that began to flourish in London. She began teaching herself how to use Ableton whilst still in college in the U.S., “just because I couldn’t play any instruments, and I knew nothing about music theory.” In the UK, though, making her own beats became a case of needs must, when she was paired with producers who didn’t suit her, as she recalls in her own inimitable way. “I was like, ‘fuck this, this shit sucks, these people suck, I hate this corny shit. Let me figure out how to do this myself.’ From YouTube tutorials and just picking away at it, I’ve been getting better. It’s a good skill to have, especially when you realise how hard it is to find a collaborator you click with. The stars have to align in a way that I think is actually pretty rare.”

She wrote ‘Up n Down’ in London, too, something she’s been thinking about recently as she compares how similar Los Angeles’ negatives are to the ones she experienced here. “Everybody’s exhausted from working super hard, and everybody’s broke,” she says. “A lot of restaurants, in London especially, do illegal shit where the hours are totally fucked, and you get locked into this cycle of working the closing shift and then having to open up the next day. It’s a long way from being a little shithead in New Jersey and running around with no responsibilities. You experience these intense lows, and then you’re looking in the mirror and telling yourself, ‘grow up. Deal with it.’ I know what a huge privilege having dual citizenship is. It’s a weird routine, of misery and then positivity.”

As with so many artists of her generation, there’s something necessarily political about Camina’s writing, something innately tied to the state of the wider world when the emotions she’s processing are ones created by the realities of her day-to-day. “Everything I write is halfway between obvious and abstract. My lyrics are subversively political. You can probably tell that I’m generally pretty disturbed by the world we live in. I think I’ve always had the mindset of wanting to stay detached and observe the madness from that standpoint, which is just a self-preservation mechanism.”

She hesitates, then presses on. “There’s a line in ‘Nihilist in the Club’: ‘Thinking about the day I die / tell me why the fuck I should even try?’. About a year after I moved to London, my dad died. Heart attack. Healthy guy, totally random. It wasn’t necessarily a beautiful relationship – it was quite toxic – but like it or not, he was kind of my world. There was unfinished business there, and I was left with a lot of trauma to sift through on my own. I really detached, and never really mourned, and I’ve kind of been that way since – a little bit out-of-body. So that’s in these songs, because that’s where my head’s been at.” She lights up again. “So, you know, expect some more sad girl shit to come, dude. You’re gonna be like, ‘damn! She’s feeling it!’”

Styling by: Tatiana Isshac

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