Since 2009, Camella Lobo has been releasing exquisite pop records as Tropic of Cancer.
Originally a collaborative project with her partner Juan Mendez, better known as Silent Servant, Tropic of Cancer has been Lobo solo since 2011. On September 23, she’ll release the project’s long-talked about first album, Restless Idylls.
Released through Blackest Ever Black, Restless Idylls features contributions from British techno veteran Regis, while Dva Damas’ Taylor Burch has joined the Tropic of Cancer live set-up. FACT’s Tom Lea caught up with Camella to talk about the themes of love, helplessness and devotion that run through the album, the history of the Tropic of Cancer project and more.
It’d be good if we could talk about the period leading up to Restless Idylls – how Tropic of Cancer turned into a solo project, the move from writing EPs and singles to making a full album, and how Regis ended up working on the record – beyond the obvious Sandwell / Blackest link.
I’ve been doing TOC solo for the past two years now. Juan left the project in September 2011 due to time constraints between his own music and working and traveling. And to be honest, working together has never been very enjoyable for either of us. We fight too much in that context. Both of us are super specific about the way we want things to be when it comes to music and neither is willing to concede. Although, when we could agree, I think we made some of the best music that will ever be associated with TOC.
In some ways, it’s been a very difficult time without Juan as he always had a lot to do with the production side of things, along with creating the structure and foundation for all of our early work. I have been winging it and writing everything on my own since the day he left. Been making EPs as I learn how to use software and such. The first EP I put out on my own was Permissions of Love on Mannequin and from there I just kept putting music out because people were asking me for it and I was really enjoying making music. I didn’t take it too seriously for the first year – was just really trying to make sense of it all and where I wanted things to progress. Right around that time I went on my first EU tour on a whim again. Had a few shows supporting HTRK and some attention in UK / EU – enough so we could piece together a little tour, in addition to supporting HTRK. Was a really great experience. I was friends with Taylor and Joe of Dva Damas, and played synth in their live band, so when the tour opportunity came up I asked Taylor to come with me to EU and help me execute my material live. And here we are now. It has been a very volatile and inspiring experience. I am so appreciative that the music has been well received enough to create these opportunities to tour and continue to release records.
As far as the move from writing EPs to making an album goes, it was not a predictable trajectory. I really wanted to make an album eventually and probably should have just held onto all of my material. However, at that time, I don’t think I really believed I was capable of putting something like that out on my own. It was so intimidating. EPs felt so much more manageable and gratifying. I also work a lot, so that doesn’t leave much time for music, unfortunately. So, after some pretty inspirational talks with Kiran at BEB and encouragement from Regis and Juan, I decided to push myself harder on it.
Karl [O’Connor, Regis] has always been really supportive of TOC and of me personally. I heard through other people that he wanted to be a part of the record. I have always respected and admire Karl since I’ve known him, so the idea of even having his touch on this LP was such an honour. It was also a bit of a relief for me after writing and producing my own EPs and a couple tracks on compilations here and there. Producing and mixing is so frustrating for me. I also have a really hard time with final decisions related to sounds and the way things are mixed, so it was nice to know I was not the only say in the matter. I could ask Karl if something sucked or not. There is such a relief in that.
[The album] kind of came together on its own. I got a couple new instruments and I knew I wanted to make the LP eventually, so I just started experimenting with them. Pretty much all of those experiments ended up on the record. However, there are a couple songs that I had written two years ago right after Juan left the band that made it onto the LP, too. I actually didn’t realise how much material I had until Karl pointed it out. I don’t really think about things I make after I make them. I don’t know why that is. I make them and then I never ever want to hear them again.
There are also a couple previously-released tracks on the album that I re-recorded and that Karl produced for the LP versions. (‘Wake the Night’ and ‘Children of a Lesser God’) Now I am pretty happy with them, whereas before there was always some dumb little thing about them that bothered the shit out of me. I still can’t listen to most of the LP material. I think that will take a bit of time to get to know it again. I am far too critical of myself and it feels so permanent, which I guess now that it is committed to an album, that is the end. Final. Not like an EP, where you kind of have a second chance if you want it. Having Karl’s touch on it really makes me feel confident about it, though.
The meaning of the album title is alluded to in the press release [“a forced retreat into private, precious idylls”], but are you able to talk a bit more about that forced retreat, as well as some of the more evocative track titles? You’ve said before that you’re obsessed with the concept of love, but which of its branches – for want of a better phrase – dominate the songwriting on this album?
There is something really sad to me about love. I’m not so much obsessed with the idea or science of love as much as I’m obsessed and intrigued by our human willingness to throw ourselves completely into love – in all of its impermanence – at all costs and against all odds. Like bugs that fly into a bonfire over and over and over. It’s such a chance you take, but really a chance without a real choice.
It’s interesting to me to witness those stories repeat themselves over and over through music, and literature, art. In my life. In my friends’ lives. The core of the story is always the same, but we never get tired of it. My music centres on those themes. As much as I try to make music about other subjects, I honestly don’t feel anything unless I am writing about loving and losing and living and dying. You can never reconcile these things. There are no answers and little comfort. Restless Idylls was my attempt at comforting myself and hopefully providing a bit of comfort to others by allowing them to retreat into my own stories — perhaps apply them to their own lives. I wanted the record to feel emotional and uplifting in some ways – even if I was the only one that was feeling that. Almost all of the tracks made me sad to the point of tears when I made them. I don’t really know what to make of that.
Every song title is related to love in some way – some obviously so and some not. I don’t want to divulge too much other than that.
For people who’ve followed the Tropic of Cancer project to date, do you think the album will throw up any surprises, or is it in the same vein as your previous records?
I think people who know the music well might be a little surprised here and there. What really seems to be clear to me though is that fans of the music seem to evolve with the sound. I feel so fortunate to have that support. I’m sure there are some people who don’t like where I have taken things and other people that enjoy it more now, but I can’t think about anyone too much. I make what I like and what makes me feel better, so as far as things being in the same vein, that would be it. If it makes them feel something too, that’s really all I care about.
I’m not a particularly sad person; this is just what I express when I make music. Who the fuck makes songs about being happy all the time anyway?