Phoning from her home in Glasgow, Camera Obscura frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell is in good spirits. "I'm just home from rehearsal, and the sun is actually shining today, which is some sort of miracle," she says brightly. "Especially when I've been in a windowless room for the past six hours, at the studio. But Susan Boyle was in today, and she sounded all right."
All in all, it's a pleasant, lighthearted contrast to the dark-clouded days faced by the Scottish indie-pop quintet ever since they came off the exhausting world tour behind its chiming 2009 set, My Maudlin Career.
There were times, swears Campbell, when it seemed as if Desire Lines, the brilliant follow-up released earlier this month on 4AD, might never come to fruition. The band's future was shaky and uncertain, not least because Campbell was at a creative impasse, dealing with a monolithic slab of writer's block. What went wrong?
"A couple of things happened," she responds, wary of getting too specific. But the fact was that keyboardist Carey Lander had been diagnosed with cancer. "And therefore we couldn't just carry on, really," says the singer, "even though people might've expected us to. So we had a break. She was very ill for a while, and that became our priority. But actually, it gave us time to step back and get the new songs in a state that we were happy with, and ready to record. So I think it's fine to go at your own pace, and things will take as long as they take."
Lander is now fully recovered and back on tour with her faithful comrades, who penned a touching tribute to her, the lilting, flamenco-spiced "Every Weekday." In fact, the album boasts some of the ebullient pop group's most resonant material, like the punky "Do It Again," a swaying "I Missed Your Party," and the picture-perfect, synth-swelling "Break It to You Gently."
Naturally, Campbell and her bandmates went through a lot of deep reflection during their blue period. "When somebody close to you is ill, your priorities change," she says. "You suddenly know what's important, and you know what's not so important. And at the time, Carey was very important. But she was adamant that we try to write songs and try to rehearse, so that's what we did."
As their skies cleared, the musicians decided they needed a change of scenery. They flew to Portland to record Desire Lines with red-hot producer Tucker Martine, who in turn invited friends like Neko Case and My Morning Jacket's Jim James down for the sessions.
"It was a breath of fresh air, and that's what we were after, absolutely," recalls Campbell, easily one of modern rockdom's most charming, effortless-sounding vocalists. "We wanted to do something different, force ourselves into a new environment, take a chance with a new producer, and really get out of our comfort zone."
Camera Obscura always had something of a gang mentality anyway, she adds, but now the group is even tighter. "We know that we've got something good together," says Campbell. "And it's not always easy, but for us, it's something worth celebrating, because we ultimately really enjoy it. And until we no longer see its worth or its value, we'll carry on."