IN CONVERSATION: LoneLady – “it’s like making a painting or a sculpture”

IN CONVERSATION: LoneLady – “it’s like making a painting or a sculpture”

This weekend Julie Campbell, the musical artist known as LoneLady, appeared on Later…with Jools Holland to perform her track ‘(There Is) No Logic‘. It has been a long road for Campbell, the substance of her music and art finally reaching an even wider public. Following the scratchy new wave of her debut Nerve Up in 2010, and the formidable industrial funk of 2015’s Hinterland, her new album Former Things takes the electronica up a notch.

LoneLady’s most concise and vivid collection yet, it’s a celebration of drum machines and electronic hardware. Former Things was put together by her during her time spent in Somerset House Studios Rifle Range. The album was inspired by a seismic move for Campbell who left her native Manchester, decamping to London’s Somerset House Studios.

Speaking about this time, Julie Campbell tells me “It was great being at Somerset House for eighteen months, and that’s where the bulk of the album was written. After that residency was up and I said I had to come back to Manchester that’s when things got really difficult and the album got shelved several times. That whole period from 2018 onwards was really challenging for me, so I am really glad to finally have it out in the world.

Former Things is more jagged and more beat-driven, based on the electronic collision of synths and guitars as it implants the vintage synth sounds of early New Order, Pet Shop Boys, and Depeche Mode with a funk-infused imagination influenced by Jam and Lewis-era Janet Jackson, Prince and the twitchy disconnection of leaving home and everything behind.

I made a conscious decision to choose electronic hardware to write with this time. My main writing tool has always been the guitar. Something like ‘Groove it Out’ is just a two-note riff on my guitar; that’s how that one started.”

“I’d been listening to a lot of beat-driven electronic music for ages. I really wanted to get my hands on an analogue synth or two. I have always been a huge fan of drum machines and previously the drums have been a hybrid sound  – it’s been a combination of real drum sounds with electronic drum sounds. I wanted it to be a celebration of the drum machines this time. At the heart of the system was this Doepfer analogue sequencer and that’s what I wrote on and that really dictates the direction of the album and what the body of the material is going to be.”

At just eight tracks there’s an economy, directness and adventurous spirit at the heart of Former Things. Awesome lead cut ‘(There Is) No Logic’ is a pinpoint cut-up of synths, samples and R&B grooves, one that can fill dance floors.

It’s not a London sounding record,” Campbell notes. “It was just about following where the opportunities were. It would have sounded different had I not been able to go to London and spread all my gear out and turn the volume up. I can’t do that in my tiny little flat in Manchester,” she laughs. “The sheer vibrancy and the stimulus of London fed into the record as well. But as they say, you can take the girl out of Manchester, but you can’t take Manchester out of the girl.”

“I did a fine art degree, so visual art was always my first love. I was surrounded by hundreds of art galleries so I was like a pig in proverbial really. I would go to an art gallery and write a couple of things,” Campbell recalls. “I fully made use of being in London travelling around and walking around. I would have a day off and go and explore and go on epic walks. I had a different level of stamina in London because I had to. It was an exhausting and exhilarating time the two years that I was there. I was in my studio six days a week pretty much.”

I’ve always described the way I write everything myself, the instruments and arrangements, it’s like making a painting or a sculpture. You start with something, a frame, and you build on top of it till it’s finished and it’s not so organised. It’s an organic mess of riffs and beats and fragments; it’s very hard work to get from the initial loose sketches to the finished thing. The beats and riffs come quickly, it’s the actual structure that takes the time. It’s eliminating the problems, but I do know when it’s finished.”

Perhaps the best moment comes with the sleek mechanical funk of ‘Fear Colours‘ that rustles with a paranoia. With the superlative Former Things LoneLady is honing her craft, still further clarifying her sound and carving out an artistic commentary on moving city and leaving the past behind. It bristles with the uncertainty and paranoia of the last eighteen months. Most of all it grooves the hell out. “I do think of this as my pop album” she points out “with things like ‘Fear Colours’ and ‘(There Is) No Logic’, I was working with Bill Skibbe who mixed Hinterland. It’s all finished and recorded and arranged when we get together to work on getting it more sonic and tighter and there’s a conscious decision to make it like that…”

But these compositions still have grit and an atmosphere to them, that come from the collision of electronic riffs and beats, similar to early New Order or Cabaret Voltaire. It is a sonic that comes from her diligent work layering her sounds and the vintage equipment Julie Campbell uses. “For this album two or three main things were in the back of my mind when I was assembling the equipment,” Campbell explains, “early New Order was my favourite period for that exact reason, another one was the Cybotron record ‘Clear’ or used to be called ‘Enter’ – it’s a techno or electronic record from 1982. It just blew me away. And also of Cabaret Voltaire’s music and those synth lines and bass lines in particular and those choppy riffs. It’s still atmospheric and a bit grimy but it’s not too sterile” she explains “I was desperate to get my hands on some electronic hardware; rhythm has always been a big deal to me. I have always written to a drum machine from day one, so for this album I wanted to work with rhythm and bring it to that world of electronic hardware and really have fun with it. For a long time the album was actually a lot more techno-orientated that had raw programming and synths and sounded quite raw and stark, and gradually over months I layered it up and eventually, the guitar crept back into so I think it just ended up where it needed to be.”

Unlike some electronic music releases which can be overly glossy or overproduced, her work always retains an atmosphere and DIY element. “There’s never too much chance of me overproducing things. I record stuff myself in my own studio; it’s a real hotchpotch in there, and that’s just an aesthetic that’s been imprinted in me from day one.”

I think I handled it OK, because lockdown resembles my life anyway. It helped me finish the album because everything went quiet and calm. So my day to day life didn’t change very much during lockdown.” Campbell reflects on the last eighteen months. “I was lucky that I was in that part of the cycle. Friends of mine who had just released an album and were launching off on tour and the pandemic happened and that was awful. I can’t imagine how that would have been because there’s a huge amount of work that goes into releasing an album. So, really, I was lucky I was in that part of the cycle. I just needed that peace and quiet to finish the album.”

Returning to the live stage has been a period of constant rehearsal and readjustment for Campbell. “It’s weird because I am quite used to long periods in the bunker. It’s quite hard for me to adapt sometimes. If you work alone in this bunker and it’s cosy and safe and then you are ripped out and thrown in front of an audience and there’s a contrast, so we were in at the deep end. We played End of the Road recently and we were setting up our gear on stage behind a black curtain while the band before us are in full flight in front of 2000 people,” she explains. “I’m certainly going to be touring well into the summer next year; it’s good in a way everyone will get to know the album in time for the festivals. I really missed travelling, to be honest.”

Former Things’ title track is an evocative song layered with choppy guitars, percussion and bubbling funky rhythmic pops and infused with a wistful soulfulness of memory and childhood; it harks back to early Yazoo, swathed in analogue synth textures that are also redolent of early New Order.

“Lyrically it’s very heart on my sleeve. I didn’t hold back with this one; the lyrics are more direct and not quite so obscured,” Campbell explains.“It’s very much about this vision. I had to accompany me through a record and remembering being a teen and being really excited about the future and what’s to come and just reflecting on that distance in-between and how it makes me feel and it makes me mournful about it as well…”

There’s definitely a love-hate thing with Manchester. I was desperate to get out of Manchester and I leapt at the opportunity to work in that studio in London, but you take it with you, don’t you? So I dug down even deeper into childhood and where I grew up in East Manchester in Audenshaw and lyrically that was even more personal.”

The video for ‘Former Things’ recreates a memory of her childhood in her hometown of Manchester, that centres around the ruins of a tree. “It was great to work with Darcy and have this little mini-me as a child. In some ways ‘Former Things’ is the saddest song on the album, “I used to see magic in everything and not who I used to be.”

As well as recording three albums Julie Campbell has filled the gap in between releases with a series of innovative Scrub Transmission singles to be found on mp3 players buried in the industrial wastelands and concrete of Manchester for fans to find. “Hinterland came out in 2015 and you are touring and promoting that for a year and a half. You don’t even start thinking about what the next thing is going to be until around 2016,” she remembers, “with the Scrub Transmission project that I occasionally do, it’s nice to be able to get a song out there that’s not attached to a weighty album.”

Little Fugue‘ was the last Scrub Transmission release last year. “It’s just such an odd little track, it’s the coming together of all the things that interest me really. I am inspired by the industrial landscape and literally cementing it in an mp3 player it reminds me of childhood as well. It’s psychogeography and things like that, directing people to plug into a little mp3. It’s a conscious decision to use a clunky mp3 player. You are drawn to the gear that suits you really,” Campbell explains, “I don’t think mp3 players are seen as vintage yet, like the way cassettes are seen as hip now.

As if that wasn’t enough, Julie Campbell also has a collaborative project – working with Stephen Mallinder (Wrangler, Cabaret Voltaire) and Benge (Wrangler, John Foxx) – with their debut album Clinker set for release on Les Disques du Crepuscule on 13th October 2021.  “That was cool. Benge started off with some beat he sent me that around 2016,, I think, and I layered it up with loads of noise guitar and they sounded great,” Campbell recalls, “then they languished on a hard drive and recently having a conversation with James Nice and he was like “what’s that?” and it happened really quickly.”

“Steven Mallender did his trademark vocal on it; it’s a cool thing. It does have a hard industrial sound to some of the tracks and some of it is more beat-driven, more danceable. It was really unlaboured which is the funny thing. I don’t even remember the recording, it just happened in some weird gap of time. It feels like an extra gift or something.”

Campbell likes to discover music on Bandcamp but generally, she is more inspired by art and literature than other people’s music. She likes to isolate herself from influences when she is writing. “I think I just try to stay in my own world a bit. I don’t like feeling I am in competition with anyone or influenced by anyone, but if something punctures that, it’s cool. I think it’s more that I don’t want to be in the world. I want to be in my imaginary world.”

Lonelady‘s Former Things is out now on Warp Records.

https://lonelady.bandcamp.com/album/former-things

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