(Music) TROPIC OF CANCER
“Fast-paced BPMs are not instinctive to me. My music generally reflects my ideal heart rate, 60-100 beats per minute. Anytime I try and write something faster than that on my own, it feels forced.”
Tropic of Cancer is the solo music project of Los Angeles-based artist Camella Lobo. In this interview she talks about the influence of choral music on her singing style, along with the ways in which her subjective experiences have helped her expressionist compositions resonate with listeners.
What is the origin of the Tropic of Cancer moniker? Is it a direct reference to anything, such as the Henry Miller novel, or simply the circle of latitude itself? Or does it have any personal meaning?
There’s no relation to Henry Miller and his novel — I’m actually not a fan of his work. The name was a hasty decision (as I assume many band names are). I had to come up with something quickly before my first proper show. My grandmother, who has since passed away, had a hand in the name. We were looking at a map of Central America as I was trying to decide on something to call the project and she pointed out the Tropic of Cancer. I thought the name had a sense of mystery and intrigue to it, much like my experience with music-making up to that point, so I decided to use it.
What non-musical art forms inspire the creation of your music? Has a particular painting or photograph's tone or subject matter ever struck you in a way that made you want to begin writing music? Or a piece of literature?
Honestly, no. Daily life is more of an inspiration to me than any art form.
I've read that you had a Catholic upbringing and that you sang in the church choir. Do you think that the church's rich iconography and symbolism, along with the choral music, instilled an early sense of spirituality or mysticism in you, which eventually became an influence on the haunting tones of your music? If you hadn't been raised as a part of that environment, do you think you would be making the same kind of music today?
That’s an interesting question. I know choral music had a lot to do with my vocal style, as well as the instrumentation and spirituality of Catholic music, however, I think that’s mostly because it was the primary exposure I had to playing music up to a certain point in my life. My dad would record my sister and I singing church hymns at home and I was keen on singing along during church services and in my school choir. By the time it came to making my own music, it was the only style of real musical participation I had deeply developed. So, yes, I’m not certain I would be making the same kind of music today if I hadn’t had that early experience with Catholicism.
There's a sort of floral-rococo-mixed-with-minimalist look to much of your cover art, along with a similar bluish-green color tone. To my eye all of this appears somehow perfectly fitting with your music. Did you do the art design for your releases, or if not who has worked on it? Even in this digital age, do you view the visual aesthetic associated with your music as a very important element?
The visual aesthetic that accompanies my music is very important to me, yes, but it’s not ever my primary focus. The artwork for my records has always emerged nearer to the end of any given release - never earlier. Perhaps that’s why it feels cohesive with the music to you. It’s usually very much influenced by the music and not the other way around. I prefer to work with artists I am close to and provide the initial conceptual ideas. I am most content when the artwork is a collaborative effort, but I have had really wonderful experiences sourcing artwork from artists I don’t know personally as well. The artwork from my most recent release, Stop Suffering, was provided by Jasmine Deporta, an Italian photographer whose work I was struck by while I was finishing up the record. She is now a dear friend.
Much of your music seems rooted in a very personal or subjective space. What usually compels you to begin writing a song in the first place? Are you generally influenced by something very personal and specific, or are you sometimes trying to write more about universal human experiences, or about another person altogether?
I think when you write music that is personal to you, you inevitably touch on universal human experiences. My music is always fairly self centered - it helps me cope with everyday struggles and things I’m trying to work out in my own head. I’m usually inspired when I feel hopeless because I know at the end of that output there is always a light for me. Thankfully, that seems to resonate with listeners, too. Even though my challenges are unique to me, I think they reflect common human struggles and I think people can easily translate that into their own lives.
Your lyrics are not usually readily discernible. Do you approach singing more as an instrumental accompaniment to the rest of the music, rather than as a way of communicating any specific meaning or message? Who are some singers you admire who also take this approach?
I think years of poorly recorded vocals and a novice approach to songwriting has sort of developed into its own style with TOC but I also tend to use my vocals as an instrument at times. Artists like Julee Cruise, Elizabeth Fraser, Kim Gordon, Liz Harris and Jonnine Standish have all played roles in shaping my approach to singing.
What's one of your songs which resonates with you the most personally? A song that you find either one of the more difficult and/or rewarding to perform live?
That’s a toss up between “I Woke Up” and “Stop Suffering,” both tracks from my last release. Those songs were written during a really chaotic and transformational time in my life and it’s very difficult to separate the feelings and emotions I was having at the time even when performing them live years later.
Your songs "Be Brave" and "Chrome Vox" have pretty fast beats compared to most of your other work. Are you generally attracted to slower rhythms simply as an overall aesthetic of your work? Do you think you'll ever compose a bona fide dance track (maybe with a melancholy undertone, say in the way that a band like New Order was able to pull off)?
That’s the dream isn’t it? Fast-paced BPMs are not instinctive to me. My music generally reflects my ideal heart rate, 60-100 beats per minute. Anytime I try and write something faster than that on my own, it feels forced. My former bandmate, Juan Mendez, was really successful at pushing me into that realm, but on my own I inevitably settle into my creature comforts. My daily life can be fairly intense so music usually helps bring me back down.
You also have a career as a content strategist for agencies like Huge and now for Disney. To me, this part of your life seems like an almost binary opposite to your creative presence as Tropic of Cancer, but is it? Do these different sections of your life ever bleed into one another? Content strategy uses a very complex set of tactics and disciplines. Do you think existing in that multifaceted analytical mindset every day influences your approach to songwriting?
I manage my music and my day job very much like church and state. There are very surreal moments where the two worlds collide but that scenario is very rare. My career as a content strategist definitely pulls from the part of my brain that lays dormant during the music-making. But creating and performing music benefits my profession in a lot of ways as well. The common threads that run through both are storytelling, process, and organization. Both sides of my daily life influence and support the other in a lot of ways but most of the time I feel like I have split personalities. And most of the time it feels as weird as it appears to the outside world.
What does a performance space ideally need for your music to be the most optimal live? What's a dream performance space for you, a place you've never played but would love to perform and sing in?
A capable sound system in the right room. I’ve been fortunate enough to play all over the world in some of the most amazing and surreal locations — in a jungle, on boats, in cathedrals, a Hollywood cemetery and tons of other amazing venues. As long as we’re dreaming here — a place I’d love to play is at the sea organ in Zadar, Croatia. I’ve always wanted to go there.
What's coming up for Tropic of Cancer in the future? Any releases or shows you'd like people to know about?
Currently, Tropic of Cancer is on a hiatus from live shows while I work on a full-length album. It will likely take me into 2020 at this point but we will tour once that’s out in the universe.
Thank you for the interview!