Tropic of Cancer on Appreciating Shitty Reviews and Using Music as Therapy
"Making music is like any therapy: you have to force yourself to face the feelings bubbling beneath the surface."
Interview by Polina Bachlakova
Photography by Ed Gumuchian
As I walk through Copenhagen towards Frost Festival to speak with Camella Lobo – the musician behind cult darkwave project Tropic of Cancer – it strikes me that the city seems particularly fitting in its harshness. The wind swiftly cuts my cheeks; the snow aggressively tumbles down in bloated bundles; barely anyone else dares step out to the hazily-lit streets. It’s an eerily perfect atmosphere for speaking with Camella: the American creative is known for making minimal, restrained music that pulsates and overwhelms with harsh beauty and elegant sorrow that effortlessly pull at your heart strings.
Since gaining critical acclaim for 2011’s disarmingly brooding EP, The Sorrow of Two Blooms, Tropic of Cancer has steadily seduced everyone from post-punk fanatics to ‘techno refugees‘ by distilling shoegaze, goth and post-punk elements into gorgeously brutal textures. Although Tropic of Cancer began as a collaboration between Camella and her now-ex-husband Juan Mendez, whose name you may know for his work as the dark techno auteur Silent Servant, Camella made Tropic of Cancer her own in 2013. That year, she released Restless Idylls as her first, full-length LP and gave the world its first taste of Tropic of Cancer as her solo project—and immediately, critics and listeners welcomed what they felt was a more refined Tropic of Cancer. Though the signature sorrowful mood was still there and the lush shoegaze textures still swept over the music, the new Tropic of Cancer suddenly seemed more confident. Matured. Unapologetic. It was as if Camella was stating that the new Tropic of Cancer is here to stay—and judging by the acclaim she received for 2015’s follow up EP, Stop Suffering, and her continuously growing fan base, Camella’s statement continues to ring true.
People tend to compare Tropic of Cancer to iconic bands like Suicide, or group her with other contemporary dark shoegaze projects such as The KVB—but truth be told, Camella’s project eludes categorization. In fact, the only description that comes close to nailing Tropic of Cancer is one that Camella came up with herself. She calls it ‘morbid romanticism’—so on that stark night in Copenhagen, we decided to join her for a morbidly romantic conversation about sorrow, patience, embarrassment and joy.
GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Camella. You’re known for making music that quite powerfully triggers your listeners’ emotions. However, what’s the relationship between your emotions and your music?
Camella Lobo: As my life goes through ups and downs, like it does for every human, music is a constant source of – for lack of a better word – therapy. Whenever I’m feeling confused, hopeless or even happy, I feel inspired to somehow work through those emotions the only way I know how: with music. Before I had music, I always felt this urge to do something when I was feeling certain emotions, yet I never had a medium or tool to work with those feelings in a meaningful way. So once I discovered music, I could really tap into that part of me, and that’s sort of how it’s evolved over the years.
There’s a drag that comes with that, too, because it seems like when life is going along mundanely, I don’t feel as inspired to write. Or there are other times when things will be great and I don’t want to write, because I know that’ll bring things up to the surface that are really emotional.
When you feel things are going great and don’t want to bring up darker emotions, what are some things you do to get comfortable with tackling them in music?
It’s just doing it, to be honest. Sadly, my whole musical career up to this point has been very deadline-driven. I have rarely sat down and just made music in a vacuum on my own, as some sort of an emotional release with no intended purpose. So when it’s deadline-driven, I just kind of have to dig up those emotions. I don’t really wanna do it, but once I get into it, I start ripping it all open and it feels really good. Making music is like any therapy, you know: you have to force yourself to face the feelings bubbling beneath the surface. That’s why so many people are bad at self care. It’s hard to confront those things regularly.
You make music for yourself, but you also have an audience which expects that level of emotional resonance from you. How do you balance meeting the audience’s needs with your own?
I don’t ever feel pressured by my audience to put down feelings into my records. However, I have noticed that when I write music I’m not emotionally connected to in some way – that doesn’t make me feel things – it doesn’t resonate with other people, either. If I put out a record with 8 tracks on it, the 5 tracks that really freaked me out when I was writing them are the songs that’ll do really well. The 3 or 4 more intellectual stragglers, however – the ones I wrote using my head vs. my heart – won’t do well.
But the audience reaction is never something that drives me to create. It’s a nice-to-have: when I hear people tell me how my music makes them feel or that it got them through a hard time or whatever… that’s, like, a miracle. It’s not like I’m intending to do that: it just happens, and I am very thankful for it.
Alongside your music, your visuals are super considered. What’s the relationship between your visuals and music? Is it a dialogue or a domino effect of inspiration?
The music always comes first. Then, the narrative comes out of that, followed by the visuals. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really talented people who can help me create a vision for the music. I’m also treading very delicately around working with other people, simply because the music is so personal. Especially from a visual perspective, letting somebody take charge… I haven’t really done that. I made all of my record covers up to the EP, which is where I worked directly with people shooting the record cover. The most recent record cover for Stop Suffering is from an artist I found on Instagram. Right when I saw it, I was like, “that is the cover.”
Speaking of Instagram, you’re a content strategist during the day (kind of like me!) Is there a red thread between the music you make and your day job? I feel like working in advertising can bring up some pretty cynical or dark emotions…
I started out with copywriting and more editorial stuff, with big clients and marketing-driven projects. Now I work on a very technical level: I work with developers to define content management systems and do a lot of information strategy. To an everyday person, it would seem mundane: I live my work days inside of spreadsheets. However, it makes me feel very calm and focused because I don’t have to use emotion or creativity in the work I do anymore. When I used to do copywriting and more creative stuff like that, it was really tough: I would actually put my heart into the work I was doing and that would end up on the cutting room floor. Though I still have my heart in my job and love the people I work with, I found the best spot for me to balance the real person I am who comes out in my music and the person who can kind of be a worker bee.
However, it’s interesting that there’s still an element of performance in both things: I still have to do client presentations, and when I travel for music, that’s basically a client presentation x 1000 because I’m actually presenting my emotions and myself to people who are highly critical. So it’s a pretty stressful dynamic. I feel like two different people most of the time.
Do you feel like working a day job while growing your musical career is a sustainable balance?
No, not at all (chuckles). I’m trying to be good at both things, but I’m not doing very well at either one. I want to be 100 percent into one or the other, and I think that’s just part of my growth as a human. However, I have a feeling that music will eventually become my full time job.
That said, I don’t want music to feel like a job. That way you’re adding all these other elements to it, like having to make records and make your income off it. Although a lot of people can work that way successfully, I think it would hinder me. I’d rather make money that’s apart from my emotional and creative being, so that it’s like a separation of church and state. It sounds cliche, but I want to use music to express myself and not have to worry about it creating a pay check.
You’ve recently become a mom. Do you find that’s impacted your music at all?
While writing my last EP back in 2015, I was pregnant with my daughter and I didn’t know. I had a deadline to meet, so I was feeling all of the things. All of the crazy emotions, swinging from left to right and high to low on an hourly basis. It was the best and worst time to write a record, but looking back now, the emotions I was feeling at that time are imprinted on that EP. I was in a new relationship and newly divorced, was pregnant and didn’t know it, so it’s crazy to look at that EP as a timestamp of something really insane, dramatic and beautiful I went through at that time.
I haven’t written a lot of music since she’s been born for obvious reasons: I just don’t have time. But I will be writing a record in September, in California, and we’ll see how that all plays out. I can’t imagine that motherhood is not going to affect how I write.
Your process of making music seems quite intuitive. With that in mind, how do you know when a piece is done or when you’re ready to let go?
I’m pretty good at letting go. You look at any song structure, and you’re like, ‘oh, there’s two base notes. There’s two base notes again. Oh wow, now there’s three!’ It’s a symptom of me being not very technically trained as a musician and having to meet very fast deadlines. I also get really impatient, but on the last EP, I really took my time. It took almost a year from end to end to get the whole EP. For example, I took a very long time to write “I Woke Up and the Storm is Over” because it was the first piece I’d written since going through a pretty traumatic breakup.
As a result, now I approach music with planning that’s more thorough and a thought process that’s more realized. I feel like I don’t want to rush anything ever again—as if I’m finally catching my breath after seven years of running around behind deadlines. That said, I still need to learn patience.
Why is learning patience important to you as a musician?
Well, if you look at my most recent release and compare it to my previous ones, it’s like night and day. The production, writing, recording, attention to lyrics… I’ve never taken that long to produce something, yet this is the material I enjoy playing the most and has resonated with the most people. I don’t like listening to my own music, but if I hear it, I’m like, “hey, mom, I did okay!” I want to have that feeling again where when I’m finished with a record, I’m not embarrassed about it or can listen to it without cringing.
Why do you think you get embarrassed about your music after you put it out? It seems like something that happens with a lot of musicians, actually.
It’s the same reason why people delete photos they post on Instagram right after. It’s like, you put something so personal out in the world and then you’re waiting for the world’s reaction—even if you say you aren’t. With music, you’ve got all the top 10, top 100 charts coming out every fucking month… the hype around everybody else’s releases in your crew and scene. That’s a lot of pressure, plus the element of people in your life knowing what’s going on with you and observing just how personal your music is. It can be a mind bender. When you put something that personal out in the world, you just wanna log out and not hear what people think about it. It’s asking the world what they think about you, essentially.
So how do you deal with negative reactions to music you put out?
In the beginning, when there was a lot of positivity around the music, I appreciated the shitty reviews more. Ultimately, I’d rather have people be that honest with me and give constructive feedback. Like, there’s one review that stuck with me over the years and I don’t even remember who wrote it anymore or for what mag, but they said, “This record, to me, does not define progression. I want to see her progress and I just didn’t get that.” I still hear that person’s words in my mind when I’m working. However, I’ve never really been trolled hard. I’ve had some pretty brutal reviews, yes, but I’ve never been completely torn down. So yeah, I’m waiting for that moment, as well.
Here’s hoping you never get trolled hard, though—trolls are the worst. Thanks, Camella!