It’s rare to find an artist who sets dark poetic visions of the beauty beneath the stark, derelict ghosts of post-industrial Manchester with a totally shoulder-shaking groove. But this is LoneLady, aka Julie Ann Campbell’s genius. She’s at home amongst the urban wasteland, and out of it was born her second album, the post-punk-funk inflected Hinterland– follow-up to 2009’s Nerve Up– where she explores those spaces that lie beyond the comfortable and well-defined. She recorded Hinterland in Concrete Retreat; her DIY home studio in the tower block apartment she inhabits in her home city. We discuss the influence of psychogeography, wandering and funk on her creative imagination.
Julie is a wanderer. Having spent her life to date among the concrete jungles of outer Manchester, she tells me: “the canals and outskirts of Manchester are all I’ve got; so I explore my locale. [Wandering] gradually turned into a compulsive action. Once you become open to seeing things in a new way, everything becomes fascinating, full of signs, details and moments.” The shiny commercialism of the city centre doesn’t offer anything to her imaginatively, it’s the fringes of the city which compel her. “It seems like these places reflect a part of me; that I belong there; there’s a communication. I can’t fully explain it. It puts me in the right headspace, walking in these places feels a little bit ritualistic; it’s a way to try to invest meaning and purpose into what I’m doing. I find this kind of wilderness invigorating.”
“The act of wandering through and exploring the outskirts of Manchester somehow became a part of the creative process of making the record; it told me all I needed to know; fed me. The wasteland suggests possibilities; change; a place to be inventive. We all have personal geographies; every song on Hinterland is about a landscape of one kind or another, Mancunian wildernesses, childhood play spaces, the landscape of the mind. It celebrates and, to some extent, mourns the loss of, the imagination and a sense of wonder that tends to come easier as a child; when everything is flooded with possibility, and small unremarkable places such as a field or railway or favourite tree seem like magical kingdoms.”
Hinterland, therefore, is an exploration of psychic landscapes, and the imaginative functioning of our exterior landscape as a reflection of a state of mind. “Urban wastelands in particular seem to reflect something recognisable back at me. I feel a sense of belonging in these places; there’s not a great deal to see as such, other than dilapidation, foliage and razor wire, but it seems to offer a kind of escape; an abandonment. The tower block and motorway I live in have a way of moulding the psyche too; over time it has forced me to see the kind of severe beauty in concrete. All these external and internal landscapes feed into each other.”
It’s also about rethinking what we consider to be beautiful. “[Hinterland] takes rubble and tries to turn it into treasure; I think I succeeded for myself, whether it works for others is another matter. I hope so. It’s about writing about what you know; the authenticity of what surrounds you every day, transforming through imagination and hard work, the unremarkable and derelict into something that has magic and meaning. Musically I wanted a drum machine groove to form a continuous spine throughout the record, and that arrangements are more colourful than on Nerve Up, which I consider to be quite monochrome.”
I ask Julie how she feels she has evolved musically since her debut Nerve Up. “I think Hinterland is more rhythm-oriented; the guitar playing is sparser, the emphasis is on the beat, setting up grooves out of which passages emerge. Nerve Up was more song oriented with more intricate guitar melodies. I have become increasingly more interested in sequencing, midi, sampling and so on yet consider the guitar my main instrument and am in no hurry to discard this element.” Live, she would play with only a Telecaster and a drum machine. “It seems quite appealing to be so pared down but sonically it’s very one-dimensional. In terms of studio processes, not much has changed; my gear is pretty basic. I work alone; feel around; chip away; work on the detail in a pretty perfectionist way till I’m happy with the song.”
During the creation of Hinterland, Julie became so immersed within the record that she ended up sealing herself off from her external world. “I felt completely unable to get out of all the landscapes I was making, until it was all finished. It was all I could see or hear and anything else was alien and irrelevant; so I barely saw or spoke to anyone else and it took something of a toll on my mental health but, despite this, the groove pulsed through it all.” The contrast of Hinterland’s dark lyrical imagery and subject matter against the upbeat, pop and funk-infused rhythms is incredibly striking. While definitely danceable, there is still a sparseness and spaciousness to Julie’s economical musicianship; the songs mostly centre around her guitar, drums and Julie’s distinctive wavering vocals.
After the songs were completed, Julie worked with Bill Skibbe of Keyclub Recording Co. in Michigan, to mix the analogue recordings, bringing depth to the songs. Once back in Manchester, Julie set to work piecing together her live sets, hiring a rehearsal room in the Brunswick Mill, one of the city’s many abandoned industrial spaces which have been transformed by underground musicians into catalysts of creative possibility. The mills are in many ways the lifeblood of grassroots artists, though they are under threat of being bought out by the ever-growing number of landlords and businessmen responsible for the renovation of new properties. “The pursuit of art and knowledge doesn’t, in itself, make a profit. Being in a band is a money pit and now that people don’t feel they should have to pay for music, this directly helps create a situation in which only people with money make music. Artists will always find a way to exist, but they are getting edged out of every space.”
The influence of Mancunian post-punk legends Joy Division and A Certain Ratio resonates strongly in Lonelady’s music, with a contemporary twist. Both Julie and I feel imaginatively attuned to a certain ghostly presence that these bands hold over the city; its almost like the sense of musical history seeps from the walls there. “I enjoy the fanciful notion that the music of The Fall, Section 25, Joy Division and others spiral and echo and haunt the city’s spaces, in between all the new music and new voices that also fill this city.” Julie tells me. Though she feels the “bright pop structures and colours” of the chart pop she listened to in her early years “were quite formative as [she] always want[s] to make a song catchy” her real passion evolved when she discovered post-punk. Digging deeper into the genre and discovering its influences and reference points sprouted her love of funk: she points to Gang Of Four, Cabaret Voltaire, Parliament, Bohannon, Rufus, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and so on. Her greatest love was of Michael Jackson however, and “anything with a bit of rhythm and oomphf that got [her] shoulders grooving.”
LoneLady’s fantastic second LP Hinterland is out now on WARP records. She plays Caught By The River Calder Festival at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on the 23rd January 2016.By Sophie Brear