I attacked my laundry stand the other day. I had a nervous breakdown and it was the closest object in my vicinity, so I clobbered it and broke it before crying for close to an hour. BUT that was the only legit meltdown I had in the whole two years of producing a record on my own, so I figure that’s actually a pretty good ratio of breakdown to energy expended. That aside, I’ve been doing great!
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Francis”?
Francis is the first track on my new album. I almost called the album “Francis” because the song was so instrumental in the creation of the whole record. He was like gatekeeper at the floodgates of a bunch of songs: once he came about, song after song kept coming out of me, sometimes on a daily basis; 14 songs in the end – but only half of those ended up making the cut for the final record.
Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
It was a culmination of events which inspired the song. The story of Francis is non-linear; it takes place at multiple moments in time, separated by decades but inextricably connected like entangled particles. It came to me at a very dark period in my life, and it felt like a map to get out of hell. I think of Francis like an inner child, holding a lantern and beckoning me to go on the two-year journey that became ‘Sirens’, showing me the way out of that dark place.
How was the filming process and experience behind the video?
Painting the stop-motion animation for Francis had its grueling moments: I couldn’t paint before sunset because the sunlight would cause too many inconsistencies in the photos, so I’d head to my painting studio nearly every single night for months on end in the dead of Berlin winter, keeping myself awake with chocolate milk and trail mix until the wee hours – but there were many magical moments in those late nights. I had a tripod duct-taped to the floor for a consistent point of view; I’d put my phone in the tripod and take the photos with a bluetooth remote control, carefully tiptoeing around the tripod as I painted. The process was an extremely meticulous one, and became very ritualistic, automatic and meditative. There were many hours spent in a very joyful, solitary and timeless flow-state in my studio.
I understand most of the paintings were made by you – how did that concept come about?
All of the paintings in the video were made by me, with the exception of a few seconds of old footage I had shot in Paris in 2008. The idea for an animation came about because of the non-linear nature of the story, whose cast of characters’ identities are ambiguous and shape-shifting. With paintings, I could literally blur their identity to emphasise their transient nature.
The single comes off your new album Sirens – what’s the story behind the title?
“Sirens” is also the name of second track I wrote for the album – I’d written it immediately after “Francis” and once I did, it was clear that I was making a whole record. From that point on I just knew the album would also be called ‘Sirens’. The idea of ships lost at sea, sirens wailing through the dark – for rescue or for ruin – and the confusion or congruence of those two things, as well as a strong sense of danger and emergency – all signified so much of what I was feeling at the time the songs were conceived. I wrote many of the album’s arrangements with this idea in mind, and personified the instruments in my mind, like characters in a play.
How was the recording and writing process?
The writing process was magical. Songs were pouring out of me, sometimes day after day. One day, in the midst of the writing process, I had to run out of the shower and into my bedroom, butt-naked, with shampoo running into my eyes while I recorded a string arrangement into my phone. Some of the arrangements took many months to hone in on; sometimes it’d be months before I found the right instrument to carry a particular melody. Each song grew in it’s own unique way and they sort of revealed themselves to me in their own time and manner. Whether they came to fruition in a matter of days or months, they all felt very close to me – they really felt like my babies!
Recording was a different story (lol)! A couple of the songs were very fun to record – others were not so fun. A lot of the songs are coming from a very sensitive, vulnerable place, and some I’d have to record over and over again, sometimes for months on end in order to get the right guitar or vocal take. That meant living in a hypersensitive state for a year or more, walking around feeling like my guts were hanging out all of the time. I’d also become very obsessed with getting each song right; I’d record several versions of songs at varying speeds and keys, arranging and re-arranging the hell out of them, every day and night, often until 5 or 6 in the morning. It was intense but I learned a lot in the process.
What aspect of reconciliation did you get to explore on this record?
Reconciling my past with the present, reconciling my obsessively creative inner child with being a somewhat normally-functioning human being, reconciling his appetite for destruction as well as his need to create. I did an exhibition in Switzerland in December 2011 in which I committed artistic suicide – literally. I made a sculpture symbolising a lifetime of drawings and hung it from a steel beam, with a chain around its neck – its stomach cut open and paper pulp spewing from the gash – and then I didn’t turn up for the opening reception. I stepped out of the institution of the art world with no explanation. I thought for a long time that I had “lost my way” until I realised that the kid had razed the field because the soil was sick – in this case, the art world. In a roundabout way, it made its way back to me through a different medium with music, which incidentally led back to painting, with the video for Francis. The musician and the painter in me suddenly felt like one, unified force, and then I realised that this was always the case.
What other aspect of your life did you get to explore on this album?
All of the songs on the record explore themes of gay love – in different ways and to varying degrees – whether in the form of heartache, infatuation, lust, enchantment, or nostalgia – all of these things are painted through the filter of a living, breathing, gay man and queer person’s heart, so it comes out in those living colours!
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
They’re all kind of inspired by the same thing; when you boil it down, they’re all love songs.
Any plans to hit the road?
There is a record release show taking place at Privatclub in Berlin on October 1st. I would love to bring the show to London, Warsaw, Paris, Amsterdam and Rome eventually as well, even if it takes me years of savings to make it happen – I need to do it!
What else is happening next in Jon Campbell’s world?