Julie Campbell: Doing it my way
Julie Campbell sounds horrified. "Paul Weller? Mumford & Sons? I would have been very worried, indeed, if I had found myself alongside people like that." It's the day after the Mercury Music Prize nominations have been announced and Campbell -- aka the one-woman, new-wave pop machine LoneLady -- is discussing her (semi-surprise) omission from the shortlist. The way she sees it, she has dodged a bullet.
"Looking at the list, I could never have imagined myself in that company," she says. "I wonder who the panel are. How can it possibly be about the music? They are so strategic, these decisions. It's not really about music, that award."
Although she's enjoying lashings of industry buzz, it doesn't take long to work out that Campbell is not your average music hopeful. In theory, her minimalist fem-pop has a lot in common with artists such as Ellie Goulding and La Roux (with whom she shares a perpendicular hairstyle). Unlike her contemporaries, however, the 25-year-old native of Hulme, Manchester, is unwilling to play by the conventions of the pop business.
She definitely doesn't hold back in her opinions. In addition to dismissing the Mercury as a glorified back-slapper club, she is scathing about the BBC's poll Sound of ... , the annual British hype-fest that has brought to our attention artists such as Little Boots, The Drums, and Marina and the Diamonds.
"I don't really know why we need to do this to music -- to make all of these lists," says the singer. "I find it bizarre, really. Why can't we write about it or document it in another way? It's very cynical and subjective. Who are these people on panels? What right have they to give their blessing to an act? It's a curse, isn't it? You're sort of dictating what is going to happen to those people. It's better if people come to your music in a more natural way."
Campbell is already gaining a bit of a reputation among music hacks. Another reporter warned me that she was a "moody cow". True enough, she doesn't suffer fools. On the other hand, how refreshing to encounter a pop star prepared to speak her mind and genuinely engage with your questions, rather than rehash the same speaking notes she's already shared with dozens of other journos.
Besides, any reservations melt away when you listen to her music. Channelling the post-industrial gloom of early 1980s Manchester outfits such as Joy Division and A Certain Ratio, debut album Nerve Up manages to be simultaneously jittery, brooding and incredibly catchy. It's certainly receiving a great deal of attention in the UK, where the doyen of purple music prose Paul Morley -- best known for helping to hype up Frankie Goes to Hollywood and for his hyperbolic turns on BBC2's Late Review -- has taken upon himself to champion her at every opportunity.
"It was suggested that I get in touch with him," she says. "I'm a big fan of his books. I particularly like his book on Joy Division. We both come from Manchester. We sent him the record, exchanged a few emails and ended up meeting. We started talking and didn't really stop. He didn't disappoint. He was very Paul Morley-esque. Someone filmed our chat. I haven't watched it. I'd rather have the memory."
Like many other commentators, Morley has been keen to paint Campbell as heir to the ghosts of Manchester's rock past. Fair enough, says Campbell, but please don't portray her as a clichéd peddler of North of England angst. "I'm not interested in pretending I don't like any music from Manchester," she says. "That being the case, I don't want to engage with journalists who keep rehashing all those old clichés about Manchester because that's the easier thing to do."
Campbell has conflicting opinions on the city's music legacy. While adoring the gloomy 1980s stuff, she dismisses the following decade's Madchester scene -- which saw wide-trousered artists such as The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays conquer the world -- as a juvenile sideshow. You can imagine her thoughts on Oasis.
"My older brother had a few Madchester records," she says. "I wasn't that interested. There were some okay bands. The Happy Mondays sounded great. Generally, the whole thing was a bit dumb. I didn't really relate to it. Oasis? I wasn't into them either. I grew up listening to American music. You could say that I kind of rejected Manchester really. It was only in my mid 20s that I came 'home' again, as it were."
She's just about old enough to have first-hand experience of that other golden age of Manchester pop culture -- the early 1990s clubbing explosion, when Mancunian-heralded acid house turned global dance culture on is head. Again, her recollections don't quite tally with the legend. For instance, she remembers the storied Hacienda nightclub as draught ridden and a bit shabby.
"I went once and it was a large echoey space," she recalls. "I don't think we stayed there very long. It's funny, I have an older friend. She was there in the undisputed heyday and her memory was very different. Everyone was dancing on podiums -- she thought it was marvellous It goes to show, different memories construct different things. And the truth will never be known."
On her MySpace page, Campbell drops a familiar list of influences: Wire, Gang of Four, Echo and the Bunnymen. However, she cites Madonna as an inspiration too. Does she see her as a role model for women trying to negotiate the rats' warren that is the music industry?
"Well, mostly it's down to the fact that I love her music," she says. "I grew up on the Immaculate Collection. Her stuff is so great and catchy. That said, from what I've seen of the music world, she must have worked incredibly hard to get where she is. I can't imagine the level of determination she must possess. It's kind of beyond my ability to comprehend."
She also credits Public Image Limited with shaping her sound. What's her take on John Lydon's journey from establishment scourge to butter-hawking comedy figure? "I saw PiL recently in Manchester," she says. "I didn't know what to expect. He does seem a bit semi-comical when you see him on TV. In the flesh, he's still intimidating. He is a very impressive man, he has lots of charisma."
Slap Nerve Up on your sound system and you can almost feel the waves of monochrome dread washing over you. The bleak, twitchy mood owes a lot to the circumstances in which the LP was created. Rather than go to a studio, Campbell and her producer Guy Fixsen (My Bloody Valentine, Pixies, Stereolab) searched greater Manchester for an abandoned warehouse suitable for conversion to a recording space. They finally found a dilapidated mill, lurking by a canal in one of the city's less chi-chi neighbourhoods.
"I really needed to separate myself from civilisation," Campbell explains. "I wanted a room, mentally and physically, to make the record. Recording studios didn't appeal to me. Too many people, you know. I required something more atmospheric.
"The place where we ended up was very picturesque during the day. At night, you definitely would not walk to it on your own. We had to build a breeze-block square inside the room we were using, because it wasn't secure enough. We'd work late and when darkness fell, there was a sense of ominousness pressing in. I quite liked that, really. I think that the album possibly benefited from it."
LoneLady plays the Boudoir Stage at Castle Palooza on Sunday, August 1. Nerve Up is out now on Warp