When I first met I Am A Camera’s Francesca Ross five years ago, we were, each of us, living in quite a different incarnation to the present one. I, for my part, was a music lawyer, helping out in the negotiation of a recording contract for a then up-and-coming pop trio from Manchester by the name of Tigerpicks.
Signing with Liverpool’s Deltasonic Records (The Zutons, The Coral), Tigerpicks released a chaotic and amazing banger called “Disco Punk Electro Funk” in May 2007 and soon afterwards got bundled off to work on their debut album with the legend that is Richard X. I was hugely chuffed to have however minor an involvement on the Tigerpicks file, what with Richard X’s discography listing some of my all time favourite songs.
As for Francesca, well – you will have, no doubt, guessed a couple of sentences ago that she was one of the band’s triumvirs. Outside the legal sphere, I’d often bump into her and fellow band-mates, Emma Leatherbarrow and Martyn Anderson, at Manchester’s Club Clique, then a monthly pop night showcasing the best new music you’d never heard before and politely asking all punters to ‘dress up for dancing’. Francesca and the other two tigers would always turn up in the most brilliant and flamboyant outfits, an inseparable threesome whose watchword was “fun”, looking like the popstars in the making that they were.
The Richard X collaboration sadly ended up being shelved but the three continued working on new music and, a couple of years ago, invited a producer, Ian Watt, to come up from London to watch them play live, with a view to working with them.
“That night Ian and I chatted a lot”, Francesca recalls. “There was so much stuff we had the same thoughts on, the same ideas about music. And Coronation Street!” she laughs. Ian himself readily admits to being the one who split the band up. “I was the Yoko Ono of the Tigerpicks. Yoko Homo, if you like”, he jokes. Can I quote him on that? “Sure”, he smiles.
Puns aside, the Tigerpicks project was already slowing down by the time Francesca and Ian started their musical flirtation and, when it eventually came to a natural end, I Am A Camera was born.
Where did the name come from? “We have these sections of the walls in the studio where we just rip things that inspire us out of magazines and stick them up there”, explains Ian. “You know, photos and words which we’d written down to use in lyrics and that kind of stuff. ‘I Am A Camera’ was something that we’d just put up on that wall. We kept looking at it and thought: yeah, that works”.
The name is very dramatic-sounding. “Yeah, exactly. I love [Christopher Isherwood’s] ‘The Berlin Stories’ and I’m really into that period in time”, he elaborates. “It was a dark era with a lot of decadence. So there the phrase was on the wall and we’d just done a track called ‘Without You’ which is all strings and drama. It then erupts into a big beat and the name I Am A Camera just seemed to fall into place and fit with the mood of the song which we were trying to bring across”.
The first time Francesca came down to London from Manchester to work on some songs with Ian, kismet was forged. “We just went into the studio and, although we’d never written together before that day, we ended up doing a really good track”, she recalls. “That’s when we thought ‘there’s a little bit of something special here’, there was a spark”, adds Ian.
Their way of working in the studio is often unplanned. Ian: “we record different things, sample different stuff and just fuck about with it all to see what we can get out of it”. And there’s no such thing as pre-defined roles in the band in terms of who does what. “It’s different with each song, really”, says Francesca. “Sometimes we’ll just see something or hear a story that’ll give us an idea to develop. Obviously, we’ll then make it a little bit more dark and twisted. Other times, I might get to the studio and Ian will already have some music or a beat to get us going. With [new single] ‘Factory Boys’, it was the story that started the song. We had read the story and thought ‘this is amazing’ and that was that”.
The idea for ‘Factory Boys’ is based on the story of Richard and Robert Lasko (better known as the Dupont Twins), two teenage siblings who, in the late 1970s, became the overnight darlings of the Studio 54 art crowd. “The thing about the Dupont Twins”, says Ian, “is how everyday life can be better than fantasy. They created themselves, they saw an opportunity and they took it. They started off as waiters and some old gay gentlemen saw them and said ‘you’re pretty, I’m gonna take you’ and they ran with it and made their lives this whole fantasy. Although they never had a penny, they looked amazing, always wearing these suits, which turned out to be their tails from their waiting job. Andy Warhol had paid them in Quaaludes and paintings and they lived this incredible life with no-one knowing the truth about their background. Eventually, the secret came out but then no one cared because they were already big.”
And the Dupont Twins have recently contacted Francesca and Ian. “It was just insane”, Ian muses. “It turns out the Director of the Andy Warhol Museum had seen the video online. He then played it to them and they loved it. And they’ve asked us whether they can blog about it and write about us”. How exciting. “Yeah, it’s a bit mad”, Francesca laughs. “Going from just reading about them for the first time to, a few months down the line, having one of them contact us to say that they loved what we’ve done and they loved the song”.
Whilst it’s not surprising that the Dupont Twins should love a song dedicated to their life story, ‘Factory Boys’ is, well – easy to love. From the kick off, the beats instill an instant hook with a hummable quality permeating through the entire thing. It’s the type of song that should set things up nicely for a much wider exposure for the band.
The single, out this month, follows on from I Am A Camera’s debut offering, ‘Commuter Love’. I ask them whether either of them has ever fallen in love with someone on the Underground and Ian chuckles as he answers, “Daily”. Meanwhile, Francesca agrees with me that ‘Commuter Love’ would fit nicely on an advert for Tube Crush. “But I can’t say I’ve fallen in love on public transport, myself”, she confesses. “I’ve probably checked a few people out, though”.
The song was was written especially for Omar Kashoura’s London Fashion Week show last year. “He had heard our stuff”, says Ian, “and asked us to write music for one of his shows. We love his clothes”.
And it’s not just Kashoura’s coutura that the pair are into at the moment. “A lot of Kinder Aggugini’s designs are really great”, says Francesca. “We went to a Cavalli do last year and I got quite a few things there, too. The dress that I wore for that event was just the nicest thing ever. I also love Simone Rocha’s designs and I’ve worn some of her stuff for our gigs – it’s just gorgeous, very tailored and very sharp.”
For our shoot with the pair we decided to build on the drama of their styling, using dark garments and minimal make-up, but bring it out of the confines of the studio-based photography they have embraced to date, with an analogue shoot on a rooftop and additional outdoors set-ups in Bethnal Green.
When we first began planning the session back in March, we were falsely misled by the early sunny spells, which – by the time our eventual shoot materialised – became a distant memory. Despite the most frustrating amount of rain and very trying visibility (and notwithstanding some of our styling suggestions testing Francesca and Ian’s tether), we think the look and atmosphere of the images convey the sense of sophistication that stands at the core of I Am A Camera.
From the very first teaser image they put up on their website when they launched back in early 2011, the pair have been cultivating a decisive sense of the look they want to project. How important is that image to you, I ask them. “Very important”, says Ian. “Just as important as the music. Fashion and music run parallel to each other. I’m fascinated by photography and I love Eric Watson’s stuff. He’s photographed the Pet Shop Boys a lot. It’s how the Pet Shop Boys dressed up their music that I find amazing. I was drawn to their artwork before I was taken by their music”. Francesca agrees: “All the bands that I’ve been interested in, from the Ramones to Yeah Yeah Yeahs, are very visual and it’s great to be able to look at it as well as listen to it.”
As for the music, at the time of our interview the pair have completed about 7 tracks for their debut album, which they expect to release at the beginning of 2013. Having started the process on their own, they recently brought in celebrated producer, Cameron McVey, who (together with his long-time collaborator, Paul Simm) gave Francesca and Ian’s just-the-two-of-us work routine a little shake-up.
“It was great to work with Cameron”, says Francesca. “Until that point, everything we’d done has just been Ian and me alone in the studio. No one else had had any kind of input or opinion so to be there with someone who has worked with Massive Attack and Sugababes was really exciting. “Paul was also amazing”, adds Ian. “Between them, the British heritage of pop music is just incredible. Plus, they wrote Sugababes’ Overload, so they can’t do any wrong in my book”. The man’s got a point, readers.
But was it weird having other people in the studio after what sounds like an initially insular recording experience? “It was good, actually. It was really interesting to see how they work”, says Ian. “But we are also quite strong willed so we were not being told what to do. It was a collaboration”.
In the midst of recording the album, the pair also found the time to remix Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’. They took what was essentially a cinematic, sweet-sounding ballad and turned it into an industrial, menacing, in-your-face trip-hopper full of splendour and big beats. Ian: “we did a gig last year at Hoxton Bar & Kitchen and she came, which was rather fantastic. That was just as ‘Video Games’ was starting to take off. She liked our music and her management contacted us to ask if we’d like to remix her next single. It was just great getting her vocals and working around them. We tried not to recreate what they’d already done, we didn’t want to follow the original chord-progression and the template of what was already there. So we just messed it all up a little, broke the song down and then reconstructed it. It wasn’t a difficult job, though, because the vocal is so beautiful anyway.”
The pair will be reunited with Lana at this summer’s LoveBox extravaganza, which they are very pleased to have been asked to do. Mention Grace Jones and watch them gush. “Ah, Grace Jones”, melts Francesca. “Thing is, I was going to go that day anyway, to watch her, so it’s just so fantastic to be asked to play. And the main stage as well!” Ian points out that this will be quite a big jump for them. “The main stage is such a great opportunity”, he says.
So things definitely seem to be going in the desirably right direction for I Am A Camera. Next on the agenda is finishing the album. “It’ll be out early next year and we’ll definitely have another single before that”, confirms Francesca. “And we want to do a lot more gigs. We are not just a studio band. It always feels good to be able to bring the songs out of the studio”.
Sure enough, just as our soggy afternoon of futile rain-avoidance comes to a close, a rainbow creeps its way across the sky, no apology, no regrets. Lo and behold, the downpour subsides and the entire Notion team’s battle with the elements is dismissed with a ‘sod’s law’ wave of the hand. It might have made the day’s plans more challenging but, you know what? Ian and Francesca look great and, better still, we got a quote with the phrase ‘Yoko Homo’ in it. Mustn’t grumble, eh?
I Am A Camera’s new single, ‘Factory Boys’, comes out on 17th of June.
Words: Doron Davidson-Vidavski
Photography: Poppy Cockburn
Styling: Danielle Webber and Aillie Robertson
Hair & Make-up: Hannah Phillips