Los Angeles-based electronic musician Camella Lobo felt off during the making of her latest EP, Stop Suffering. Lobo, the creator behind the moody synth outfit Tropic of Cancer, knew something was going on with her body. But she chalked it up to the stress of balancing her life: a demanding day job as an advertising digital strategist, a live-in boyfriend, and the pressure of new musical material. She was focusing on work during the day and plugging away on her music every other spare moment she had.
For almost a decade, Camella as Tropic of Cancer has received critical acclaim for her somber, dark electronic songs, and has grown into a cult figure in the underground synth scene. Having made lots of music that people loved, her physical shifts while making the album were disconcerting.
"I felt like a psychotic person," Lobo explains, sitting across from me with a cup of tea at a cafe on Los Angeles's East Side. She kept trying to find excuses for the fact that everything her boyfriend did annoyed her. Maybe she still had not processed the divorce she had gone through a few years earlier? Maybe it was the new campaign at work?
Suddenly, she noticed she had not gotten her period. Both a home pregnancy test and then her doctor told her she was not pregnant. The doctor suggested that her birth control was negatively affecting her body. Another month came and again, no period, so she stopped taking her birth control (at the doctor's suggestion) thinking it would normalize her. Yet she noticed that salmon didn't taste so good anymore and the smell of laundry detergent disgusted her.
"One day I was laying down looking at my stomach and my stomach… moved," she remembers. "I screamed."
At the doctor's office, "they sat me down and told me that I was four months pregnant with a baby girl," Lobo laughs. "Of course, I freaked out for a few days, but then I was at peace. I always wanted kids, but in this abstract way. I know this sounds so clichéd, but once I saw her face in the ultrasound, I realized there was no more fighting life. Life does what it wants to do. I am so excited now."
In the meantime, Lobo was working on new music. She had toiled away in an east L.A. practice space for a month to finish the track, "I Woke Up And The Storm Was Over". Once the label heard the song, which was intended for a compilation, they wanted her to make an entire new EP of material. She was intimidated, but excited to get back to work after nearly two years of silence.
Lobo started Tropic of Cancer in Long Beach in 2007 with her then-husband Juan Mendez (of Sandwell District). She did not know how to play any instruments, but had always fantasized about it. "Music has always been in my blood," she says. "I never had the confidence or know-how to just go for it." She would pick up a guitar and strum, but didn't have the discipline to study Jimmy Page riffs until her fingers bled. She could sing, but hadn't taken a voice lesson in years. One day, she and Mendez got access to a studio space in Orange County and decided to start messing around with electronics. Mendez started putting the music online. They did a bunch of live shows, released two EPs (on Blackest of the Black and Mendez's own label), and the offers for shows, new labels, press and more miraculously kept coming.
Mendez, who was busy with his own musical career, could not keep up with the demands and passed the project onto Lobo to handle alone. She embraced it and made a few more EPs: The End of All Things (2011), Permission of Love (2012), and I Feel Nothing (2012). Then, popular Australian band HTRK emailed Lobo asking for Tropic of Cancer to open on the band's 2011 European tour.
Tropic of Cancer was critically acclaimed, even outside of the electronic community, for being beautiful, creepy and complex. NPR called her latest track, "the type of gauzy mood music you might hear in the background of a Twin Peaks episode." Although it's rare to understand what Lobo is saying, themes of existence hang in the desolate notes she creates and the listener can dream up her own story. "I can't play above 90BPMs," she says, smiling. "That's just where my comfort lies. I like that speed."
"Electronic music is the new punk," Lobo says. "You know how everyone said punk was just boring two chords arranged differently each time and some guy screaming? Now people do that with electronic music. Minimal instrumental and equipment to get their creativity out. The barrier to entry is really low. But that means you have to be a much more discerning listener or even creator. In the beginning I would finish a song, and be so excited and ship it out to the label. Now, I work much differently."
Currently, Lobo has Josh Eustis (Nine Inch Nails, Telefon Tel Aviv) and Taylor Burch (Dva Damas) to round out the live performance, which means she can focus on being a present front person instead of following a frantic list of electronic changes that must be made for the song to not fall apart.
Lobo is currently touring the new EP in Europe at seven months pregnant. She wanted to bring her unborn daughter along with her after having been together for the creation of the album.
"It channeled a lot of my insecurities about what a woman is supposed to look like when performing on stage," Lobo said when trying to dress her pregnant figure. Friends kept telling her to wear flowing robes or a cape to disguise the belly. "No way. I wore a skin-tight, long, black dress that was off-the-shoulder. I am not ashamed of my baby or my pregnancy. If people are genuinely interested in my life as a person and my music, my baby body is not going to matter."
After she gets home, then she will focus on the birth and being a mother. "I ask myself questions all the time," Lobo says. "How do I make her feel confident? How do I make her feel loved?"
But for now, she is taking the tour day by day. The same way she would have had life not done whatever it wanted to.
Text Mish Way
Photography courtesy Tropic of Cancer