The idea of the visionary artist whose mental illness is somehow intrinsic to their creativity, even glamorous, is pernicious.
Just ask Brian Christinzio, better known as singer-songwriter BC Camplight, a man who by his own estimation has “to deal with some pretty significant mental health problems” on an ongoing basis. We shouldn’t glorify “the crazy guy, the Brian Wilson, the Syd Barrett,” he thinks, but be more realistic about the day-to-day struggles that sometimes come with conditions such as depression and anxiety.
“I’ve tried to strip away [such myths] by being really open about my mental illness and try to get others to open up as well,” he says. In terms of Christinzio’s creative life, the latest evidence of this process arrives with the new BC Camplight LP, Shortly After Takeoff , which he described as “an examination of madness and loss” when its release was first announced.
“During the recording of the record, I was in a particularly strange place,” he says. “I guess you could say I still am there. I unexpectedly lost my dad just as I was beginning the writing of the record. I don’t know if it’s even 100% hit me to this day, but it was a big dose of surreality, which if you know my brain, that’s something I don’t need. I guess a lot of the record was trying to come to grips with even what reality is.”
This wasn’t, he adds, somehow a “cathartic” process, and not a process we should see in terms of a comeback narrative where the writer as hero successfully battles inner demons. “This is very much an inward look of somebody that’s been going through some serious shit, and at the end of it they’re still going through some serious shit,” he says. “Not necessarily a happy ending, but that’s the way life is.”
If all this makes Christinzio sound like glum company, that’s misleading. Having fetched up in Manchester from Philadelphia in 2012, he’s fully on board with self-deprecating English humour. His observations about his struggles are peppered with laughter. He has to wear sunglasses on stage, he says at one point, because of issues with his vision where lights at night “have a horrific halo over them” and moving his head brings the kind of visual trails you get on an acid trip. But, he jokes, he might wear the shades even if he didn’t suffer such visual interference. “I mean I am a pretentious prick anyway, don’t get me wrong…”
If that’s true, he’s a pretentious prick capable of creating the most glorious records, as Shortly After Takeoff – the third instalment in a series of albums Christinzio has dubbed his Manchester trilogy – eloquently demonstrates.
Fusing baroque pop flourishes with West Coast harmonies, it’s a record that’s detailed and rich, infused with different colours and textures, as if made by a latter-day Harry Nilsson. By his own estimation, Christinzio has “a very short attention span”, so that many of his compositions are “closer to two or three songs than they are one song”, and it shows. What’s changed from previous records, though, is that Christinzio now has a “willingness to speak directly to the listener”.
Gone are the stream-of-consciousness “Van Dyke Parks lyricisms” he used to write. “I’m really starting to enjoy taking lyrics more seriously as a craft , as seriously as I take arranging strings and arranging songs, and I think that’s a direction that I’m starting to realise is limitless,” Christinzio says. “There are no rules to lyrics, which I thought there were. I say shit on this record I didn’t think I’d ever be able to sing about. There’s one song that starts off with me doing a [fabricated] stand-up comedy routine [Ghosthunting].”
FEAR AND FLIGHT
In short, Christinzio is in a good place creatively. Which, if he’ll forgive the comeback narrative, is in itself remarkable. To understand why, we need to go back to 2012, when Christinzio first moved to the UK.
For all he had released two albums as BC Camplight via One Little Indian, Hide, Run Away (2005) and Blink Of A Nihilist (2007), as well as guesting on Sharon Van Etten’s Epic LP and playing live with The War On Drugs, this wasn’t a case of an established artist relocating. He chose Manchester as a destination because, when he had played in the UK, “I always had a great time there and the six people that were in the audience really enjoyed it.” This was a last throw of the dice by a man saying “fuck it”, whose life and “small career” had hit the rocks.
“Everyone’s opened up their arms to me in the city and I don’t really know how to put it in words [how I feel] because I was coming from Philadelphia, where I had literally just given up,” he says. “I was squatting in an abandoned church, I had basically given up on music and burnt a lot of bridges, lost almost all my friends and…” He pauses before continuing, “I was going to blame it on the mental illness, which doesn’t help, but I was just an asshole really, I was just miserable.”
On his first day in Manchester, he went to a pub called The Castle Hotel. There, waiting to get keys to a flat from a landlord, he met people who “are still my best friends today”. Having never thought of himself as part of a musical scene before – “I never really artistically cared what anybody else was doing” – Christinzio made connections in a city that embraced his music. Gradually, he began to forge a career that had been in danger of never really beginning at all.
But it’s rarely been smooth sailing since. In 2015, BC Camplight released How To Die In The North via Bella Union, the first LP in the Manchester trilogy. It was “piecemealed” together, says Christinzio, and was “a reflection of throwing your old life away and throwing yourself into something new.”
It garnered plenty of attention and things seemed to be going well, only for Christinzio to be barred from the UK after overstaying his visa. The problem, it seems, was that he had a blood clot in his leg and was advised not to travel. He now travels on an Italian passport, which in a pre-Brexit world resolved the visa problem.
Around this time, he put together a tour of the USA, “anything to stay busy and relevant”. His regular band were unable to get work permits, so he hired new musicians, but they weren’t ready for the demands of the shows.
A “toe-cringing” nadir came in his former hometown. “In my stupid mind I thought that, ‘Hey, I was here and popular in Philadelphia eight years ago, of course all these people are going to show up’, and we weren’t very good as a band and there weren’t a lot of people there, and it was a bit embarrassing,” he remembers. Yet despite such setbacks, Christinzio was steadily gathering an audience. The pointedly named Deportation Blues (2018) received support from 6 Music, especially the Brian-Wilson-meets-Jeff-Lynne-doing-synth-pop of I’m In A Weird Place Now, and raised Christinzio’s profile further.
“One thing I like about how my career has progressed is it’s never felt like, to me at least, that I could ever be mistaken for a flash in the pan because I never really flash, I’m always just stuck at the side of the pan,” he deadpans. “So I feel like I have this nice thing going, where I have licence to do whatever I want and the profile’s getting bigger and bigger, not at an explosive rate, but I can’t really argue with what’s happening.”
THE CUSP OF SUCCESS
The net result of all of this is that the next few months, perhaps even longer, look set to be busy as BC Camplight the band – drummer Adam Dawson; Francesca Pidgeon on backing vocals, sax and clarinet; guitarist Thom Bellini; bassist Stephen Mutch; and Luke Barton on synths and acoustic guitar – tour the new record. “Not only are they my best friends, I swear they’re one of the best bands in the world,” says their leader, appreciatively.
And there’s real hope this may be a breakthrough album. As anyone who has listened to longtime supporter Marc Riley’s evening shows on 6 Music will testify, those who encounter BC Camplight live seem disproportionately to become the kind of evangelists who message radio stations to tell a wider audience about the experience.
“I’m really happy with the preliminary way people are responding to the album because, like I said, this is the first time I really feel like I opened up a little bit, or a lot on an album, and to see people really digging that makes me feel good because I don’t make a lot of connections in my real life,” says Christinzio. “I barely look people in the eye, it’s nice to be able to have an emotional attachment with these friends I’ll likely never meet.”
It’s a reminder again that Christinzio in so many ways doesn’t find the business of being a public figure easy. To return to those mental health problems, he suffers from depression, “crippling health anxiety” and “horrific OCD” to the point where he has to do “a certain amount of rituals before I leave the house” and, when he’s out, sometimes “can’t go around that block because then you’ll be turning in the wrong direction”.
He knows how strange this sounds: “It’s absolute ridiculousness, but when I don’t do those things my anxiety gets to a point where I start having this thing they refer to as de-personalisation, where basically everything feels like a dream, like I’m inside a glass ball and I’m separate from my thoughts.”
I say shit on this record that I didn’t ever think I’d be able to sing about
As we discuss mental illness further and, full disclosure, I mention my own battles with depression and the bottle, which perhaps prompts some of the remarks here, the one thing that becomes crystal clear is that Christinzio has slowly learnt to accommodate his conditions.
He can’t write, he says, when he’s “at the apex of depression”, but then neither can he write when he’s “completely content”. Between lies an “awesome little grey area where I still feel like shit but I’m inspired”. It was in this space, as he processed his father’s death, that he wrote Shortly After Takeoff.
Looking further ahead than the new record, Christinzio floats the idea of recording his next LP in a different city. Rather ironically, for all he has “a fiancé and a dog and a house and all these friends” in Manchester, he suspects it may be time to “give myself a new challenge elsewhere”, in part to avoid the dangers of a “groundhog day vibe”. Then again, things aren’t that well planned in Christinzio’s life, so this may not be how things pan out.
“Sometimes I wake up with an empty beer can on my belly and a whole album’s written, and I think, ‘Holy shit! How did that happen?’” says Christinzio of the way he works. “I just have to wait for it and hope that it’s good.” So far, so very good indeed.