Lost treasure needn’t be found in the distant past; the 21st century had artists that didn’t find their place before disappearing into the great wide yonder. Such as new Bella Union signing BC Camplight. The alter ego of American songwriter Brian Christinzio released two albums, Run, Hide Away (2005) and Blink Of A Nihilist (2007), both gems of a certain psych-pop vintage, investing buoyant pop tropes with wistful and pensive emotion, combining songwriting eloquence and a troubled soul prone to self-destruction. Christinzio certainly knew it – in 2012, he described himself as, “the guy who blew it.”
But this sublime, maverick spirit, with a matching high-pitched, keening vocal and fearless approach to lyrical introspection, has another chance.
It’s a new record, recorded on a new continent, after Christinzio followed the instructions of his first album title: he ran, he hid. Living in Philadelphia, Christinzio reckoned that he’d, “be dead or in jail if I stayed,” so figuring he had one last chance to make the record he’d always dreamt of, he moved to Manchester, England. He played his best shows there; he had friends too, prepared to provide shelter on arrival.
That was 2012. Three years later, and eight since his last album, How To Die In The North is that very record he’d always dreamt of – a richer, more dynamic and diverse take on his epic pop pizzazz and simmering balladry. It’s a particularly dark saga, absent of hope and self-belief. “It’s more or less a goodbye record,” Christinzio feels. “It covers the shit I did wrong, down to the literal stuff like, you should have gone to school, you pursued a relationship that was doomed from the start… a main theme is not being convinced there’s such a thing as love, at least in the long term. My first records were fairly hopeful and more playful, but this one’s desperate and damaged in many places.”
The title How To Die In The North is how Christinzio viewed, somewhat humourously, the mood of his mission. “There was a real Leaving Las Vegas vibe to my move to Manchester. I intended to get the record out of my system, the best I could possibly do, and then drink myself to death. I had so many regrets, like the shitty things I’d done to myself and to other people.”
The album was finished before Bella Union signed him, so Christinzio had no idea he’d even find a label, but he did have the committed involvement of producer Martin King, according to Christinzio, “a passionate, eccentric vintage gear collector” who ran a studio in a converted vicarage in Bredbury on the outskirts of Stockport. For two intense years, the pair “chipped away” at making a record, with Christinzio almost totally responsible for the instrumentation. “I wanted it to sound warm and inviting, but also partly like it was degenerating and even confusing,” he admits. “I wanted people to feel like I feel, so you can’t tell if things are scary or beautiful. The varying styles of songs mirror the extreme mental highs and lows I was going through.”
How To Die In The North begins with a definitive statement of intent. “You Should Have Gone To School” is dramatic, layered pop with a swooping chorus and a broader palette of sound than his previous piano-based arrangements.
The album progresses through a dazzling array of styles. “Love Isn’t Anybody’s Fault” resembles a haunted version of the heavenly sunshine-pop of Sixties greats such as The Turtles and The Association, “Just Because I Love You” is blue-eyed soul, between Todd Rundgren and Motown, ‘Grim Cinema’ has a speedy surf-pop buzz while ‘Good Morning Headache’ reprises the haunted piano balladry of his past) as Christinzio asks himself, “Ever noticed that you get away with murder?”
The album has several showstoppers, such as “Lay Me On The Floor”, the most psychedelic escapade, the grand finale of “Why Doesn’t Anyone Fall In Love”, equal parts Nilsson and Broadway showtune, and “Atom Bomb”, a beautifully sparse, tender ballad with arguably the record’s finest lyric, a direct response to a personal tragedy in Christinzio’s life.
But the album also has major pop chops, such as “Thieves In Antigua” – an early version was released as a single (on Eve of Creation) in 2012 – swings in jubilant fashion, tinged with tropicalia and laced with Mariachi horns, an upbeat dynamic for a song that Christinzio once described as, “about hating yourself so much you force yourself to change.” The “thieving” part refers to some of his behaviour during the ‘lost’ years between his second album and moving to Manchester.
How Christinzio arrived at this point of despair is an arresting a saga as the music itself. Born and raised in New Jersey, Christinzio started playing piano aged just four, and credits Fifties rocker Jerry Lee Lewis, discovered in his mother’s record collection, as his entry point to music. Burt Bacharach, Harry Nilsson, Motown and his father’s classical records were also influences, but so was the onset of depression and sometimes crippling hypochondria. Captain of the football team and a promising boxer, the teenage Brian was also a loner. “I wouldn’t eat lunch with everyone else at school, I’d go off to play the grand piano,” he recalls. “After football, the others would drink beer and I’d be listening to my mum’s records. That’s when I started writing songs.”
He moved to Philadelphia after falling in with a community of people, “willing to go through shit to be a musician.” His two albums were recorded with producer Brian McTear (Sharon van Etten and others) and released by One Little Indian, but despite, “earning good money on tour,” Christinzio found himself floundering. “I’d started to believe what people were saying about me, that I was different, I was good. I expected to be given money to tour more, but it didn’t happen, and I just got more bitter and angry.”
He occasional played live with Philly faves The War On Drugs (whose current members Dave Hartley and Robbie Bennett were part of the original BC Camplight live band) and guested on van Etten’s Epic album, but he otherwise retreated further into his shell. As War On Drugs’ profile rose, Christinzio realised it was do-or-die time. “I thought, no way do they make better records than me, I had to make another of my own. But I couldn’t think of how to get it made the way I wanted, so I just left the US. And somehow, it worked out!”
He’s already done two sessions for long-term fan Marc Riley at BBC 6 Music, which featured Christinzio’s band of Mancunians: Jonno Prestbury (guitar), Stephen Mutch (bass), Adam Dawson (drums), Robbie Rush (keys) and Hattie Coombe (backing vox). He met them all at The Castle Hotel pub, a watering hole in the city centre particularly popular with musicians – Christinzio also heard about Martin King there, and John Grant’s album on the jukebox, which encouraged him to approach Bella Union.
Grant’s cocktail of depression and self-sabotage thwarted an outrageous talent, but he took his second chance. The same deserves to happen to Christinzio, a similarly outsize, sharp and funny personality with an outsize non-conformist streak. “I’ve never wanted to be associated with indie cool, the idea of fitting in,” he declares. “I won’t sound like anyone else, so this is for those people who want things for themselves, who aren’t afraid to be alone and to die.”
Far from dying, BC Camplight has been reborn in the North.