TAS Interview: Isobel Campbell

by Kara Manning | 10/12/2010 | 9:50pm

Isobel Campbell with Mark Lanegan

In August, Scottish chanteuse and cellist Isobel Campbell released her third collaborative album, Hawk, with gruff, saturnine cohort Mark Lanegan, ex of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age. Campbell and Lanegan's unique sunshine-and-storms vocal match garnered the unlikely duo a Mercury Prize nomination for their 2006 album Ballad of the Broken Seas which they followed with 2008's Sunday at Devil Dirt.

For this most recent release, Campbell, a founding member of Belle and Sebastian who left the band in 2002, not only wrote all of the songs for Hawk (save two Townes Van Zandt covers) and produced it. In addition to Lanegan, she also recruited additional guests Willy Mason, who joined her on two tracks, and former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha.

The effusive, quick-to-laugh and charming Campbell chatted with The Alternate Side on the phone from Los Angeles on Monday about her work with Lanegan, a future project with Victoria Williams and the sweet reunion she had last week with her former bandmates, Belle and Sebastian.

TAS: Is it true that you’re moving to Los Angeles?

Isobel Campbell: I think I’ve just moved! It’s been in the cards for a long time. I’ve spent most of the past two years in the U.S. And I was never wanting to go home [to Glasgow] whenever I supposed to go home, so I was telling myself something. I’ve got an address now [in LA] which is really funny. I don’t have a Social Security number but I have a bank account with nothing in it! (laughs) You know, you get old and everything and I’m like, “yeah, I’ve been to a bar for the first time, a club for the first time, I’m an old lady now and nothing will ever be new.” Then, all of a sudden, I’m in a different culture, getting a bank account, signing a cell phone contract, not just a pay-as-you-go phone. Now I’ve got an actual two-year contract! (laughs).

TAS: Congratulations! Apparently, much of your new album Hawk was conceived here in the States. You were escaping an emotionally trying time and went off to live in the Arizona desert.

Isobel: Yeah, i just ran away. It was deepest, darkest winter in Glasgow and I thought, well, this is getting ... dark. So I went to Tuscon, Arizona - I have friends there. I went for two weeks and I ended up staying most of the year. I kept changing my plane ticket, I just liked it so much. TAS: So a lot of the songs for Hawk tumbled out of that time? Isobel: They did. It was rough. The first couple of weeks I was there I was strugging a lot. Sometimes in life, the right thing finds us and I think it was one of those times. I’m good friends with [Giant Sand’s] Howe Gelb and I was embraced by the little community of musicians there. Howe  has lived there for years and years. I got really friendly with his assistant and she kind of mothered me through a hard time.

TAS: You were going through a bad breakup?

Isobel: I was! And I wasn’t myself and she kind of took me into her family. She has three amazing kids and she just really lifted me up. So it came at the right time (laughs).

TAS: So of all the albums you’ve done, from The Gentle Waves to your solo work to other albums with Mark Lanegan, was this the most difficult album for you to write?

Isobel: Not too much. I got friends with Celia and ended up house-sitting for her brother-in-law and it was a bachelor pad so it was very functional. I had a guitar, [another guy’s] cello and it flowed, actually. I think it was very natural. I wasn’t even thinking, “I’m writing a record,” it was just something to do to take my mind off things.

TAS: Listening to this album, it seemed as if it might have been a relief to give such emotionally raw songs like “You Won’t Let Me Down Again” to Mark, to let him lead vocally while you sat back vocally a bit.

Isobel: As long as he feels like he can sing one of my songs, I know that he takes on a role. Sometimes it is, in a way, it’s nice for me. Also because I’m producing too and it’s nice to stay in the background. I think because I come from a band history as well, sometimes it seems right. Sometimes not. Sometimes I want to sing more. But he sings something and then it turns into something else almost.

TAS: He makes it more about fighting back; it's not just about heartbreak.

Isobel: It’s feisty, it’s gutsy. It’s good to fight back instead of rolling over!

TAS: What is it about your voice that’s you feel is your strength and Mark’s voice that makes you happy?

Isobel: If I’m doing good with my voice, I think there’s a lot of feeling in it. It can be very expressive, whispery, kind of haunting. If I’m singing high, there’s a purity which I really like. My voice is very atmospheric, I think. But with Mark, he’s just a natural. Just amazing. He doesn’t have to try to hard; he just opens his mouth and out it comes. I love sitting next to him when we’re singing, even in radio sessions. He loves singing; I can tell. Even on the tour bus a few weeks ago after the last show, he was singing “The Tennessee Waltz” into my iPhone. It was really funny. We were recording it. He’s a bit of a crooner. I like it.

TAS: Your songs give him the chance to explore textures in his voice that he doesn’t often have the chance to do.

Isobel: Yeah! With Mark, recently he’s been touring with a solo show, just him and a guitar player, and we’ve been doing press in London so I went to the show. But his voice is so fat and so thick. It’s great on the rock stuff, like Queens of the Stone Age, it can take a lot of stuff going on, but I love his voice stripped back. That was always, from the get-go, one of my favorite things about his voice.

TAS: Going way, way back, what was the song - or experience - that first triggered that interest in working with Mark? Or motivated you to want to work with him?

Isobel: Well, I had a half-written song that my friend Eugene [Kelly] from The Vaselines, who’d been singing with me sometimes, was laughing about while we were in the studio. It either went too high, and he sounded like a girl, or it was too low and he sounded crazy. So my boyfriend at the time, Jonathan, said, “oh, you should ask Mark Lanegan to sing a song with you.” And I said, “who’s that?” Jonathan had been a big Screaming Trees fan. I said, “Okay, let me hear this Mark Lanegan.” So he played me something from Scraps at Midnight. Usually Jonathan and I had very different tastes in music. Not that I don’t like Queen or Frank Sinatra, but all Jonathan would listen to was Frank Sinatra (laughs) and he kind of turned his nose up if I played Astrid Gilberto or bossa nova or Vashti Bunyan. He was very narrow-minded (laughs). But, after he played Mark, I thought well, there may be something in this. I wrote to Mark not really expecting to hear anything back but a few weeks later my manager at the time said, “oh, Mark Lanegan wants to call you.” Mark called and he’d completed the half-written song, he’d written the lyrics, and he sang it down the telephone. I was hooked on him. He was fun and a real character, singing down the telephone. It was like an 80s movie! “La Bamba!” (laughs).

TAS: This is the first real tour that you and Mark have ever been able to do, isn’t it?

Isobel: I know! It’s been a comedy of errors and sometimes not very funny.

TAS: Eugene toured with you at one point.

Isobel: Yeah, and I love him. But it was Mark on my record. I love Eugene, but I was racking up all of this tour support on my label at the time but it wasn’t my vision! It was very unsatisfying to me and seemed to me, pointless. If I make a record with someone, it should be like the record.

TAS: How has it been so far? What have you discovered about the two of you working on stage together?

Isobel: I don’t know about discovered, but things have been confirmed to me. I love singing with Mark. That we kind of back each other up. He’s a man of few words and I can get a little giggly at times, so we’re a really odd couple. But we have fun and I really love singing with him. I feel quite protective of him at times and always feel very proud of him when he’s singing. Like “The Circus Is Leaving Town";  I’m playing cello on that song and sitting back and thinking, “wow, he’s really bringing my song to life. This is amazing.”

TAS: You’ll have the chance to tour together more, perhaps, now that you’re a Los Angeleno.

Isobel: I never thought it would be LA, I have to say. I thought it would be Arizona. I’m much more a sleepy person! But it’s a start. I’m probably the least LA person ever.

TAS: You can always drive out to Joshua Tree.

Isobel: My very good friend, Victoria Williams, lives out there and I’ve been working on her record. That’s another reason for it to be L.A. because I thought Victoria and I could really get into her record. Although she’s not in a hurry to finish it (laughs). It’s her solo album and I’m producing it. Every time I’m in Joshua Tree with her, I never want to leave. We have a nice time.

TAS: So you’re going to work with her on the album when you finish this tour?

Isobel: I kind of owe it to her, to do it next. Her songs are so good. I’ve got more of my own songs that I’d like to write, but I’d like to get her record in the bag.

TAS: For your next project, are you looking to doing a solo project or another collaboration? Because you also worked with Willy Mason on Hawk as well. Is your ear always now attuned to another voice?

Isobel: Sometimes. I think I’ll write the songs and see what they’re telling me. I’ve definitely written something more for Willy. Also, we’re touring with Harper Simon in November and I love his record. I love his voice and I’d like to try singing with him too. There’s a lot of different things I’d like to do. I think because I’m from a band background, I do really enjoy collaborating.

TAS: You and Mark will be doing All Tomorrow’s Parties in December [in Minehead, UK] and your former band, Belle and Sebastian. are curating it. Will this be the first time that you’ll actually be on the same stage with them since you left in 2002?

Isobel: I don’t know if I’ll be on the same stage with them, but they played in L.A. last week and I went to their show and caught up with them afterwards. It was really quite touching. It was nice to see them all and I felt really proud of them. I don’t know if we’ll be doing things together, but we’ll definitely be hanging out. It made me really happy. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, but it felt like a really good thing.

TAS: This seems to be a time of a lot of new beginnings for you.

Isobel: I think so. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel (laughs).

TAS: Why did you choose to cover two Townes Van Zandt songs on Hawk? Was he someone you were listening to obsessively while wandering the desert?

Isobel: It was really weird. My [former] bass player, Dave McGowan who is out with Teenage Fanclub now, had put all of Townes’ songs into my iTunes. I couldn’t really get into them. But in 2009 in Tuscon, gazing at the sky, something clicked and I fell in love with his songs. I don’t know. It was the right time. He’s an amazing songwriter. It’s sort of technically wrong [to put two Van Zandt songs on the album], but I felt so strongly about it. I so strongly identified with “No Place To Fall” and “Snake Song.” It’s not normal to do that, but it seemed right. So I felt, “Oh, why not?”

TAS: Since you enjoy writing songs for other people, is there someone you wish could sing one of your songs who hasn’t? And if so, what song would you give them?

Isobel: Oooh, there’s a million people. So many. (she ponders at length). I’m a big Dolly Parton fan, but she doesn’t need any songs. She does cover records though ....

TAS: So what would you give Dolly Parton?

Isobel: Oh, I don’t know. A hug? (laughs). She seems as if she’d be quite comforting!

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