Co-ed duets tend to fall into a certain beauty-and-the-beast stereotype. Whether it’s Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Sonny and Cher, or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, it’s the guys who usually are seen as the behind-the-scenes stringpullers (songwriting, producing) and the gals who smooth it all out for public consumption (voice, image). It’s a cliche, but in the world of show business, cliches die hard.
Isobel Campbell, formerly of the Scottish pop group Belle and Sebastian and now an accomplished solo artist, is fully aware of the tradition. She’s a student of duet recordings, and says she was going with a similar vibe when she recruited Mark Lanegan, the gravel-voice vocalist formerly with Seattle’s Screaming Trees, to be her partner on a track for her 2004 EP, “Time is Just the Same.” That partnership has since flourished, producing three collaborative albums — the latest, “Hawk” (Vanguard), was released a few months ago. The albums explore mystical blues, country and folk traditions, with flourishes of orchestral-pop.
What’s interesting is the script has been flipped, with Lanegan as the primary voice while Campbell writes, arranges, plays and produces, as well as sings a few vocals of her own.
“Yes, I know, the women are usually the voice and the guy is usually the svengali, but in this relationship I’m kind of like the man,” Campbell says with a laugh. “But Mark and I respect each other a lot. He pushes me, challenges me, and I push back. In a sick way, I enjoy that.”
Campbell grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, studying piano and playing cello in a national orchestra as a teenager. She was kicked off a tour when she was caught drinking — “I went from never drinking at all to downing a bottle of vodka in10 minutes that knocked me unconscious” — and then spent “a really long time grounded by my parents in my bedroom, listening to records and sulking.” It was there that she dug into Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground and other darker songwriters, and began writing her own songs.
“I was 17, 18, with a lot of natural musical ability and no real role models for someone like me — a female cello player,” she says. “I had boyfriends who talked about being rock stars but I could never imagine it for myself. I thought I’d become a schoolteacher.”
Then she met Stuart Murdoch, who was forming Belle and Sebastian in 1996, and he encouraged her to sing and write. She became a key member of the band as it grew from cult status to one of the biggest indie-rock success stories of the late ‘90s. But she quit in 2002, burned out by the experience.
“I was really young, only 19, when I joined the group, and I freaked out a lot,” she says. “I had a very simplistic view: Why are we dealing with this business stuff all the time? Why can’t this be just about the music? The others were older and more streetwise, but it was more than I could take on at the time.”
After pulling out, she launched a solo career, where her wispy vocals and skills as a musician, songwriter and producer began to flourish. Hooking up with Lanegan was a suggestion made by her then-boyfriend when she was looking for a male singer to work on one of her songs.
“I didn’t really know who he was, but I loved the voice and sent him a tape,” she says. “I was really surprised when he called me back. He wrote lyrics and sang them to me on the phone. I thought, ‘What kind of character is this?’ I liked him immediately.”
The partnership was not without its share of tension. “I went from the early days in Belle and Sebastian, which were kind of ramshackle and chaotic, to meeting this guy with an amazing voice who was living this ramshackle, chaotic life,” Campbell says. “I must be attracted to really difficult things. After we made the first album, he just disappeared and I never thought I’d talk to him again, let alone make more albums with him.”
She says the collaboration has grown closer over the years, though she says that even on “Hawk,” Lanegan “spent five days in the studio while I worked on it for a year.”
“He says he’s glad to let me do the heavy lifting; he says I’m the nicest control freak he’s ever met,” Campbell says. When Lanegan declined to sing a cover she’d chosen, Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall,” she found another singer to do it, Willy Mason.
“I will move heaven and hell to realize my vision,” Campbell says with a laugh. “I have no trouble letting go of something if it’s not working, but if it’s something good, there is no way I’m going to be stopped. So, yes, I’m the boss. And if there are not enough other women out there doing that, they should shape up and use their brains more. I don’t blow my trumpet about this, but it’s so boring to think of women as just eye candy or a dolly bird. The boys club thing in music can be a little limiting, and it’s over as far as I’m concerned.”