Ramblin’ Across the Seas: An Interview with Isobel Campbell

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By John Kenyon

Hearing that twee songbird Isobel Campbell was joining with the gruff Mark Lanegan for a duets disc came as a shock. Hearing the disc itself is an even greater shock. For while the pairing seemed off and the potential results suspect, the music is better than anyone had a right to hope.

While Campbell, who came to fame as the Jean Seberg-esque singer in Belle and Sebastian before splitting to pursue a solo career, obviously saw something in the idea that made her pursue it, even she was pleasantly surprised at the way things turned out. Reached in Glasgow just before the January release of Ballad of the Broken Seas in the UK, Campbell described a recording session, or rather, her reaction to a session that was completed while she stepped out to run some errands.

“I nearly fell down the stairs I loved it so much,” she said of hearing Lanegan’s growling baritone atop a spare song bed. “It was better that what I hoped for.”

Campbell and Lanegan first conceived of the idea in the back seat of a car. This followed her having heard Lanegan for the first time just months before thanks to an ex-boyfriend’s recommendation that the gravelly Screaming Tree would be the right voice for a new song she was recording for an EP.

“I work with (Vaselines and Eugenius frontman) Eugene Kelly quite often,” she said. “He sang the first track, but the second one was too low for him. I heard [Lanegan’s] voice and thought it was really lovely. I sent some material to him, and a few months later he called.”

Lanegan recorded vocals on the track, “Why Does My Head Hurt So?” and sent it back for inclusion on an EP. The two kept in touch, and when Lanegan was next in the UK for shows with Queens of the Stoneage, he and Campbell got together to talk, and Lanegan suggested the collaboration.

“He said, ‘We should do a record,’” she said. “I had already written ‘The False Husband’, and hoped he’d sing it.”

He did, as well as nine other Campbell originals. The disc also includes the Lanegan composition “Revolver” and a cover of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man.” It’s an odd mix, her sweet, quiet vocals offering at atmospheric counterpoint to his pointed and somewhat menacing leads.

All of this occurred with Campbell having heard little of Lanegan’s work.

“I kind of went into it blind, and I think it was kind of a good thing,” she said.

Hearing his solo work now, she said she can see why Lanegan and others thought they would be a good fit. She still, however, has not heard his work with the Screaming Trees. Campbell said some of the songs on the disc were written before she knew Lanegan would be involved. That didn’t make it difficult to fit them into the project, however.

“I don’t usually write for someone,” she said. “I usually feel the voice, if the voice could sing something.”

She FedEx-ed his some tapes, telling him that if there were things he wasn’t comfortable singing that he could change or skip them. He sang everything as written, she said.

Some of the disc is quite playful when compared to Lanegan’s work under his own name. “Do You Want to Come Walk With Me?” is a jaunty tune that finds Lanegan singing a sweet, if occasionally bawdy song to his lover, while “Honey Child, What Can I Do?” is as straightforward a pop song as he’s ever sung.

Campbell is quick to point out, however, that there is still a considerable melancholic strand running through the record. Asked why it is that Lanegan seems to have opened up a bit here, she offers this: “Sometimes it’s just quite nice to just sing on someone else’s record.”

Thanks to the magic of the modern recording studio, most of the disc was made without the two singers ever being in the same room, let alone the same continent. Campbell says the two were in the studio together for one day at the end of the project. Even then, Campbell was in a control room without windows into the singing booth when Lanegan was recording vocals.

“It’s weird,” she said. “We made this very personal record without being together.”

The disc has some significant predecessors in the world of pop music. The pairing that is most often cited by those drawing comparisons—Campbell included—is that of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. The obvious difference, of course, is that this time the woman wrote and directed the disc, and the man is the featured vocalist.

Campbell gets philosophical when asked why men seem more comfortable writing for women than vice versa.

“It seems to me that the women who come through as songwriters, maybe they have to be tough,” she said. “Sometimes you have to just fight harder. I have balls in my own way. The women that do stick around are amazing women, like Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, and Carol King.”

Further, she said, women must fight harder for recognition, and might see eschewing projects like hers as self-preservation.

“There is more instant recognition for men,” she said. “People always write about how sweet I am. They would never write that about a guy.”

Point taken.

While those old Sinatra-Hazelwood discs were an inspiration, Campbell said the stark production was inspired by another legend. She said she loves the albums Rick Rubin produced for Johnny Cash, especially The Man Comes Around, which included Cash’s covers of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat”.

“I love that record, the stripped down nature of it,” she said.

Stripping things down, often to just acoustic guitar, bass and drums, offered enough support for the vocals, she said.

“I have this sort of theory: I know a song is good if you can sing it in the shower,” she said. “It’s all about the voice. Someone with a voce like Mark’s, it can be like that. Our voices go together quite well; there is lightness and darkness.”

Campbell is happy enough with this disc that she would consider further collaborations with Lanegan. She also would like to work with other singers. “I love singing, but don’t feel I always need to be the one singing,” she said.

Asked who else she’d like to collaborate with, she demurs, saying only that “Gram Parsons is dead, so I don’t think he’s going to call me up.”

She’s no stranger to collaboration, of course, having been a part of the sprawling Belle and Sebastian for five albums before leaving to pursue her own career. She said collaboration with one or several can be crazy, working with one is very different from working with seven.

She still keeps in touch with the Belle and Sebastian crew, stopping at their office now and again to hear the latest, she said. But she is focused on her own work and career. She has another disc recorded already, this time a solo venture to follow on 2003’s Amorino.

Beyond that, who knows.

“I don’t know what the future holds, and I’m probably better not knowing,” She said. “As long as I can pay my rent.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/campbell-isobel-060307/