Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Dark Side of the Songbird 

Isobel Campbell sheds the twee and gets ballsy

Wednesday, Mar 1 2006
Two years ago, Scottish songbird Isobel Campbell hadn't even heard of Mark Lanegan -- the former Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age singer with the somber, bourbon- and nicotine-stained baritone that conjures dark nights of excess, bewitchment, and regret. But with a new project in the vein of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra's celebrated duets gestating in her mind, Campbell thought Lanegan's was exactly the voice she was searching for as a foil to her own breathy coo. It took a now-ex-paramour to help connect the dots and spur a prolonged trans-Atlantic collaboration that ultimately birthed the duo's wholly captivating new album, Ballad of the Broken Seas.

"My boyfriend at the time was the Mark Lanegan fan, and he handed me Scraps at Midnight [Lanegan's 1998 solo album] and recommended I ask him to sing for me," the genial, 29-year-old Glaswegian says over the phone from Brighton, England; she's in the midst of a tour that will bring her to the U.S. for her first-ever solo dates. "So I listened to his music and I knew right there that I just had to work with him."

Lanegan, meanwhile, was well-acquainted with Campbell's work -- not only from her six-year stint as singer/cellist for precious indie-pop sensation Belle & Sebastian (from which she departed in 2002), but also from her two albums under the Gentle Waves moniker (which she made while still a member of B&S) and her first proper solo release, 2003's lush, Francophiled Amorino. Lanegan told her as much when the two first met up in the spring of 2004, after a QOTSA performance in Glasgow.

"He said he'd really liked my stuff for a long time -- he's got really diverse tastes in music -- and when we hung out I really liked him as a person and felt as though we had a sort of understanding musically," Campbell recounts. "And he was really encouraging me quite a lot about my music, really boosting my confidence, so when we agreed to work together I was like, 'Oh, I'm gonna try so hard, I don't wanna disappoint him!' Because I felt like to work with a voice like that was really a once-in-a-lifetime privilege."

Listening to Broken Seas, the chemistry between Campbell and Lanegan comes through as remarkably robust, especially considering the pair did the bulk of their recording thousands of miles apart -- she in Glasgow, he in Los Angeles -- except for the handful of tracks and B-sides they worked on together in an L.A. studio last spring. The gravel-versus-feathers nature of their alternating deliveries is particularly striking on "The False Husband" -- one of many songs exploring the theme of infidelity -- which is sinistered up by Morricone-ish guitar twang and gliding strings. Their vocal intercourse gets especially intense on the smoldering, acoustic "Revolver," a swaying fever dream during which their parts rub together like lovers entwined on a sticky summer night. The sexual tension also flows on a risqué rendition of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man," which the duo turn into a Russ Meyer-esque noir-romp via whip cracks, raunchy guitars, and Campbell's freshly written, whispered lines (e.g., "I'm naked, daddy, just for you") sliding between Lanegan's salacious reading of the original lyrics.

Noting that the album took a year and a half to complete, Campbell says that the geographical distance between the twosome wasn't the issue so much as getting the notoriously mercurial Lanegan to lay down his parts and send them back to her. When I mention that efforts to contact him for an interview for this piece proved fruitless, she responds with a hearty, knowing laugh.

"Oh yeah, that's how it is! Mark would be on tour with Queens or off doing something else and I'd be like, 'Is he ever gonna do this? Is this record ever gonna happen?' and I'd be thinking, 'Ohhh noooooo, he doesn't wanna do it,' and then he would get in touch and he'd go, 'I'm so sorry, I've been through some rubbish, I still really want to do this, but if you want someone else to do it I'll understand.' That was the worst part, just waiting.

"I originally sent him stuff in April of 2004, and there was a show he played in Glasgow in November of 2004, so that was seven months after I'd sent the stuff to him, and he was gonna get the CDs he recorded to me that night," she continues. "So I turned up at the show and apparently something had happened to one of his bandmates and he had to rush off to some hospital or something. But I didn't know about it, and my friends and I, we felt like radio station competition winners standing there backstage, not understanding why he never came to see us after the show! I just thought to myself, 'Gah, why do I bother?' But then when I finally got the stuff back from him the next month, I was so blown away and I thought, 'Oh, that man drives me crazy but I really love his voice!'"

While Hazlewood/Sinatra, Nick Cave/ Kylie Minogue, or even Serge Gainsbourg/ Jane Birkin comparisons are certainly apt in any discussion of Broken Seas, one marked difference between those collaborations and this one is that Campbell, though still playing the chanteuse role to Lanegan's gruff leading man, wrote all the lyrics for her male counterpart. "As a musician I've spent the past 10 years of my life in vans with boys," she says, "so I hear so much. I've heard too much! Y'know, I can see them when they're checkin' out all the ladies and such, so I'm quite familiar with the male psyche. And also, as a musician, I think you hafta be a little bit male to persevere, you know? Basically, you just kinda have to have balls, really."

She certainly had the balls to present Lanegan with more than a few ribald lines to sing -- on "(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?" he croons, "I'm not saying I love you/ I won't say I'll be true/ There's a crimson bird flying when I go down on you." Chuckles Campbell, "My manager and Mark, when we were in the studio in L.A., they kinda ganged up on me, going, 'Those lyrics, they're pretty blue, aren't they?' And I said, 'It's good to be a bit blue, don't you think?' and then they backed off. It's good to be colorful like that -- it's part of life, so why ignore it?"

Still, a fair number of fans Campbell has cultivated over the years have expressed surprise at both her newly revealed libidinous side and this relative departure from her usual demure, fragile pop sound. "Yeah, some people have been like, 'Oh, he's some monster of rock and you're like some pristine little fairy or something' -- well, fucking hell! It's really stupid. I mean, the first two records I bought were by Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, and then, like, Bon Jovi's New Jersey and Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. But then I'm quite happy to listen to some quiet psychedelic folk records, too. I love all kinds of music, but if people are gonna look at me like, 'What are you doing? Why aren't you making some really gentle indie twee music?' there's nothing I can do about it, even if it steams me up sometimes. I wouldn't want to break away or be in denial about my past or anything, but I just wanted to make a really good record."

And play some really good live shows as well -- to that end, she's enlisted singer/guitarist Eugene Kelly of the Vaselines and Eugenius (he'll sing Lanegan's parts), former Soup Dragons singer/guitarist Jim McCulloch, Teenage Fanclub multi-instrumentalist Dave McGowan, and drummer Dave Gormley to back her on this initial solo foray into America.

"We've got quite a good thing going with this band, and so far the response has been heartwarming," Campbell says. "It just makes me think I'm not a complete imbecile leading a frivolous life, and that we can bring some pleasure to people."

As for the rumors that Lanegan might turn up for a couple of these tour dates, Campbell laughs brightly. "Oh, that would be nice, really nice ... but trust me, don't count on it!"

About The Author

Michael Alan Goldberg


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"