Dark Side of the Songbird

Isobel Campbell sheds the twee and gets ballsy

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.

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan: Hazlewood and Sinatra for the indie set.
Autumn de Wilde
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan: Hazlewood and Sinatra for the indie set.

"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!'"

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