print logo

My secret darkness: An interview with Isobel Campbell

 The Big Issue in Scotland 27 September 2019

Don’t let the wispy voice and sweet looks fool you, says singer-songwriter Isobel Campbell. Once a member of Belle & Sebastian, an indie pop band formed in Glasgow in 1996, Isobel Campbell embarked on a solo career in 2002. She reveals the heartache behind her new album recorded with American rocker Mark Lanegan. (1249 Words) - By Laura Kelly

The Big Issue Scotland_ISOBEL CAMPBELL

Isobel Campbell. Photo: The Big Issue Scotland

Beauty and the beast they called them, when blonde Glaswegian indie-pop darling Isobel Campbell and growling wild man of grunge Mark Lanegan, famous for his stints in Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, got together to release their first Mercury-nominated album in 2006.

The superb Ballad of the Broken Seas seemed to place them firmly in the tradition of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra or Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin - the grizzled svengali manipulating a sweet young starlet to vent his own darkness. In reality, from those first beginnings and through their second record, Sunday at Devil Dirt, it's been the wispy-voiced former Belle and Sebastian cellist who has worn the trousers and done the heavy lifting.

Her sweetness and bubbly personality hide a dark core she insists, while sitting in a west end café across the road from her Glasgow flat, dressed in gym kit and tucking into a healthy tuna salad. "I think with Mark, his darkness is very much out there on his sleeve," Campbell muses.

"It's almost like I'm secretly dark. I'm a very kind person and always want to help people so I'm always warm. That's probably why I spend so much time on my own - I get so exhausted because I sometimes can get really drained by people."

The latest album from the pair, Hawk, has a similar Americana feel to its predecessors and their voices are still superb together, although Campbell has branched out into a spot of rockabilly and old school rock'n'roll to compliment the blues and country vibe. But the darkness is, if anything, more evident. Soaked in regret and complaining that she's come undone, "You won't let me down again," she pledges.

It doesn't sound as though the 34-year-old has been having a happy time in her love life. "No, it's been my time for the shit," she agrees, revealing that she's been through a terrible break-up over the last couple of years. The fall-out apparently dwarfed even the messiness that followed her split from Belle and Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch, which saw her quit the band in 2002. "I thought I'd met my husband and that would be me then it took a massive turn for the worse. I was just totally gutted," says Campbell.

Surprised to find herself - "not a soppy girl at all" - transformed into a crying machine, she fled the cold Scottish shores and holed herself up in the middle of the Arizona desert for refuge. As Bon Iver's Justin Vernon famously did for his heart-wrenching For Emma, Forever Ago, Campbell shut herself away and tore art from her broken heart.

"I just ran away to the desert. I didn't know what else to do. I'd a fair bit of shit going on and it was January in Scotland. I went for two weeks and I ended up staying for months and months," she recalls. "For the first couple of weeks I was just in the desert and it really does look like the moon."

"I was thinking, why did I even come here? What am I doing here? But I pieced myself together. It's a good place for reflection." It was then that the exercise routine started, as a poultice for her relationship woes. "It's really good for the tension," she insists, apologising for the second time for coming straight from her training session. "You get a high from it. It's a godsend in this country."

It's bucketing outside and we've both been drenched on our way to meet up, so I can scarcely argue. It took two years of hard labour to make Hawk, says Campbell. Given how much of her self she poured into it, it was an emotional moment when the record came out in the middle of last month. "I gave up my whole life to put towards it. It's such a huge part of me and it's like my heart and soul and my baby," she explains.

Lanegan, by comparison, merely swanned into the studio for five days to sing his parts, coming back for an extra few hours to help finish up. "He can be a lazy boy sometimes," admits Campbell, although she definitely counts him as a good friend.

She is glad to have her own unadulterated vision out there but she confesses that being the boss isn't always as glamorous as it sounds. "Some days I fantasise about having a helper or someone that would do all the dirty work for me. Being the boss is really exhausting." It's not made any easier by the fact Lanegan is used to everyone pandering to his grouchy persona. Campbell describes one email conversation when he was refusing to do what she asked. With typical Scots feistiness, she put him straight and told him exactly why he was going to do it.

"I think I surprised him," she laughs. "He wrote me back an email saying, 'You know I'm a grumpy old bastard, please forgive me'." The take-no-shit approach seems to have grabbed Lanegan's attention. "I love Isobel," he said, in a recent interview. "I consider her a very dear friend."

Working together has been a saviour for both of them at various points. The last record may have gotten Campbell over losing her would-be hubbie, but the two before were a godsend for 45-year-old Lanegan who was continuing his decades-long and torturous battle with drugs.

After Ballad of the Broken Seas he did a stint in rehab, leaving Campbell to tour the record with Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines. As the abuse continued, Campbell says she was perpetually worried she'd get a phone call with bad news. "There's been times when we've both had things that have been going on in our lives that have not been good. There's been times in his life when he's been going through the shit and our work together was a good thing for him at that time - for our first couple of records," she says.

Both of them are better now, though, than they've been in years and the two have managed to synch up their schedules to get together for a short tour to promote Hawk here and in the States. The show in Glasgow may be a farewell gig for Campbell.

Throughout our chat she's been monitoring the painter who's across the road fixing up her house and she finally admits it's because the flat's going up for rent so she can up sticks to LA to follow her dreams of working with more artists. "I want to go to Nashville. I want to write new country," she says.

"My music is Americana. I want to work with more soul musicians. So it just makes sense to go. The pool of talent in the States is really inspiring. I might come back with my tail between my legs but I think I've got to try it at least." Aside from the work she can do and the sun she can soak up, there's another more personal reason to give America a go. She breaks into a girlish giggle: "There are definitely some nice boys out there."

Originally published by The Big Issue in Scotland. ©

SNS logo
  • Website Design