Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
The odd couple
This article is from 2007.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan talk to Doug Johnstone about the unlikely collaboration that produced their Mercury-nominated Ballad of the Broken Seas
If you were to demonstrate the extremes of the human singing voice to an alien, you couldn’t pick two better examples than Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. Scottish chanteuse Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian, typically delivers a breathy, whispery sound, fragile and lighter than air. Grunge veteran Lanegan, on the other hand, trawls the depths of human suffering to unleash a deep, sonorous, whisky-soaked growl of a thing that would have the devil himself raising impressed eyebrows.
So how exactly did these two disparate talents come to deliver the Mercury-nominated collaborative album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, last year? It was mutual appreciation all the way.
‘Years ago, Eugene [Kelly, Glasgow indie veteran] was singing with me, and I had a song that was too low for him, so I wanted someone else to sing it,’ says Campbell, matter-of-fact. ‘I thought of Shane MacGowan or Tom Waits, but my boyfriend at the time was a Screaming Trees fan and he said, “Check this guy out.” I loved Mark’s voice, so I just sent him some music. He phoned me up a couple of months later and sang the song down the phone, so that was it.’
As for Lanegan, he’d long been an admirer of Campbell’s work, a fact which might surprise some, considering he spends much of his time these days hanging around with full-on rawk loons Queens of the Stone Age. ‘I hadn’t met her, but I was a big fan,’ he admits. ‘I had the Gentle Waves records, and I was a fan of Belle and Sebastian, so of course I knew who she was.’
It can’t be every day that he gets invites in the post from sultry Scottish songstresses? Lanegan laughs heartily at the suggestion. ‘Yeah, I think that’s pretty much the only time that’s happened so far,’ he says. ‘Usually I have to muck in with a bunch of ugly guys, so it was a nice change of pace to hook up with Isobel.’
The resultant transatlantic collaboration grew until there was enough material for an album. The result was the fantastic Ballad of the Broken Seas, a record which took the country folk sound of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra as a blueprint, and stamped a 21st century identity all over it. Both critical acclaim and fan adoration were hugely responsive, culminating in that merited Mercury nomination.
‘When things like that happen, it’s actually really weird,’ says Campbell. ‘That record totally deserved to be in there, but I’m so used to feeling like an outsider, it was still quite strange. It’s easier, in a way, to feel you’re the kid outside of the sweetie shop. Suddenly I was invited inside.’
It’s clear that both artists revelled in the collaboration, using it as a chance to widen their musical horizons. ‘There’s a hint of darkness to the material that I was into,’ says Lanegan, ‘but I was also into the kinder, gentler songs too, which were sort of foreign to me. They were a little bit of a stretch, but I was excited to try and sing that stuff.’
That album was recorded mostly at a distance, the pair only getting together briefly in the studio in Los Angeles. At the moment, Campbell is putting the finishing touches to a follow up collaborative album between the pair, which this time has seen them working a lot more closely together.
‘With the reaction to the first record, now I’m thinking, “Oh God, I’d better not fuck this up,”’ she says. ‘Hopefully the next record is just continuing the thread, it feels like that, anyway. Hopefully it will be a step up rather than a step back.’
T on the Fringe, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, Liquid Room, Victoria Street, 0870 169 0100, 6 Aug, 7pm, £15. tonthefringe.com