Through the last few
decades, many of the most memorable duets have featured a pairing of the
most unlikely voices, including legendary "beauty and the beast" matches
such as Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra
and George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
To this list we can now add
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, who combined their talents to create the
extraordinary new album "Ballad of the Broken Seas." But there's a twist: In
this case, the instigator, songwriter and primary creative force wasn't the
gruff-voiced, testosterone-laden male Svengali, but the wispy, ethereal
"It's just the best
thing in the world when you have someone else to sing with -- the most fun
thing you can do as a musician," Campbell says. "I needed someone on the
last EP to sing with me on the b-side, and I couldn't think of anyone. My
boyfriend at the time was a fan of the Screaming Trees and he was like,
'What about this guy?' And that was the first time I heard of [Lanegan],
As the former leader of
Seattle's Screaming Trees, one of the most sadly underappreciated bands of
the alternative rock era, as well as the part-time vocalist for the Queens
of the Stone Age and a prolific solo artist, the 41-year-old Lanegan's
deep-throated, whiskey- and nicotine-stained voice has long been one of the
most distinctive this side of Kurt Cobain's. In fact, Lanegan was a hero to
Cobain, who first heard "In the Pines" when Lanegan covered it.\
At 29, Campbell's
underground credentials are no less impressive: The Glasgow-born singer and
cellist was a founding member of cult-favorite orchestral popsters Belle and
Sebastian. She split from that band in the spring of 2002 -- its current
lineup comes to the Vic Theatre next Friday -- and went on to lead a group
of her own, the Gentle Waves.
"I left Belle and
Sebastian because I just wanted to explore different kinds of music -- to
mill around and do my own thing," Campbell says. "I like to have a band
around me, but I started to feel that the name [Gentle Waves] really didn't
apply anymore, and I couldn't think of another good one."
Hence the emergence of
Isobel Campbell as a female solo artist in search of a male counterpoint to
complete battle-of-the-sexes duets and joint murder ballads such as "The
False Husband," a great example of contrasting harmony vocals, and
"Revolver," an alternating call and response classic modeled on Hazelwood
and Sinatra's immortal "Some Velvet Morning."
"For this record, I was
really focusing on trying to work on the storytelling in the songs and not
getting too fancy," Campbell says. "I'm a firm believer that the best songs
are the simplest songs.
"I think what makes for
a good duet is a good understanding or chemistry, even if you don't know
what that understanding or chemistry is. Sometimes there's an indefinable
thing -- a spark -- and you can have it with some people and not with
Of course, what Campbell
calls spark, some call sexual tension. "That can help things along, I
suppose," she says, laughing. "It's very romantic, isn't it? Johnny [Cash]
and June [Carter Cash] and all of that."
In this case, the
romance is entirely imagined, but the duets on "Ballad of the Broken Seas"
lose none of their power when you learn that Lanegan and Campbell were only
in the same room twice during the making of the album, once for a brief
recording session at the very end of the project, and another time for a
photo shoot. The album was crafted long-distance, with the singers
communicating via phone or email and sending tapes back and forth across the
"Once, when I got some
of the songs back from him, it was around Christmas time, and it was the
best Christmas present I could have wished for -- really, really exciting,"
Lanegan has not joined
Campbell on the tour supporting the disc, but she has already moved on to
another strong collaborator: Eugene Kelly, the former leader of the
Vaselines (whose "Jesus Don't Want Me for a Sunbeam" was also covered by
Cobain) and the short-lived but brilliant alternative rock band Eugenius.
The two met years ago when Kelly toured with Belle and Sebastian.
"Now, Eugene is singing
the Lanegan parts, but we had actually recorded some of those songs years
ago, so he's singing those parts and putting in some new songs, singing
different things and playing some guitar, too," Campbell says. She hopes the
two will write some new songs together once the tour is over, but she's
clearly a woman who's eager to partner with as many different artists as
"Collaborations bring me
out of myself, and it's exciting to share making music with people,"
Campbell says. "For me, it's very life-affirming." And the number-one name
on her wish list of future duets? "I do like working with American singers,
I must admit. And I'd absolutely love to work with Leonard Cohen."