Isobel Campbell thrives on collaboration


March 3, 2006


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 ingenue.

"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], actually."

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 others."

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 Atlantic.

"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," Campbell says.

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 possible.

"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."