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Isobel Campbell: From Gentle Waves to Broken Ballads

Highlights from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue

Photography by WARREN DARIUS AFTAHI

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Monday, June 05, 2006

By Gretta Cohn

For more information on the U.K. Issue, click here


Since her departure in 2002 from the Scottish indie-pop group Belle and Sebastian, songwriter and cellist Isobel Campbell has been slowly carving out a career all her own. Her first solo effort Amorino, released in 2003, was delicately sweet and lush with orchestration, though, in the end, emotionally standoffish. Her most recent record, Ballad of the Broken Seas (V2), features — and is in many ways driven by — former Screaming Trees front man Mark Lanegan. The album self-consciously draws comparisons to the Nancy Sinatra–Lee Hazelwood collaborations of the late ’60s. But where Sinatra opted for unschooled brashness, Campbell retains her childlike, breathy whisper throughout, shining at moments, but ultimately providing the sparkle to Lanegan’s jagged drawl.

Campbell recently sat down with fellow cellist Gretta Cohn to discuss songwriting, surviving as a woman on the road and Campbell’s plans for the future.

Question 1: What was the first song that you wrote that made you think, I’m a songwriter?

Isobel Campbell: Well, I think it’s taken me a long time to learn my craft. When I was 16 or 17, I was a really big Pastels fan, so my songs were quite childlike, sort of like Calvin Johnson and those Olympia bands. Then I was 18 and recording onto a 4-track and hoping that nobody would hear me. But when I picked out “Is It Wicked Not to Care” with Belle and Sebastian, I thought, Oh, maybe I can be serious about this. Then I thought, I want to be serious about this.

Q2: Is there one instrument in particular that you feel most comfortable writing for?

IC: I really enjoy writing away from an instrument. I find that often the most amazing songs can be sung in the shower or washing dishes, and I’ll go back to it later and work out the chords.

Q3: Do you enjoy touring and getting out on the road?

IC: I’m really looking forward to playing music to people, because the last few months have just been artwork and interviews. It will be good to sing, but I often think that the whole touring thing was designed for guys, really. I think it’s a bit easier if you’re a chap.

Q4: I’ve played in bands for many years. Sometimes it just feels like a party for the boys, doesn’t it?

IC: It does, and sometimes I just wish I was a guy, because I can see what fun they’re having. I suppose historically it’s more of a guy thing. Years and years ago, if a woman was to say, “I’m going to be an actress or be in a music show,” she would have been disowned by her family. I don’t mean to sound bitter. There are a lot of fantastic men out there. But sometimes if you’re a woman, to get success in any field you just have to try that little bit harder and do it a little bit better to get the same kind of success that a guy that is just OK gets.

Increasingly I think that I would love to be able to write music for other people, or for film, because I don’t really feel like putting myself out there. I don’t have a Mick Jagger inside me bursting to get out. I often think of people like Karen Carpenter. You have to be quite tough to endure it. Or you have to be like J. Lo or Mariah Carey and be carried upstairs. I’d be into that.

 

Q5: Like having a little couch or divan that you’re carried upon from gig to gig. Perhaps on the back of an elephant?

IC: With loads of poppies! That appeals to me. But the reality is you’re groping around in some dark corridor trying to get something out of a suitcase, or a hall that smells of beer and men.

Q6: Are you going to tour with Mark Lanegan?

IC: I don’t think he’s a huge fan of touring, although I’m sure he’s a lot more rock and roll than me! What I’m going to do is start with Eugene Kelly. He was in the Vaselines. He’s going to tour and sing with me.

Q7: Do you get stage fright?

IC: I used to, really bad. I used to want to run away. I wouldn’t be able to look at the audience when I started. Now I still often wonder if someone’s going to shout out, “You’re rubbish!” or “Get off!” I’m getting better at it, but nerves do happen.

Q8: What would be the ideal situation for composing music for a film?

IC: It would be nice to be asked by the right kind of director. It must have been fantastic for someone like Tom Waits to work with Francis Ford Coppola on One from the Heart.

Q9: Do you maintain a relationship with anyone in Belle and Sebastian?

IC: Not really, maybe I bump into some of them sometimes, but I haven’t been in their company for many years.

Q10: Do you feel like a lot of your sensibilities as a songwriter were shaped by the years that you spent with Belle and Sebastian?

IC: I always think that I was really lucky to meet those good characters. It was the best apprenticeship I ever could have gotten. I went to university to study music, but I think the best way to learn anything is by practical experience. Learning as you go along, learning on your feet. For me, Belle and Sebastian was an amazing way to start. When I was a kid I would say, “I want to be a musician.” My gran would say, “You’ll never get a job! You should work in computers!” I can just about get by on a computer, but barely. I’d be unemployed if I had to work in computers. I thought I’d graduate from university and then be on welfare because I thought, Oh, musicians don’t have jobs. I just got really, really lucky.


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