Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: The Odd Couple


On the surface, it appears to be a match made in hell: Ex-Screaming Tree and tattooed tough guy Mark Lanegan teaming up with ex-Belle & Sebastian chanteuse and Audrey Hepburn-delicate Isobel Campbell for an album of duets. It’s a concept one British writer described as “taking a wire brush to a kitten,” chortles Lanegan. Or, perhaps, a real beauty-and-the-beast alliance?

“Yeah,” he sighs. “That, too.”

Campbell, who penned all the folk-traditional tracks on Ballad Of The Broken Seas (V2) save “Revolver” (written by Lanegan) and “Ramblin’ Man” (a shuffling cover of the Hank Williams classic), views the arrangement quite differently.

“I can see why people would be like, ‘What a crazy duo,’” she confesses in a chirrupy Glaswe-gian burr. “But that’s all kind of superficial. From my point of view, it just seemed perfectly natural. We just met, had an appreciation for each other and got on with it.”

With Campbell residing in Scotland and the Seattle-bred Lanegan living in Los Angeles, such a transatlantic partnership seemed unlikely to succeed. According to Campbell, it all started a couple years back, when she was harmonizing in a local studio with her friend, former Vaselines/ Eugenius frontman Eugene Kelly. The cut proved difficult; the pair just couldn’t seem to nail it. Suddenly, she understood what the song was missing: a booming bass voice to offset her seraphic trill. An old beau played her a few Screaming Trees records, and Campbell decided to mail Lanegan her music.

“Sometimes you send things to people and just never hear back from them,” she says.

So Campbell was stunned when, late one night, the phone rang in her newly rented flat. “I was just sitting in a room with no furniture,” she says. “And it’s Mark on the line, going, ‘Yeah, I’ve written this thing for your song,’ and then he sang it down the phone. So that was my first introduction to him. Really surreal.”

The resulting track (“Why Does My Head Hurt So?”) was included on Campbell’s 2004 Time Is Just The Same EP. By the time the two musicians crossed paths in Glasgow a few months later, Campbell had already penned another dirge with Lanegan in mind. A full-length project wasn’t far behind, and the two polished off Ballad Of The Broken Seas through a steady stream of e-mails and FedEx packages.

It was a cakewalk for Lanegan to tackle a murmured take on Hank Williams. (Campbell whispers daintily in the background, to the sound of whip-cracking Cramps-ish guitar.) “When I heard the darkness in Isobel’s material, I was drawn to that aspect of it, for sure,” he says. “But there were also some really, well, I won’t say happy songs, but more kinder, gentler tunes that were a real stretch for me, like ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?’ And that drew me to it as well, because it gave me an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before and hopefully grow as a result.”

Campbell, meanwhile, was eager to explore historic English/Scottish folk. In retrospect, she’s still amazed at how traditional Broken sounds.

“I didn’t know that much about folk before this,” says Campbell. “I mean, I’ve always been a huge Dylan fan, but it wasn’t until after I finished the album that I got really into a lot of the old songs, and then I was like, ‘My God! Dylan just totally stole that!’ I love all the old Appalachian murder ballads, as well; they’re really dark, but they make it so romantic, with people being haunted by their dead husbands or whatever. It’s fantastical, really psychological, and that just gets me so excited. Because life can be really strange, as well. Bad things happen, good things happen—life can be really weird. An imaginative person like myself can just fantasize on it forever.”

Ultimately, Broken proved a welcome diversion for both parties. Campbell will return to her next solo set, Lanegan to his new solo album as well as the Gutter Twins (his side outfit with Greg Dulli). What have the two learned about each other that they didn’t know before?

“Isobel is not so timid,” says Lanegan. “She’s pretty brassy, truth be told.”

For her part, Campbell giggles like a giddy schoolgirl: “I think Mark is a bit of a beauty himself. He has a secret beauty all his own. And besides, chicks always fall for the dangerous dudes. Like Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. It’s good to be good, but sometimes an edge is quite all right. And I’m not saying Mark is the wolf. He’s more like an old lion.”

—Tom Lanham