Interview: Isobel Campbell
With label issues and legal difficulties now behind her, the Scottish songwriter is finally free to release a new album
When Hawk, Isobel Campbell’s third collaboration with American alt-rock icon Mark Lanegan, was released to universal acclaim in 2010 it would have been unfathomable to think that in 2019 we’d still be waiting for a follow-up. But, through no fault of her own, that’s exactly the situation. While working on a new solo album, her first since Milkwhite Sheets in 2006, her record label folded, taking the rights to the record with them.
Thankfully, through dogged determination, Campbell persevered and has her songs back. Now, There Is No Other, the album which she began work on back in 2014, has been released. It only takes one listen to believe that she was right to fight for these songs, presenting as the charming singer in all her ethereal beauty.
But perhaps its creator feels somewhat differently about everything she had to go through to get the album released. We caught up with Campbell in her LA home to find out…
Are you able to summarise the difficulties you had in getting There Is No Other out into the world?
“It really was a while ago and, in many ways, I’m a different person now from when it began. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on absolutely anyone. Even a person that you would like to see brought down a peg or two, I wouldn’t wish it on them. It was horrible and I can’t really talk about it anymore.”
Does that alter the way you feel about the songs on the album?
“No, thank God no. I still love the songs. It dragged on so long that I started to feel like such a loser, everyone was just sick of hearing about it – my family, my husband… Everyone wanted it to go away and it got to the point where people were saying, ‘I think you should give up, just stop.’ I even thought that too. But I just would deal with it, go out walking with the dogs. One time I was so upset that I was out walking and I don’t know what happened, if it was stress or I blacked out, but I fell in the street and got concussion.”
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘You’ve been away so long.’ I think the last touring we did with Hawk ended in August 2011. I’d then emigrated and taken two years off, because before that I’d been doing albums steadily. Then I got the advance to make this record and we stupidly relocated at the start of it. It was finished in 2016. I didn’t do anything for my 40th birthday, I was doing the sequencing for my record. I was so happy and relieved and couldn’t believe that I’d finished it. I sent it to the label and everything was go-go-go.”
What happened next?
“It was mastered at Abbey Road at the end of May 2016. I met a manager who seemed amazing, and then went back to New York, we were living in the Catskills at the time. A day or two after mastering the album there was an email from the guy who signed me saying he’d moved to Amazon, he’d got some fancy job. We then moved back to LA with our dogs, who have been across the country about five times, and nothing seemed quite right. Finally, in December 2016 the label said that they weren’t going to put the record out. They were ending and everyone was leaving the label.
“Then, it was like, ‘How do I get the license to my record back, how does that happen?’ Making records has been my job since I was 19 and it was then three years of not earning money and shit. I don’t know what will happen next but if anything like this does ever happen again I think I just will give up. But I do really love the record still, amazingly. It actually makes you love it more, for some weird and unknown reason.”
Almost like some kind of Stockholm Syndrome…
“I don’t see it as a job but the thing I’ve always loved, when I was in a band or back when I was on V2, is that I felt really free. Like I was in the creative flow and it just felt really good. This is the first time in my life that I felt trapped. The record was sitting there done and my husband and I were like, ‘Should we just leak it?’ My friend, Bill Wells, said, ‘It’s always good to have one which never comes out.’ So, then I was thinking, ‘Is that what this?’
Alternatively, it might just be the case that the album speaks for itself, that you’d love it just the same even if it had been released as intended?
“I would prefer that. My mother – and I don’t think anyone knows me as well as her – she always tells me that I’m the most stubborn person she’s ever met. It’s like that, Treat them mean, keep them keen,’ thing. If someone says ‘no’ then I’m going to turn that into a ‘yes’. So I just saw it through. But now I really want to let that side of it go. I will say though that I can’t wait to make another record.”
Well, let’s leave that behind and talk about the actual songwriting… Was there a set process for every song?
“There’s no set process. Sometimes I get the main body in a matter of minutes and then other songs, it could take me months or a year. It’s like a puzzle and I quite like that. I just instinctively follow it… ‘What does this song need?’, ‘Where should I go now?’ Sometimes the melody and the music come at the same time. This record was different because six of the songs I wrote with Chris [Szczech – Isobel’s husband], who co-produced with me. For those, I was writing to his guitar, or he would have guitar and then I would write a bit and would say, ‘We need something else here.’
“It was really good fun. I love it all. I love writing by myself in solitude, I really love it. I’m one of these strange people that I love to be alone but then I really liked sitting in the room with Chris and figuring the puzzle out. Honestly, the music business is disgusting and it’s so weird the way it’s going. In 2010 after Hawk I had a meeting with the CEO of my publishing company and she said, ‘Well done sweetie, you got a full house, you got all good reviews,’ and then she goes, ‘You have four years left,’ which would have meant that my time would have been up in 2014. Do you think someone would tell Paul McCartney that?”
Four years left of your career?
“Yes, four years left, probably because you’ll be older, nobody wants to look at you, you’ll be repellent. Sometimes people want older women to go away. There was that feeling, when I was going through what I was going through, of, ‘I’m ending you now,’ but I was like, ‘Fuck off, no I’m not.’”
Was that a good motivation?
“Not really. I like to go with the flow and I like things that come easy, as much as anyone else. My friends would probably laugh out loud if they heard me say that, but I feel like I do. My point was, even if nobody wanted to listen to my songs, I would still be doing those puzzles for myself just for the pure joy and love of it.”
Your voice is such an integral part of your music, almost like an instrument in itself. Does that change the words you’re writing? Will you choose ones that roll off the tongue, or not use those because they sound overly harsh?
“I totally know what you mean. Sometimes there’ll be lyrics, or a line, and it will make sense verbally but it just sounds ugly to sing. I’m aware of that with all my songs. Even if I’m writing for someone else, I always sing it myself. It’s probably similar to when you have to write a speech, in print it can work quite well, but then actually speaking it out loud can sound lumpy or robotic. The opposite is also true, sometimes maybe a less eloquent sentence or lyric; it might be the grammar is wrong if you were to read it, but actually singing it sounds better.
“It’s just really whatever works because there are certain words which are really odd to sing. Sometimes I’ll have typed out different lyrics and in the studio I’ll do different vocal takes with the different lyrics and then listen back and think, ‘That one sounds smoother,’ or, ‘That one sounds more pleasing to the ear’. It’s all part of the puzzle. If only all the puzzling things in life were as easy as that. Wouldn’t life be fantastic!”
Do you have an idea of what the finished puzzle will sound like or are you looking for the pieces and hoping that it’ll come together?
“There have definitely been times when it’s not come together. Sometimes nobody gets to hear that stuff and, sadly, sometimes people do. I did my first solo record when I was 20 and you’re growing up and it’s that kind of cumbersome phase when you’re transitioning and you’re a duckling hoping you might turn into a song, but you don’t really know. So it is a learning process. To anyone who wants to do it, I would say do it as much as possible and totally fail at it and then there’ll be some good stuff that comes. It’s more about just doing it and not getting caught in knots and stuff.
“Listen to the music that’s in the charts at the moment, it’s like urgh! Sometimes I’ll watch festivals on the tv and think, well I don’t do what those people do. There’s a point when the song becomes a football chant, and I’ve nothing against football chants but they’re different things.”
Is the music that inspires you now the same as it’s always been?
“I think it’s like being born. There are elements from when someone’s a kid; they just have things about them that they’ll always have about them, until the day they die. I know there’s stuff like that about old friends, endearing things which are only them, that couldn’t be anyone else. For my favourite music and records, there’ll be stuff that comes and goes and then there’ll be stuff that I always love, like The Velvet Underground and Nico. But it’s like food isn’t it, you don’t want to eat the same meal every night.”
We read that your intention was to make a record that was ‘otherworldly’ and ‘dreamy,’ how did you try and achieve that feeling?
“I think when I open my mouth it’s kind of dreamy. I know some female singers are pushing against that but if I’m a leopard I’m not going to try and be an elephant. If that’s what I do then that’s what I’m going to do. It goes with my personality too. I don’t think I’m a far-out person but some people do think that.
“I make sense to me. I’ve always been dreamy. I just go off and that’s one of the things I love about music, the tuning out, escape, and it’s bliss. I was watching a documentary about the artist Alisdair Gray and he was saying that, when he’s painting, he completely loses track of time. That happens to me with music; time doesn’t really matter, it just stops.”
Do you need a very chilled out environment to work in?
“I’m from Glasgow! No, I could be in an industrial park. I would probably be wishing I was in the forest. It might change what I was writing a little bit, but what you were saying the approach… I took that approach. I’d been writing those records for Mark to sing so I had to regroup with myself and be like, ‘What am I?’ Because writing for a six-foot-five American man is very different to me, so I had to address that and be like, ‘That is that, but what am I? British, female, Scottish…’ and so I wouldn’t be doing some of the Americana stuff that I wrote
You must now feel so proud of writing the album and getting it out there at last?
“I’m pinching myself, but it’s been strange times generally in the world. So I think it’s another thing like that. There are times to walk away and times to fight and sometimes we all have to stand-up for stuff.”
And, hopefully, it’s a good example to people going through similar difficulties?
“I think I’m lucky too because when I went into the meeting with Cooking Vinyl, Rob Collins said that it happens to a lot of people. If that had happened to me on my first record, I’d now be working in Blockbuster or something. But if someone is moved to write they’ll just do it. Fuck everything else. There’s no laws or rules really. Nobody can’t do it. It can be hard sometimes, so that probably separates the wheat from the chaff, but if someone is willing and really wants to be writing, it’s not impossible at all. I remember with Stuart [Murdoch – her former Belle and Sebastian bandmate], years before he was famous people used to laugh at him and say, ‘You’ll never do that.’ Well, that’s bollocks because guess what, he did it.”
Lastly, what are you hoping to achieve every time you write a song?
“I’ve written a lot of songs out of anger. People might be like, ‘Really?’ cos they hear the song and it’s probably the most mellow song. My stuff is about feelings, so usually I’m going for feeling, but also sometimes if I have something to say, I might feel like something is annoying and want to say something. Then some are just a painting with music, colours in sound, and then sometimes there’s a story. It really depends. There are some really clever songs that tell these amazing stories and I love all that but sometimes I just try and get something that I can live with and doesn’t make me cringe. It’s bit of a mystical thing.
“I have so many songs. Songs for me, songs for people I haven’t met yet. I’ve been asked to write songs for other people but it just hasn’t felt right. I’m one of these dumb people that it’s never financial, and I’m like, ‘Well would Lou Reed or David Bowie do this?’ I don’t think they would it unless they loved it.”
There Is No Other is out now via Drag City. For further info, head to isobelcampbell.com