Isobel Campbell: 'I hate asking for anything or being mean, but sometimes you have to fight your corner'
- David Pollock
- 31 January 2020
With the release of her first solo record in 14 years, we catch up with the Scottish singer and songwriter to chat about her much-anticipated return
'It was really fiddly … ' says Isobel Campbell cautiously, and understandably not keen to dive into yet another discussion about just why her new album There is No Other has taken a whole decade to emerge following her previous release (and 14 years since her last solo record). Besides, the story is as undramatic as life and bad luck simply getting in the way; Campbell moved from her home city of Glasgow to live with her new American husband Chris Szczech in 2010, and the album recording process took a back seat while the pair made their home first in New York and then California.
'Then I finished it [in 2017] and everyone liked it, and it was like I'd been administered laughing gas, I was so relieved and happy,' says Campbell. 'Then the label folded! I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, to be honest.' It took her a year and a half to get her record back. 'Obviously I don't feel like I've been anywhere; I'm just me and I'm always around. The guy at [her new label] Cooking Vinyl is like, you've been away a long time – it sounds like I've been in Peru! But I guess in some ways I have.
'I don't know, I just don't think of myself that way; "oh, I have to be in the public eye always". Like, no! That's the last thing I would want to be. But to be honest I've talked about it so much and not really talked about the music … there's not much more to say, really.'
It's fair to say that Campbell loves a chat about all kinds of things, and after two hours by phone to her home in Pasadena we've covered almost everything else. Her unintended decade out belies a rich and varied musical career which includes five albums as cellist and singer with Belle & Sebastian, four solo albums (both under her own name and the alias the Gentle Waves), and three records in an unexpected but very satisfying partnership with the Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan.
Their Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood dynamic was last heard on 2010's Hawk, Campbell's most recent recording, a guest appearance on the Jesus and Mary Chain's 2017 album Comfort & Joy aside. The new record (whose title isn't a reference to Gene Clark's obscure but classic No Other album, we establish, although she is a fan of his) fuses a little of everything a fan of Campbell's might have been sorely missing, from the glistening dream-folk of 'City of Angels' to the quirky West Coast pop of 'Ant Life' and the downhome fusion of country and gospel in 'The Heart of it All'.
Throughout, there's a sense of Americana to it all: the same tone which permeated her work with Lanegan, but now filtered entirely through Campbell. 'Just being a folk music fan, when you follow old folk songs that started in Scotland or Ireland and crossed the Atlantic [you can see the connection between Scottish and American music],' she says. 'Or in gospel singing, a lot of the call and response is like Gaelic psalms, it's as if they're connected. Obviously when I was writing with Mark, an American singer, it would sound American; but with this record I had to decide what I am, where I'm from, what I'm about.
'I feel like it connects me – I don't know if this is American-sounding or not – to where I'm from geographically, and my ancestors. Every day of my life here I know I'm Scottish, I just open my mouth and they know I'm not from here, so I think again about what my roots are. But you know, so many of the [Scottish] West Coast bands are fascinated by the sound of Laurel Canyon, of [American] West Coast psychedelia, so I can relate to that.'
Part of the album was written in New York, and part in the Pasadena suburb of Altadena, and to listen to the record it feels baked into this sense of being away from home; of adventure and otherness, of exploration and longing for home. 'Altadena's become a bit more gentrified since I left in 2014,' says Campbell. 'I loved living there, it's right up in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. Little old Mexican cowboys would pass by the door on their horses and stuff, and I could look out the front door and see the mountains. Yeah, I loved living there…'
She sounds happy, but kind of wistful. Has America, as a place, been kind to her? 'I'm not sure how much I thought about the practicalities of emigrating,' she laughs. 'A lot of the time I'd just be walking around and taking things in. It's such a big place, and I'd never lived anywhere other than Glasgow, so I didn't realise how brutal homesickness can actually be. Absolutely brutal. Songs like 'The National Bird of India', that's me walking around taking stuff in.
'Have you seen that film Brooklyn? I highly recommend it, it's about an Irish girl who emigrates to America. I watched that in a cinema in Rhinebeck in New York and shed a tear, because it really hit the nail on the head of what it feels like to leave one country and go to a new one, and then be torn between two at the same time.
'Much of the entertainment business is here in LA and it can be quite brash, it's not like anything I've ever experienced before,' she continues. 'Quite in your face, not my bag. So there's a lot of things I came up against that really made me think of what I'm about as a person. I mean, I'm still glad I've experienced these things, but when I moved here it was different days. Obama was in power and it felt good … As we know, it's all different now.'
Our conversation takes a detour here into all the usual things; the political concerns of the day and the toxic effect of social media. Campbell said the events of 2016 represented a 'major wobble' for her, although Chris seems to be a balancing influence, because 'I think he might be less of a drama queen than I am. He says nothing much changes from president to president – and he's American, so in one sense I think, okay, but as an immigrant it's not felt like that to me. But I totally see grey areas, in fact I could probably drive myself insane by reasoning all the time.'
Let's cheer ourselves up instead by thinking about Tom Petty, and the gorgeous, synthesiser-aided cover of 'Runnin' Down a Dream' which appears on the new record. It's as gorgeous as any other song she's recorded, but a most un-Isobel Campbell sound. 'Oh, I love all that stuff,' she says. 'I love the Human League, Marc Almond, all the nostalgic stuff … I basically just drive around in my car over here listening to stuff like that. I love electronic music, it sounds so nostalgic, but that's probably just my age! My husband isn't so keen, though … I think a lot of hipsters and indie bands suddenly did electronic stuff, and he's organic, he loves Bert Jansch and Donovan.'
She sounds happy to be back, yet – understandably, yet hopefully unnecessarily – concerned whether anyone might be interested. A UK tour is about to happen, and after that she's in charge of her own destiny, what with not having a manager or anything. She laughs at how many she's been through, eight before she loses count; 'I hate asking for anything or being mean, but sometimes you have to fight your corner. I just put my Tony Soprano hat on and think, what would Tony do?'
When Campbell was a teenager growing up in Glasgow, all of her friends were beauticians and hairdressers, and she had 'the best laugh' with them; it might even have been her career, had she not found music. 'Three years ago I was in Edinburgh with my best friend Claire, who is a teacher, and I was like, I really need to get into teaching. But all the teacher friends I have just laugh at me, they say "you'll never be a teacher!" I was quite taken aback, I think I could be an alright teacher. I think I'd be quite understanding, obviously they know something about me that I don't.'
She's laughing while she says all this, and you get the feeling Campbell is no stranger to a gossipy transatlantic phone call. The same friends tell her she and Chris should come back to Scotland, which doesn't help with the homesickness. 'I don't know,' she ponders. 'I was Glasgow born and bred, I went to school there, I went to uni there, and my old friends are my best friends. But we have two dogs here, and the thing with the music business is, you're in, you're out, you're up, you're down … I don't really know. But what I do know is, I'll always love music even if I'm working in Boots. I won't care. I'll still be all about music.'
There is No Other by Isobel Campbell is out on Fri 31 Jan on Cooking Vinyl.
Scottish singer-songwriter, cellist and composer who makes her long awaited return with new solo record There Is No Other.