It’s the kind of encounter that elicits mild concern in your friends. You’re meeting who? Mark Lanegan? The notoriously taciturn Mark Lanegan? The tar-voiced grunge survivor who, on the rare occasions he consents to talk to journalists, has been known to ponder, “Am I going to have to kick your ass, today?” All advice is duly taken, but a few warnings about Isobel Campbell wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Two minutes after cordial hellos are exchanged in this Soho basement bar, Lanegan is attempting to explain the sequence of events which led to Ballad Of The Broken Seas – the Mercury-nominated collaboration which saw Campbell write a batch of dark musical narratives for them to sing together. “I knew she was in Belle & Sebastian,” he says, “and I was a big fan.”
Now that’s surely a little surprising, isn’t it? That the heavily tattooed ex-Screaming Trees frontman and sometime heroin addict likes to unwind by listening to fey Scottish indie-pop? That this ex-trailer park bailiff might have spent some time listening to Belle & Sebastian’s early work whilst serving a prison sentence in 1997 for possession of crack cocaine? Campbell sighs impatiently at the very notion. “It annoys me that people are surprised by that, because good music is good music. Do you know what I mean? Do you know what I mean? Just because people listen to one type of music…” Momentarily, words fail her. Lanegan stares impassively into the mid-distance, with the air of man who will either: (a) continue to do this for another hour; or (b) very suddenly, and without warning, rip my head off.
Attempting to forestall either scenario, I attempt an explanation. If you only know someone from having been in Coronation St and then you see them doing Hamlet, then that’s pretty surprising. Campbell turns to Lanegan and, less than impressed, says, “Do you know what that is? It’s a soap opera. Attitudes like that sort of do my head in. Jimmy Page knew so much about British folk music, and…” Her voice trails off.” Finally, Lanegan stirs, “So are you saying I should only be into Deep Purple and Black Sabbath?” he asks before giving roughly a millimeter of ground. He says that if he had to write an album for Campbell, it would have probably been something more like his solo albums – grizzled, confessional and informed by a darkness that most people rarely get to see in a lifetime.
This, of course, is what Ballad Of The Seven Seas also sounds like. Having been supplied with the stories by Campbell, Lanegan has inhabited them like a one-man ensemble: the emotionally inaccessible adulterer on The False Husband; the soldier going off to war on Deus Ibi Est; the itinerant seducer of The Circus Is Leaving Town. Common to all the performances, with their dreamy interweaving harmonies, is an intimacy that belies that fact the most of the record was made by correspondence.
Of course, in pop, the precedents for this sort of thing haven’t been great. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were 5000 miles apart when they made Ebony & Ivory. Nat King Cole was famously six feet under by the time he unwittingly accompanied his daughter on Unforgettable. Wasn’t there a similar worry when recording some of these songs by Fed-Ex? “Actually, I quite like Ebony & Ivory,” claims Campbell. She’s not the only one either. The composer of Methamphetamine Blues and Can’t Come Down and Fix decides that this is a good time to show his soft side. “That song is all right. I mean, if it was on the radio I wouldn’t turn it off. Unforgettable isn’t my favourite, though. I think that when you take a song that has originally been done years ago, it’s like adding a Kenny G sax solo to What A Wonderful World.”
No such taste crimes on Ballad Of The Broken Seas. Lanegan says that when Campbell approached him at the end of 2003 with The False Husband, he was flattered. Men don’t often get to be the muse. Campbell, of course, was Stuart Murdoch’s muse for the first few years of their time in Belle & Sebastian. The group’s singer chronicled their courtship on several songs across the band’s first three albums. Then when the relationship soured, he chronicled the break-up on I’m Waking Up To Us, with lyrics like, “I know you never liked me anyway/You like yourself and you like/Men to kiss your arse; expensive clothes.” It can’t have been easy appearing beside him on Later as he sang those words.
“Ach, it was tough at the time,” she concedes, “Was I able to separate the song from what it was about? Probably not. It was weird. It wasn’t exactly Where Do You Go To My Lovely. But then, when I was in the group, I was definitely a foot-stomper. I would turn up and my cello would be there – and everything was just how it was. And somehow, even that wouldn’t make me happy.”
“In some ways,” offers Lanegan, “working in music allows you to remain an adolescent. I have definitely been a spoilt child at times.” Their respective pasts may be wildly different, but on this Campbell and Lanegan seem to share some common experience. Both extol the virtues of approaching their work “like a proper job.” For Lanegan, the discipline of real work offers a comforting structure to his post—rehab life. Now based in Los Angeles, he has acquired himself a reputation as an accomplished painter of studio scenery. Before venturing out to Britain to join his old friend Greg Dulli on few shows with Dulli’s band The Twilight Singers, the last job he completed was “some steps I painted to look old, to be used on some TV show.”
“Distressed?” enquires Campbell, brightly. Lanegan stares back uncomprehendingly. “Distressed steps,” she continues, “That’s what they call it over here.” Over in the States, it transpires that they just call it ageing. Campbell nods approvingly at the sanity of having a second occupation “for when the music gets a bit much.” If drugs were the iron lung in which Lanegan proceeded through his early musical life, Belle & Sebastian served a similar function for Campbell. Of her life in a band, she says, “I think I was asleep for most of it. You can be as passive as a baby when you’re in a band.”
With only a handful of writing credits to bankroll her as she embarked on her post-Belle & Sebastian life, Campbell says she soon ran into financial problems, with her parents “digging into their pockets on a couple of occasions.” Most of Ballad Of The Broken Seas was recorded without a record label, with V2 only picking it up at the very end. Clearly, she’s on a roll. Later on this year, she has another album out – inspired, she says by her love of English folk singer Shirley Collins and Appalachian dulcimer player Jean Ritchie. But first, she has the Mercury Prize ceremony to contend with. Campbell says that her nomination for the award wasn’t an altogether pleasant surprise to start with: “When I first heard about it, I just wanted to run to the hills and grow vegetables, but I’ve kind of had a chat with myself since then.” It’s the attention that fazes her. “I mean,” she explains, “I love attention when I’m in a room with my mates. I like to engage, but [appearing at the Mercury] – that’s not really engaging.”
With a soundcheck in half an hour, Lanegan rises to leave. Hugs are exchanged. She says she’ll see him around. Prior to today, they hadn’t seen each other for nine months – and yet, the more their record sells, the more they become a double act in people’s minds – a 21st century Nancy & Lee for Mojo Man. Would she look forward to the Mercurys any more if Lanegan was around on the night to sing alongside her and absorb some of the attention? “Definitely. I’d pretty much do a song with Mark on the moon if he was up for it.” But? “But, I haven’t asked him directly. I don’t want to harass him.”