Isobel Campbell Interview: ‘I’ve never bailed on anything. I’m finishing this’
Isobel Campbell’s first new album in a decade has been worth the wait, but, as she tells Jonathan Wright, it has been a long haul to bring it to life…
There are records that come together easily and quickly, where everything flows. Then there are records where the artist has to wrestle an album into existence as, it seems, the world conspires against the creative process. Isobel Campbell’s There Is No Other…, to a near-absurd degree, falls firmly into the latter category, an album where record company problems, financial hassles, ill health and even the vagaries of the climate all intervened at different points.
Remarkably, these stresses aren’t evident in the LP itself. Instead, it’s a shimmering collection of psychedelia-tinged pop songs more than strong enough to suggest the recording process, at least, was an enjoyable experience. Sometimes, the music is celebratory, as on a cover of Tom Petty’s Runnin’ Down A Dream, sometimes pensive, as in the way Ant Life reflects on the pace of US cities, but the album throughout is finely honed and focused.
“Och, the music side, sometimes being in the studio, there’ll be a puzzle and it’s like we need to fix this, but the music is always a joy,” says Campbell down the line from California, her Scottish accent still strong despite her having lived in the US for several years. “That’s the good stuff. It’s all the other stuff that’s poo, but sometimes the other stuff is so all-consuming. It’s almost toxic as well, that the time spent doing the thing that I love is severely diminished and that irritates me a lot.”
So where to look for a starting point to this long and sometimes convoluted story? In 2013, it was announced that Campbell’s professional partnership with sometime Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, with whom she recorded a trio of albums between 2006 and 2010, had ended. Campbell, newly married to sound engineer Chris Szczech, upped sticks from Glasgow to the USA and began planning a solo LP. But there was soon a problem. The couple’s home in California lacked any kind of air conditioning and it was “110 degrees Fahrenheit” outside.
It was time to head east, to lakeside cabins in New York State owned by Szczech’s family. Travel would become a recurring theme in years when the couple seemed often, too often, to be criss-crossing the US. For Campbell, the Brit, this was at least a chance to be a tourist. The reality of travelling from one side of a continent to another by car was sometimes rather less romantic. “I couldn’t feel my bum, I just couldn’t feel it,” she says of the last two days of one trip east.
Much of the album came together in New York, including time spent laying down music in an insurance office in Syracuse. “There was a lady with a really loud voice, so we had to wait until after office hours to go and record,” says Campbell.
But, a recurring theme in the story of the LP, there were problems too. At one point, the couple decided to move permanently to the Catskills, New York State, a rural area steeped in musical history – Woodstock, strong associations with Bob Dylan and The Band, and an area where David Bowie had a home and recorded. They rented a farmhouse, where Campbell promptly developed the “weirdest allergies” and fell ill. “I was flat on my back for months and months,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong with me, am I terminally ill?’ It’s not fun to talk about, but whenever I would leave the area I felt OK.” Money was tight. Her father gave her the money to rent a cabin in Bearsville, although she should, she says, “have probably gone home at that point, maybe just given up”. The cabin was a summer home and it was January, but it was all the couple could afford. “Even though I was still not feeling very well, I was like, ‘I don’t care, even if they take me out feet first I am finishing this record. I’ve never bailed on anything. I am finishing this’,” she says. “So I did, I hung on by my fingernails, wore all my clothes at once, and we had a wood stove and we just kept the wood stove going all the time.”
Finally, with the help of twice-yearly royalty cheques to pay additional musicians such as multi-instrumentalist Nina Violet along the way, she was able to finish the album (guitarist Jim McCulloch of Soup Dragons fame, plus Teenage Fanclub keyboardist Dave McGowan and Father John Misty’s bassist Elijah Thomson also feature). Without Szczech’s recording expertise and help, she says, the project would never have been finished.
The realisation the couple couldn’t settle in the Catskills was a blow. “We were gutted,” she says. “We thought we were moving to have this lovely, more secure life, living in nature and it just wasn’t meant to be. It was too much moving for anybody. I stare at a brown box now and whoah, I do not like those moving boxes, those U-haul packing boxes, they really freak me out!”
Campbell laughs often as she tells these stories and, at the end of the interview, emphasises that she wants the article “to be positive if possible”. And yet, even after wrestling the LP into life over two years instead of the year she expected and mastering it at Abbey Road in 2016, there were still more twists in the tale as her record company went out of business, but not before arguments over promoting the record.
“If I could just be in the studio for the rest of my life twiddling knobs and faders I would,” she says. “If someone says, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I want to put on rags, go to the studio and sit in the room with analogue equipment forever. The end. That’s what I want to do. But they were like, ‘This photographer, that photographer’.” And I really, really don’t mean it, I have the best intentions in the world, but I get ratty with that stuff, I don’t like it. I find it really invasive, I’m not a model and so it pissed them off.”
It took a year for Campbell to get back the album, now picked up by Cooking Vinyl, but an end was in sight. In the summer of 2019, when the first single dropped and the LP was announced, people emailed her to tell her how much they liked the music. She was in a “dream-like” state, “It was such a good day.” She’s happy, too, with the album itself. “It’s weird because even though time has gone by, it still feels quite fresh to me,” she says.
Good times, except now Campbell has to promote the record. She’s not allowed to put on rags other than glad rags. Tours have been announced, including imminent UK dates. She has to overcome a “burning desire to run for the hills in Syracuse and stay there”.
While her collaboration with Lanegan, when she was the main creative force in terms of the production and writing, appeared to end on a mildly sour note to judge by a 2013 interview where she talked about things being “like some crazy riddle or some crazy puzzle”, that way of working did have one huge advantage from Campbell’s perspective. Sharing the limelight with a gravel-voiced and charismatic rock singer deflected attention from Campbell herself.
“I liked hiding behind him,” she says, now relaxed about looking back at the duo’s work together. “I loved his voice, I loved singing with him. He would always joke, because some of the songs were a lot more fragile than some of the rock stuff that he does, [adopts gruff voice] ‘I feel like I’m butt naked on this song’. But I didn’t mind because I liked his voice. Now I can feel for him because when I started to do it on my own, I felt butt naked.
“But now, I’ve come around to the fact that I like paddling my own canoe. I like hiding, but I do actually like paddling my own canoe and I like independence.”
She’s similarly upbeat about her early work with Belle & Sebastian. “I always thought, when I got the demos for Tigermilk , that if I hadn’t been in that band, I would have probably been a fan anyway,” she says. She’s less enthusiastic about some of her earlier solo records, some recorded as The Gentle Waves, because, while she was “lucky” to get the opportunity, they catalogue her “learning” and maybe some of the material shouldn’t have seen the light of day.
Back in the present day, Campbell, Szczech and their two dogs have settled in a home in Pasadena where she still doesn’t have air conditioning, but where at least there are shady trees. Although whether she will ever feel truly settled in the USA is another matter. Partly, that’s maybe because these are uneasy times when nobody feels settled, but more specific reminders she’s an émigré play in here, too.
“I went into Starbucks the other day,” she says. “I was in the studio and I’m like, ‘Oh my god I’m falling asleep. I need caffeine’. The guy [serving] looked at me and he could have been in Prince And The Revolution or something. He had a cool hat on and a polkadot shirt and stuff. And I went in, and he went, ‘That will be six American Dollars’.
“People talk to me like I just got off the boat every day of the week, like every day. So nah, I will never be American. I’m British. And do you know what, if I didn’t hate moving so much I would really like to get back at some point, I really would. I’ll never be American, but I love the adventure, I really do. Maybe I’ll go to Africa next or Jamaica. Adventure is interesting.”