Isobel Campbell: ‘I’m not an outright failure but I’m not successful enough for things to be easy’
A collapsed music label and a four-year wait to release her new album have tested the musician’s mettle
‘I had to just start being positive, because nothing is worse than thinking of giving up what you love, which is music, yet I almost did,’ says Glaswegian singer/songwriter Isobel Campbell. Photograph: Ashley Osborn
Having been based in Los Angeles for almost 10 years you might have thought a west coast twang would have impacted on certain vowels, but Isobel Campbell has lost none of her Glaswegian brogue. What has been lost, however, is far more precious than an accent: time.
For the past four years, Campbell has been sitting on her first solo album since 2006’s Milkwhite Sheets and her first recorded work since 2010’s Hawk (on which she collaborated with US singer Mark Lanegan).
One would have presumed that even with Campbell’s generally low-key status she would not be prone to the vagaries of independent record labels, yet here she is – finally releasing an album, There Is No Other, that has managed to tip-toe not only through the quicksand of a collapsed label but also the legalese by which to get the master tapes back to her.
As someone who writes and records songs in order to perform them in front of an audience, says Campbell, getting enmeshed in music industry machinations is like having your art hijacked. No wonder she sounds weary.
“It was never my intention to be away for so long, but things just happened. All that industry stuff is usually frustrating, anyway, even if there isn’t something gnarly going on. It certainly isn’t my favourite aspect of working in the area – I do it because I love making music and singing. This said, when something like that happens it’s a pain in the arse. The record company folding and me trying to get my album back was a bigger pain than usual, but there are many other people who get caught up in that, so I count myself lucky I’m still able to make music.”
Duly noted, Campbell admits that relations between the parties involved became “a wee bit scary and quite a struggle… they were playing hardball, if not nasty, and it got pretty horrible”.
I had to just start being positive, because nothing is worse than thinking of giving up what you love, which is music, yet I almost did
Negotiations of varying lengths and levels, she continues, went on for so long that she didn’t really know if she was ever going to come out the other end.
“I’ve been in music since I was a teenager, and it was the only major thing that has happened to me in my career. I finished the new record when I was 40 and three years later it is finally coming out. By the end of the process, I started to think if it had gone on much longer, then maybe me and music weren’t meant to be.
“So I had to just start being positive, because nothing is worse than thinking of giving up what you love, which is music, yet I almost did. You’re put on hold by people, and you’re like, whoa, this is my life and my livelihood, and then everything just stops.”
‘The gnarly stuff’
It is all good now, of course, and – all too justifiably – Campbell is worn out talking about the stutters and stops of the past four years. She knows, also, that what she refers to yet again as “the gnarly stuff”, has nothing to do with the new record. “Sometimes, even talking about the industry horrors can take away from the songs.”
Songs are the focus for Campbell. At the age of 19, she joined Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian, and stayed with them until 2002. By this point, she already had a solo spring to her step via her B&S side project, The Gentle Waves.
Under her own name, she released Amorino (2003) and Milkwhite Sheets (2006). She subsequently staked out a creatively successful but fractious collaboration with US singer Mark Lanegan, a vocalist for whom the descriptive words “glass and sandpaper” are perhaps too diplomatic. Three critically acclaimed albums were released (2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas, 2008’s Sunday at Devil Dirt, 2010’s Hawk), but it all came to a pointy head on their respective promotional tours, leaving Campbell to grapple with what she came to regard as Lanegan’s sometimes unpredictable counter-productiveness.
Luckily, her natural inclinations – simply wanting to make gorgeous pieces of music, preferably unhindered by distractions – held fast. The new album is testament to such a stance, with a bundle of songs that align her LA/Laurel Canyon sensibilities with hints of British folk-jazz-baroque groups such as Pentangle. In less capable hands, the results might have come across as slight; Campbell, however, bolsters the music with lyrics that are, she accedes, “about being human, living, searching, that pose existential questions – all of that.”
Somewhat hesitant throughout, Campbell twice answers a question with a question. I ask her how she thought she had changed from her teenage years to where she is now, but before answering, she asks me the same question. It’s as if she requires either comparative experience as context or is merely curious. Each seems fair enough.
“I’m certainly wiser in many ways,” she responds, “but there are elements of me that are exactly the same as when I first emerged as a singer and songwriter. Different but the same, I suppose. I’ve travelled a lot more than I ever thought I would. Seeing that there isn’t just one way of living is a handy thing for anyone – especially a songwriter – to experience because you can then accept lots of cultural variety. Education through diversity is also very important, and you get that from travelling. Not travelling, or having certain countries not allowing certain people in, is not the way to go.”
Does she have any idea of what she would have been like as a person if she had stayed in Glasgow? (She immediately asks me where I grew up, and then the same question.)
Now self-managed, Campbell has realised over the past 10 years that she is `a square peg that is impossible to fit into a round hole'
“I’d have probably been a bit like my mum,” she offers, “but as I think she is one of the best people I know I’d have no problem with that. Scotland is a good place to come from. A lot of my friends from school – perhaps having been away for some time – have gravitated back to Glasgow. Maybe if I hadn’t gone anywhere I would never have realised how big the world is, but part of me isn’t so sure that’s important. Travel has definitely opened my eyes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up back in Glasgow at some point. I’ve had brutal homesickness, yet when you’re away you think much more about what and who you are, and you tend not to take things for granted.”
Campbell will be back in Glasgow, albeit temporarily, at the end of this month for the Celtic Connections Festival, and then to Ireland for two shows. Mention of the word “touring” elicits an audible sigh. She knows only too well that for many musicians of her level (respected by many critics, loved by a small group of devotees), touring is now one of the very few ways to make money. Is it worthwhile talking about Spotify, I ask. A sigh is followed by laughter. Not really, she says.
“That side of the business for artists such as myself has seriously diminished. Sometimes, it can feel like we’re on a sinking ship and the rats are jumping off it. I’ve definitely had that image in my mind on and off over the past few years, but I don’t think we should panic. It’s a shame what has happened to the industry in that regard, but I certainly don’t feel entitled in any way – changes take place, and that’s just a fact. The truth is that I’m not successful enough for things to have ever become easy, but I haven’t failed well enough for things to stop! In other words, I’m not an outright failure, and ultimately that’s how I feel about it.”
Now completely self-managed, Campbell has realised over the past 10 years, in particular, that she is “a square peg that is impossible to fit into a round hole”. She goes on to say that she has never easily slotted into marketing campaigns or branding exercises.
“I have never managed to stick to what some people might like to term a business model. After I talk to you, I’ll be working on tour budgets, shooting out loads of emails – all the stuff that is absolutely not my favourite thing to do, but which I do the best I can.”
As for the tour, she says she will not make any money from it. “I might even need to borrow some from the record label, if they’ll give it to me. I don’t have a US agent, either, so maybe I’m never going to be properly famous at all! And yet I love what I do, so I’m not going to throwing myself off the sinking ship just yet. I’m a big mama rat that won’t let go.”
There Is No Other is released via Cooking Vinyl, February 7th. Isobel Campbell plays Empire Music Hall, Belfast, Friday, January 31st, and Liberty Hall, Dublin, Saturday, February 1st.