Why Mercury makes Isobel's blood boil at pop industry

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IT IS the ultimate critical award in British music, an accolade that thousands of aspiring musicians dream of one day winning.

But for Scottish singer Isobel Campbell, her Mercury Prize nomination has brought nothing but bad luck, self-doubt and disillusionment with the entire industry.

Astonishingly, Campbell, who rose to prominence with Scots indie favourites Belle and Sebastian, has warned she may not even attend the glittering Mercury Prize ceremony in London next month.

The 30-year-old from Glasgow says the nomination for her collaboration with US singer Mark Lanegan, Ballad of the Broken Seas, has left her in a "slump".

Campbell added she was frightened the nomination would expose her to all that is bad about the music scene, and complains she has already suffered from manipulation and sexism at the hands of industry executives.

The singer, who is widely admired by critics for her captivating voice and spellbinding lyrics, was a member of Belle and Sebastian from their formation in Glasgow in 1996.

She left in 2002, after making a significant contribution, including co-writing credits on their top-20 single 'Legal Man'.

But it was her collaboration and critical success with Lanegan - noted for his gravelly voice and work with Queens of the Stone Age - that caught the eye of the Mercury judges.

While pundits suggest Campbell and Lanegan will likely lose out to the Arctic Monkeys, the nomination alone will undoubtedly see a rise in her profile and album sales.

And if, like last year's Antony and the Johnsons win, the judges go for the rank outsider, Campbell will receive a 20,000 reward for her talents.

But despite being on the brink of international stardom, Campbell suggests she would rather not have been put up for the prize.

She told Scotland on Sunday: "After I found out I was nominated, I had a slump. I was trying to work out what it all means and trying not to be swallowed up by meaningless stuff. I don't know, I'm not even sure if I want to go [to the ceremony] really yet.

"I just don't want to lose the meaning of what I do. And the meaning of what I do is not getting mashed at an award ceremony.

"I don't want to get taken in and duped by something and start thinking I'm all that.

"I think a lot of the time musicians are the last people to benefit from their hard work. It's quite bad really."

Campbell, who concedes she probably will go to the awards if only to avoid being "killed" by her record company, said part of her concern about success was that she might be packaged in a way that detracted from her music.

"Sometimes with male songwriters it's almost like they don't need to try so hard. I remember saying to the lead guitarist last week: 'I wish I had a penis.'

"Sometimes with female artists you just talk about whether they are pretty. I've not done what I've done for the last 10 years of my life for that.

"If you're an ugly man, people don't really pass comment. If you're an ugly woman though, there is that thing there."

To add to her woes, Campbell revealed she parted company with her LA-based manager earlier this year and still hasn't found a replacement. Run-ins over priorities have made her scared about getting "ripped off" by the music industry.

She said: "I really, really need to get [a manager]. I'm quite scared: you think you are getting into something good and you get ripped off."

While the singer should be enjoying her steady rise to fame, while working without a manager, she is having to cope with the laborious - and unglamorous - task of doing all her own administration, including writing cheques for her band. Campbell said it would be nice to have the "luxury" to focus on her work but was reluctant to commit herself to anyone new in haste.

The singer also revealed her sadness that she had had little contact with Lanegan since their record was released.

"I've just not spoken to him," she said. "He used to tell me this was the best record he'd ever done but I've just not spoken to him since."

Chemikal Underground Records producer and former Mercury nominee Stewart Henderson, who was nominated in 2000 with the Delgados but missed out to Badly Drawn Boy, said he could understand Campbell's downbeat reaction. "The nomination didn't have any massively transformative effect on us, though it did help raise our profile and that was something that we needed at the time," he said.

"How you react to the experience [of being nominated] is firmly wrapped up in who you were beforehand.

"Isobel, or whoever, may be nervous now but it's just a great Alice Through the Looking Glass night. You just have to go in headfirst and enjoy it."

Adam Armit of Circular Records, which now produces former Mercury nominees Hobotalk, said Campbell's woes were not unusual, and pointed to a dearth in good management for her current problems.

"Without a doubt there's a massive shortage of [music] managers in Scotland; and certainly a decent one is hard to find. Making a record is one thing but getting it out to the masses is another thing entirely. [Managers] often take 20% and that can impact hugely on what they expect from you and vice versa."

Kevin Milburn, a director of the Mercury Prize, said he hoped the singer would put her bad experiences behind her and embrace the evening.

"Everyone has different experiences of the industry. I can understand that she's a bit unsure if that's been the case with her, but if ever there was a night to put that behind you the Mercury is it," he said.

Mark Lanegan was unavailable for comment. The Mercury Prize winner will be announced on September 5.


Since it arrived on the music scene in 1992, the Mercury Prize has never been short of controversy.

There was unprecedented press coverage in 1994 when the judges picked the mild-mannered pop-funk of M People over such critically acclaimed Britpop artists as Paul Weller, Blur, Pulp and the Prodigy.

And some award winners have often followed up successes with disappointing sales and sub-standard tunes: Gomez and Suede are a case in point.

The awards have also boasted a certain surprise value, perhaps never more so than in 2002 when Miss Dynamite became the first black solo female singer to win the 20,000 Mercury Prize, for her album, A Little Deeper.The hot favourites were the Streets and the Coral, and she admitted she "had not got a clue" why she won.

Controversy hit once again last year when Antony and The Johnsons, led by British-born singer Antony Hegarty, picked up the gong. Some maintained that his US residence meant he should have been excluded.

But there was no argument in 2004 as Glasgow success story Franz Ferdinand walked away not only with the award but a glittering future on the world stage.

This year's Mercury favourite is indie rock/post-punk band Arctic Monkeys.