A whisper to a scream

'HE'S the mummy, I'm the daddy." Isobel Campbell, that minx in sheep's clothing, is in a playful mood as she discusses her musical partner, Mark Lanegan, the ex-Screaming Trees frontman who is the rough to her smooth; the yin to her yang; the beast to her beauty; the, er, mummy to her daddy. And there's more: "He's the puppet and I'm the puppetmaster – and I like that."

When Campbell and Lanegan released their first collaboration, Ballad Of The Broken Seas, two years ago, much was made of this polar coupling. The duo were quickly dubbed a latterday Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – the fragile ex-Belle & Sebastian maiden who had wisped her way through a handful of solo albums had fallen into the clutches of grizzly corrupter Lanegan, best known at that time as guest vocalist with rock reprobates Queens of the Stone Age.

In fact, as she is colourfully indicating with her mummy/daddy analogy, it was Campbell who wrote the songs, conceived the album and headhunted the LA-based Lanegan as her dream co-vocalist. Her intuition was correct. The album was proclaimed "an instant classic" by NME and went on to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize as well as becoming her best-selling solo effort by some stretch.

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Now the pair have locked horns again on the assured follow-up Sunday At Devil Dirt, which is altogether more grimy and sultry than their more innocent, plaintive first date. Campbell takes more of a back seat vocally this time round, but she has still captured their innate chemistry, even though the notoriously taciturn Lanegan can be an inscrutable workmate.

"He'll be jolly one day and then he'll go back to being quieter than ever and it's as if you're not even there. I try not to take it personally but it's not always easy. For me, it's actually quite masochistic. Sometimes you want to put a whoopee cushion on his chair or blow a big raspberry at him – which I actually do sometimes!"

So why work with him again? "I suppose I'm just a sucker for a good voice," she admits. "He brings a lot of my writing to life and I'll do anything for my songs. It's never been easy, but I hated touring when he wasn't there. Because I do actually love singing with him, it's a total honour. When we're on stage, it's totally the right thing.

"When we finished the last record, I hadn't really made my peace with the whole thing. I just had so much unfinished business, so a couple of really good songs came out quite soon after that record was finished and I was thinking, 'I wish Mark would speak to me and I could get him to sing these songs.'"

Not one to sit around pining while her chosen one played hard to get, Campbell decided to play the field and sent some songs off to Dr John for consideration. Did that not feel like cheating on Lanegan? "Well, he cheats on me!" she laughs, mock indignantly, referring to Lanegan's artistic affairs with Queens of the Stone Age and ex-Afghan Whigs man Greg Dulli, with whom he has formed The Gutter Twins. "He's such a vocal slut. I call him rent-a-voice."

Continuing the amour fou metaphor, she recalls: "I asked him to do another album in a moment of weakness. It was the last night of the first tour we did and I thought, 'If I don't say something to him now, I'm going to lose him forever'. But none of the boys in the band would leave us alone in the room together so the tour manager had to get them to clear off. I said, 'Do you want to do another record?' and he said, 'In a heartbeat.'"

Then, after the honeymoon period, there was the inevitable slog to make things work. Campbell worked on the record for close to two years in all; Lanegan's vocals took nine days. "In a way, it's been my folly," says Campbell. "I book the musicians, I write the songs, I produce the record. Nobody had a gun to my head, I've driven myself. It's been a huge, huge undertaking. But I won't do that again."

Sunday At Devil Dirt was recorded partly in Glasgow, where Campbell still lives, and then up a mountain at Allaire Studios in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, which came recommended by Mercury Rev's guitarist Grasshopper.

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"I do tend to like to withdraw and be very uninfluenced," says Campbell. "When you have a big group of musicians in the studio they're all gossiping and talking about other bands and the focus just goes. I like to get absorbed and lose myself in what I'm doing, and the Catskills was the perfect place to do that. It was a totally liberating thing to do and a little adventure."

But that adventure took its toll. "I was in the studio the whole time," recalls Campbell. "I just can't stop until my gut tells me it's done, this is the problem. I just felt like a whipped mule by the end of it. When I finished it in December, I came home and became ill instantly for three months. Every time I make a record it takes a little chip out of me. I think I must be a perfectionist – but that's not to say that my record's perfect."

Sunday At Devil Dirt is no angel of an album. It is, however, a wonderfully atmospheric, contrasting follow-up to Ballad…. "It was never a rejection of the last one. I do see them as brother and sister records. But then I worried, 'What if I make a Guilty Too?'" she frets comically, invoking Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb's 25th anniversary effort to recapture the MOR magic of their classic 1980 collaboration Guilty. "That was in my head the whole time – straight to the bargain bin!"

There is little fear of anyone else making such a bogus comparison. Campbell's writing and arranging tends less towards soft-focus smoochiness and more in the direction of Nina Simone's bluesy sass or Tom Waits' gutter-trawling lamentations. She also cites Bob Dylan's rather unloved 1970 album Self Portrait as a big influence on the sound of this record. "I don't do things to be retro, I just do it because that's generally what my ears like to hear and that's the instruments my imagination hears when I'm working on something."

Now that the album is completed, her first instinct is to retreat to some croft in the wilds of Scotland. Instead, Campbell will tour again with Lanegan. Beyond that, she's not sure what's next. There are some recordings with Evie Sands in her vaults. She has thought about moving to the States. She'd love to work in Nashville and meet Dolly Parton ("her voice sounds like the mountains"), or compose a film soundtrack.

"I've not picked up an instrument all year and it makes me really sad," she says. "But I'm not going to rush back into the studio – unless Bob Dylan calls me!"

• Sunday at Devil Dirt is out on V2 on Monday and is reviewed on page seven of today's Review. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan play the ABC, Glasgow on 13 June.