Isobel Campbell on winning back the rights to her music: “I kept fighting for a year and a half”
Fans of Isobel Campbell have been waiting since 2006 for a new solo album. Now, after a lengthy legal wrangle prevented its release, they’ll finally get to hear her immaculately crafted new collection. Interview by Fiona Shepherd
Isobel Campbell is talking weather from her home in Pasadena, California. “It’s good that the rain has come,” she says. “I never thought I’d say that!”
The Glaswegian expat, who first made her name as singer/cellist in Belle & Sebastian before forging a cult solo career, is referring to the aftermath of the autumn wildfires which have affected so many in the region, including some of Campbell’s LA friends and associates. But she might as well be talking about her own life, as she has been fighting fires of her own for a number of years.
For some time following her departure from Belle & Sebastian, she was prolific, producing four solo albums (two as The Gentle Waves) and a trilogy of acclaimed collaborations with US alt-rock singer Mark Lanegan, where she wrote the songs and called the shots. The opposites-attract dynamic – Lanegan’s gruff soulful baritone next to Campbell’s sweetness and light – proved a rich seam but by 2011 Campbell had tired of the touring and strained relations with the taciturn Lanegan.
By that point, she had moved to California with her American sound engineer husband Chris Szczech and, saving a cameo on the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Damage and Joy album, barely a peep has been heard from her in almost ten years.
Some of that time has been spent making her new album, the mellow, eclectic There Is No Other, which was partly recorded in transit between the west and east coast of the States as she and Szczech temporarily moved back to his Syracuse home.
“Our whole life was in storage, we were staying in my mother-in-law’s basement, it wasn’t an easy record to make,” says Campbell, “so when I finished it on my 40th birthday, I was so happy and relieved. But I didn’t know what was going to happen next…”
What happened next was a year of legal purgatory back in LA when her new record company folded, leaving Campbell to wrangle for the rights to release the music herself.
“I kept fighting for a year and a half, firing off angry emails,” she says. “I’ll always stand up for things but I was spinning my wheels just trying to get it back. You get to a point when it’s going to affect your wellbeing. It was like having a permanent knot in my tummy. It didn’t just take enjoyment out of music, it took enjoyment out of everything.
“And to be going through that in Los Angeles where it’s really expensive and you’re not in your own country was horrible. I was pretty reclusive, just walking the streets with my dog and climbing the walls. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I’m not the same person, but I think I might like myself a bit more, I might be a bit more kind.”
During this dark limbo period, she was thrown a lifeline by the Jesus & Mary Chain, who invited a number of female vocalists to guest on their 2017 comeback album Damage and Joy. With their shared love of 60s girl groups, bubblegum pop and dark lyrics, it was a natural fit.
“If I’m there already without even thinking about it, that means I’m doing it,” says Campbell. “It’s got to ring true, and that was so much fun. I was persona non grata, I wasn’t getting to do anything so I was so grateful.”
Finally, though, Campbell is back in her own right, poised to release her first solo album in 14 years on the trusted Cooking Vinyl label. “Miraculously, I still do love the record.” she says. “Even though it was hell, I don’t hold it against the record. It feels like a separate thing.”
There Is No Other is immaculately written, arranged and delivered, as one might expect from an artist who is happiest creating behind the scenes. “I’m just a nerd really,” says Campbell. “I like writing and I work really hard but I’m not an extrovert. If someone told me you could do what you do, be in the thick of it, make records and be where the action is but you don’t ever have to be seen again, I would say thank you very much!”
Campbell has long harboured such behind-the-scenes ambitions and has been approached to write for a handful of artists. But while she may not consider herself a natural frontwoman, she is a single-minded auteur.
“I loved writing for Mark, I very much enjoyed hiding behind that thing and I’d love to make a record for someone else but I do think it’s nice to be independent and not have to ask permission for anything. So I like doing my own stuff for that reason, and I got into my own voice again. Some people love it, some people hate it, I get that, it’s a quiet voice.”
Rediscovering her voice has been no small thing to Campbell, who freely admits her ambivalence about life in the US.
“All the time out here I feel like I just got off the boat,” she says. “It’s been good though because it makes me think about what I am about. Coming from an older country, Scots know who we are as people. America’s so young, and there’s a lot going on in the world. I don’t think anyone feels that settled.”
As musician and sound engineer, Campbell and Szczech are not tied to one location. “We could live on Rothesay – in fact, I think he would like to!” laughs Campbell. But for now, home is east LA in the shadow of the San Gabriel mountains.
“I moved out here for the nature and the weather – that’s the LA that I love,” says Campbell. “It seems like the 1970s, everything is really slow. It is paradise. There’s a lot of light but there’s a lot of shadow. That latest Tarantino film is pretty on the money for me. So I change my mind and think ‘I’m definitely going home’ and then I see a hummingbird and think ‘maybe I’ll just stay a little while longer.’”
Isobel Campbell plays the Mackintosh Church, Glasgow, on 30 January as part of Celtic Connections. There Is No Other is released by Cooking Vinyl on 31 January