Incendiary interview Isobel Campbell

I am really questioning, “Why do I do this?”, at the moment.

I am really questioning, “Why do I do this?”, at the moment.

The Banks Mansion Hotel in Amsterdam has obviously been decorated by one of those interior designers you see on TV. The type who seem to think that throwing anything and everything together – stripes, spots, shapes, textures – into one room creates its own sense of style. It’s not my cup of tea, to be honest. Wandering through Banks Mansion is enough to give me a headache. Still, I’m here again to interview Isobel Campbell and, as soon as I clap my eyes on her, I realize that this may be the perfect place to meet her as she’s a vision of colour, blond hair, black hairband, red fluffy jumper, with a colossal leopard skin bag by her feet. Now then, if most people were to slap on a bunch of garish colours and carry around leopard skin accessories, they’d look ridiculous, but Isobel pulls it off like you wouldn’t believe. She looks simply radiant. I’ve seen pictures of her in the past but she’s so good looking in person, she actually leaves me a little gobsmacked. It doesn’t help that she keeps pulling her sleeves down to expose her shoulders either.


Anyway, you join us a few minutes later, once I’ve pulled myself together a bit and stopped babbling about nothing.


INCENDIARY: Let’s get on to Sunday at Devil Dirt then shall we? It’s been a bit of a rush for me getting this together, to be honest. I only received the album this morning but I’ve been listening to it all day and what I like about it, initially is that it sounds completely different to Ballad of Broken Seas.  Whereas the first one had this kind of Western motif, this one feels a lot more bluesy.


Isobel Campbell: You’re the first one to really pick up on that.


IN: Really? Well it seems pretty obvious but although it is a lot more bluesy it doesn’t feel very American to me. It seems to have more of a British folk vibe to it.


IC: Really? British?


IN: Yeah, although there’s a bluesy sound to it, songs like Trouble, and a couple of others, seem to remind me more of real old traditional folk songs. They really don’t feel American to me at all.


IC: Really? That’s so funny because so many people, like, yesterday were saying how American it sounds. Trouble to me feels very American, but there’s songs like the Raven or Seafaring Song that feel a lot more European, but not particularly British.


IN: Well maybe British is the wrong word, but…


IC: You see I always think of the Kinks or Fairport Convention when people mention british folk and I don’t think it sounds like either.


IN: Ah see, now I’m not talking about Fairport Convention and what people always talk about the ‘folk’ scene, but rather real old traditional songs. When songs used to be about battles or sex or death. Real old traditional stuff, not that shortbread tin singing about hills and stuff.


IC: Arran jumpers and beards and things.


IN: Exactly, and that leads me on to something that really riles me when I read about you, because you always get described as creating some kind of fey stuff. Like on Wikipedia, it says you’re ‘twee pop’ and I think that’skind of insulting, because there’s nothing twee about your music at all.


IC: I wonder where that twee thing comes from. I think people just have to say things don’t they? I mean you can’t control what people say.


IN: Well it seems to be one of those easy routes for journalists to just pigeon hole people…


IC: Or regularly insult someone.


IN: …and although it makes their life a bit easier and it can sometimes help to give a band a boost, it can often work against the band, or the artist and damage them I think.


IC: It’s kind of lazy journalism. But, I dunno. It doesn’t really bear any relation to anything in my life, to be honest. I mean the new record and what I’ve been doing in the past two years is like, well I don’t think it bears any relation but…..


….when I hear things like that, or when you tell me thing like that I just think, “Why do I fucking bother?” Really. I just think I’m bashing my head against a brick wall. I just don’t know.


Do you know what I mean? You work really hard. For decades. And it’s like, when things…… Do you know what I mean? You may as well be making cheese.


IN: Well it’s something that kind of riles me up as well and it’s one of the reasons that we started Incendiary is that we just got sick of reading stuff that just didn’t make sense. None of it feels honest or heartfelt.


IC: Well the last thing they ever write about in interviews is the music, which is ridiculous. I don’t read music magazines. I have no interest in them. Even stuff that I do like, like Dylan or something, they just regurgitate stuff and it’s never about art or original creative thinking.


IN: Shall we leave this to one side then?


IC: Yeah (laughs).


IN: Going back to Ballad Of The Broken Seas for a minute. I understand you recorded the music and your vocals in Glasgow and then Mark laid his vocals down in the States so I was wondering what it was like when you first got together to play live? That must have been an interesting experience.


IC: I had mixed feelings really because it was a year after the album had been released. The album was released in January 2006 and I wasn’t able to tour it in the format that I wanted to, until January 2007. So I had mixed feelings because some people had kind of taken the record to their hearts and, you know, I couldn’t play live the way I’d worked on it and recorded it so that was kind of pointless. So when Mark approached me in November 2006 part of me felt like it was after the fact and what was the point? But then the other half really loves to hear him singing my material so I shouldn’t really cut of my nose to spite my face and so we did it in January. I was nervous because we hadn’t spent much time together but it was really great fun.


I’ve never done anything because its easy and I’ve never taken the easy route or the easy path. There’s a lot of things that I don’t know about and can’t say about, with regards to how we work or whatever. It’s not easy, it’s the furthest thing from easy I can imagine but when we’re on stage it all makes perfect sense. It’s very uplifting to be playing the music…so that’s good. That’s the positive side.


IN: So did the tour kick start the feeling to continue working together and to produce this album? Or was that going to happen anyway?


IC: Well it kind of did because we… No it really did. No. It wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t toured because it kind of broke my heart not being able to tour the last record. I mean, seriously, it’s like you’re kinda….You’ve got this album and the album will always be there, so that’s good. But then you’ve got these record companies or business people that want to promote your thing as much as you can and they kind of want you to go out on the road so I ended up limping around Europe with a set-up that wasn’t really working for me. I suppose it’s character building in a way but…


IN: Well there seems to be a real determination within you because, although you say you’ve never made things easy for yourself…


IC: I’ve never done things the easy way. Sometimes I think that I should maybe. (laughs)


IN:… but there seems like you have this real passion for what you do. Is that what keeps you going?


IC: Yeah (sighs). At the end of the day that’s the only thing that means that I continue. There’s nothing really else. There’s so much about this career that would, you know, is just not suited to me or my temperament. There’s so much of me that just isn’t. I mean I should be a nurse or something. I mean at the minute I fell like I’m kind of running on empty and I’m kind of questioning….I’m kind of questioning…Well, I’m kind of questioning should I even bother, really.


You know you slave for a year and a half to make the record and then some journalist puts it online for people to download for free. And that’s fine, you know. You can’t really price music, or songs anyway. But when you’ve maybe got quite  lot of debt over your head because you have been so passionate and committed to what you do. At the moment, that’s a reality for me. I’m not swanning around like…


IN: It must be hard to kind of balance everything.


IC: I’m in so much debt I’ve got to ring the Inland Revenue every week. I’m seriously questioning. You know, I’ve had so many hassles making this record, and I love the record, but you’d have to love the record for the hassles involved in it. I mean, I split up with my manager mid record. He hadn’t budgeted. I had to fund. Every album I’ve done I’ve had to pay for myself. Nobody, you know. It’s crazy.


I am really questioning, “Why do I do this?”, at the moment.


IN: On the financial side I understand things but could you ever imagine, if you got to the point where you just say fuck it and walk away from the business.


IC: I’m getting to that point.


IN: But could you ever imagine not wanting to ever pick the cello up again?


IC: Oh no, I think I’d always be creative but, you know. I don’t know. Someone I met a few years ago, a high profile manager once said to me that artists are just like oranges and record companies take them and just juice all the pulp out of them. But it’s a choice thing and I won’t be choosing that in the future. I’ll always be creative. I think at the moment I just need to get back to what it is that I love. I think I just need to sit in a room and just play a piano or guitar or cello for no reason.


I don’t know. It’s hard to work out. I couldn’t really say but when I was mid album and the manager at the time, I’ve no budget, just disappeared off. Album half made. No money to finish. I can remember emailing Mark saying, “I don’t know what’s happening. This is just a nightmare. I feel like a cash cow.” And he just emailed back saying, “You’re doing this for the right reasons. You’re completely committed to this and you make really great music.” And that was great but you can’t just stand there like a punch bag and keep getting punched and I’m not far away from walking away. I’m not. But there is that passion there so, I don’t know.


IN: But if you look at Sunday and Devil Dirt, you must be proud of what you’ve done because it is, as far as I’m concerned, a beautiful, beautiful record. And I know I only received it this morning but I have listened to it four or five times all the way through now and its one of those albums that keeps getting better as it goes on. Song by song it just gets better and I think, if you’ve got that kind of ability in you, don’t stop what you’re doing.


IC: It’s painful though. It’s horrible breaking out in cold sweats at night because you can’t pay people that have worked for you. You can’t get the tax man off your back. I don’t lead a frivolous life by any means. Yes, I’m a woman, and I probably have a couple of hundred pairs of shoes or dresses too many but I’m not a frivolous person. It’s very nasty. I don’t know. It feels like kind of weird times, and trashy times and I’m not at one with it. I’m at one with myself but I’m not at one with this day and age really. The attitudes and such. It’s funny (laughs).


It’s just funny at times because you release an album and then people are like, “What’s next?” It’s like, ok you’ve only had the new album for like one minute or something. What happened to the time in the 60’s or the 70’s or even the 50’s where people would release an album and just cherish them whereas now people are like, with an album you only need two good singles and you can just bulk the rest out. What kind of attitude is that?


IN: Well that’s what I meant when I said the album gets better and better because there isn’t a weak track on there. Shotgun Blues is the sexiest thing I’ve heard all year.


IC: (laughs)


IN: And as for Trouble, well if you can hide that away at track eleven, where most lazy journalists won’t even get to… You know, they just play track one for  few seconds, skip through 2, 3 4 and stuff, just to ‘get a flavour’of it.


IC: Well that’s the other attitude isn’t it. Put the good song on first.


IN: Well if you can do that I think you’re working on the right lines as far as I’m concerned.


IC: I gave my Mum the record, about a week ago and she phoned me about one in the morning. Because we’d been at my Nan’s and she had a bit of a drive home and she said, “You can go to bed happy!” (laughs) “Having heard this, you’ve just to keep on doing this,”and I’m like, “I don’t know.”


IN: Well Mum’s always know best and I think she’s got some good advice for you. I hope you find that fire again soon, because it would be horrible to think this would be the last we heard from you. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you Isobel. Thank you.


IC: Thank you.


Interview : Damian Leslie