Rock’s beauty and the beast make a tantalizing pair

When the angelic strains of Belle and Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell combine with the world-weary baritone of hard rock veteran Mark Lanegan, the results are sublime.

By
December 12, 2010 02:07
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan

isobel and mark 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

The pairing of gruff, male voices and angelic female voices has been a longstanding musical tradition.

Couplings like Johnny Cash with June Carter, and Nancy Sinatra with Lee Hazelwood on their mid- 1960s pop hits “Jackson” and “Summer Wine” sealed the deal of authenticating the allure of opposites attracting. It was a trick that deep, dark Nick Cave perfected a few decades later when he recruited light and frothy Kylie Minogue to duet on his chilling murder ballad “Where The Wild Roses Grow.”

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But no duo has played the ‘beauty and the beast’ roles as masterfully as Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, a lace and leather a Sonny and Cher for the alternative crowd. Maybe it’s because they’re not playing roles.

Campbell, the Scottish 34-year-old former cellist and sometimes singer for the indie favorites Belle and Sebastian, and Lanegan, the 45-year-old American tattooed grunge pioneer known for his uncompromising work with Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, are about as unlikely rootsy folk duo as you’re likely to find.

"I have this light pure voice, he has a thick baritone. I brighten him up and he gives me weight. Otherwise I’d just fly away,” Campbell told The Guardian last month in an attempt to describe why their voice blend is so hypnotic.

Lanegan has been helping Campbell stay grounded over the course of three albums, beginning with 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas, and on to Sunday at Devil Dirt in 2008 and this year’s pinnacle, Hawk.

“An old boyfriend of mine was a Screaming Trees fan and suggested I ask him to duet with me,” said Campbell in an email interview this week with The Jerusalem Post that took place during the duo’s current tour that will see them arrive in Tel Aviv on December 14 for a show at The Barby Club.

Cambell and Lanegan traded some lyrics and melodies on the telephone a few times, realized there was a chemistry there, and decided to collaborate on an album.

“I had no prior knowledge of any of Mark’s work so I had no pre-conceived ideas. I just met him and took it from there,” she said.

Their musical relationship is unique in that Lanegan’s role is that of a singer for Campbell’s songs, and she in turns writes the material with his voice and persona in mind. It’s a partnership that both are apparently happy with.

“I like him singing on my songs… and he is happy to leave the song writing and production duties to me,” said Campbell.

ONE REVIEW of Hawk, their latest album together, points that it’s basically a Campbell album augmented by Lanegan who “merely lends his voice to the affair, playing the role of a damaged man who is haunted by his past and uncertain of his place in the present.”

“It’s unique in my body of work,” Lanegan told The Guardian.

“Usually I write the music, and am involved in the production. Here, my only job is to inhabit these songs, relate to them, to express them. It's a learning process, a journey of discovery… She gives me the songs and has me sing ‘em. It’s made me really happy.”

The Guardian then went on to describe the contrast that the duo conveys onstage.

“Campbell, stage left, is glowing, shaking a tambourine and singing diaphanous harmonies; with her long blonde hair and white country blouse, she’s just a few rhinestones from passing for Nashville royalty. Lanegan, stage right, leans into the microphone and growls soulfully; despite the spotlights trained on him, he’s still somehow shrouded in shadowy menace.”

Hanging out with a ‘menacing’ figure is on the other side of the universe from Campbell’s pristine upbringing in Glasgow.

While Lanegan was being thrown into a lockup for stealing alcohol at age 12, a young Campbell was busy learning classical music on the cello. Discovering her parents stash of rock music however, led her into a different direction in her teens.

“I fell off the straight and narrow and became fascinated by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and The Kinks, and watching The Graduate over and over,” she said.

After establishing herself in the mid- 1990s as cellist and keyboardist for Belle and Sebastian, Campbell left the band to find her own voice, releasing her first solo album in 1999. But it wasn’t until she began working with Lanegan that her career began to flourish in an indie sense.

“On record we have an unspoken and inexplicable chemistry. I think we have a magical blend. That doesn’t happen with just anyone,” she said, adding that she was shocked by how much pain there was in his voice the first time she heard it.

Neither Campbell nor Lanegan subscribe to the niceties of pop stardom. Lanegan has been notorious for being closemouthed, surly and distant, and on his two previous acclaimed performances in Israel in the guise of The Gutter Twins – his ongoing collaboration of his with the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli – he adopted the sullen tortured artist pose.

And Campbell, while generally friendlier and more outgoing, admitted that she also has no stomach for playing the music business game.

“I know I have a genuine love and passion for music and songwriting and that’s about it. It’s the other trappings that I’m not so crazy about,” she said.

Due to arrive in Israel immediately after performing at the annual alternative British music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties – curated this year, not so coincidentally by old friends Belle and Sebastian – Campbell said she’s been given an advanced briefing on the country by veteran Lanegan.

“He told me Jerusalem is amazing. And he also said he tasted the best humous in his life in Israel!!” she said.

That will prompt even the most dour rock star to smile.


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