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Personal Best
Isobel Campbell

Isobel Campbell has always gone her own way, come hell or creative rebirth. Bow to Love is the latest artefact of an intuition that’s sustained an almost 30-year career. She talks to Alan Pedder about the five songs she's most proud of writing.

Since quitting Belle & Sebastian in 2002, Glaswegian singer/songwriter Isobel Campbell has built an impressively kaleidoscopic solo career, roving into lounge, jazz, psych-folk, blue-eyed soul, and, with the greatly missed Mark Lanegan, three fantastic records of sweet ‘n’ sour country blues.

Out earlier this month, her new album Bow to Love moves the scenery once more, realigning the mirrors to uncover new angles from which to admire her often surprisingly blunt candour and bird-sweet, cashmere-soft singing. It’s not as flashy as 2020’s There is no Other…, where Campbell ventured more broadly than ever before. Instead, there are more shadows and sharp edges, and an unshakeable gravity that anchors even her most feather-light melodies.

“There’s been tonnes of shit going on,” she tells me more than once over the almost two hours we stay hooked into Zoom. Heavy personal shit like divorce (from musician Chris Szczech, who nonetheless returns as co-producer) and Lanegan’s tragic passing in 2022, but also existential, human-condition, deep, deep shit. Narcissism, toxic masculinity, transhuman AI, and the political race to the bottom all go under Campbell’s deceptively sharp knife.


The phrase ‘bow to love’ is not an instruction. In full, the title track’s lyric reads “As below, so above / it’s not enough to bow to love,” a reminder that even the greatest power in the cosmos relies a lot on luck. Campbell has more faith in the old adage that ‘kindness is the cure’ and goes as far as to say so on album standout “Do or Die”, one of the five tracks she’s chosen as among her own favourites from her nearly 30 year career.

Campbell admits she made her Personal Best picks while standing on the sidewalk in Los Angeles, where she now lives, killing time before a hair appointment, but insists she took it seriously. “The advice I was given was to not overthink it,” she says, laughing. “I just thought, ‘Well, that’s rich,’ I overthink everything. I can think myself into paralysis. It’s really a great talent.”

Isobel Campbell swirlyguitar

There are no Belle & Sebastian songs here, and none from her first solo project The Gentle Waves either, despite the recent Record Store Day reissue of 2000’s lovely Swansong for You. “I actually didn’t know that was happening until a couple of weeks before, but I was really pleased when I found out,” she says. “I must admit, because it was so long ago, it did feel quite tender. Even just looking at my picture on the sleeve I was like, ‘Who is that?’”

Campbell says part of her wishes that she could see the world in more black and white terms as she did back then, when things seemed a lot more simple. “I feel like I was more assured about everything then than I am now. I was more headstrong about things. The older I get, the more I really just see a lot of grey.”

That might not be ideal for a chronic overthinker, but it does make for slyly great songs that are rarely what they first seem...

"The Circus is Leaving Town" by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (2006)

BEST FIT: The first song you’ve chosen is the closing track from Ballad of the Broken Seas, and it’s one that you don’t sing on at all. Is this one of the songs that Mark would have described as “butt naked”?

ISOBEL CAMPBELL: Possibly he could have, but I think the ones that he’d describe that way were probably songs like “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk with Me” and “Keep Me in Mind, Sweetheart”. Kind of more fragile songs like those where he’d go [does a gravel-voiced impression] “I feel like I’m butt naked.”

When I was writing “The Circus is Leaving Town”, I was imagining it being sung by Nico. I wasn’t even sure that I was writing it for Mark at the time. I think I was maybe secretly hoping in my heart somewhere that I was writing it for Mark, but he was really unwell at that point and I wasn’t sure if he was going to pull through. I have a vivid memory of painting the cupboards in my kitchen one night when the awful news about Elliott Smith passing came on the radio, and I sort of always had this fear of losing Mark. Long periods would go by when I wouldn’t hear from him and I never knew, especially with Ballad of the Broken Seas, if things were actually going to come together.

It kind of makes sense that I would hear Nico while writing the lyrics, and that Mark would end up singing it. He was such a big Velvet Underground fan. I think that was one of things he and I bonded over when we first met: Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground and Lee Hazelwood. I’d left Belle & Sebastian in 2002 and was just rumbling around the city, not really fitting in. I’ve come to realise as the decades have gone by that, for better or worse, I’m just not really a fitting in kind of character. A friend texted me recently saying that they feel like an outsider wherever they go, and I often feel like that too. I think I can be kind of a difficult character sometimes.

After leaving the band I became quite reclusive, just writing songs in my flat on my own like a monk. People talk about FOMO these days, and I felt that. It seemed like everyone I knew was out having a great time out in the circus of life while I was just being kind of morose, alone at home. The lyrics to this song are semi-autobiographical, in a way, because I genuinely felt like such an outsider. I’d made such a bold move by leaving this popular band to follow my heart, even though a lot of people were saying “Are you nuts? Why would you do that? Don’t be stupid.”

When I sent the song to Mark, he took a long time to send it back with his vocals. But when I got it, it gave me such a lift. It was always such a joy to hear Mark sing. We played “The Circus is Leaving Town” live quite a lot. I’d only come in on cello here and there, so the rest of the time I got to sit back and just watch him singing. It always really blew me away, and I always felt so very proud of him. I think it’s such a tender song, and I love how it progressed from having this feeling that life wasn’t really happening for me to sitting and watching this beautiful singer singing my words. It makes me feel really, really good and warm inside.

I think I’ve spent a lot of my life being really depressed and not really knowing it. I would often feel ‘less than’, but it’s only now that I can see why that was. I left the Belles not even knowing if I would be able to continue with music. I remember I bought two massive soup pots because I thought I was going to be on Skid Row or something. There was a lot of fear, and I just didn’t really know what to do.

Around the time the album came out, I went into Starbucks in Glasgow one day, late in the afternoon, and they were playing “The Circus is Leaving Town”. It took me a moment to realise that, oh wow, it was Mark and I, and that realisation felt kind of validating. It just felt so reassuring. A maybe everything is actually okay kind of moment.

When Mark was really sick, he said that your songs and the songs you were writing together were keeping him alive. That must have been a really powerful thing to hear.

Yeah, it really was. I hadn’t heard anything from him for months and months. He hadn’t sent any vocals back at that point, and I was just really curious to know if the record was actually happening or not. I remember I called him, randomly, quite late at night in Scotland, and he picked up right away. It turned out that he was in a lockdown rehab centre but had been granted his phone just at that moment to do an interview or something. Anyway, he picked up and it was me, and that’s when he told me [that the songs were keeping him alive].

It runs in my family that we will always champion an underdog. I’m just like my granny in that way. If someone tugs at my heartstrings, I really will pull out all the stops for them. So that was that for me with Mark. The whole time he was getting clean I was absolutely rooting for him. I think that’s why it was a bit weird for me when, after the first record came out in March 2006 and people seemed to like it, that we couldn’t tour it. It was so disappointing.

I remember waking up one morning, half a year later, to find a message from Mark on my answerphone. He was actually in Glasgow at the time, performing with The Twilight Singers at Òran Mór, so I went to see him. Afterwards we ducked across the road to a piano bar for a coffee or something, because obviously he had got sober. A part of me was thinking, if he’s well enough to be touring again then why couldn’t we. I was a bit annoyed but I thought, okay, give him a chance. Then he just came out and said it, that he wanted to tour Ballad of The Broken Seas, and I nearly choked on my drink” “You do?!”

That was in late November, and we played our first show together in January, at Celtic Connections, and it was totally worth the wait. Even though, for me, it had been really upsetting that we hadn’t done it sooner, we got there eventually. That’s the story of my life, really: I get there eventually. I’ve always been late to do things. Even when I was a kid, I’d always be the last one out of school. I was always such a slowcoach, and it seems to be the same with everything I do.

Were you a big daydreamer then?

I was a total daydreamer. I remember my auntie used to say to me, “If the house catches on fire, you’ll be burnt to a crisp!” But I can always move myself when I really want to. I think I have just spent so much of my life dissociating from things, which, again, is something I’ve only really learnt about as I’ve grown older.

IC ML Ballad Of The Broken Seas

"Come On Over (Turn Me On)" by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (2008)

BEST FIT: This song has been described as “one of the best booty call songs of all time,” but, beyond the chorus the lyrics aren’t quite as straightforward as that. It feels like there’s a lot more to it. What can you tell me about this one?

ISOBEL CAMPBELL: I remember when I first sent the songs for Sunday at Devil Dirt to Mark, he was really enthusiastic about this one. He described it as one of our raunchiest songs. I chose it here because it was always so fun for us to perform it live. It was almost like a striptease or something. There would always be some reaction from the crowd, like they’d shout at us to go make babies or something. So, yeah, it was raunchy but I was also just really, really funny. I think “booty call song” is a good way to describe it.

I remember going to Palm Springs with a bunch of ladies and it turned out that one of the ladies, who I didn’t know very well at the time, would use that song in a pole dancing routine that she’d do. She ended up giving me a lap dance to show me her routine, which was so funny.

Going back to your point, yeah, I do think the song is actually quite dark in a way. In a sort of intoxicating way. I remember when I was writing it in my kitchen, smiling away to myself and just having so much fun. I really like how our voices go together on this song, and it was always a little bit theatrical to play it live.

I was always really dreaming about and looking for this ‘Great Dark Man’ figure. I mean, if you’ve read Quentin Crisp’s autobiography, you’ll know that there is no such thing. I would agree with that, 200%, but it’s still the fantasy, you know? We all know that it’s not real but it’s really, really hot still [laughs].

I actually still can’t believe that I met Quentin Crisp! When Belle and Sebastian were first flown to New York, someone set up a meeting for us with Quentin at some diner. He was wonderful. I mean, what a character! I wrote to him a few years later and sent him a silk tartan scarf and some chocolate, and he wrote back. That’s wild to me.

I laughed so much at his quote about refusing to clean his house.

Yeah, what did he say? After a few years it doesn’t get any worse. I’m not sure I could live like that!

What do you remember about the recording of this track?

Unlike the first album, which Mark and I recorded remotely, for Sunday at Devil Dirt we flew him to Scotland and hired a studio for the weekend. There was some kind of building work going on so we both had to sing in this makeshift cupboard tucked away in the back of the studio, and that’s how we recorded most of the vocals.

It was honestly just so great to have him in the studio at the same time because it was easier to fix things if something wasn’t in the right key or something. And because I was producing the album myself, I could really focus on making sure all the performances were 100% there. I’ve not always been the most confident person in life. I mean, I’ve never really had a reason to not be confident, I just wasn’t particularly. But working with Mark in the studio was wonderful because he validated me quite a lot. He would say very kind and reassuring stuff about the songs, and I really appreciated that.

I knew he had faith in me, or at least saw something in me, and that made me want to be as good as I possibly could be. There was just such a nice back and forth between us. I also appreciated that he would also let me know when he did not like something, because that’s how I could kind of trust that he was always being genuine in his reactions.

I remember I was so happy when Mark said he wanted to do a second album together, but I was also quite terrified to ask at the same time. We were playing our final show on the Ballad of the Broken Seas, which I think was in Athens, and our tour manager kept saying to me, “Ask him! Ask him now,” but I was kind of losing my nerve. Eventually I did ask him, in the dressing room after the show, and Mark said in that voice, “In a heartbeat.”

You probably saw quite different sides to each other when you were actually in the same room recording. At some point he called you a benevolent dictator. Do you remember what provoked that?

On all three of the records we made together, I was quite single-minded in going after the sounds and feelings that I wanted, so I probably was a bit like a dictator. But I was also lucky because the musicians I was working with at the time were very willing and able to deliver what I was asking for. I think, after being in the studio with me, he must have observed how I can be pretty determined and don’t really give up on things creatively. I go after them until they come together in some way that I like.

Actually, Richard [Barron], who owns the Sonora Recorders studio where we recorded some of Hawk, pretty much said the same thing. He said, “You’re the nicest control freak I’ve ever met,” and I’m okay with that. I think, in those days especially, when I had a vision, I would move heaven and earth to make it happen. I’d do everything in my power. Looking back, that’s maybe because I didn’t feel in control in my own life at the time, so being a perfectionist and trying to control things was my way of feeling okay.

I think a lot of artists can relate to that, and I think that having some of those character flaws or quirks or neuroses, whatever you want to call them, can make things happen. I wonder if I was really laid back and sloppy, would anything ever happen? I’ve spent a lot of my life dreaming and fantasising, so I’d always go the extra mile for art and creativity. Whatever it took, really, and I would always push for that. I remember one time when we were in the studio recording Hawk and Mark clearly wanted to get out of there and watch the basketball, but I kept pushing him. I think that was the only time I ever felt sort of threatened by Mark, because he was just being so, so grouchy.

He could be scary when he was grumpy, but Mark was also really funny when he was in the mood to be. One of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He had people in stitches a lot.

IC ML Sunday At Devil Dirt

"Time of the Season" by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (2010)

BEST FIT: Speaking of Hawk, you've chosen “Time of the Season” from that album, which is part Christmas song, part travelogue. Is this one of the songs you were writing out in the Arizona desert?

ISOBEL CAMPBELL: Yeah, I started writing that one in Tucson, Arizona. I did quite a lot of the writing for the records with Mark in Tucson. It was sort of a bridge for me, before I moved to the States full-time. I really like it there. I like that it’s laidback and it has this whole slow kind of ‘desert time’ thing. I also think that’s when I cottoned on to the fact that I’m an artist and I never had to live through another Scottish winter again if I didn’t want to, which was quite an interesting realisation.

I remember it was really hot when I was writing this song. I think it was in July, and I’d become very nocturnal. I enjoyed writing it. I’d stay up until about 4 in the morning and wake up in the afternoons, and every night I’d be chipping away at this song. It was almost like it was a jigsaw puzzle or something, and I was just trying to piece it all together.

We went to Sonora Recorders in LA to record it, and when Mark first heard it he looked at me and he just said, “Well done.” That was it. It’s funny because sometimes when I’d written a song I’d worry that he was going to come in and tell me it was shit, but I had no expectations at all with this song. I had no expectations whether he would like it or dislike it, but he just said, “Well done.” Then, when Jim McCulloch came in to record some guitar overdubs, he just said “Congratulations.” It was quite weird for me, I don’t know why!

I can see why they were impressed. The song has kind of a classic storytelling feel, with a lot of scene-setting and a lot of interesting details.

A lot of it is biographical, really. Even the part about this person taking a job in Zanzibar, believe it or not. Recording this song was maybe right about the time when Mark was scary in the studio. There’s a guitar player on the song, Jeff [Fielder], and I think he was desperate to go to the bar, but I had him play the song in so many different keys that he probably wanted to kill me. I was like, “But it’s got to be in the sweetest key for Mark’s voice, so let’s try this one and then this one.” So, yeah, that was probably the benevolent dictator at work.

I was reading an interview you did way back in 2013 and there was a comment you made about Hawk that you were in kind of a hurry to get that record out.

Honestly, I can’t really remember that. I think we spent long enough making that record, recording bits in Denmark, bits in LA, and I think I must have done some of it in Glasgow too.

We were still using analogue tape then, and I remember thinking at the time “I’ll never make a record like this ever again.” A lot of stuff was happening in the industry at that time, and there had been a lot of changes and a massive dip in record sales. The business had changed so much, so I think when I was making Hawk I kind of knew that it would be the last one we would make using all these analogue vintage desks and with all this fancy stuff around us. It felt like so many studios were closing, too.

It’s funny because the music business has become so much more challenging and yet it feels like there’s more music around than ever before.

There are some songs from the Hawk sessions that remain unreleased. Do you think they'll ever see the light of day?

I hope so. I would like them to, but I’m not really sure who is running Mark’s estate now. There’s one song we made called “Sorrow” that has a real Nancy and Lee feel to it. Jim McCulloch wrote it and it’s gorgeous. I don’t even know why we never released it to be honest, so my hope is that we can get things sorted.

It’s so weird for me to think that Mark has been gone for two years now. I still can’t even believe it, you know? It’s one of those strange things that doesn’t feel real.

IC ML Hawk

"The Heart of it All" by Isobel Campbell (2020)

BEST FIT: The next song is “The Heart of it All” from your album There is No Other…, which was a very meaningful album for you, not only because it was your return to being a solo artist but also because you had to overcome so many obstacles just to get it done.

ISOBEL CAMPBELL: Yeah, there was so much that went wrong. We started making the record in California but we ran out of money so we had to pack up a whole house and move across the country. We ended up in New York, living in the basement of the house belonging to my mother-in-law at the time. It was all quite grim, actually. The whole time we kept trying to make the record and it just wouldn’t get made. We were trying to record at my mother-in-law’s summer camp, but there was all this background noise of speedboats and jet skis zipping by.

With “The Heart of it All”, I’d had the chorus in mind for a while. I had been studying a lot of breath work with a really great teacher in California and the chorus to this song kind of just came to me through that experience. This song contains a lot of what I believe, but I chose it really because I just love the way Makeda [Francisco] and Tracy [Nelson] sing on it. It was in April and snowing in New York when we made this song. I remember I called Makeda in LA and asked her if she would sing on the track and what her fee would be, and she was like, “Oh, I’m top shelf.” She tours with a lot of people, like Mavis Staples. I actually saw her recently singing with Rose Royce.

When I make records it’s like I am a little kid saving up my pocket money, except I’m saving up for things like orchestras and guest singers like Makeda and Tracy. Makeda sang on Hawk too, on the song “Lately”, and absolutely brought the house down. It was through Richard Barron at Sonora that I first met her. Funnily enough, the last album that Nancy and Lee made together [2004’s Nancy / Lee 3] was actually mixed at Sonora, and I remember Richard telling me about how Lee had met his third wife on a park bench. That sounds like classic Lee, but also totally something that I would do.

I really want to make a soul record one day. Even back in the Belle & Sebastian days, I wrote a soul song called “Landslide”, which Evie Sands sang on. I really do love writing for other people. I don’t know why. It just lights me up. And I think the only reason I seem to have some kind of aptitude for writing pretty decent soul songs, as a wee Scottish white girl, is because I’m very into all that heart and soul stuff. But, you know, there are so many top shelf singers like Makeda that it’s pretty daunting. I remember going to a Folk Alliance festival in Memphis and nearly passing out because there was just so much talent in the building.

Back to the song, I love Chris’s guitar playing on it too. It’s honestly kind of hard to believe that there’s anyone more antisocial and reclusive then me, but Chris is that person. He doesn’t ever really want to play live, and certainly not me with me anyway, and it’s a shame in a way because he’s a really good guitarist.

Well, it's good to have clear boundaries in a marriage.

Yes, it’s good to have boundaries in everything, as I have learnt.

Would Chris also describe you as benevolent dictator in the studio?

[laughs] He would probably describe me as annoying! But, actually, as quiet as Chris is, he’s always stepped toe to toe with me, and actually sometimes won. Sometimes I would say to him, “You’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever met,” and I think I’m well qualified to say that as a really stubborn person myself. Mark Lanegan was pretty stubborn, too. And, honestly, I respect stubborn, steely kind of characters. Nobody respects a pushover.

IC There Is No Other

"Do or Die" by Isobel Campbell (2024)

BEST FIT: Your final pick is “Do or Die”, the second track from your new album Bow to Love. A short golden nugget of a song. What do you love about this one?

ISOBEL CAMPBELL: It's funny that the song is so short, but I guess it’s exactly as it needs to be because I really did spend a lot of time on the lyrics.

I started writing “Do or Die” in November 2016, just days after Donald Trump was elected in the States. Chris hadn’t believed that it could happen, so I hadn’t really thought twice about the possibility. We were both like, “Yeah, that’s never going to happen,” but then it did and it was just awful. I actually cried. I remember when the Brexit vote happened, I was sitting in an armchair in my aunt’s house just going ‘oh my god, oh my god’ and feeling really sick. I don’t know about you, but I think I could feel it coming. When I came back to the UK to master There Is No Other…, it was almost like I could smell it in the air, you know? So that’s where this song began really, first with Brexit and then Trump.

I kind of feel like we are still in the thick of it. Who knows what’s next, you know? It was so noticeable how, after 2016, hate speech was suddenly validated. All of a sudden people felt it was perfectly acceptable to spout all this venomous, hateful stuff, and I found it so disconcerting. But I really do believe in the fundamental decency and goodness of humanity, and it’s really important to me to hang onto that. So, yeah, I chose “Do or Die” because I really like the lyrics I wrote, and I really mean them too. It’s heartfelt and sincere.

It has such a lovely rhythm to it. The lines “Are you still awake? / Are you real or fake?” and “Wonder what’s in store / Kindness is the cure” make a lot of sense with what you’ve described.

Yeah, and I really believe that about kindness. There’s been this trend in recent years of people saying it’s cool to be kind, and I’m just like, oh my god, is that not a given? What is wrong with people these days? One thing I’ve always struggled with over the years and don’t buy into at all is the idea that some people have that kindness is weakness. That is so strange to me. Kindness is everything! It’s not cool to sneer at people or be really jaded.

I really do believe in the force of good. No matter how dark the world gets, I’ll always be trying to beam out that light of kindness. It really does matter, I think. I’ve never been one to shy away from looking at and contemplating dark stuff, and I think there’s a time for that as there is a time for everything. I think one of the reasons why Mark and I worked so well together was that we did have this kind of polarity of light and darkness. But, you know, even the lightest of lights still had a bit of dark to it, and vice versa.

Often the most beautiful light is the dappled light.


IC Bow To Love

Bow to Love is out now via Cooking Vinyl, on vinyl and 2CD featuring a bonus disc of the songs recorded in French.

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