Count the Flowers:
There Is No Other Isobel Campbell
Singer/cellist/composer Isobel Campbell first found fame when she was 19 years old, as a member of the beloved Scottish indie group Belle and Sebastian, but it’s the work she’s done since leaving that band in 2002 – four solo albums (sometimes under the name Gentle Waves), and three collaborative albums with ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan – that have really earned her a devoted following. However, her fans’ patience has been sorely tested, as it has been almost a decade since her last release, 2010’s Hawk (with Lanegan), and even longer since her previous solo album (2006’s Milkwhite Sheets). Happily, this long wait will soon be over, as she’s releasing another solo album, There Is No Other, on February 7.
There Is No Other is filled with gentle, peaceful songs, starting with the lullaby-esque “City of Angels,” which features soft acoustic guitar, soothing strings – and chirping crickets – as Campbell sings introspective lyrics with her whispery, sweet soprano. More uptempo songs, such as the sprightly “Ant Life,” the delicate but dynamic “Counting Fireflies,” and a spry cover of Tom Petty’s classic “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” still somehow bear her distinctive calming style.
However, calling from her home in Pasadena, California, Campbell admits that this tranquil vibe is deceptive, because recording this album was actually quite hectic. “There was nothing peaceful about it!” she says with a laugh. This is because the album was recorded in L.A. and in upstate New York, which necessitated numerous cross-country drives, as Campbell and her husband (who is a sound engineer) traveled with their golden retrievers (which they had to smuggle into hotels). “I was really glad to drive across the country once, but it’s about six times across now, so I don’t think I’d probably ever do it again,” she says.
Even when they did stay in one place for a while, things still weren’t relaxing: their initial upstate New York home was an apartment, and “there was an insurance office underneath, and there was a lady with a really loud voice, so we became nocturnal for that.” They next tried a more isolated setting: “We rented a house in the woods and set up our studio in Woodstock. But we were like Grizzly Adams! It was a summer cabin, but it was January, February, March – so it was freezing!” Also, Campbell’s husband’s family lived nearby, and their frequent visits, while welcome, also distracted her from her work.
Finally completing the sometimes grueling two-year recording process didn’t bring Campbell any relief, either – when she contacted her record company, she discovered that it was folding. What followed, she says, was nearly two years of heartache and stress as she coped with legal battles to win back the rights to her album – and once she did, then she had to figure out how she could actually release it.
“It was horrible,” she says. “I honestly thought I was getting put out to pasture. I was like, ‘Put the old girl down, that’s it. I tried really hard, and now it’s the end.’ I took it all incredibly personally. I was probably way overdramatic about it, like, ‘This is like a dagger to my heart.’ I was just crying my eyes out every day. I wasn’t a fun person to be around!”
Seeing how distraught she was, Campbell’s loved ones urged her to quit the music business once and for all. “Everyone wanted me to give up,” she says. “I was in this gridlock for years. So I was walking around the streets with my dogs, just going, ‘Oh dear, I don’t really know what to do.’ I’d be on the phone to Scotland. My mum and my aunt were like, ‘Just become a teacher now.’ I honestly think that my friends and my family thought I was this massive looney: ‘What, you’re still in that legal thing?’ I think they got bored. It’s quite boring when those things drag on and on.”
Fortunately, renowned London-based label Cooking Vinyl came to the rescue with an offer to release the album. Campbell was happy – but also, by this point, wary. “I’d heard of Cooking Vinyl, but I didn’t really know anything so I Googled it. I was like, oh yeah, it’s independent, they’re artist-friendly, this really sounds like something that I would want to be a part of. But then I started to worry because I think labels are like dating someone: if you want it too much, then it’s really disappointing if they don’t want you. So I was like, don’t want it too much, or they might say, ‘Pass.’”
But so far, Cooking Vinyl has been true to its word, and everything seems to be on track with the album release this time. Looking back on all the work and worry that brought her to this point, Campbell says she’s glad she remained persistent. “Even though it was really hard for me to show up for myself, I’m really glad I did, because I’m really good at showing up for everyone else. So it’s a bit of a lesson, really.”
Now, with all the turbulence behind her, Campbell is finally feeling ready to breathe a sigh of relief and really relish this new opportunity. “I have a really deep sense of peace. I don’t need anything else to happen now,” she says, though she adds that she’s glad that the label has set up several tour dates in Europe in January and February, and she hopes that more shows will follow in North America.
Campbell says she’s now fully ready to enjoy the experience of releasing her first solo album in 13 years. She chose to do a solo album this time, instead of working with anyone else, because she wanted to differentiate herself from the crowd: “There just seemed to be a moment where everyone was collaborating!” That said, she’s not closing the door on future such partnerships. “I love collaborating because I’m a really good wingman, I like all that stuff. And I am just such a big hider – I’m very comfortable hiding.”
When asked what she means by “hiding,” she explains: “I emigrated to Los Angeles, and most people that move here take meetings. I basically just became a recluse. I really don’t think I’ll live in Los Angeles forever because I miss my family too much, and I miss Scotland a lot. But L.A. has taught me a lot about myself. I think I always knew that I’m not an in-your-face person, but now I really know: I don’t have a schmoozing bone in my body. There’s a lot of people who are, ‘Look at me! See me!’ And I’m more like, ‘Let me duck for cover here.’”
Still, Campbell admits, “Even in Scotland, I was kind of a recluse. I would just have a monk’s life and write and think about creating records and music. But,” she adds, “I love creating, and I think that’s the thing that will always tempt me out of my comfort zone. Just creating and the magic of making and playing something.”
In fact, she says she’s already looking ahead to her next album – which she promises will not take as long to release, now that she’s found her place again. “Now I’m excited to do my next record. I’ve found a comfortable voice within myself, so that feels empowering. My absence has never been because I ran out of ideas. I will never run out of ideas. It was because someone just hit the pause button on me. I’ve got lots of ideas and I’m in love with writing.”
And with that, Campbell says goodbye, so she can take her dog for a walk. “When I’m a really, really old lady talking to my dogs, I’ll still be [making music]. No one might know about it, but I’ll probably still be hobbling around, singing!”
Photo by Ashley Osborn.