"I'm amazed you're not a junkie."
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan With Willy Mason. Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., 709-9442, neumos.com. $17. 8 p.m. Tues., Oct. 26.
It's almost comical hearing Isobel Campbell morph her bright, cheery Scottish voice into a guttural growl as she imitates something her longtime collaborator, former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, once told her. Over the phone from her newly adopted home city of Los Angeles, Campbell laughs, but the subject isn't exactly funny.
"He's had his issues and I've had mine," she says, reverting back to her usual gentle flutter.
Most everyone knows Lanegan's issues—for years he's had a well-documented, off-and-on struggle with heroin and other substances. His past stints in rehab scuttled the duo's plans to tour the U.S. behind their first two albums, 2006's Ballad of the Broken Seas and 2008's Sunday at Devil Dirt. And with his gruff public persona, Lanegan makes little effort to hide his tormented soul. Yet despite her sunny disposition, Campbell too has struggled with darkness and sadness: crippling self-doubt, career uncertainty, and the recent flameout of a serious romance that left her distraught.
Rather than dance with the needle, she's channeled that anguish into Hawk, the duo's just-released third collaborative LP. When Campbell and Lanegan first linked up in 2005, they were pegged as the second coming of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Beauty and the beast. The angelic blonde ingénue with the delicate coo picking up the somber, scotch-and-cigarette-scarred Svengali when he's feeling blue. They played those roles then, and still do, to some extent. But on Hawk, Campbell gets to vent her own troubles more than ever, not only with her plaintive vocal melodies but with the album's lyrics—which, save for two Townes Van Zandt covers, she wrote herself.
"Too much pain, too much pressure/Why must I have to wait so long/For the one that I treasure/Tomorrow, that's when I'll be calm," she whispers over a haunting guitar arpeggio in the chilling "Sunrise," one of Campbell's solo turns. On the other, "To Hell and Back Again," she summons the ghost of Mazzy Star as she unpacks a fragile broken heart: "I'm in despair, I cannot win/I have been to hell and back again/My doctor knows, he comes and goes . . . " And when Campbell's lilt and Lanegan's sepulchral croon intertwine in stunning, magnetic ways—on the thick, gospel blues-rock of "You Won't Let Me Down Again," or the strings-and-organ-buoyed soul sway of "Come Undone"—her grievous articulations provide little solace for his.
A devastating breakup two years ago caused Campbell to flee her native Glasgow for Tucson, Arizona—the most polar-opposite location she could think of. In the desert she became a virtual hermit, writing, arranging, and recording the bulk of Hawk while fighting creative blocks and impulses to give it all up.
"I have to drag myself kicking and screaming into it," she says of songwriting, "but it's just something I have to do."
During Hawk's lengthy gestation, Lanegan turned up for only a few days to lay down his vocals—a fraction of the time and effort Campbell put in. She says she understands why.
"I know he feels my pain when I'm in the studio for two years, not seeing any family or friends and putting everything of myself into the music. He said to me that's why he doesn't make records all the time. Because every time he goes through that process, it would make him sick.
"Part of me would like more of a partner, really," she admits. "I mean, he's into it, into singing the songs. He likes to be lazy sometimes. He won't even take his lyrics folder home with him, and I'm like, 'You're so lazy!' But he just laughs at me. It works. We like each other fine. We're dear, dear friends. When I'm in the middle of the nitty-gritty hard work, sometimes I can get really resentful. But right now I'm feeling the love much more."
Indeed, Campbell says she's in such a good place at the moment that she recently went to see Belle & Sebastian, the Scottish indie-pop band she played cello and sang with from 1996 to 2002, for the first time since she left the band (after her on-again, off-again relationship with frontman Stuart Murdoch ended).
"I was really proud of them. They sounded really good. If I'd gone to see them early after I'd left, I think it would have been really traumatic for me," she says. "But I just . . . I love them, so it was really sweet to see them. It wasn't awkward at all. That's probably a good indication of where I'm at now."
Considering where her career has taken her, Campbell says the Belle & Sebastian days feel like a different lifetime. "I'm still the same person. I'm just a better human being. I did a bit of work on myself. I was definitely a lot crazier. I think I'm kinder and more patient now."
She's certainly had to be patient with Lanegan, but she thinks the musical magic they've managed to create over the past five years has been worth it. And after plenty of false starts and dashed hopes, their first proper U.S. tour is a go.
"This time it seems like it's finally going to happen, unless Mark gets abducted by aliens or I get hit by a truck," she laughs. "Or we spontaneously combust."