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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Campbell content without B&S

In 2002, Isobel Campbell left Belle & Sebastian, one of the most successful indie bands in the world, to pursue a solo career. Her first solo album, "Amorino," was recently released on Instinct Records.

The Scot played cello and sang background vocals and the occasional lead on all of Belle & Sebastian's output through 2002's "Storytelling" soundtrack. She's known for her gentle, breathy voice and her reverence for the sentimental, kitschy tunes of '60s French icons like Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy. But on "Amorino," Campbell also shows a fondness for swing, jazz and instrumental film music.

The Dartmouth recently rang up Isobel at her home in Glasgow to talk about her new album, quitting Belle & Sebastian and the hazards of traveling with a cello.

The Dartmouth: The liner notes for "Amorino" list dozens of musicians, but then it says, "All other instruments played by Isobel." How many instruments did you play on this album, anyway?

Isobel Campbell: Oh, I don't know guitar, piano, cello, percussion, harpsichord, vibes, glockenspiel, timpani maybe eight or nine.

The D: I understand the album took you three years to make.

IC: Yes, but I was probably in the studio for only three weeks, beginning in December 1999. Belle & Sebastian commitments took up a lot of my time for those last two years [2001-2002].

The D: I was at what ended up being one of your last shows with Belle & Sebastian, in Boston in the spring of 2002. It was a great show, but it didn't look like you were having much fun.

IC: Well, it had taken me about four days to get to Boston. I missed the first connecting flight from Glasgow due to security issues with my cello. Cellos just really freak air hostesses out. Maybe they think it's a dead body or something?

The D: How long have you been interested in the French pop sound that's so prominent on "Amorino"?

IC: Ever since I first heard it, I knew it was music that spoke to me. I first heard [Mireille Mathieu's] "Et Je T'Aime" when I was 17, and the boy I was going out with played it for me, and I loved it.

The D: Todd Solondz hired Belle & Sebastian to do the soundtrack for his 2001 film "Storytelling," but only a few minutes of the music actually made it into the final cut of the movie. What was that like?

IC: [Solondz] didn't really know what he wanted, and it was impossible for us to know what he wanted. For me it just wasn't a great film really. Plus working on the film in January in New York was so cold! And when you're part of a group, you're not really the one making the decisions.

The D: Was that one of the reasons you left Belle & Sebastian, a lack of control?

IC: Yeah. I just wanted to sort of be the master of my own destiny -- if I f-- up then it's me that's f--ed up, you know? It took two years to make the decision. When the touring really kicked in, that's when [the band] became a lot more "industry." At the same time, it's sometimes hard to feel free even if you are your own boss.

The D: What's it like organizing the recording of an album on your own?

IC: I made the record before I had a label. There was a chance to sign with a more old-school, industry person, but I decided it was better not to. I was hiring people and paying people, and I was kind of at the helm, I suppose. It was really just one person's opinion rather than eight [in Belle & Sebastian], so it was easier to get things done. In a group, the piano player will be saying, "Turn the piano up," and the drummer will be saying, "Turn the drums up." [Laughs.] And I suppose the cello player will be saying, "Turn the cello up." For the two years when I was still in the group and also making my album, it was a lot of work. I was just devoted to music for two solid years.

The D: As a collective, Belle & Sebastian seems like just about the polar opposite of a solo artist.

IC: The romance of [solo] artists like Leonard Cohen and Francoise Hardy and Bob Dylan always appealed to me. Even like Johnny Cash or someone like that -- they just kind of stand alone. Brian Wilson -- he's like an advert for not being in the music business. He's kind of a shell of himself. It's not really worth going mad for, is it? Still, "Pet Sounds," even that one album alone, it's a real gift to the world.

The D: So aside from finishing up "Amorino," what have you been up to since leaving Belle & Sebastian?

IC: I've been in Glasgow for the last year, doing lots of DIY, and --

The D: Lots of what?

IC: Do you not have that term in America? It refers to, like, fixing up your house.

The D: Oh, like home improvement. I'd only heard it in reference to, like, "the do-it-yourself ethic" in indie music or film or whatever. Anyway, will you be touring in support of "Amorino"?

IC: I really want to tour. I'm kind of getting a band together to tour -- that's what I was doing when you called, in fact.

The D: Oh, sorry! Just one more question, then. You must speak French, right?

IC: I speak a little, but every time I speak French my friend Philipe [Pourhashemi, who performs a spoken-word part on "Amorino"] laughs at me. I was in Montreal on tour, and I switched on the telly and there was like Serge Gainsbourg speaking French! I like Canada.