It’s unlikely that Isobel, or her fanbase, could have predicted she would endure such a prolonged absence from releasing recorded material.
It’s been 14 years since her last solo album, Milkwhite Sheets, and a decade since she and Mark Lanegan collaborated on their third album together.
Nevertheless, following a period of legal wrangling after her record label folded and she had to win the rights back to her record, Isobel is now set to release her fifth solo record, There Is No Other.
The Scottish singer-songwriter and cellist began her musical career as a founding member of celebrated indie band Belle and Sebastian before going solo in 1999.
After a run of four solo albums she joined forces with former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan.
The pair made three highly successful albums together before calling time on their partnership.
Taking another left turn, Isobel moved from Glasgow to LA and embarked on a journey across America with her husband, studio engineer Chris Szczech, to make her next album.
Here we chat to Isobel about the rewards and challenges of going it alone, how she’s evolved as a songwriter and what she has coming up next…
This is your first solo record since 2006’s Milkwhite Sheets and your first recorded output since Hawk with Mark Lanegan: can you talk a little about the circumstances surrounding your hiatus?
It’s quite hard to talk about, because it wasn’t a good time and I’ve been talking about it a lot. And there’s a lot of legal stuff. It was never my intention to stop releasing music for so long.
If you didn’t have any output because you didn’t want to do music anymore, or you’re a lazy person, then that would be okay. But when it’s because you legally couldn’t, being powerless in that way felt challenging.
Do you think there is enough protection for songwriter’s rights?
I feel like, in a lot of ways, there’s a team and everyone gets their cut and usually the artist is the last person to get paid. And now where people aren’t paying for music, sometimes there’s not any money to be paid. That’s just the way it is now because people have gotten used to not paying for music. I wish there was more protection. It’s hard, but I can’t think what that would be, but I seriously wish there was.
I wanted to record an album in my own voice and express that as truly as I could. I wanted it to have a unique voice, not aping anyone and just being whatever it is that I am. I wanted to be that on a recording. I had to think for a minute, because obviously the records that I’ve produced and made with Mark Lanegan it was more of a duo. And he’s an American singer, so I had to really think, what am I? That’s not what I am – I’m European, British and Scottish, so I went from that well.
As a songwriter and musician, I love Americana, I love folk music and I love the transatlantic cross pollination of these folk songs and how we’ve travelled. At the same time, sometimes in culture nowadays it’s weird, there’re kids in Scotland who say things are ‘awesome’ and I don’t like how things take over. I think local dialects and expressions can be some of the most descriptive and beautiful language. I think we see so much of Hollywood and things we all understand that very well because we’re bombarded with it, but I wanted to explore my roots and my ancestry. I think people are coming into that more. Maybe because I was living in the US and sometimes feeling quite alien it highlighted that if something is smaller doesn’t mean it’s less valid or interesting because it’s not generic. I’m all for uniqueness.
Having made three albums with Mark Lanegan, how did it feel to be making a solo record again?
It was absolutely terrifying because it’s almost like if you’re in a department store or shopping centre and you see your reflection and you’re like, ‘oh my god, is that me?’ The thing is I was comfortable writing song for Mark because I knew that a lot of those songs came from Scottish and Irish and English ancestry. I felt like it was in my blood. I had to dig deep. There’s something kind of escapist and enjoyable about dealing with someone else, instead of dealing with yourself [laughs].
Once I figured it out, I was into it. Once I got it going, I could enjoy it and now I really like it. Mark was six foot five and a big presence, so I could hide behind that quite nicely. But also, as a woman, I think it’s completely the wrong time for me not to have a voice right now, and in the future. That’s what I feel right now because there are things that our ancestors fought for that I’m not giving up. I think there’re more fields to be ploughed and more progress to be made. As terrifying as it is to be a solo voice, I think it’s important for me to be a solo voice.
Why would I feel that it was preferable to pass on something for man to sing? Ultimately, it was fun writing and producing but I’m definitely not an in-your-face person, so I was very comfortable in the shadows and good at hiding. Now it transpires – the record has been finished for a while – the more voices the better and the more unique. There’s room for all. There’s a whole spectrum of different artists. That was my whole thing I like to think about now – unity through diversity. We can all be diverse, but we can all co-exist.
We had a portable Pro Tools rig and my husband’s a recording engineer. His family had a little cabin in upstate New York and we started writing and recording there. Then we drove across the country because it was summer and the house we lived in didn’t have air conditioning so we wanted to escape the heat.
We finished the bulk of the record and we mixed it in a cabin in Woodstock. We set up a portable studio in a cabin and finished the editing and overdubbing and mixed it all there. But it was January and February in a summer cabin, so it was really freezing [laughs]. We got the job done. In some ways because we’re so close together it can be intense, but in other ways I felt quite lucky because we can just do things whenever we wanted. It felt like a luxury. Not that I ever minded recording in a studio, but you’re watching the clock when you’re there, like, ‘oh my goodness, how much is this costing?' But this wasn’t like that and we were in nature the whole time, which is my favourite thing.
I felt like I was getting what I needed. It was nothing fancy, just very simple. I enjoyed being away from big studios, because sometimes I feel like studios can be intimidating or you’re aware that other people are moving around where you are. It felt private and comfortable – apart from being freezing [laughs].
How do you feel now the record is nearly out in the world after such a long gestation period?
When Ant Life was released at the end of August 2019 I thought, I can’t believe this is actually out. Then Mark wrote to me to say he loved Ant Life and a few friends wrote to say that. It was weird, I was at my mum’s in Scotland and she had gone somewhere, so I was in her house, nobody was around, and it was really peaceful. I felt blissed out because it was actually happening. It really seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. Sometimes I think it doesn’t hurt to have one that stays in the box, so I was thinking maybe this is my one.
It’s all been completely surreal. Everything still feels surreal. I feel like my tiny life is a mirror to the surrealness that is now.
How have you evolved as a songwriter over the years?
I feel like I’ve been studying it my whole life. It’s one of my favourite things to do. It’s like completing a puzzle. In the beginning I was much less experienced. After doing it for a while I learned to trust that even if something is not coming together sometimes something will, and it will be really good. And sometimes if it doesn’t come together then just leave it, you can’t really force it.
I usually just trust what will feel right, but then try not to worry too much if it doesn’t. I think it’s good to edit a lot and move on to the thing that is actually working. And sometimes it’s unpredictable, because sometimes an idea that I’m most excited about will be quite disappointing and then sometimes something that’s throwaway will be the best thing. It’s a mysterious mistress [laughs].
You’ve got a UK Tour coming up – are you looking forward to getting back out on the road?
I am. There are logistical struggles, but hopefully that will get figured out. If I’m able to do it, it will be wonderful because I’ve been a sort of recluse dealing with these legal emails and things like that. So, it will be nice to actually play some music.
What else have you got coming up next year?
I’d like to say that I self-manage [laughs], but I’m not really coping very well with it. Basically, what it is, is I do my best. I work really hard; I don’t shy away. If I have to organise things then I will, but it’s kind of in the lap of the gods. I’d like to keep doing it, but I feel like if that’s what I’m meant to be doing then I will still be doing it. It is a kind of a machine in a way and what I’ve probably learned is that you do need all the elements in the machine, but some of the elements in the machine you can’t really trust. It’s like a riddle [laughs].
I’d like to say, as a solo person now, oh well it’s probably easier when you’re in the tight unit of a band, but sometimes when you’re in a band there can be different kinds of conflicts. So, I don’t really know what the answer is. I’m grateful for the stuff that goes well and then I just try and figure out the stuff that doesn’t [laughs].
There Is No Other is released 7 February via Cooking Vinyl
Forthcoming live dates
28 January Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
30 January Celtic Connections, Glasgow
31 January The Empire Music Hall, Belfast
1 February Liberty Hall, Dublin
2 February The Deaf Institute, Manchester
3 February Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
5 February Komedia, Brighton
7 February St Pancras Old Church, London