Isobel Campbell: Not such a stupid Cupid

Isobel Campbell has gone solo and is loving it. Charlotte Cripps talks to the former cellist from Belle & Sebastian
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The Independent Culture

Whatever happened to Belle & Sebastian's former cellist and soloist, the dreamy Isobel Campbell? Her photograph - taken by her ex-boyfriend, the lead singer Stuart Murdoch, and making her look like a French film star - was used on the band's album cover. She even wrote one of their best songs, "Is it Wicked Not to Care?"

But after seven years in the comfort of B&S - one of Scotland's most respected indie bands (now heading mainstream) - she bewildered music fans worldwide by leaving the gang (who conjure up happy-clappy campfires and no-fixed-abode bohemian ramblings).

Now she has returned. At the beginning of the week, she performed her first gig in London for three years and on 17 December she will be playing Glasgow. She has also just released a solo album, Amorino, (the first time she's released something under her own name). The sound on the album can be annoyingly "sweet" and is, in fact, strangely redolent of the artwork on the cover sleeve - pink and girlie with butterflies lolloping about. It's the kind of music you expect from somebody with My Little Ponies and stickerbooks everywhere. But underneath the easy listening indie-pop are unsettling instrumental touches by Adrian Utley - the guitarist of Portishead - and a duet with Eugene Kelly (who will also be performing with her in Glasgow) formerly of The Vaselines and a Kurt Cobain favourite.

"If it sounds pretty, people get a bit freaked out," Campbell says. "It is like the artwork. Some people have gone: 'Pink - eurgh! Pink - yuck!'" she says looking squeamish. "But I am playing with fairytale imagery which, like nursery rhymes, can be very, very, dark. I think a lot of people can miss that," she says. "I even get heavy metal fan mail."

The "on and off" (she says dismissively) ex-girlfriend of B&S's Stuart Murdoch, says that leaving the band, formally in May 2002, was the best decision she made. "The first six months [in Belle & Sebastian] were like a honeymoon - gorgeous. But ... after the first album, Tiger Milk, things became messy and difficult. It became apparent to me that we were going to become this rock machine, and tour a lot. But the support wasn't there within the band for me to continue. Some people say: 'Oh, you need a bit of tension in a band,' but I don't really go for that. In the beginning we just played for the love of playing. But try as hard as you may, when money gets involved, it becomes less pure."

Campbell admits to being an idealist, loves anything French, and Sixties pop (although she also likes Air and Nick Cave). She attempted to forge her own identity while still in B&S, with two solo albums under the guise of The Gentle Waves. "I needed a bit of protection, back then," Campbell says. "But it felt right to use my own name this time - like the French singers who inspire me - Françoise Hardy and Jacques Brel, and my friends were saying to me that I should defend my work."

Interestingly, the soft and tender Amorino was released the same month - October - as B&S's starkly contrasting album Dear Catastrophe Waitress in which the band has gone louder and more mainstream with the help of Trevor Horn, the Frankie Goes to Hollywood producer. But, it seems, it is Campbell who is staying true to the tweeness (like it or not) of the Belle & Sebastian good old days. In fact, she sounds so wet you only hope no loud bangs happen at the gig. "I am already really very nervous," says the 27-year-old who does not take to the limelight easily.

But it was also fairly traumatic getting Amorino released. "It took a year," she says, almost whispering. "It was difficult because I was made an offer of a deal by a big independent label [Instant Karma, run by the former head of Warner Brothers Rob Dickins] and it meant sacrificing a lot of artistic control. They liked the album, but said the title sounded like amino acid," she laughs. In fact, "Amorino" (which is Italian for "Cupid") was taken from a conversation with an Italian journalist who used it to describe her music. "I thought it was beautiful. I got a letter from him two weeks ago to say he was delighted. It is good to pick things up from people, as you go along - sharing thoughts and ideas."

But this past whole year has been a bit of a mind trip. "I thought: 'Oh my God, the album's not going to come out at all!' Things are so corporate just now that it is tough ... but it has now. I just wanted to stand for something and not try and be bland and generic. I hate what is happening in the music industry at the moment. It is really soul destroying."

Campbell, who is classically trained, says the next album will move towards the sounds of Sixties folk singers - Shirley Collins crossed with Simon and Garfunkel. "It has been good that people have got the folk elements of my music already. So it is definitely there. But I have been listening to a lot of Shirley Collins - amazing folk music: atmospheric, dark and sometimes erotic. I'm drawing more and more upon this type of feeling in my music. I still hope to use a lot of strings, but I think that when I made Amorino I'd really gone off the guitar. In many ways I feel like I want to be seduced by it, again."

But Campbell is in no hurry. "The really romantic part for me is in the writing, so I am enjoying that now," she says. But, in the meantime, she will release a new single in February - a version of the instrumental track "Why Does My Head Hurt So?" with a vocal by Mark Lanegan (the former Screaming Trees man and sometime Queens of the Stone Age live participant).

When I meet her just before her Monday evening's performance, she is worrying about the size of the band (there are nine members), hoping, "We don't fall over each other like a pile of spaghetti." The crowd is largely made up of people wearing variations of the colour brown. Campbell turns up on stage looking apprehensive and dressed in black with a long tassel of blond hair. Her performance is evocative and sweet, like the soundtrack for a Sixties film never made.

"It's a relief," she tells me after the concert, sighing. "But the audience were very polite."

Isobel Campbell plays at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow on 17 December. 'Amorino' is out now on Snowstorm