Mark Lanegan: The art of darkness

Mark Lanegan's unmistakably melancholy voice has featured on a multitude of collaborations. But, he tells Andy Gill, his latest album is his own. Well, kind of...

Mark Lanegan has one of the most enviable voices in modern rock music, a warm, husky baritone that sounds as if it's been marinated in whiskey and toasted to sepia perfection by three packs of unfiltered a day. It's a remarkably protean instrument, which he's applied to a wide range of functions, from fronting Seattle grunge band Screaming Trees, to the more delicately-shaded alliances of innocence and experience featured on several albums with Belle & Sebastian's Isobel Campbell, where his blend of weary resignation and honeyed languor creates a piquant dialectic with her knowing purity.

On Lanegan's new album Imitations, he applies that remarkable voice to perhaps his most personal, intimate project so far, a cover-versions collection reflecting the musical tastes of his parents when he was growing up in a small farming community in eastern Washington state.

“Well, sort of,” he acknowledges. “They're parental music tastes that became my tastes, to an extent. I probably first heard that stuff before I was five years old. My parents would be playing cards with their friends, and playing Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams. I was sort of damaged with that. And at the same time, they'd be playing country music as well; it was a little bit oddball, but it wormed its way in somehow.” Accordingly, the album features classic standards of a certain age – songs like “Autumn Leaves”, “Solitaire” and “Mack the Knife” – but also a smattering of more recent material of a similar emotional colour, like Nick Cave's “Brompton Oratory”. Lanegan's criterion was that he wanted a record that gave him the same feeling as those parental favourites.

“As a kid, all the music I was drawn to gave me a sort of sad feeling, for want of a better word,” he says. “But it was compelling, y'know? It was something I wanted to hear again. A lot of it had to do with the orchestration; then again, a lot of the stuff I was hearing, like George Jones, is meant to be sad.” Sadness is certainly Lanegan's forte, a reflection perhaps of a life which for many years was mired in the dark tunnel of drug addiction. It's not, I suggest, something he's striven to avoid in his career.

“I thought you were gonna say my career itself has been sad!” he laughs. “There could be a case made for that!” He muses a moment. “It's all relative – there's something about songs that some people find sad that other people find uplifting, and I'm one of those people.” That notion of uplifting melancholy comes through most strongly, perhaps, on “Brompton Oratory”, where Lanegan's voice is swathed in reverb-ed guitars and hazy, discombobulated trumpets that sound as if they're just getting to grips with the song.

“It was basically their first pass through it,” confirms Lanegan, “and it was exactly what I wanted. They were like, 'we haven't even learned the song yet!', but they did it perfectly as far as I was concerned. I love that song and I heard horns on it, the same kind of horns from like, say, Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom, that are kind of muted, woozy but touching.”

Another song getting a distinctive treatment is “Mack the Knife”, which you would have imagined might retain something of the Bobby Darin hipster cool that surely marked his early childhood memory of it, but which is presented in a stripped-back, spindly acoustic fingerstyle guitar setting that somehow restores a touch of the Brecht and Weill archness to the song.

“Well, I'm a big Dave Van Ronk fan,” explains Lanegan. “I was lucky enough to meet him once, before he passed away, he was just as awesome guy: really friendly, really funny, really cool. He did a version of that on a live record, just him and an acoustic guitar, and he somehow managed to make the song sad. All I did was basically copy his version note for note.”

“Mack the Knife” is one of the more prominent examples of a significant European flavour that sets Imitations apart from most American covers albums, an indication of Lanegan's unusual worldliness. There's a John Cale song, “I'm Not the Loving Kind”, done in a countrypolitan style, with steel guitar and strings, that recalls Jim Reeves and George Jones; and I was surprised to learn that the original lyric to “Autumn Leaves” was written by French poet Jacques Prévert. And another song, “Elégie Funèbre”, was written by another Frenchman, Gerard Manset. My French isn't great but, I suggest, I'm imagining a song called “Funeral Elegy” isn't that happy either...

“Again, it's relative,” laughs Lanegan. “Manset is sort of a French eccentric genius, he's been making records since the Sixties. Some of them were really popular in France, though he's known as something of a recluse, sort of anti the whole showbiz thing. But he made a lot of records, one of which I became obsessed with, The Death Of Orion. He got in touch with me to do that song on his new record, and after I'd done it, he said, 'y'know what, we're gonna have someone translate this, and have you do it in English!' – because my French wasn't enough up to snuff for them. But I liked my version in French, so I asked if I could use my version on my record.”

This is typical of Lanegan, who must be the most sought-after voice artist in rock music. Besides the three albums with Isobel Campbell, he's been guest vocalist with both Queens of the Stone Age and The Twilight Singers, has made records with the latter group's Greg Dulli as The Gutter Twins, and most recently released the album Black Pudding with Manchester bluesman Duke Garwood. It sounds like he's something of a serial collaborator.

“I must be,” he agrees. “Even the records I make as Mark Lanegan records, like this, I'm collaborating with, like, a hundred guys. I guess I've never truly done anything by myself – save for the odd track where it's just me and an acoustic guitar or piano. I need people! There's a security in the full band thing, in having that wall of sound. Playing solo with just a guitar player is scarier because there's less room for mistakes – it's a lot nakeder.”

He pauses. “Is 'nakeder' a word? It's a lot more naked, let's say. 'Nakeder'! I think everyone should be nakeder, that's my stance!”

'Imitations' is out now on Heavenly Recordings. Mark Lanegan tours 1 to 8 November

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus brought her Bangerz tour to London's O2 Arena last night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams' life story will be told in a biography written by a New York Times reporter

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
    Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

    From strung out to playing strings

    Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
    The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    A big fat surprise about nutrition?

    The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
    Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

    Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

    The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
    On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

    On the road to nowhere

    A Routemaster trip to remember
    Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

    Hotel India

    Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
    10 best pencil cases

    Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

    Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
    Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

    Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

    Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
    Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

    Pete Jenson: A Different League

    Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
    This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

    The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

    Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Britain’s superstar ballerina

    Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    Berlin's Furrie invasion

    2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    ‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

    Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis