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