Mark Lanegan Strings Attached

Mark Lanegan Strings Attached
In 1999, Mark Lanegan released I'll Take Care Of You, an album predominantly comprised of soul and country covers, along with a couple of songs by friends Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club and James Moreland of the Leaving Trains. Although it received little attention, the record was an important step for Lanegan in terms of distancing himself from the Seattle scene he'd played a prominent role in fostering through his work with the Screaming Trees and close association with other artists, particularly Kurt Cobain.

A few short years later, Lanegan had largely put Seattle behind him, broadening his musical scope with an ever-growing list of collaborators including not only Queens of the Stone Age, but Greg Dulli (as the Gutter Twins), ex-Belle & Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell, British electronica duo Soulsavers, and most recently, Moby and acoustic guitar virtuoso Duke Garwood.

Lanegan's latest solo album, Imitations, serves almost like a bookend to that extremely fruitful period of his career, revisiting the concept of I'll Take Care Of You, but with a much more sophisticated approach. On it, he tackles standards such as "Mack the Knife" and "Autumn Leaves" in his own inimitable way, along with other material made famous by unlikely inspirations: crooner Andy Williams and country-rock pioneers the Gosdin Brothers. The album also features songs by Nick Cave, John Cale, and highly touted young L.A. songstress Chelsea Wolfe, all accentuated with strings by Seattle's Andrew Joslyn.

Lanegan spoke with Exclaim! from his L.A. home, where he explained the creation of Imitations, how his musical approach has matured, and why he has more fans everywhere else in the world than in North America.

How did your summer tour go?
Oh, it was good. It was brief, just a couple weeks of festivals, really. Over and back, but enjoyable. It was the last time I'll be playing with the band for a little while.

Were you doing any of this new album?
No, it was still the Mark Lanegan Band — my Belgian guys — so I was playing Blues Funeral stuff and older stuff. When I go out with this [new album], it'll just be a few dates in the States and then a couple of months overseas. I'm doing it with an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, and some strings. It'll be a stripped-down show for seated places.

You've described Imitations as a tribute to some of the music you remembered hearing as a kid in your parents' record collection. Did you possibly hear something recently that jarred you memory, and inspired to you make this album?
No, it's been in the back of my mind for a long, long time. I made another covers record in the '90s, and I tried a couple of these kinds of songs when I made that record. I recorded an Englebert Humperdinck song and a Frank Sinatra song, but they didn't mesh with the rest of the record. I just set those aside and said one day I'll do a record that's fully committed to that kind of material, or at least that kind of sound. By that I mean, that '60s pop sound, for lack of a better term — the kind of records Andy Williams made, with orchestration.

That '90s covers record, I'll Take Care Of You, has always been one of my favourite things you've done. Do you see Imitations as an extension of that concept?
That was a different type of song, I guess, I used on that [earlier] record, but yeah, the concept was still the same. I wanted Imitations to be a fully realized record from start to finish, with a cohesive sound and a sequence that took you from one song to the other, just like I would with a record of original stuff. It was the same thought process, only with songs by other people and instrumentation that I don't normally use. I was just sort of bending it a little bit to cast it in that same light.

A common thread between the two albums is a mix of classics and songs by people associated with your career, such as Greg Dulli. On the new album you also chose songs by Nick Cave and Chelsea Wolfe. What was it about them that fit in with the other material?
Those are just songs that I loved. That song of Greg's ["Deepest Shade"] was one he first gave to me in the early '90s. He had recorded it for a Twilight Singers record, but didn't end up putting it on. So he said he thought it would be a good one for me to sing. Then we went on to make the Gutter Twins records and other Twilight Singers stuff, and we still ended up not doing the song [laughs]. But I never forgot it, and it was perfect for this project. Another common thread with I'll Take Care of You is that I tried to use all of the same musicians again, and record in the same studio in Seattle with same producer and engineer. Only a couple of guys weren't available, but for instance, Mike Johnson played on the whole record and I hadn't played with him for about 12 or 13 years, and that was great to have him on board. We just had a lot of fun. It's always fun to play songs by somebody else. I enjoy the songs that I write, but I can never enjoy them the same way as other peoples' songs.

You definitely have grown into a great interpreter. Do you feel you've become much more comfortable as a singer in the past few years?
Well yeah. I think that's something that just comes with age. I've been feeling more comfortable as a human being in general. I guess that would lead to comfort in all of these other aspect of my life, singing being one of them. It's not nearly as hard as it was when I started. It was really difficult to sing, nobody showed me how to do it. I remember early Screaming Trees shows in the '80s when I'd walk away with a pounding headache from trying to sing way out of my range. It took a long time to really learn how to sing in a natural way, but I've been there for quite a while now, luckily.

I can't recall you ever working with strings prior to this album. Did you have a direct involvement with the arrangements?
No. I left it in the hands of a guy named Andrew Joslyn, who is excellent at it and who I trusted. He's real well known in the northwest and has worked with everybody from the Seattle Philharmonic to the rapper Macklemore. He's like the go-to guy up there, and he did a fantastic job on my stuff.

There's a strong European flavour to this record as well, and I know you spend a lot of time performing over there. Are European audiences more receptive to what you're doing now than North American audiences?
Definitely. I have a following there, and I don't really have one here in the States — maybe a small one. Where I make my living is the rest of the world, really. I'm thrilled that I have places where people do want to listen to my music. I love to travel, I love Europe, Australia, South America — I'm going to Brazil at the end of the week. I get the opportunity to go to a lot of places, and I feel like I've been to all the big cities in North America a million times. They're all great, and I guess I've been to London and Paris and Brussels just as much, but it's always more fun going someplace where you've never really been before.

Do you think that people in North America still tend to pigeonhole you too easily as just a rock and roll singer?
To be honest, when I do interviews with North American press, it's usually a lot of questions about grunge music, Nirvana — "How do you feel about the new Nirvana reissue?" — that kind of shit. So, you know, it's not much fun to discuss that stuff over and over again. That doesn't happen in Europe. I think a lot of people that listen to my music over there might not even be aware of the Screaming Trees. In fact, I know that's true. It's not like I'm ashamed of it, but it's like talking about that year of kindergarten over and over again. It was a learning experience, and that's about it.

One of the new album's standout tracks is the Gerard Manset song, "Elegie Funebre," which you sing in French. What can you tell me about that?
Well, I've been sort of obsessed with him, and the record that song was originally on, which translated from French is called The Death of Orion. It's one of those brilliant, oddball records from the early '70s, but he made a lot of great records, and a lot that were really popular in France. I've just been a big fan for a long time. He called me and asked me to do that song on his new album — he's in his late 60s now — and I did. When they heard it, they said they were going to get someone to translate the words and have me sing it in English instead [laughs]. My French didn't cut the mustard with those guys. I was happy to do what they wanted because I'm such a fan, but I really liked my version in French and asked if it would be cool to use it on my record, and they said yeah, go ahead.

So, there's an English version that will be coming out on his album?
I haven't done it yet, but supposedly that's the plan.

Your version of the James Bond theme "You Only Live Twice" was really an inspired choice as well. Was it a challenge for you to reinterpret a song that people associate with something so specific?
Well, it's always challenging to do songs that are so well-known. I mean, how many people have done "Mack the Knife"? It's probably one of the most covered songs of all time. It's a little daunting to do that stuff, but that's sort of why I stripped those down. The goal was just to get to the heart of what the songs are about.