San Francisco-based musician Jeff Campbell has had quite a year. On a whim, he entered the Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter 2 contest and made it to the online semi-finals. From there, he was hand-picked as one of ten finalists who performed live this past March at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe, where his soulful, stirring performance of the original “Shut Your Mouth” earned him the crown. In addition to the win, he walked away with $10,000 cash, lots of new gear and two dream prizes- an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel TV show and a 4-song EP produced by John Shanks (Melissa Etheridge, Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow). American Songwriter caught up with Jeff and John to discuss Jeff’s music and his unforgettable year.
This year’s Guitar Center contest (sponsored by American Songwriter) is open for submissions here.
Congrats on winning the Guitar Center Singer/Songwriter contest. I’m sure it’s a life-changing experience.
Jeff: Absolutely. It has been. I’m blown away by what these people are doing for me, from the Guitar Center people to John, his production team and the musicians. It’s phenomenal. It’s nice to be recognized.
John, what was the judging process like? And what did Jeff have that made you choose him?
John: This whole competition is a worthy endeavor on Guitar Center’s part. There’s a lot of talent out there that needs to be heard. It was a lot tougher choosing finalists this year because the quality level was so high. It’s a singer-songwriter contest and I’m looking for someone who is self-contained. As far as singing, I’m looking for someone with range, someone who explores different aspects of their voice. As a songwriter, I’m looking for that lift, where they take the melody and the lyric. There’s a tone and quality I really liked with Jeff’s voice, and for me, that’s what separated him from the others in the competition.
Jeff, you’ve been a full-time musician for a few years now, correct?
Jeff: On St. Patrick’s Day in 2009, I faxed in a letter to my big corporate job and basically said I’m not doing this anymore. It took a while to get used to not having things I’d had — like money! But I’ve adapted and gotten used to sleeping on couches, living out of a suitcase and eating out of a can.
Working with a respected producer like John in a world-class studio like Henson must have been quite an experience.
Jeff: I was working with the ultimate producer. He’s in a club of less than 10 producers, or even 5, who are cranking out hits on a regular basis and have been for a long time. I was able to go in, play guitar and just let myself go and know he’s got it covered. And I was creating music in the same room where Joni Mitchell recorded her great records, Carole King did Tapestry and so much other great music was made.
You sent John a bunch of songs before the sessions. What did he ask for?
Jeff: I sent him about 20 songs. He told me, “whether it’s a new idea or an older song, I just want to hear it naked. So just record iPhone demos of you singing and playing.” When I went into the session, he had a pretty good idea of which four songs he wanted to work on.
Tell me about the four that were recorded.
Jeff: Two songs are more recent ones I’ve written and one is a reinterpretation of an older song. The fourth one has an interesting story behind it. On the second day, I got to the studio early to warm up. I started picking out a riff and humming a melody and 15 minutes later I had two pages of lyrics and a brand new tune. It’s a little more of a ‘putting it all out there’ love song with no room for ambiguity, which is a bit of a departure for where I would normally go in a song. John came in and I played it for him and he said “this is the one.” We ended up bumping the fourth song he had planned on recording and tracked this new song. It was definitely one of the highlights of the whole experience, having the insight of a great producer and the incredible musicians who’ve appeared on countless projects shape the song and put it in the direction it should go.
John: I think the new song might be the lead song for his release. Jeff had that classic moment where he’s alone and feeling good, picks up his guitar and writes a new song. We recorded it right away. It was very fresh, valid and in the moment. There are a couple of tests that will tell me if a songwriter is good. How do they respond under fire in a room full of great, talented musicians? Do you rise to the occasion or do you fold? Jeff did very well. He was inspired, open to ideas and communicated well with the band.
The musicians in the band (Lee Sklar- bass, Tim Pierce- guitar, Jamie Muhoberac- keyboards, Victor Indrizzo- drums) were also A-list players as well.
John: I put together a group of players who would get it and be complimentary to the material. That’s why they’re so great. They have so much collective experience. And whoever is in the room with them better step up their game and show them they’re worthy of being in the room. Lee Sklar (bassist), for example, has been on so many records that when he says ‘you might want to stop here and go this way with the song,’ people will listen. It’s coming from an honest place- there’s a common goal.
Jeff, has your songwriting improved since winning the competition?
Jeff: After an opportunity like this comes along and you’re able to work with a great producer and legendary musicians, you want to bring them your best stuff. When I was in there working with John I realized he likes to keep things simple. He knows a lot about what the listener wants to hear and what makes a song memorable and stick in their heads. We wound up changing parts and lyrics on two songs I thought were finished arrangements to make them more accessible and straightforward. So after that, I suppose I knew what type of song he wanted and then the new song was born. I feel like my subconscious told me what song to write.
John: I would suggest to him ‘why don’t you put the lyric this way?’ Some people are open to it and some people aren’t. I come from more of the Nashville and Brill Building type of songwriting- whatever it takes to make the song better. Ultimately the artist has to be happy with it and I have to support them, even though I may not agree. They’re the one who has to sing it for the next twenty years. When I write with Keith Urban, if he feels one line is better than another and I know he has to go sing it to his audience, I get it. If it works for the artist, that’s the deciding factor.
Who are your songwriting influences?
Jeff: Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs is a huge one. Dulli’s the king of the hip, classic love song where, yeah, it’s a love song but his delivery is so rough, rugged and awesome, both lyrically and vocally. I was listening to them the morning I wrote the new song, so they were definitely an influence. I grew up in the ‘90’s so the indie-rock, grunge era is part of my sound. Sunny Day Real Estate and all the bands that came out of Seattle were important to me. But the older I get, the more I’m of student of everything- the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, Jackson Browne. At the end of the day, what changes from generation to generation is more the production and approach to how a song sounds. Songwriting is still songwriting. It’s still words and melody. Whether or not it ends up being heavy or mellow depends on the production. And that is what changes over time.
What have you found to be most effective in getting your music heard? Is it web-based or good old-fashioned word of mouth and touring?
Jeff: Getting in my car and driving from city to city is the tool that I know best. It gives me a chance to shake someone’s hand and see them connect with the music. Or maybe they didn’t connect and I have to win them over, which is the most important part of learning how to perform. Being a touring musician is like being a traveling salesman. You drive around and your guitar case is your briefcase. You go to your major markets, make your loops, and then go back and visit the people interested in your products. And you grow your business. I learned that from years of doing that with a suit and tie selling investment products. When I decided to just do music, I quickly discovered it’s pretty much the same. I just don’t have to wear a suit and tie or cut my hair!
I have to caution myself when I say this because I’m also guilty of it. Social media is a great tool but since anyone can record and upload music, it’s hard to stand out in a gigantic field of choices. Not because the artists aren’t good. But the audience is inundated with requests to buy, watch or like music. There’s just so much out there that, as a fan, it’s tough to find and keep track of an artist.
What were your thoughts on initially entering the contest? How did you hear about it?
Jeff: There’s a Canadian indie rock band called City And Colour. The singer has a beautiful voice and I was listening to their song “Fragile Bird.” I found a YouTube video of him playing it solo at Guitar Center in Hollywood. I asked my manager if I could arrange to do something like that. She checked on it and said, “I’m not sure how that happened but there’s this songwriter contest they’re running.” So we entered it and it was cool to watch it build. I never thought it would happen the way it did.
You know, you can bust your butt and have all your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed but if you never get a break then you may not move on to another level. You have to be ready when an opportunity finds you. I got a break and when it happened I felt like I was ready for it. I was in the middle of a national tour and after the competition I got right back on the road. Once we have the finished John Shanks-produced record in hand we’ll be shopping it and hopefully break through that glass ceiling I’ve been staring up at for so long.