It’s been a decade since Jessica Campbell walked into the library of Middle Tennessee State University, looking to satisfy the requirements of her graduate school degree in Mass Communication by landing a local internship. She picked up a book that listed her options in the Nashville area and flipped to the first alphabetized entry: American Songwriter. Campbell grabbed the phone and called the office. Before the week was up, she’d landed the gig, temporarily joining the staff during the spring of 2005 as the magazine’s second intern ever.
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A lot can change in 10 years.
These days, Campbell isn’t a student; she’s a full-time songwriter, with three solo albums and a decade’s worth of shows – including more than 110 house concerts – under her belt. In a town that’s most famous for its country bands and rock and roll heavyweights, she’s a different breed of Nashville musician: an indie-minded “roots pop” songwriter who’s capable of crooning a stripped-down, acoustic Americana ballad one minute and barreling her way through forward-thinking pop songs like “Brighter Days” the next. The latter tune, with its synthesizers and super-sized hooks, kicks off her newest album, III, which hit stores this past October.
Described by Campbell as a “seize the day record,” III deals with the challenge of pursuing your dreams, even when the realities and challenges of adulthood threaten to get in the way. For Campbell, those dreams revolve around continuing to make a living as an artist, something she’s been doing ever since completing the American Songwriter internship. It hasn’t always been the easiest – or most stable – career, but that doesn’t mean III gets bogged down by the 5-hour drives and hit-or-miss crowds that accompany most tours. Instead, it focuses on the sunny side of the struggle.
Some of Campbell’s brightest moments on the road occur not on stages, but on living room carpets. House shows have become a big part of her career, confirming her status as a musician who doesn’t always abide by the traditional rules.
“At a house show, the entire purpose of the gathering is to listen to music,” she says. “It’s not a house party. It’s a seated event where someone welcomes me into their home, along with anywhere from 20 to 100 audience members who want to hear some songs. People really engage. I’ll tell them the stories behind the songs, and the whole thing brings me back to the writing room, because it’s just me and an acoustic guitar. I think it makes people feel like they have more connection with your music, because they really understand where those songs came from.”
Most young musicians spend months on the road, slogging it out in clubs and dive bars. Campbell has played those places, too, but she prefers the intimacy that house shows provide. Those gigs allow her to act as her own booker, and they cut out most of the middlemen – the bartenders, sound engineers and doormen –who would otherwise take a cut of the evening’s profits. More than anything else, house shows help pull the audience’s attention toward the actual music.
III brims with the alternately sparse and sparkling production of Cason Cooley, who earned his stripes working on material for the likes of Ingrid Michaelson. Some of the most striking moments are also the densest parts of the record, where Cooley creates a backdrop for Campbell’s voice with layers of percussion and harmonies. Still, Campbell isn’t relying on the spectacle of a stage show or the sonic wallop of a lushly mixed album to pack a punch. She’s just relying on three chords and the truth.
“The truth” is the important part. As a thirtysomething woman who’s happily married, Campbell isn’t singing much about heartbreak these days. Loneliness can be one hell of a muse, but honesty is even better.
“I feel like I’m connected to my own story more than ever before,” she says. “I’m a Nashville artist, but I’m not a ‘Nashville artist,’ if you know what I mean. I’m totally okay with that. Remaining true to who you are is key, and if I were to try and do something that was, say, mainstream country, it wouldn’t be who I am. I don’t think that would be true to what I love, or what I’m passionate about it. If a song isn’t exactly who I am – or, in some cases, who I’ve been – I won’t record it.”