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xmag.com : June 2001: Red Room Croonster

Hello?"

"Hi, Nicole, this is John Chandler."

"Oh, hi. What's up?"

"Well, I wanted to line up an interview with you some time in the next week."

"Sure. Who's it for?"

"Um...Exotic magazine."

"Exotic magazine? Who are they?"

Now comes the hard part. Normally, when called upon to interview a local artist for Exotic, it's a hard-living rock and/or roller reasonably familiar with the mag due to the many rigorous hours spent in Doc's or Mary's admiring the terpsichorean talent. Nicole Campbell doesn't quite fit into that category. This isn't to say she's a prude or anything like that. Indeed, the songs on her two solo albums, Little Voice (1998) and especially the new Songs from the Red Room are warm, intimate and awfully sexy. She calls them "3:00 AM songs." With her classically trained voice she can sure enough raise the roof with a banshee howl, but as she demonstrates on the latest album, Campbell is better served when she keeps her cool and just lets everything flow. Though her songs and subject matter are definitely shaded with forbidden whispers shared between lovers, Campbell is all above board--a decidedly class act. Her effortless delivery and enviably emotive voice carry the day. She's also smart, funny and has a very good band backing her up. For these reasons, she doesn't have to attract an audience with a scanty wardrobe or provocative poses (although once in a while it might be fun, huh?) Which brings us back to the issue at hand.

"You can find Exotic at all the best strip clubs in town."

"Oh. (silence) Well, all right."

What a trooper. Did I mention that she's a trooper?

 

EXOTIC: I left an e-mail on your mailing list today. It said. "Don't forget. Interview at two."

NICOLE CAMPBELL: It's funny. There haven't been any entries on my Web site for quite a while. I finally asked my web guy "What's going on? There hasn't been anything in the guestbook." It looks like you can submit something, but it doesn't get posted. Haven't got the new server figured out yet. I found out last night that several people have ordered the album and the orders aren't getting through! As a singer/songwriter, I shouldn't have to know about web design and server stuff, but as a record label and a business, I have to know about all those things.

EXOTIC: If you're really going to make music your business, you have to look out for your own interests.

Campbell: Every angle of the business! Shipping, writing, promo, web design...I update the Web site myself. Everything from soldering voltage connectors in a guitar amp to doing the books...there just isn't a lot of money to throw around to pay people to do that stuff, so I either do it myself or learn how.

EXOTIC: You're referring to your record label, Wrought Iron Records?

Campbell: Yeah. It started out as just me needing a vehicle for my own stuff, to put out my own records and look more together than I was. It's turned into a real business and I happen to have a real affinity for it. We're on our fourth label release. I mean, you can either hire out and have someone do something for you or you can do it yourself. Doing it yourself is a lot more cost-effective.

EXOTIC: I know some artists just sit around and hope someone will come along and take care of all their business needs.

Campbell: Sure, like "Hey, here's $20,000 that you don't have to pay back or feel bad about if we lose it all." No, you've got to make it happen. We've become a real label with all the responsibilities and hours that implies. I've even had to schedule in songwriting time! Otherwise you just get sucked into the business end. There's so many record stores to call. There's so many promos to send out.

EXOTIC: I did want to address your songwriting process. Do you actually have to rope off a block of time to be creative?

"The secret is nothing more than working your ass off. If a door closes, go through the window. If the window is shut, look for a rock."

Campbell: Yes and no. Sometimes I have to put reminders in my schedule, like, "Did you remember to eat? Did you remember to take a walk? You've been sitting at a desk for six hours!" I do a lot of session vocal work at night or we rehearse or I review my day job stuff and then, Friday night at eleven, when people are going to sleep I stay up 'til two or three in the morning when everything's finally quiet. That's writing time.

EXOTIC: That seems like an appropriate time to work. You're tired and can tap into the dream state and all.

Campbell: I usually can't translate dreams to the waking world. I'll have music dreams and then when I wake up I won't be able to even hum the melody I heard in the dream. There seems to be no connection between the brain, the vocal cords and the dream thought. I never fully form a lyric without a guitar in my hand. For me, melody, lyrics and rhythm with a guitar all go together.

EXOTIC: After your first band Ivan's Wish broke up, you laid out for a while and sang backup with 17 Reasons Why and some others. Were you just not ready for solo work yet?

Campbell: With Ivan's Wish, we would play really loud. We also used to record every show off the board. I started listening to some of the tapes we'd made in the last year together, and I could tell I was losing my voice. It was getting smaller and smaller. That's what happens when you battle the band for volume every night. After we broke up, I just wanted to get my voice and my confidence back, so I did these shows with other bands. It was nice to not be the center of attention. I could just stand in the back and wear the cute dress

EXOTIC: Be a Pip instead of Gladys Knight.

Campbell: Yeah. I really needed to be a Pip for a while.

EXOTIC: You've obviously got a technically great singing voice and you're classically trained with a degree in vocal performance. That seems like a wonderful thing, but it can also be a mixed blessing, can't it?

Campbell: Absolutely.

EXOTIC: I listened carefully to both of your studio albums and it sounded like on Little Voice that you were on edge a little bit. The first three or four songs seem like you're trying to stuff in as much of your impressive range as possible. On Red Room, you sound more relaxed and for that reason, the mood is stronger and more real.

Campbell: As a vocalist, it becomes absolutely crucial that you bring in a good vocal producer. It's do-or-die. The music side of Little Voice I thought was great, but I didn't really get the vocals I wanted. The woman who co-produced the album with me was very agreeable and tended to give me the "thumbs up" a lot as to what I was singing and not much "How about this?" or "Let's try something else." When I hired Tony Lash (the producer), I told him, "I'm counting on you to get an honest vocal performance out of me." We agreed completely. He said that so much of what I learned to do classically can turn into folk affectation. He wanted all of that gone. He got me to strip my voice down to its lowest common denominator. What I like about Red Room is that in every form, musically, lyrically and vocally, it's much more engaging. It brings the listener in instead of whaling them over the head with the vocals.

EXOTIC: What's the response been to the record so far?

Campbell: Really good. KINK has added it to their playlist and it's in regular rotation right now. That's not to say that commercial radio is the be-all or end-all of success. But the record has been accepted by both quirky, independent musicians and the industry, as well. It's straightforward enough that it seems to be appealing to both sides. I'm getting really honest, true critical feedback. Getting positive response from everywhere makes it great for both the artist and the business owner.

EXOTIC: You've got a product you can feel good about pitching.

Campbell: A no-apologies guarantee. I'm really proud of this record.

EXOTIC: I also wanted to touch on Portland. You mentioned you tried moving to Los Angeles in the early part of the '90s. Was it really horrible?

Campbell: It's the armpit of the industry. I went down there with no backing and a lot of expectations. Everyone tells you if you want to make it you have to go to L.A. or New York. All I had was a demo...I'd only been writing for a couple of years and it was just too soon for me. I had a desire to make a career change. I just wanted to make a move. Before I moved down there, I had all these promises and potential managers and potential musicians and naturally when I got down there it all fell through.

EXOTIC: Let me guess. "My dad owns a chain of Laundromats and I'm starting a label!"

Campbell: Yeah, even the classic, "I want to manage you. What's that? You won't sleep with me? Forget it." I had a classic set of experiences with expectations and disappointments. I ended up spending 99% of the time just surviving. I hardly wrote any songs. It was the worst possible artistic experience I could have had.

EXOTIC: Portland may not be showbiz central, but it's an easy place to live.

Campbell: Oh, yeah. It's easy to work and live here.

EXOTIC: I've had friends in bands say "I'm sick of Portland. I'm gonna move to L.A. and get noticed."

Campbell: Right. Where you're one of a million instead of one of a thousand.

EXOTIC: Some bands want everything handed to them and they whine because they're not playing big shows or signed to a label after six months.

Campbell: The secret is nothing more than working your ass off. If a door closes, go through the window. If the window is shut, look for a rock.



 

 

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