San Francisco singer/songwriter Jeff Campbell made his debut late-night talk show appearance last December. He moved to our city from Philadelphia in 2004 with the determination to make it as a musician, and nine years later, had his schedule for his first national TV performance:
2:00 PM – TALENT CALL TIME
2:30 PM – 3:00 PM SOUND CHECK
3:00 PM – 3:30 PM CAMERA REHEARSAL (WE WILL BE TAPING A 10 SECOND VIDEO ONLY BUMPER SHOT AFTER REHEARSAL.)
6:00 PM – JKL ON AIR (PLEASE BE CAMERA READY BY 6:15 PM)
6:50 PM: MUSICIANS REPORT TO STAGE
6:55 PM: FIRST SONG (4 MINUTE TIME LIMIT – PLEASE LET ME KNOW THE TRT OF THE FIRST SONG)
6:59 PM: SECOND SONG
Campbell’s hard work paid off when he won Guitar Center’s Singer Songwriter 2, a contest open to any musician in forty-eight states in the U.S. to show their music chops, at a chance for a prize package. Included in the package was the chance to work with Don Was on a four-song EP, $25,000, lots of gear, and lots of exposure. Not included as part of the prize was a performance slot on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
I’m escorted to the green room at the El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, after sprinting from my hotel room so I wouldn’t miss sound check. I whiff my armpit as Natalie, the publicist, whisks me through the labyrinth to meet Campbell. I hope our introduction is kept to a handshake and not a hug.
As we’re introduced, I see Campbell’s band, and they are all fixtures in the San Francisco music scene. It’s an instant love fest.
Time is of the essence so we schedule a sit-down after sound check. Escorted up a couple of flights of stairs, I peek into the sound stage where Jimmy Kimmel Live is taped. Kimmel’s desk is right there and the room is empty. Before I dare get kicked out by taking a selfie on the host’s desk, a kick drum starts. The stage where the band performs looks like a small version of a nightclub. After every microphone is checked and rechecked—”keep hitting that snare drum,” dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun—technicians are on headsets relaying info back and forth, while the band waits. After a good twenty-five minutes of individual set-ups for the nine members of the group, they launch into the song they’ll play during taping. Automatic cameras move around the stage and men with Steadicams do a rehearsal of their coverage of the band.
I look through the monitors about ten feet from the stage. As a fan of the show and the many bands I have seen play this stage, I feel all welled-up inside. This is it, this is the big time, and I get to share a little piece of it with Jeff Campbell.
4:30 PM: After sound check a room is cleared out, Campbell and I chat.
The Rumpus: How do you feel right now before your first national TV appearance?
Jeff Campbell: I’m good. I’m trying to just keep it like another gig, and the good news is they make that room upstairs look like a nightclub. It’s easy. Well, I don’t know about easy—we’ll find out if it’s easy when the cameras are rolling. It’s easy to just say I’m playing another gig to a bunch of people that are here to see us because that’s really what it is. I’m trying not to focus on the fact that there are 2.1 million people on the other side of the cameras.
Rumpus: Also, you have a green room where you can take a shower. That doesn’t happen often.
Campbell: That’s very true. Usually the green room is the bathroom that everybody is in line to use, so yes, I have yet to take advantage of it.
Rumpus: When you were younger and starting out, did you ever think that you would be on something like Kimmel or win a contest like Guitar Center’s Singer Songwriter 2?
Campbell: The contest thing sort of changed the music industry as a whole…
Rumpus: For yourself?
Campbell: No, for everybody. A couple of years ago, when American Idol and those types of shows came up, it became the industry wanting to give people a break. That’s what these things are: it’s Big Music wanting to take time and money and effort and resources and dump them into starving artists that don’t necessarily get the chance to trip over an opportunity every day. These things are creating opportunities for people who are willing to put themselves out there. And that’s what this Guitar Center Singer Songwriter 2 competition was for me—a chance to put myself out there, and I did, and I flourished, which is kind of cool.
Did I ever think that I would be on a late-night talk show? When you watch those things you think, I could do that. But who knows? Because the thing about this business is that it’s hard work and perseverance, but it’s just a lot of luck. Right place, right time.
Rumpus: This isn’t an overnight success. You have been plugging away for years and putting in the work.
Campbell: I’m in my early thirties and I have never not done this. Since I was fifteen, I have always played music. I have been doing it 100% professionally for five years. It’s very easy to get discouraged and it’s very easy to say, I’m going to take a break.
Rumpus: Did you have a point in time where you went, “Singing/songwriting is my calling”?
Campbell: It was twelve-ish—a typical story. I found my mom’s old, beat-up Madeira Guild from the ‘60s in the closet and I was like, Oh I can play this. One of my buddies from the neighborhood, who was older, showed me how to play a couple of chords and I found a chord book and I said, “I want to learn how to sing ‘Patience’ by Guns N’ Roses.” At first I thought I was a really bad singer. You know how you hear your own voice when you talk? I sound like a dumbass. Multiply that by ten when you’re singing.
Rumpus: Did “Patience” help you woo women? How old were you when you learned it?
Rumpus: So did that work with any of them?
Campbell: No, it didn’t happen. I learned the crap out of it, but I never actually played it for girls in an effort to seduce them.
Rumpus: Will you in the future?
Campbell: If the opportunity presents itself, I will jump all over it.
Rumpus: How many tours have you done?
Campbell: I have done Europe and Canada, and I have probably circled the country about a dozen times, maybe more—it just depends. It’s like any sales job: you find out where your major markets are, and you do your loops, and you keep coming back and hope to grow your business and try to bring new product. It’s just like selling stuff. It’s been fun.
I have certainly slept in my car enough times to think that I have street cred and I’m ready to not do that anymore. A lot of the hotel luxury with this Guitar Center opportunity has been nice and a welcome change from freezing my ass off in Portland in October or November in a sleeping bag that costs more money than I’m going to make on the whole damn tour.
Rumpus: What’s interesting is you have been there and you know what it’s like for everyone else trying, and it doesn’t seem like you have been working for the fame. It seems like you have been doing this because it’s your calling.
Campbell: Kind of. Not that I’ll die of starvation if I don’t do music, but I have just chosen to make this my gig. You have a conversation with yourself and you say, I know the chances of having major success in this business are not great, so am I ready for that? And the answer was yes. And Megan Slankard, my girlfriend—
Rumpus: I know Megan. I wrote an article on her for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Campbell: She’s the blonde standing onstage next to me.
Rumpus: Duh, I totally blanked.
Campbell: She’s never had a job; she’s never done anything but play music. She’s kind of like my manual. When I have a question it’s, “What did you do when you have been in this situation?” Because she has been in them all. That’s been great, because we support each other. And a lot of my friends are pro musicians, and that’s the cool thing at our level and touring—really, the job is to just go out and make friends. I have made life-long friends.
And in terms of your question of what made me decide this is what I was going to do, I can’t imagine not doing it. I get pissed at it sometimes—screw this, I’m getting a job and going to drink beer on weekends and go to barbecues and have a kid or something. But then I realize that now is not the time for that. Now’s the time, especially with the Guitar Center thing, to take it as far as I can. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens in a couple of hours.
Rumpus: It looks glamorous and I believe that the general public may not realize how much work really goes into it.
Campbell: It’s like money for nothing. It’s like Dire Straits’ song is about two refrigerator appliance installers and movers that go from house to house, and they see Sting or whoever on the TV and they think, I can do that, you get money for nothing, you get chicks for free, and it’s just not the way it is. You have to resign yourself to a life of watching milestones, that are considered to be important parts of life, happening to everyone else around you in your age group, and say, I understand that’s not happening to me right now for a reason. I don’t have a kid, I don’t own a home, I don’t have a nest egg or anything like that. I feel like I’m still a kid myself, at times. You have to accept the fact that that’s what this means. But I’m good for a while; I can’t see stopping. I’m sure at some point my body will say, You know, you have to slow down a little bit.
Rumpus: Just do a juice cleanse, you’ll be good. You have a really full band tonight, a lot of San Francisco musicians. Is that also the lineup for your tour?
Campbell: No, no. I wanted a) to make the singles that we’re playing tonight as full as possible and as true to the recordings as possible; and b) I wanted to use this as an opportunity to share with my friends who should be on TV and get exposure. On tour it’s usually just four of us, and whenever Megan’s available when she’s not off doing her own thing.
Rumpus: How long have you and Megan been together?
Campbell: Four years.
Rumpus: What’s life like regarding romance with another musician?
Campbell: We don’t see a whole lot of each other. The thing is, we are up each others’ butts 24/7 or we don’t see each other sometimes two or three months at a time. It’s great—it takes a lot of understanding to be in a relationship with somebody who wants to do this, so we get it. It’s not like, “Why are you going on the road again?”
Rumpus: How you feeling right now?
Campbell: I’m good. Between you me and the walls, I’ve been sick, so my throat hurts like hell.
Rumpus: Do you think some of that is stress?
Campbell: No, I think some of it is everyone in the Bay Area is sick, and we played a show the other night with 350 people, and I just shook too many of the wrong hands.
Rumpus: What are your thoughts pre-performance?
Campbell: I have no idea how to even answer that question.
Featured image of Jeff Campbell © by Matthew Ward.