With her third album, roots-pop singer/songwriter Jessica Campbell proves there’s strength in numbers.
Largely produced by Cason Cooley (Ingrid Michaelson, Katie Herzig), III captures Campbell in an adventurous mood, looking to build something new on top of the foundation that’s always anchored her music. She’s still a genre bender, with songs rooted in pop hooks, Americana influences, folk guitars and just the slightest hint of Southern twang. She’s still a storyteller, too, armed with autobiographical tunes about life and love in the Bible Belt. Even so, things have changed since her previous album, The Anchor & the Sail, which found the newly-married Campbell reflecting on a lifetime of past loves — including plenty of heartbreak and hard lessons. This time around, she’s taking stock of the sunny present.
From the bright blasts of bass and keyboards that fill III‘s opening track (“Brighter Days”) to the campfire singalong that closes out the album (“My Heart Says Go”), III explores some of the most upbeat material of Campbell’s career. It’s an album by and about a happily married woman in her early 30s. There’s plenty of struggle in these 11 songs, too — despite a catalog of prime-time TV and promo placements (including Crate & Barrel, Delta Airlines, Ugly Betty, Hart of Dixie, Heartland, Melissa & Tye, and Tough Love New Orleans), a “Best Song” award from the USA Songwriting Competition and support from outlets like USA Today and American Songwriter, Campbell is still very much an independent, hardscrabble artist who runs nearly every aspect of her business — but it’s the sort of struggle that is ultimately uplifting. The sort of struggle that makes every reward seem that much more deserved. III doesn’t focus on the grind of being a cash-strapped musician. Instead, it highlights the thrill of doing what you’re meant to be doing… even if it involves driving 300 miles between shows.
“This is a very much a ‘seize the moment’ album,” she says. “It’s about dreaming… and chasing after those dreams, so you can eventually live them. It’s about being willing to try.”
It’s also about the magic found in everyday things. Take the number three, for example. Campbell is one of three children. She’s been married for three years. This year, she will turn 33 years old. She hired three producers — in addition to Cooley, with whom she has worked in the past, she also tapped Kyle Lee and Nettwerk recording artist Aaron Espe — to work on her third full-length album, the aptly titled III. When asked if the name is a reference to Led Zeppelin’s III, though, she laughs and shakes her head.
“It’s a reference to my own life,” she explains. “You either embrace where you’re at in life, or you put up a facade. I wanted this album to be more poppy and upbeat, but I also didn’t want to hide my age or my wedding ring. I think there’s something compelling about music made from that kind of honest place.”
Campbell knows a thing or two about making music in different places. Since releasing her debut album in 2009, she’s grown her audience significantly by playing more than 100 house shows. She even appeared on the syndicated radio program “Music Business Radio” in May 2013, talking about the unique business of performing in strangers’ living rooms night after night. Those house shows have tended to be quiet, stripped-down gigs, with Campbell usually performing her songs alone.
It’s that identity — the singer/songwriter sitting on a stool in someone’s home, telling stories and strumming the guitar without any outside accompaniment — that anchors III in something honest and familiar. This is Campbell’s poppiest album to date, but every song was written the old-fashioned way: with an acoustic guitar… and, occasionally, one of her friends from the Nashville songwriting community. In other words, Jessica Campbell still sounds like Jessica Campbell, even when she’s turning an old Beatles lyric on its head during the thumping, danceable “Lennon & McCartney Lied” or paying tribute to one of her earliest influences, gospel music, with the soulful “Everlasting Shore.”
The direction may be new, but the building blocks are the same. III is a songwriter’s album, dressed up with some of Campbell’s edgiest arrangements and rawest vocal performances to date. It’s an album about appreciating where you’re at, while still pushing toward a bigger, brighter, better future. It may be her best yet. The third time’s the charm.