It's not that things were going poorly for Jeff Campbell — but until earlier this year, he was very much on the standard route for a singer-songwriter. Living in San Francisco, he was playing shows around that town, and touring several months out of the year, slowly building an audience, not signed to a label or anything. Then he stumbled onto something.
"I saw a video on the Internet of someone performing at a Guitar Center," he explains. "I asked my manager how you get a show like that; she looked into it and found this songwriter contest."
That contest ended up being a game-changer for Campbell, who's 34. Out of thousands of entrants in the megastore's singer-songwriter competition, he made the 10-person finals.
"I ended up competing against nine other incredibly talented songwriters," Campbell recalls. "They had us together for a week before the show, and it became very familial. Of those nine, there are a few I'll be friends with for the rest of my life. I'm sure we'll all be friendly, and follow each other's careers."
But the contest judge, Grammy-winning producer John Shanks, chose only one — Campbell — to be the winner.
"I have no idea what set me apart!" Campbell says. "There were some people in the finals who I was sure they had it. I was older than most of the others, so maybe that was it; I had more experience. At the end of the day, it came down to one guy's opinion, and that was John Shanks." Shanks would produce a record with the winner. "Maybe he just saw something in my style and said, ‘I can work with that.'"
The spoils: sessions with Shanks that became Campbell's new EP, In Spite of Everything. An appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Dec. 12. Oh yeah, and gear.
"A whole bunch of gear. I want for nothing in terms of guitars, all of that."
Campbell, a Philadelphia native, grew up playing drums — often an asset if you want to end up in a band. "I got a drum set when I was 11, and I started playing with older guys in the neighborhood who had guitars," he explains. But there was always a guitar around the house, too — Campbell's parents both played music — and eventually he started to play and write his own tunes.
Campbell had the opportunity to move to San Francisco for work in 2004 and took it. "California is pretty far out of reach for a lot of folks" from the area where he grew up, he notes. A few years later, he was able to quit his day job and support himself playing music. Most of the time he's out solo, touring with other singer-songwriters; now and then, he brings a full band along. And occasionally, as with his stop at The Center of Harmony in Harmony, Pa., on Fri., Dec. 20, he tours with his girlfriend, Megan Slankard, herself an accomplished singer-songwriter from the Bay Area.
"We understand each other's lifestyle," Campbell notes. "It involves a lot of travel, and most people wouldn't deal with that. But we both do it."
While they often tour separately, they can sometimes find a way to get together ... in a random city, in the middle of their tours. "You'd be surprised," he says with a laugh. "We've made it happen before. ‘I'll meet you in Memphis' is the joke."
The road is where Campbell gleans some of what he ends up turning into his lyrical ideas. "The second single from the new EP, ‘Steal Your Car' — it was based on a conversation I heard in an airport bar. I heard it and I thought, ‘That's a situation I know!'
"Most times, [lyrics are] super-personal to me — something I have to get off my chest. Something I want to say to someone, but don't know how."
"Steal Your Car" was one of two tunes Campbell played during his Dec. 12 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, his first national-TV performance. Backed by a full band and a set of backup singers, he didn't let on that it was something new for him — he exuded the confidence of someone who's been working hard for years to become an overnight success. ("If I get nervous, I'll just look around and remember that a bunch of my best friends are around me," he said the day before the performance.)
With the new EP and the TV appearance under his belt, Campbell plans to keep doing what he's always done — touring hard — but perhaps with a little more notability.
"You just keep touring," he says. "Hopefully after we're on TV, we could get some more attention.
"It's complicated — well, it's both complicated and simple. This is what I've always done."