Like many musicians, Halifax based Christine Campbell and Blake Johnston had big plans for 2020 when the world turned upside down. After much anticipation, their debut album as the newly incorporated Campbell & Johnston has finally dropped, and it’s a slick, blues rock infused collection of piercing yet passionate vocals and soulful guitar riffs that are sure to please the most discerning of music fans. The duo talked with 519 about the new disc and life in the Atlantic bubble.
You just released a new album, Campbell and Johnston’s Black Market Band. How many years have you guys been collaborating now?
CC : Well, we played on the same bill a lot in previous rock bands that we each spearheaded separately and then I went solo and Blake started being a gun for hire. Our very first show together was at the Dutch Mason Blues Festival here in Truro back in 2013.
Over the next two years, we started helping with each other’s projects and this is our first project where we’re both co-piloting.
Well, a lot of things have happened in the last year or two for both of you. You want to talk about that a little bit?
CC: We had a baby.
Well, that’s pretty big.
CC: There was a world pandemic. A lot of strangeness this last couple of years. Man, I never in a million years would have thought so much would change, but despite all the challenges, we’re both in a very positive place. Our little guy is amazing. Our album, we’re so happy it’s finally released. We delayed it because of the whole pandemic thing but now we finally released it and although our dates got canceled once again, we’re still excited about it. I think the light at the end of the tunnel is just coming through and there are campaign packages that we’re sending out. We raised ten thousand for it and we had all these little perks and stuff that we’re sending out to people so although we can’t play live music right now, at least there’s something to do.
You started recording this album almost two years ago, right?
BJ: We started in September 2019, did most of the music within a couple weeks, and then Chris and I were going in and doing vocals. We had rented a specific microphone for Chris’s voice that we could only get at a certain time, so we did her vocals during that time. February, we went in and finished the last little bit of Don’t Leave me Hanging and that was pretty much the last thing that we had to do and then March happened.
Once the pandemic started, okay, the future is sort of unwritten. I started agonizing over the guitar solo on bittersweet and I wanted to replace it so I did that at home and that took about a month of trying to get a solo that I was happy with. I ended up scrapping it and going with the one that we did in September/October. We started just picking even though it was done because we didn’t know when we were going to be able to release it, We thought let’s maybe go in and do that little thing that we thought about doing and then we said no.
Christine had been saying that we should probably have another song where I sing if we’re going to have both names on it and I thought we don’t necessarily need it. Then we started working with a girl named Tiffany Martin, who has been helping out in the managerial area and she said the same thing. The song we put on, Fool For You, we’ve been kicking around for about a year so we went in January and did that. That’s when we decided alright, we’re going put it off until May, just to make sure that was done.
CC: Anyway, it’s here and we’re slowly building a studio and figuring out the people we work the most efficiently with. One person based out of Windsor SLR studios, Marty Bak, he’s awesome, he mixed and mastered everything. We also love working with Charles Austin and Frank from Ocean Floor. We’re just trying to do as much as we can here and slowly build our own little studio so that we can eventually become completely independent but along the way, we’re trying to figure out the best way to record and get a return and a turnaround.
So technically, this is an album now with the added song. At six songs it would have been an EP.
BJ: I would say it’s almost a half hour running time. I would look at it like a lot of Zeppelin albums, I think In Through the Out Door was seven songs, and a lot of them were eight, eight or nine tunes so I feel like we can we can call it an album without taking artistic liberties with that term.
Would you be thinking at all about releasing vinyl?
CC: We thought a lot about that, it’s very expensive, I think down the road, we’ll probably release another EP or at least a few singles or something and then eventually put them all together and release that on vinyl.
Is the band on the album, the same band that you’ve had for the last few years as your touring band?
CC: Yeah, we kind of have two bands.
BJ: We have A string and B string. It’s not that first string is better than the second string, it’s just who we usually call first, who we’ve been working with for a certain amount of time and then if that doesn’t work out, we always have had the backup thing.
CC: Blake played a lot on the album, a lot of the bass and things like that, because he just had a vision and so, a little bit of everything.
Have you changed the way you do your songwriting process now? Is there something else other than just changing the name of the band that has changed in how you do things?
CC: For this project I guess the change was we found the stuff that we were both working on that work together for each other, you know what I mean? We’re both very picky.
BJ: The change was natural, it wasn’t a sit down and specifically talk about how things had to change, you work within the parameters of whatever you’re doing. So if she had a song that she was working on, we would go about finishing that song the way that it had to be done. For me it was different because I can write things that are in a higher key because I can get her to sing it. So for me it’s just like adding a couple other, I guess weapons to the arsenal, right? She has some tools that I just don’t have like vocal range wise so for me it changes.
CC: He sings pretty high though. I think sometimes it’s easier for me when we’re kind of just chewing the fat to go over songs vocally in a certain setting whereas Blake relies on his adrenaline sometimes, but Blake is much better demoing than I am. He’s produced other albums that are great projects so he’s able to do that side of things and that way I’m able to get songs out of me before I suddenly decide I don’t have the confidence to keep singing them and I don’t like them.
You’re a classically trained piano player and your last album had a couple piano pieces on it like Exit Out and Butterfly whereas this album is much more bluesy. Out of the seven songs, I would say six are definitely blues songs. Do you feel now that you’re in more of a collaboration that you’ve grown together into a blues band?
CC: I do feel like for a while I’ve been playing a lot of different styles, I’ve got a serious case of A.D.D. and a lot of different backgrounds in music where I started from so slowly you’re just kind of chiseling at the marble your whole life and people are giving you feedback on how you seem to them so I think over time I heard a lot about blues and Joplin and that kind of raw, soulful sound. I love seventies and sixties rock, which is very blues based so I think over time, yeah, I’ve just been sculpting out what is naturally in there. Instead of finding something or becoming something, you’re just digging away at what you really are, it’s neat. I feel like we’re finally sculpting out a sound and I think we’re just scratching the surface.
BJ: The blues scene that’s around here is pretty purist. A lot of those people would laugh us off if we said we were blues.
Yeah, I meant blues based rock.
BJ: Right, they’re very picky and again, they would kind of scoff at us for saying we’re blues, which I’m fine with, it doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, I feel like we’re wearing clothes that fit us and we’re dressing our age, you know what I mean? We’ve put together an album that without sounding arrogant, it looks good on us. And it’s something that I feel in twenty years, take any one of these songs off this record and when I’m fifty or fifty-five I could still sing You’re so Heavy, where some of the things I’ve done myself previously over the last 10 years, no, that was indicative of me being a young man, which is fine. I think this is the first time that we put something together where that scene that she’s talking about, late sixties, seventies, blues rock, soul rock, we would fit in and I think in those days the music did have a bit of more of a timeless quality to it. I think that’s what we were trying to do is something that represented us well now, but that also gives us room to grow.
CC: There’s a lot more roll to the rock, which I’ve always wanted. I don’t think I’m at the point in where I want to jump in the crowd with three inch heels and scream profanity in my choruses so yeah, I guess age appropriate in a sense but in another way, I’ve always been trying to dig at this type of sound. I feel like there’s something happening and it’s also nice because it bridges the gap between the acoustic show and the electric. The previous albums were really hard to get consistently tight because we just play every type of stage that there is and we do well at it. It could be a folk festival or a metal festival, but then you’ve picked the songs that go with it and so then you’re never really consistent. Nobody significantly recognizes you as one style and that’s a hard thing to market out there if you’re something different every time. It took me a long time to realize that.
BJ: There’s still guitar solos and keyboard solos all over the record, you know what I mean? It might be a little bit more easy listening than some of the things we’ve done prior but we still turn up to eleven when that section of the song comes.
You’re so Heavy is a song that I like that brings that to mind, and Christine, I know you’re a Big Sugar fan and your favorite song is The Scene, and when I listened to that song, it feels like you had that song somewhere in your mind when you were writing that.
CC: There’s a lot of Big Sugar influence for sure.
BJ: There’s definitely some Lenny Kravitz and Jimi Hendrix in that song as well and a couple of other tunes with the same thing riff wise. I mean, that’s what you’re doing right? We’re all working with the same spices when we cook, it’s just how much of each you’re putting in there.
Speaking of that, you guys like to do your Zeppelin set and your Heart set when you do your shows. Is there any music, both of you, that you like, that influenced you that people would be surprised to hear?
BJ: She sometimes gets mad at me cuz I’ll say exactly where I got a specific piece of inspiration.
CC: You’re giving away the mystery.
BJ: Well, either way, Don’t Leave me Hanging, this is the only one I’ll give away. This one to me was Amy Winehouse and the Rolling Stones, those were the two, Amy Winehouse I’m no Good and The Stones Beast of Burden were the two songs that I could listen to that groove in and I can play that Beast of Burden riff on guitar for you know, 15 minutes, it just feels so good and I wanted something that felt like that. I wanted the drums and bass to be able to carry you through that song and to have a bounce and those were the two songs that gave me that feeling.
CC: I didn’t realize Beast of Burden actually was the influence though Stones is definitely a big influence on both of us, even when I was in labor that’s all I could listen to. I always say he’s like the Yang to my Yin and I feel like we’re the same unique species but totally different within that species. We kind of fill in the gaps with each other and even all the bands that we’ve loved in the past, you can tell we’ve had a lot of the same influences but it seems like we’ve liked them all at different times except for The Stones. That’s one of the very few that we can both totally agree on.
BJ: Maybe Amy Winehouse and Sam and Dave but I think that’s not that surprising either, Amy Winehouse being probably the most left field, non guitar based and Sharon Jones when we were mixing the record. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, that kind of Daptone Records sound but a bit more polished, not so Lo Fi.
CC: I would say there’s certain things that I like that you’d be surprised about but I don’t know if they’ve influenced this specific album. If anything I would say I’ve more gone down the avenue that’s a little bit more expected or understood for this one.
How has the pandemic been for you guys creatively? Also becoming a first time mother for Christine, especially for a mom, you know, that’s a really big change in so many ways. How’s that affecting you?
CC: It’s the greatest thing of all, it really is like I never imagined something so wonderful in my life. It’s my center of gravity, this is the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life. It’s hard to tell, is it the pandemic or the motherhood that’s causing more of it, but I definitely have a new appreciation for live music and socializing, I miss it. But I am so grateful because the silver lining of this is I had a maternity leave with our little man where originally we were booked a month out of pregnancy. I gigged right into my ninth month so there was no time off and of course you know you don’t have incentives as a full time musician so basically I was just booking like crazy trying to make sure that we got paid. So it was good and I valued the time off.
One other thing is we bought a house and we’re renovating and be honest, half the house has not been unpacked yet so we’re just waiting on that before we can get our studio reorganized and hopefully should be well upgraded from the last time but still very modest.
BJ: The creative part of it has been just terrible as I haven’t been able to read a book, write a song, and I’ve talked to several people, peers of ours in the industry that feel same way. I’ve got a whole bunch of backburner songs I’m going to do but I don’t think I read one of those books or finished one of those songs.
CC: I don’t think that’s totally true, though, I’ve definitely started a bunch of different songs but we haven’t really demoed them and we do have a lot of other songs that between waves we were getting ready to try out at the shows but then everything went on lockdown again and we couldn’t get in the room to jam them out. You got to do that and try to get them as tight as you can before you go live. We have songs for the next recording pretty well there which is the first time ever, and the beginnings of some stuff. I expected to do a bunch of co-writes on Skype or Zoom and that hasn’t really happened.
BJ: We co-wrote a song with Erin Costello, which is I think the only thing in the last few months where we sat down and said we’re going to leave here with a song regardless and that actually went quite well. And again, I’m not speaking for her. For me, I have found it difficult to get my head in the game every time I sit down to do it. I don’t know what it is about the landscape out there, but mentally, I think some of it is we get the ball rolling again and then the rug gets pulled out.
So what’s in store for you guys now? Are things starting to get a little bit better out there? Are there any live shows possible this summer?
I hope so but nothing basically until July when things are going to kick off again. It’s hard to even trust it. I keep waiting to see my parents in PEI and every time we get really close, they cancel opening the border again. So it’s been kind of a bummer but I do think once the vaccine rolls out, what can you do? You can’t live in your basement forever. Other places are opening up. I think that’s going to happen. I just don’t feel like anybody guessed it was going take this long but hopefully July on wards, and then a lot of festivals have deferred to the following summer. I think it’s going to be like the roaring twenties, we’ve all been cooped up, tired and we’re all dying to connect again and we’re not going to take it for granted.
Where can people find your music and information on the band?
CC: Our website is Campbell & Johnston (campbellandjohnstonmusic.com) and you can find us on Facebook and Spotify. We’ll also be streaming more shows for people outside of the East Coast until things get back to normal and we can tour again.