A Brooklyn-based singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, Nerissa Campbell grew up on the west coast of Australia and on the island of Bali, where she became enamored of the island’s traditional gamelan music. She later studied jazz at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts and since then has released four records as a leader, showcasing her distinct and worldly musical personality. Her 2016 album After the Magic (Crooked Mouth Music) is a beautifully ethereal affair, featuring original compositions performed by a mixed ensemble of jazz improvisers and members of the New York gamelan ensemble Dharma Swara.
This Thursday, March 23rd, Ms. Campbell will take The Jazz Gallery stage to perform selections from After the Magic, as well as new material. We caught up with Campbell by phone to talk about working with traditional folk instruments in a new context and how she’s carved out a niche for herself in New York’s busy and diverse jazz scene.
The Jazz Gallery: I wanted to talk about your latest album, After The Magic. The gamelan ensemble, Dharma Swara, is in New York, and it’s one you’re a member of. How did you get connected to that scene?
Nerissa Campbell: When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time in Bali, living there, but I wasn’t allowed to play gamelan, since I was a girl. I was always totally fascinated with it, and always asked if I could play, but it was like, “no, no, no, you can’t.” So I was living in New York for a while, and I saw this Balinese gamelan, Dharma Swara, was going to be playing at BAM café, and I was super excited and wanted to take my husband to see it, so he could see the music that I grew up amongst. So we went along to that show, and there were women in the group! So I was like, “maybe I can play gamelan finally!”
I’d already been thinking about writing some music that was an exploration of our time in Bali, using the sounds that I remembered and my background in jazz, trying to combine the two, so I was really excited at the prospect that I could actually join a gamelan and learn more about the music. I’ve been playing with Dharma Swara on and off since 2010. I’m not playing in the group at the moment, but I feel very much a part of it, and hope to get back to it soon.
TJG: What was the composition process of the album like for you?
NC: It was really challenging, actually. Not so much compositionally but more personally and emotionally. I felt a really strong pull to write for gamelan in a technical way that honored how gamelan is played traditionally, but the more I explored that, the more I realized that it wasn’t going to be true to the project. I had some concerns about that, because I didn’t want to take away from what gamelan music was. I was lucky to meet Balinese composer and musician Dewa Ketut Alit who was here teaching Dharma Swara as an artist in residence. We became good friends and had a lot of conversations about writing new music for gamelan and what it meant for Balinese music and new music in general. Alit, along with a few people close to me, were a great help in me getting my head around what I wanted to do and being true to the project.
TJG: You came up with this idea in 2007, and the album came out in 2016. Clearly, a lot of things must have changed, because it was a long process—can you talk about that?
NC: Yeah. I had the idea in 2007—I started writing the songs after a return trip to Bali, and played some of them in a jazz setting over the years. So they came into being in a more traditional jazz combo setting. The songs on the album were always sort of mulling around, becoming, and in that time, 2007-2016, I actually released two other albums of completely different music. This allowed for the After the Magic material to really develop itself, which is an amazing luxury to have.
It went through different iterations, I was always revisiting the material, thinking it needs to be more of this and less of that, and it was kind of a confusing process. It was an album I was really glad to have had so much time to contemplate, and in the end it came out how I imagined I wanted it to be; it’s a simple album, very dreamlike and haunting, and very close to my heart.
TJG: I’m interested—not that it has to be one or the other—in if you felt your presence more as a vocalist or as a composer, or how both those things are present for you in your work.
NC: I see them both as being entwined. Performance is an important part of what I do, and then the other side of being a composer is just as important, it’s just a different process. I guess a lot of musicians can understand that, if they write and perform. It’s been my focus for a really long time to write original music, so they’re both who I am. My background is in jazz, so I came up singing standards and doing a lot of gigs in that setting, but I felt like personally I didn’t have anything additional to contribute to that particular world, which I love, and which is always a part of who I am musically. But at an early point in my career it became clear that I wanted to write original music; it has been a way for me to really develop my personal style, both in performance and writing, and contribute that way.
TJG: And you founded your own label, because your own music is what you wanted to be singing and performing.
NC: Yeah! Yeah. I shopped around my first record, Paint Me Orange (2003), and had a little bit of interest, but labels were confused about what it was. And I felt that I spent a lot of time trying to explain what it was. I had this one label say to me that if I sang standards, they’d consider signing me, and that I should do that so that people could tell if I was “good”. Right then I thought, this is ridiculous. Surely people are smarter than that. [Laughs.] Liking music and enjoying it, I don’t think has to do with being good. It’s different for different people, and if you enjoy music, that’s something other than if you’re talented or not. So I was like, I’m going to start my own label, and release the music that I want to write, and it’s been really fun. I tried again, with After the Magic, to see if there was any record label interest. One label said to me, oh if this was a little bit more world music, and less singer-songwriter, then it would fit in our label. And another label said, if this were less world and more singer-songwriter, then it would fit in our label. So I kind of quickly realized again, that my little label fits my music perfectly. It’s quite happy being self-produced in that way. It affords me a lot of freedom.
TJG: Your music is cross-genre, and very much your own. It’s interesting that you had to do your own label because of that.
NC: I think it is sometimes hard to categorize music, and when people aren’t quite sure what to do with it, where to put it, how to sell it, it’s tricky. So it does make sense to me that my own label is the right ‘home’ for my music. But, I think it’s changing, there are more & more bespoke labels that are more interested in—I guess cross-genre music is the best way to describe it. As we have access to so much more music, I think it’s only going to happen more. I especially love that about New York — that there are so many people from so many places, and as musicians we have access to so many influences from around the world. I’m really happy to be a part of that.
TJG: And as a vocalist, do you write your own lyrics as well?
NC: I write my own lyrics. There’s one song where a friend of mine wrote crazy lyrics and asked me if I wanted to use them and I played around with them a little bit and made them into a song, that was on my Blue Shadows album, and my husband wrote one of the songs on that album as well. Other than that, it’s all me.
TJG: In a lot of your work, you explore affect, memory, and nostalgia. I was wondering how that’s present to you, musically or lyrically when you’re writing.
NC: It always comes up. Usually I’ll write the music first and sit with it. The lyrics generally come when I’ve figured out what the mood is of the song, it’ll be sort of like, this feels like I’m traveling alone, or like leaving someone or thing behind, etc. So there tends to be a lot of emotion in the lyrics, I think because I try and get to the feeling of the song before they come.
I think, what is this song? Tell me what this song is. What is it about? And a phrase or word will come, and it usually goes from there. And memories come up, or stories that people have told me, that I can explore through music, what that situation might feel like. Some songs I write are based on books, or stories I’ve read that really resonate with me emotionally. I think one of the awesome things about lyrics is that you really can convey feeling and memory. It’s my goal to be able to present those feelings lyrically and musically, and hopefully they resonate with people.
TJG: You’re going to be performing a lot of After the Magic for this show.
NC: Yes. I have two friends who are joining me, playing Balinese gendèr, which is a different type of gamelan than what is featured on the album. They’re going to come and play on a few songs which is going to be great. I’m also going to be playing some songs that didn’t make it on the album, and a couple of new songs.
TJG: And do those also include gamelan?
NC: No, nope! [Laughs.] I’m moving on!
TJG: That’s perfect, because my next question was going to be, what direction do you think your new music is going?
NC: That’s a good question, because I feel like it wants to take me somewhere at the moment that I am not really comfortable with. I’ve actually been taking some classes in film scoring, because I hear a lot in my head that feels less lyric-based actually, but seems visual in a sense. So I’m going down a more compositional route at the moment. For the next project, I want to combine composed music that is manipulated by data-collecting sensors in the environment, like for example what the tide is doing in Western Australia, where I’m from, or every time a shark’s fin has ‘pinged’ up out of the ocean. I want to write a composition that is affected by this data and then have musicians improvise with that. My aim is to bring awareness to some of the environmental issues that scientists are researching, and work on a fun and challenging compositional experiment, as well. So that’s sort of the one big project, and then I’m working on another album that’s song-based as well. So we’ll see how long both of those take!
TJG: Can you talk more about the data—so predictive models for composition?
NC: We’ll have the data that’s being collected from different sensors, I don’t know, say maybe five. And then I’ll write a composition for five instruments, with each instrument patched to one sensor, and then every time that sensor goes off it will affect that instrument. So you might have one instrument that might not play the whole time it’s being performed live, depending on how the data is collecting. So, while I might gain understanding of the data through working with it in the compositional process, no one will be sure at any given time what will happen in the performance. The challenge is to write a composition that can be improvised with, even if it’s just one instrument that ends up playing occasionally, or if all five instruments are playing and you don’t know when they’re going to be activated, how they’re going to add to the piece, and how that’s going to affect the people who are playing with the composition. I think it’s really interesting, because usually when we improvise together we’re reacting to each other, so having that added element of something that’s a little bit unknown, I’m really interested and excited to see how that might turn out.
The Nerissa Campbell Band plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 23rd, 2017. The group features Ms. Campbell on voice and compositions, Can Olgun on piano, Keisuke Matsuno on guitar, Desmond White on bass, Jay Sawyer on drums, and Sarah Mullins & Suzanne La on Balinese gendèr. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.