Photo courtesy of Catherine Campbell’s Facebook
By Anna Mann
Catherine Campbell (C’18) curls up into the seat of a Stirling’s rocking chair, her black Chacos discarded on the porch so that her knees tuck comfortably under her chin. Obviously, the Sewanee singer-songwriter feels at ease at her place of work; and as people pass by, many exchange a few kind words or affectionately brush her shoulder.
“I don’t know,” she states, beginning an explanation of previous music tastes, “I went through all these silly phases like underground rap music, really hardcore metal, and then back to floaty indie music. Now I’m back to where I was as a kid listening to the stuff my parents listened to.”
Once she settles in, Campbell delves further into her artistic roots. She quietly explains the origins of her creativity, her musically inclined family, and the bands that deeply influenced her work. Although her family always played and listened to music, she began her own musical career in the fifth grade by learning cello. Campbell didn’t stop with one instrument, however, and she then taught herself to play guitar senior year of high school.
“My senior year I wasn’t really the songwriting kind of person,” she says, “there was something that switched in my brain halfway through and I’m like, ‘I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna be a completely different person than I was.’”
Since deciding to pursue music, Campbell admits that she turned down several scholarship opportunities for both cello and university choirs due to the difference between “academic” and “artistic” music. After taking many music theory classes in high school, she feels that the subject is more skin to math than art. Furthermore, Campbell confesses a fear that studying music would spoil the magic of it, saying that she would much rather play a song than sit around and talk about it.
“I’m a little stubborn also,” she adds with a grin, “and sometimes I don’t like to listen to other people’s opinions. So having someone tell me about the way I do art is a little frustrating.”
Hands that previously wrapped about her legs now curl through the air as Campbell continues, admitting that to her, the songwriting practices often remain rather touch and go. Though the process usually takes about two hours, Campbell has taken up to a year in order to perfect a song.
Typically, once she finds a chord progression or melody that sticks with her, she states that, “I’ll play the section over and over and over again, and sort of mumble to it until I find words that go well together. Then I’ll take those words, write them down, and try to make meaning of them.”
In this sense, Campbell claims that meaningful lyrics are more than just as a standard for herself, but rather a trait all admirable songs possess. She admits that for her, it’s never about the style of the music but rather what the artist wants to convey. She tries hard to make her work relatable, not only to let others into her own mind but to produce a general theme in which listeners can engage.
Her knack of pleasing the audience served her well in her time as the president of the Mountaintop Musicians, especially during previous years when her band, The Mother Pluckers, performed around the Cumberland Plateau. To the excitement of many, the band briefly toured around the country with money raised from a GoFundMe in 2016 to celebrate the release of their first album.
Unsurprisingly, Campbell remembers the generosity of the Sewanee community fondly, stating that friends, family, and professors alike pitched in to pay for the two-and-a-half-week tour. Now the only member who hasn’t graduated, Campbell thinks she might join a few of the members next year in Chattanooga.
Although Campbell’s life after Sewanee is still undecided, she’ll certainly continue her craft. Whether she ends up in Chattanooga or her hometown of Lexington, Campbell hopes take some more photography classes and perhaps finally learn the mandolin.
“I would not be myself without singing,” she finishes, stretching her stockinged feet out towards her waiting Chacos, “in order to really express how I’m feeling or how I think others are feeling, I need to write songs.”