Q&A with Canadian duo of Campbell & Johnston - vintage blues-rock and roots with titbits of folk & country

"Things usually take a little longer than ya think, a little more work, and the path never looks quite like you thought it would. Pick as many brains as you can. Don’t work with jerks no matter what they have to offer. Try to be authentic and don’t take yourself too seriously. And remember, you can fail at your back up plan too, so you may as well do what you love."

Christine Campbell & Blake Johnston:

The “Righteous” Side of Music

Halifax vintage blues-rock duo Campbell & Johnston have been entertaining audiences across Canada with their soulful tone, 60's and 70s rock-style guitar riffs, and bewitching vocal harmonies, opening for some big names like Burton Cummings, Steve Earle, and Bob Seger. PEI raised, Nova Scotia-based artist/songwriter Christine Campbell is a true representation of her diverse influences – from hard rock and 70’s rock to roots and blues. A killer guitarist, classically-trained pianist, dynamic songwriter and incomparable singer, Christine Campbell is truly a rare, multi-faceted talent. Christine has released two critically acclaimed solo albums. As a performing artist for almost a decade, Christine has toured Canada, opened for Chantal Kreviazuk, Bob Seger, Steve Earle & Jann Arden, and showcased at the 2020 Folk Alliance Conference in New Orleans. Blake Johnston is best known as the guitar-slinging powerhouse vocalist for Halifax-based band The Stogies. On October 19th, 2023, Campbell & Johnston released their first single, “Righteous” off their upcoming studio album in the spring of 2024, showcasing a jambalaya of roots, blues, and soul reminiscent of Little Feat and Dr. John.

(Christine Campbell & Blake Johnston / 27th Floor Photography/Dan Boshart)

In 2021, they released their self-titled album, Campbell & Johnston’s Black Market Band. The self-produced recording adds a touch of their old school rock influences with a modern twist on blues and soul. The album went on to earn the award for Best Blues Album at the 2022 East Coast Music Awards and a Maple Blues Award nomination for New Artist/Group of the Year. In 2023 Campbell’s home province showed their support for her, with the Music PEI Rooted to the Island Award.

Interview by Michael Limnios                 Special Thanks: Sarah French Publicity

How has the Blues/Rock music influenced your views of the world? What moment changed your music life the most?

Christine: I don’t think blues rock has influenced my views of the world. I’d say if anything it helped me stop getting caught up in the world. One I didn’t feel I particularly fit in. As for music, life changing moments. Most changes were very gradual. The only drastic moments came at the beginning, discovering records for the first time. Particularly, the first time I heard Deep Purple’s Machine Head. I don’t remember when, but I can still feel the moment. Like most old school rock albums, it was very blues based, so I guess it counts. The guitar tones, riffs and songs, still to this day epitomize my favourite sound but the first moment I heard Ian Gillan screaming in “Highway Star” I would guess my neural connections mutated!  It’s a bit of a paradox because it created a high for me that I’ve been chasing ever since and doubt I will never be able to recreate. But the counter to that was that, it just gave me a feeling of pure free, skin shedding, let go! And to me that’s what it’s all about.

Blake: Blues/Rock hasn't really changed my views of the world per-say. Music itself has just been something always there that seemed cool wherever it was. Music on a radio, a car drive, in the garage, at school, around the campfire, on late night T.V., at a concert, at a church, at a sporting event. Whenever it came time for music to be played, everybody usually looked forward to that part, and I wanted to be involved in that somehow. Earliest musical memory is listening to Dwight Yoakm's cover of Elvis' Suspicious Minds. First time I remember getting goosebumps listening to music. Still chasing that first buzz.

"I've just now been made aware it has a devoted following. I honestly have no idea. I guess because it's part of the DNA of people and society. Being tired of the blues or rock and roll is like being tired of the trees or the grass. It's just kind of part of our world or what we do. But that doesn't speak to Canada in any specific way. I dunno." (Photo: Campbell & Johnston, Halifax Canada / Photo by Sarah Jamer)

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Christine: Our music is essentially Blues rock and roots with titbits of folk & country. We’re both strong lead players and singers. I always say Blake is the Yang to my Yin. As for the music making process, I’ve always loved math and puzzles and am a bit left brained in my approach. But the feel is most important to me. It can be a tug of war sometimes between what you CAN do and what you SHOULD. A great line our band mate Pete Davison always says is “what does the song want”! We can get a little busy sometimes, but we ultimately try to be a channel for the song rather than worry about it showcasing our abilities.

Blake: The sound is a hodge-podge of all my favorite things from Blues, Rock and Roll, RnB, Soul, Country and Jazz if I'm doing it right. I like groove, melody, storytelling and word play and have always enjoyed soloing especially a great guitar solo. No real music philosophy other than I generally like real people playing together. As long as that's happening, record it or perform it how ya want. It's all good. I guess my take on technique and soul would be to not let either one get too much in the way of what you're trying to do, and that they're not mutually exclusive to one another. Everyone plays with or has technique. Whether they're thought to have good technique or bad technique is subjective. One can also play with excellent technique whilst still playing with soul.  I think knowing your instrument and being a proficient player of that instrument is important, but only in so much as you're able to do best what you're aiming to do. I don't care that John Prine can't play guitar solos, because he doesn't need them to do musically what he does best. On the other hand, I don't listen to Joe Pass for his insightful lyrics, I listen to his Jazz chops.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Christine: I wish people in the industry were more dependable.

Blake: For touring to become affordable. An increased public hunger to experience and take in live music on a consistent basis at all levels of the industry. May the stadiums and arenas be as packed as the shitty blues bars and dance clubs and overpriced granola hipster cafe slam poetry herbal tea instrumental cat loving soft jazz afternoon shows and the busker with the cutoff gloves and scarf playing on the corner well into December and has a guitar case open with some change and a Tim's cup. May all of them to have bountiful turnouts that leave all in attendance with fulfilled hearts and minds!

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Christine: It was pretty intimidating when I was younger. Back when it seemed I was the only female around, trying to be part of a boy’s club, but these days the change is in effect. There’s a lot more female shredders out there now and I think it will just continue to grow.

"I want all the egos, labels & politics to be left at the door. To me music is meant to be a freeing experience that everyone needs in their lives. A place to recharge and spiritually connect." (Blues-rock duo Campbell & Johnston have been entertaining audiences across Canada with their soulful tone, 60's and 70s rock-style guitar riffs, and bewitching vocal harmonies / 27th Floor Photography/Dan Boshart)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Christine: One of the things I miss “most” about old music, is the lazy, behind the beat rhythm, that seemed perfectly messy and in sync at the same time. Ya don’t hear that very much these days even when people cover songs that were built on it.  As for hopes of the future, I’d like to build a bigger team, solidify a stronger tour route abroad, and above all, do less administration, more creation. The DIY way is why we’ve thrived so I’m grateful for that, but I definitely want to get back to the art. I feel we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of our sound. My fear is the biz side consuming too much time and us never getting to create our best stuff. However, our team seems to be growing so maybe that 10,000 plus hours is finally paying off. In the meantime, I just gotta keep the faith.

Blake: I dunno, I generally like the limited means of recording technology that resulted in very distinct sounding audio recordings, but I'd be lying if I said the advance in those things hasn't allowed us to make records in our basement without really having a ton of engineering experience. It's a lot easier to get stuff done so to speak, but having all the colours in the palette at your disposal doesn't always result in the best paintings. No hopes or fears for the future, other than making trillions and trillions of dollars and crushing my enemies in cold vengeance. Ultimately, I think music as a function of the human condition and society is fine and will be fine. There's a ton of great music being made right now and it's surely going to inspire the next generation of delinquents to carry the torch or try and take something to the next uncharted place only to find out it's already been done before. It's fun, which is why it'll stay around.

Why do you think that the Blues/Rock music continues to generate such a devoted following in Canada?

Blake: I've just now been made aware it has a devoted following. I honestly have no idea. I guess because it's part of the DNA of people and society. Being tired of the blues or rock and roll is like being tired of the trees or the grass. It's just kind of part of our world or what we do. But that doesn't speak to Canada in any specific way. I dunno.

"Our music is essentially Blues rock and roots with titbits of folk & country. We’re both strong lead players and singers. I always say Blake is the Yang to my Yin." (Campbell & Johnston / 27th Floor Photography/Dan Boshart)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?  

Christine: I want all the egos, labels & politics to be left at the door. To me music is meant to be a freeing experience that everyone needs in their lives. A place to recharge and spiritually connect.

Blake: If people look forward to their work or school commute, or session at a gym, or evening walk, or their Saturday night a little bit more because of something I'm involved in musically. I'm good with that.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Christine: Things usually take a little longer than ya think, a little more work, and the path never looks quite like you thought it would. Pick as many brains as you can. Don’t work with jerks no matter what they have to offer. Try to be authentic and don’t take yourself too seriously. And remember, you can fail at your back up plan too, so you may as well do what you love.

Blake: That it's a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.

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