For the somber, acoustic song “Same Old, Same Old,” Omaha singer-songwriter Michael Campbell says he reworked a single electric guitar solo hundreds of times.
“I literally played 270 takes to get it just right, and then we threw them all out.”
Campbell was able to test out variations and perfect each sound in his home studio for My Turn Now, his first release since 1998. In the last five years of recording, Campbell took his time cultivating each note.
The same attention to detail exists in his songwriting. Campbell is experienced in storytelling, elaborating on one idea and nitpicking the details until it compounds on itself and unfolds into a universal theme. As a published author who writes humorous personal essays, he understands the importance of anecdotes and connecting with the reader. This ideal translates into the songwriting on My Turn Now.
The lyrics read like short stories and essays. Distinct beginnings, climaxes and conclusions are teeming with alliteration, metaphor and universal themes of family and love. Just as each story presents a new character to explore, each song bursts with a new sound acting as the setting. Campbell dips into slower acoustic songs and experiments with unexpected genres, like the smooth bossa nova melody of “That Was Then, This is Now.”
“It’s good for me as a writer,” Campbell says. “It’s good for the story. I write words and music together and if I keep writing the same music, I’m going to write the same song.”
Michael Campbell will play tracks from My Turn Now at the CD release party 6 p.m. Friday at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, an airy room he calls “perfect” for an intimate performance. Singer-songwriters Korey Anderson and Vern Kathol will open. Attendees will have a chance to purchase the “old school” three-panel CD at a discounted price than the online offer.
Campbell is used to telling stories through his essays. His book, Are You Going to Eat That? is a collection of humorous anecdotes published in 2009. He notes the similarities between serious songwriting and humor writing — both have to flow naturally.
“In a well-written song, to me, the words fall into the rhythm in a way that feels like you’re not trying. You’re just talking those lines,” Campbell says. “For something to be funny, the funny part has to fall into that same sort of rhythm or it doesn’t work.”
The opening country-influenced title track takes a cue from Campbell’s humor writing as he narrates the story of a struggling but hopeful man. Campbell paints the character in a matter-of-fact spoken word, saying, “I’ve been working double-time, paying for things that aren’t even mine.” At the chorus, he sings, “It’s my turn now,” in a jovial melody backed by a driving percussion.
Campbell structured his last album, 1998’s Used Without Permission, in a typical, acoustic-driven singer-songwriter routine. Then, he says heartbreak was the foundation of his sound and that same theme can be found throughout the album.
“Is cohesive good? Is homogenous good?” Campbell asks. “I don’t think it is.”
Campbell attributes a positive mood shift to a more exploratory songwriting approach, resulting in “story-oriented, character-oriented” lyrics. Because he took nearly five years to tinker with My Turn Now, each song is approached differently.
My Turn Now challenges an acoustic singer-songwriter norm in Campbell’s return to music production. The aforementioned bossa nova tune stands with folk-country and rock ‘n roll tracks. “Up and Down” employs Louisiana-bred zydeco, the dancing accordion capturing a lively spirit in a Southern tale about an individual’s love of dance.
As natural as the lyrics flow in My Turn Now, Campbell says he only got back into the rhythm of songwriting five years ago after little inspiration contributed to the lack of production in those 17 years. He says he focused on friends’ musical projects during this time.
In 2003, Campbell opened Mick’s Music and Bar in Benson, which also acted as a regular music venue. Beside providing an outlet for local and touring bands to perform, Campbell says he expected the venue scene to pull him out of his songwriting drought.
“I thought being surrounded by musicians all the time would be this encouraging experience,” Campbell says. However, the shows did little to fuel inspiration.
Six years ago, Campbell sold Mick’s— which became The Sydney — and he was left with more time to focus on music. Despite his original plan, the extra time devoted to songwriting offered him the inspiration and work ethic he desired for the last decade.
In the last 18 months of recording My Turn Now, he says he finally worked himself into a routine of a constant album-oriented process. Campbell says he can’t expect another decades-long hiatus, as he’s already “itching” to continue writing and recording his next album.
“It’s satisfying. It’s happy. It’s healthy,” Campbell says. “It’s what I should be doing.”