U.K. to Los Angeles front-woman for Westside jazz-pop band The Strands, Amanda Campbell, join us for a morning donut and coffee courtesy of Venice’s Blue Star Donuts to discuss their upcoming debut album, the importance of an in-person audience connection and pulling influences from many different styles of music.
The Strands is comprised of:
Amanda Campbell – lead vocals
Richard Green – lead guitar
Emily Ashenfelter, replacing long time band member Susan Ferrari – keyboards and backing vocals
Paul Campbell – bass
So a little birdy told me that The Strands in going to be releasing some new music. Care to share a little sneak peek on what we should be looking forward to?
Amanda Campbell: Absolutely! So this is our first full-length album and we’re very excited about it. I’m particularly excited about it because I wrote and co-wrote five songs out the nine, so that’s exciting. I’ve never had that much writing responsibility before. I think it’s typical of The Strands in which it shows a wide variety of styles throughout the album. You have everything from a protest song to a Bossanova, but there’s a thread that runs through it makes it cohesive. It has a strong emphasis on instrumentation, vocals, lyrics, pretty standard Strand stuff.
Well, we are all very excited for the debut!
Amanda: We are too!
And how was the recording process for this album between all of the songs? Were there songs that didn’t make the cut for the debut?
Amanda: Actually, we ended up adding a song. The night before we had a rehearsal to go through the eight songs we were going to do, I came up with an idea for “New Tunes,” which is a song that we’ve been doing live for a long time. Our drummer and our guitarist came up with the groove, made the arrangements that night, went in the next day and recorded it. So that was something that we never usually do. We usually play something for months until we get it right because we always want our recordings to reflect what we do. So that was fun to have that work out the way that it did.
Yeah! The universal was in your favor!
Amanda: Yeah! And we ended up changing some arrangements on some of the songs. The producers say, ‘I like that bit, but you need to make a place for it. So you’re always working on the fly a little bit in the studio.
And which song was your favorite to write and record?
Amanda: I think the most fun one to write was “New Tunes.” I mean, maybe ‘fun’ is not the right word, more like ‘rewarding’ is. It’s about a friend of mine’s breakup of his marriage, and he ended up coming to live with my husband and me for a while after it. I just knew I was going to write something up about it. One day he said to me, ‘I’ve got to find some new tunes to listen to.’ When he said that, I had the song right there. I went and wrote it, got it all out, and it was really fun to record that in a new way. So yeah, for writing and recording I think that was my favorite.
It’s definitely a relatable topic, unfortunately.
Amanda: Yeah, and you know, I don’t remember any song about songs that remind us of something. I’m sure there is, but it really felt like it was an original concept for us.
If you had an infinite amount of money right at the very moment in time, which song would you do a music video for and what would your concept be?
Amanda: I thought about this lot, and there’s a song that I wrote on the album that would really make a good video it’s called “Same Old Dream.” It’s about waking up from having this recurring dream, and I thought about that video as being cinematic and having that dream like a movie. I’m not a very good visual artist, I’m strictly vocal, so I don’t think of things visually, but I think that would be what I would want to do for a music video for that song.
Yeah! And it would be super cool looking!
Amanda: Yeah yeah yeah, we’ll make it like a movie a bad movie, a scary movie! *laughs*
There are no bad movies, just bad storylines. *laughs*
Amanda: Ah yes 100%!
Just like there are no bad songs, just bad lyrics.
Amanda: Oh yeah, don’t even get me started on that. *laughs*
We would be having a two-hour long interview. *both laugh* And speaking of lyrics, you guys tend to come up with the lyrics first or the composition first?
Amanda: You know, it goes either way with me. With the song “New Tunes,” I just ran upstairs and the words just came and I had to figure out what the melody was. That’s happened a few times, but more often than not, especially with my solo stuff, I get the music first and I get to put my melodies and lyrics over the top. And then sometimes I’m just sitting around with somebody strumming a guitar and they both come together, so it can go lots of different ways for me.
Wherever the wind blows.
Amanda: Yeah exactly! I feel like I’m an antenna trying to pick something up and rolling with it.
So your music has been praised for how provocatively your lyrics are delivered in a passionate way, which is something that we wish that modern music does more.
Amanda: Oh yes yes!
And it’s been discussed that modern music listeners tend to be more into the sound aspect as opposed to the lyrics and their underlying tones. Do you feel like that’s true?
Amanda: Well I agree with what the public is being given, but I don’t agree that that’s necessarily what they want. I feel like sometimes the music industry, and even like TV and film, they just try to dumb you down and go, ‘Well, this product works so let’s make another product just like it,’ and people just take it. But I then you get someone like Amy Winehouse where everyone from my parents in their 80s to my friends’ grandkids who are 18 and 20 and everyone in between all love her, and I think it’s because she told a story passionately and you believed her. So I think people do appreciate that, but I don’t they’re really being given it. I had listened to a little interview that Frank Zappa gave years ago where he said, ‘You know, I used to be a time when music executives were old guys smoking cigars and they knew nothing about the music industry, but they let artists do what artists did.’ Now it’s not like that, they’re all about how the product sold this many units so they can add another product like them. I think that’s really what’s happening.
Yeah. And that’s kind of the unfortunate thing where the singer is not a person anymore.
Amanda: It really is an unfortunate thing.
Absolutely. So as a transplant from the UK, were there any culture shocks that you had experienced coming to L.A., specifically the L.A. music scene?
Amanda: You know, I’ve been here longer than I’ve lived in England now, but I know there was a bit of a culture shock when I first got here. Gosh, I get a little bit of a culture shock when I go back home now *laughs* but when I first got here I was a very young and very into the jazz-funk, Philadelphia soul movement. In England it was huge, there were clubs and we would go dancing, it was great! And then I came here and went to a club on Sunset called Club Lingerie, I’m really dating myself here, *laughs* and the music was just awful tin-y digital sounding and I hated it. I found that the only way I could find the music that I loved was in gay clubs and black clubs and that’s where I used to hang out because that’s where they played the music I could dance to. So that was a shock to me that people that looked like me weren’t listening to that kind of music I was listening too. When play here is very different, especially if you play in little venues where there isn’t a cover. In England, they’ll pass around a hat to the audience and get money for you, but they don’t do that here.
I wish they did! It just sounds so fun and a great way to get the audience interacting with the performer.
Amanda: Yeah right! I was so shocked when they did that at a gig we didn’t really expect to get paid for and suddenly we got paid for it. So that’s different, but it’s tough in both places.
Yeah, unfortunately the modern music industry is hard for everyone.
So The Strands has been lucky enough to play at numerous well-loved L.A. venues. What are some memorable moments that you’ve experienced while performing in Los Angeles?
Amanda: I think every gig is fun and I always come off the stage high as a kite. I think the gig we did at the Saban where we opened for The Spinners was really fun because it was a huge crowd. When we got on the stage people were yelling out our names and that was the first time that’s ever happened so that was really nice. And we’ve had some funny things have happened. Paul our bass player has a really long blonde hair and his hair caught fire on stage one day. *laughs*
Oh my goodness!
Amanda: And another time, we were playing the House of Blues and he was really sick. We thought we had the flu and we were like, ‘Are you sure you can do it, Paul? You really look bad.’ And we were like, ‘No, I can do it.’ He almost passed out and surprisingly he got through the gig, but we found two days later that he had actually contracted typhus!
Oh my God!
Amanda: He had typhoid fever and ended up in the hospital for four days. So that wasn’t fun, but it was funny to look back on because everyone was like, ‘Wow, the bass player is really strung out!’ *laughs* They’re all fun, but so many of these venues are not there anymore. It was always great fun that the Witzend, it was right here in Venice.
And with social media and music streaming being the main way that artists are showcasing their music, do you think that it makes it harder or easier for artists to be successful?
Amanda: I think it makes it harder. I’m no expert in the music industry, otherwise I would be somewhere else, *laughs* but I think it makes it harder because I think there used to be a path before where you play live, the A&R guys were there at these gigs, someone would see you, and then you’d get a record contract. Now it’s just almost all pay to play. I mean, I heard someone say that record execs don’t look at YouTube and he’s had a million plays on SoundCloud. For that to happen organically, I just don’t know how you do that. I think so much of it is that is playing the social media game and knowing how to do that. If I were 20 wearing a halter neck and a mini skirt, I could get a lot more attention than a can at my age now. So I just don’t know how to play that game and it seems, not impossible, but really really tough to break through without that traditional path.
I totally understand how it can feel like it makes it harder as well. It’s just another marketing ploy but it’s always changing.
Amanda: Yeah, it changes every day. Oh, it’s Facebook. Oh, it’s Snapchat. Oh, it’s Instagram. I mean, quite frankly it’s exhausting. I just think, and I know I may be mistaken, but if we keep putting out good music and keep playing gigs and submit to all the radio stations, maybe it’ll get heard that way, but it’s not going to be because of social media. It also makes it more competitive because everybody’s on that platform.
Yeah. Everybody’s releasing music and it’s like, ‘Here, listen to my song!’
Amanda: And it’s because anybody can make a track, anybody can produce a track. The way that we do it is we are actually recording live instruments, we don’t do it on all on Garageband or Pro Tools. We are live instruments being recorded in the studio and that’s very expensive.
But that always sounds better!
Amanda: Absolutely! Because I think subconsciously you’re not listening to a live performance. And again, that’s why I refer to Amy Winehouse, she touched so many people because it was real live instruments and a real person telling a real story about something that really happened to them.
There’s a reason why people like that get praised because everything gets so monotonous. And then you have someone come in with relatively simple concepts that are different.
Amanda: It’s sincerity that people really respond to and hopefully that’s what we’re doing.
I think the real music listeners are.
Amanda: I think so too.
Now you had been previously performing solo around the jazz coffeehouse circuit before you met producers that were able to license your work for a French miniseries. I can’t even imagine how exciting that was.
Amanda: Oh yeah! It was funny because the two songs that got picked were the very first two songs that I wrote. I haven’t been doing this my whole life and I’m relatively new to it. So that was amazing!
Better late than never!
Amanda: I know! I’m a late bloomer. *laughs*
But it still works for people!
Amanda: Absolutely! I mean, some things happen in different ways and the universe provides. I’m a strong believer in that. I feel like as long as we can play, as long as I can write and record, and that I’m happy doing it and people keep coming to the gigs then that’s a success right there. It’s hard to get people to get out of their houses. People just don’t go to live music like they used to do.
Amanda: Yeah. But through the producer that I recorded the first three songs with, I met some amazing people. I got to work with Andy Johns’, who produced Stairway To Heaven and Angie and many more iconic songs. He was working on a song I that I wrote but we never finished it because he died in the middle of working on it. So yes, human contact can still get you somewhere.
Agreed. And in terms of the promotion standpoint, do you feel that human interaction is and will always be better than digital ways to reach out?
Amanda: I mean, it is for us because if you’ve got a pulse I’ll be inviting you to a gig. *both laugh* I think you get far more out of the experience when you do it in person. We’ll have friends that come to the gigs and they will like it so they’ll bring their friends and those friends bring their friends and so on. It’s really nice! I’m at a tipping point now where I don’t know everybody that’s coming to see us because there was a time where I knew everyone. But I think what’s really worked for us has been through word of mouth and not so much social media. I mean, it helps when you put an event on Facebook and then do it on Instagram and Twitter, but really it’s more like, ‘ Oh so-and-so told me you were playing’ and not really ‘Oh I saw it on Facebook.’
And that’s so awesome that the word-of-mouth aspect is not dying out and is still bringing success in a way.
Amanda: I think once it reaches that tipping point where you’re a known entity in an area that would change, but at the level we are now, it’s really important to have that human factor.
Yeah. You just can’t be friends with your computer, well, I guess in a way you can. *both laugh* If you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Amanda: I’ve thought about this a lot. *laughs* Number one would be Sade, and then Gregory Porter, who I actually wrote a song for on our previous record, and then there’s a really up-and-coming gal called Kandace Springs. They’re also jazzy and bluesy and would fit really well with us. I cannot come up with a good name, but I was thinking ‘Smooth Operators.’ My husband came up with something funny, he said we can name it ‘Token White Girl.’ *both laugh* I’ll leave that to the professionals. But I think just to share the stage with any of those would be amazing
Even if you’re just in the background. *both laugh*
Amanda: Of yes! *laughs*
Which artists would you say have influenced your work?
Amanda: Well for sound, I grew up listening to jazz like Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine. Also Amy Winehouse because I really started singing about the same time that she came around, and I really learned to sit back in my vocals to just not put it all out there at once. People say the most of our sound is like Steely Dan with a female singer, which I love. But for influences as far as the band I think Velvet Underground, and I think we’re a collection of jazz-funk because we all come from such different musical backgrounds. Yeah, we definitely got a strong jazz undertone.
Something that’s definitely needed!
Amanda: Yeah. And again, another reason why I keep going on about Amy Winehouse, *laughs* anyone would think I was obsessed with, but there were jazz chords there which were amazing and made it the music even more powerful. I mean, I feel it in my gut like, ‘Oh god that minor chord or that seven or nine that they’re playing is just, wow.’ I get goosebumps when I hear those kinds of chords.
Yeah. And she was praised for incorporating those kinds of elements into pop music.
Amanda: Right. It can be done and people love it, but I think it’s just nobody is taking any risks anymore. It’s like, ‘This works so we’ll stay on this.’
I definitely agree from what I’ve been hearing on the radio. It just all sounds the same.
Amanda: Yeah, it does. I find myself just going back in time when I’m listening to music because very little of what’s out there resonates with me, you know. I hear people say all the time, ‘Oh you should listen to so-and-so and I’ll listen and go, ‘Ok, but they sound like so-and-so so why don’t I just listen just to who they sound like?’ I just don’t appreciate somebody just because they sound like someone else.
Yeah. And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Amanda: More than anything, I hope that the listener is moved and that they come away thinking that was a little bit different. Lyrics-wise I hope they can relate to them in some way or form.
It’s what we all want.
Amanda: Yeah, and that’s what I want. It’s the same with movies, I want to be either laughing my head off or crying or disturbed. I don’t just want to just be entertained, like, I’d rather throw the ball to my dog than to spend any time in that state. I think we’re just underestimated as an audience by the business.
Yeah. And there’s a reason why people feel such deep, emotional connections to music.
Amanda: Yeah! But it’s hard to when it’s a synthesizer. That’s what I hated when I first came to L.A., that everything was on the synthesizer. I think it has its place and it can be great if it’s done in an original way, but I think most the time it isn’t done in an original way. Like, we never had a discussion about what we were going to sound like or what kind of music we were going to play, we were friends that played together and we came up with something that we still haven’t been able to really define. And you know, we never say, ‘Oh let’s try and sound like this’ or ‘Let’s be a soul band, or ‘Let’s be a jazz band.’ We just say, ‘Let’s interpret each song on the song’s merits. Let the song be the guide.’ I think we have a lot of that going on our album. They are very different styles of music, but it all comes together somehow.
And sometimes when songs are formed organically like that they end up being great!
Amanda: Yeah I hope so.
You shouldn’t force a certain style onto anything.
Amanda: Yeah, I never think like, ‘Oh how I’m going to sing this?’ when I’m singing. I’m telling a story and I’m relying on my musical instincts.
And apart from the debut album, what exciting things should we expect from The Strands in the near future.
Amanda: Well, hopefully a music video or someone who’s going to make a music video for us. And we have a new keyboard player so that’s really exciting. It’s been almost a year that we’ve been looking for the right person and we’re really excited to debut with Emily. And the next big thing will be the CD release party, which I’m just looking for a suitable venue to hold it at. That’s hard. It’s just really hard. And we have an embarrassment of riches in that we do have a lot of music we have not recorded yet so we will be going back into the studio. We’ve been gifted some money for us to get back into the recording studio. Usually we fund that by our live gigs, but as we haven’t been playing since February it’s been tough. We usually like to play a couple of times a month. But yeah, lots of new and exciting thing and we will just see where we go.
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