Singer, actress, writer, artist, and animator extraordinaire, Brittany Campbell, is no stranger to performing on stage. Having been a professional musician since the age of 7, Campbell has made her mark on the world as a solo artist, as a member of the Hamilton cast, and most recently, as one half of the dreamy duo, Mermaid.
Campbell’s most recent solo single, Matter, which has a music video drawn and animated entirely by Brittany herself, is a tribute to several victims of police brutality. Matter is a soulful, existential rumination about the place and status of Black people in the time of Black Lives Matter protests.
As Mermaid, Campbell and her girlfriend, fellow actress Candace Quarrels, create what she describes as soft and intimate explorations on love, vulnerability, and freedom. In their latest single, Dreamer, Campbell and Quarrels show their ability to harmonize with each other as they refuse the limitations that have been placed upon their love and gently croon to one atop a delicate, guitar-driven melody.
I had a delightful chat with Brittany Campbell, who greeted me with a radiant smile, even after what sounded like an exhausting 8-hour ordeal at the DMV. Our conversation covered cartoons, falling in love with music, touring, and what the future holds in store for Brittany Campbell.
Check out the video for “Matter” below.
Alright, so I’ve been listening to your music for a couple of weeks now, ever since they told me about this, and I wanted to say I’m a huge fan. I started watching your music videos too, and I found out that you do the animations yourself right? So, how did you get involved in animating?
Total mistake. I don’t know, I’ve always loved cartoons.
Which ones do you watch?
I just watched all of Inuyasha.
I just started that actually.
Dude, it’s so deep. Just stick with it. It’s a lot of episodes but it’s so amazing, I think about it all the time. I just was like, “Oh I would really love an animated music video”, so I reached out to someone—some animators that I had seen online, to let me see how much this costs and they’d be like “$10,000.” And I’d be like Oh…No. No, J. K. L. O. L. Let me see if I can just figure it out, ’cause I’ve always drawn, but I’d never attempted making it move, so I made that one music video.
People saw it and started to reach out to me about making them, and I was like “Okay, we’ll see what happens.” It kinda kept happening, so here we are.
You said you’ve been watching cartoons your whole life. Is there anything specific that you would say has influenced the way that you do visuals and songwriting?
I don’t know if a cartoon has, but definitely, I was also a huge comic reader. So definitely the Marvel comics are a heavy influence. Comic books like Tank Girl are a heavy influence. And then when it comes to songwriting, I don’t know. Kind of. Music has always been with me in a way. Art has always been with me on the side. That was my hobby—my unwinding. But I’ve been doing music professionally since I was 7 years old so it’s always been a part of my life. And it just sort of falls out of me.
I was reading an interview where you mentioned sneaking into someone’s room and listening to all his jazz records.
Yeah, yeah. My uncle Lloyd. He has a vinyl collection of 80,000 records. At one point he was staying with my grandma for a while and he brings his records everywhere with him. So he was just holed up upstairs in my grandma’s house so I’d sneak in there and see what I could find. He had a cool portable record player and I broke and scratched a few of his records but I found some gems, you know. That’s how I found Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
What album from back when would you go back to over and over?
Oh, well. That was the first time I ever heard The Beatles Abbey Road was in his vinyl collection. I was like, “This looks cool, what’s this picture? Why are these guys walking across the street? Okay.” Then I was like “Whoa, what just happened to me?”, you know?
I never heard anything like that. Oh, another album that blasted me out of my mind was Bold as Love by Jimi Hendrix. Because my family is Jamaican they were bumping reggae music, so I didn’t have a vast education of American music. It wasn’t heavily around me at that time, and then I was in Flatbush Brooklyn, so it was all Caribbeans everywhere. It’s basically being in Jamaica. So when I first heard Jimi Hendrix, it was a moment.
Would you say that he’s a big inspiration for you?
Yeah. Yes and no. He’s definitely the reason why I picked up an electric guitar. So yes. Yes. Yes. Yeah, I guess. Yeah. Yes and no. Yes and no. Yes and no.
Speaking of instruments, I was reading another interview where you said that you had accidentally deleted your loops and so you had to make them live. What was that like?
It happens to me a lot. It happens to me a lot. I have this loop machine. It’s old. I think it’s old. It’s called the JamMan 2. And I’ve had it for like five or six years now and I never read the manual. I never do. I just want to play around with it and see instinctually how it works. But I’ve never learned how to just delete one single loop of it. So every time I attempt to do it, I end up erasing the whole thing. And every time I think I’ve figured out how to erase just one loop, I haven’t done it. So it happens to me a lot. On stage, you learn how to fix that.
Did you have any touring plans that were postponed because of the whole COVID situation?
Yeah, I was supposed to be playing a few dates with Arlo Parks who is this artist from the UK. She makes music that reminds me of trip-hop. It’s pop songs on trip-hop beats. It’s emo, it’s queer, it’s in the corner, it’s cool. So yeah, that got postponed to ‘21. Which is a bummer. At first, I was like you know, this is chill. I’ll just sit at home, I’ll write a bunch of music. It’s space to breathe. And I think about a month ago it started really setting in that like…Wow I really need to play somewhere.
I’ve been getting a little cooped up too. I think over here especially because the whole state’s been on fire and so outside isn’t much of comfort here either besides my little garden.
My girlfriend has started a whole garden. She’s growing food and sort of failing but you know, we believe in it and we love it. They’re finicky. I have a friend who’s a tarot card reader and she was talking about gardening and she said you have to be inducted into gardening like people have to show you how to do it. I don’t know how to use energy into the plants, I think with trial and error, things can be figured out.
As a musician and artist, what is something you’re used to? Speaking of, how has it been managing multiple projects and where do they diverge for you in your creative process?
When Mermaid first began, I felt very split and didn’t know what energy to put into what. But as we began to write more for it, I realized that Mermaid is a place for my vulnerability.
When me and my girlfriend got together – I’m from a Jamaican family and they’re not the most open when it comes to that – my mom and I stopped speaking, and I got so depressed. It was a whole identity crisis, and I didn’t know where to put that. I started writing these introspective songs and Mermaid became the place for that. When I think of my own solo music I think “that’s Brittany Campbell the avatar, the cool, perfect being. She can do anything.” Mermaid is more of a space for softness.
To explore that intimacy?
Yeah. Which is a whole other thing. I’ve never had a relationship like that musically. It’s so very close and open to the point where it’s kind of painful. Like are we about to start sharing these secrets? But here we are. It’s a lot. It definitely feels naked.
Can I ask where you got the name, Mermaid?
Candace and I and a few friends went to this cabin and we were shrooming and we were singing because we were like “O. M. G. we sound so good together.” A friend of ours said we sound like sirens; like mermaids. And we were like “We’ll take it.”
Are you following anything about Halle in the Ariel movie?
You know that we died. You know that both of us were gagged. I can’t wait.
I heard that she’s going to be recording the soundtrack herself.
I just have no words. I’m a fan of Chloe x Halle but I really love Halle for some reason. I don’t know what it is. I think her voice is so interesting. I love her face. I love the whole situation so I’m super geeked out about it.
Who else are you listening to?
Mereba. Anderson Paak is my favorite. A lot of Moses Sumney.
Oh, I love Moses Sumney.
Moses is special. Saw him in Los Angeles back in December or January. He was doing a residency. He had done like six shows back to back just playing around trying it out cause he was getting ready for a tour. It was some of the sickest shit I’ve ever seen. His band alone? Disgusting. But also his ability to sing whatever the fuck, however, the fuck. I don’t understand it. He’s super beautiful. He’s got the whole thing. It’s an experience. The Moses Sumney experience.
I think that’s it. I’ve gone into a tunnel these days, I haven’t been listening to much music these past two months, just because I’ve been wanting to spend a lot of time with my family, and just unplugging from the world right now. So I haven’t been inputting a lot. I’m home. I am cocooned. This particular trip has been, I haven’t been home in a long time. Me and my mom hadn’t been speaking. This was the first time in a long time and I think it’s exactly what I need for right now.
I think when BLM surged, I got very involved, and I got sucked in by the way of social media and it made me feel so dark after a while when you’re seeing that shit and you’re downloading that shit. It just became dark and it became defiled.
So I had to take a moment. At one point it felt very invigorating and it felt very charged to be fighting because I do believe that BLM is ultimately a fight for us all as a human race.
So I felt hopeful and very good about that, but at the same time it was taxing and it’s an important key part of any movement. Especially if you want it to keep going, which I think this movement is probably a lifetime event, you have to take time to charge. So that’s where I’m at right now. That’s what this trip home has been about, sort of healing many parts of myself.
And giving yourself space to do that.
Are you working on another album now?
I’m working on the Mermaid album. I was just talking to myself about this today, like, “Am I writing a new Brittany album?” I don’t know yet.
I found these producers in LA through quarantine that have been a shift for me musically. So it’s got my wheels turning in a way they haven’t been before now. I feel motivated to write. But I don’t know. I don’t know if an album is coming out of this but I know I’m super inspired and I’m writing a lot of songs. I know Mermaid is going to have an album. 2021. Let’s pray on it, it will be out. It will happen.
So when you mention unplugging, I saw that you mentioned being excited to be in Chicago and being a fan of Noname. Are you participating in her book club at all?
Yeah, I mean, my girlfriend more than myself. I hate to admit it but I hate reading. I hate reading. I hate reading. I hate it so much. But my girlfriend has been heavily into digesting this material. I think she’s read thirteen books in the course of the month, so she is on it. Okay? And then she tells me about it and that’s really great. So I like to digest that.
Reading is just a slow way to input information. I end up reading the same line seven times. I start to think about things. It’s just an uphill battle for me. Books are great. I just have a problem focusing in that way.
How split is the production process for Mermaid between the two of you?
Candace and I met in Hamilton. She was an actress-singer and had never done music before. Our friendship sort of spurred this musical relationship. And then…we were in love. So it trickled from there. So this is all new territory for her.
I’ve been enjoying producing for a project that I think is so different from how I normally approach things. In many ways, I feel free to talk about whatever the fuck I want. Because it’s so new and undefined. The shackles are off. We can do whatever. So yeah, I’ve been doing most of the producing. We’re working with this guy Matt Otto who produced a lot for Moses Sumney. And Sam Hoffman who produces for Mereba and who produced Matter. That’s exciting.
I read in an interview that your previous album Stay Gold had forced you to be brave. How would you say that your current solo work and what you’re working on for Mermaid are making you feel?
With the way that my solo stuff is going now, I want to say that it’s making me feel grown as fuck. It’s making me feel unapologetic in a way. It’s making me feel like I can finally own my perspective in a way that I think I’ve been afraid to before. I feel more confident in speaking my opinions on things.
“Matter” was kind of the unleashing of that. I don’t think I’d ever written a song quite like that and I never imagined myself to write a song quite like that. But it opened a door for me. Then I realized, “Oh there’s more things possible. I don’t always have to be talking about this kind of love. We can expand, we can go here. With my stuff now, it’s awakening a sort of curiosity and an owning of my being.
And then Mermaid…It’s childlike. It’s like having no rules, it’s fun. It’s open. It’s soft. I don’t know why I don’t necessarily associate my stuff with softness, but it’s soft. You don’t have to have any walls up. All are welcome. It’s very flowy in the wind, very hippy.
Would you say that the whole COVID situation has impacted your perspective about how you’re going to do live shows in the future?
That’s what I’m starting to think about. Like I said, I was late to the party. I was like oh, it’s going to be fine in a couple of months. I think it’s sinking in now that the world is different, so I’m beginning to think about what that means.
I love to throw live events. I think Mermaid is going to have one at the end of this month for our Gofundme. We’re thinking about how we can set up territory that is socially distanced and just feel that vibe. Because I have played a lot of “live” shows over the internet. And I love it. Yay and oooh, but I need that energy exchange. It just really isn’t the same magic that occurs. And I need that magic. I’m jonesin’ for it. Like a fiend for that magic.
I totally understand that, especially as a fan.
Sometimes I look at those Arlo Parks dates and sometimes I just sit lonely singing to myself. I just mope to myself. But I think the new resolve is that I’m going to start. Mermaid is going to start playing shows, there’s just going to be fewer people. It’s going to be socially distanced and that’s just what has to happen.
We were really inspired when we went to see a friend band of ours, Magenta Rainbow. They had their album release in an open park and it worked so well. I was able to dance and have fun and it was all safe. It was the most fun I’ve had in 2020. This is what we need for the soul.
I wonder how many places are going to be turning towards using natural landscapes?
I’m so down for that though. I love hearing music in nature. That feels next level. That’s some tribal shit. It’s like Where the Wild Things Are. Did you ever read that?
I did. I used to read it.
I don’t like reading but I love that book. No book teaches you how to be bad like that book. I was like okay cool. So. I can be a little troublemaker and it is alright. Because what that means is I’m an imaginary being. I got that imagination. I’m so expressive.
I totally remember that. I remember thinking, “So wait, you mean I don’t have to listen?”
I wasn’t the only one that came to that realization right? That’s literally what I got from it. Like, “Oh. I can be a jerk.”
And they’ll write a book about you!
As a final question: Who would be three artists you would take with you on a dream tour?
Follow the adventures of Brittany Campbell on Instagram.
Interview by Ricky Barajas
Self portraits by Brittany Campbell.