Local songwriter works to build music community

Mike Easterling
Eric Campbell, front, says his friend Dugan Frase, left, of the band Reverend Catfish, was one of the people who helped him find his footing when he began playing live music a few years ago.

FARMINGTON – Music has been an important part of Eric Campbell’s life for as long as he can remember. He grew up in a hip household, listening to Kool and the Gang, Marvin Gaye and Motown tunes favored by his dad, along with his mother’s favorites like Prince, Michael Jackson and Norteño artists.

So when a band came to perform for his class one day in fifth grade, Campbell and his best friend Austin Leonard both responded enthusiastically. They resolved to get involved in music as quickly as they could, and that meant joining the middle school band when they hit sixth grade the next year.

For Campbell, that move would spark an intense interest in music that would last for the next several years. As for Leonard, well, not so much. The two boys were assigned to the bass clarinet, which suited Campbell just fine. But for Leonard, who was short for his age, the task of playing the lengthy woodwind instrument — a challenge even for a grown man standing upright, the bass clarinet can stretch from mouth to knees — was an exercise in humiliation.

“Austin had to sit on a stack of phone books,” Campbell said, laughing at the memory of his friend’s struggles with the instrument. “And I think he got tired of being made fun of.”

So the boys went their separate ways. Within a few years, Leonard had undergone a growth spurt and become a basketball player — a pretty good one, as Campbell recalled.

But Campbell stuck with music. Over the next few years, he would learn to play the trumpet, the French horn and the oboe, earning All-State honors as a freshman at Piedra Vista High School.

Efrain Oquita, left, and Chris Chavez perform during the open mic session on May 11 at Clancy's Irish Cantina.

Campbell tooled around on other instruments over the years, as well. But it wasn’t until well after he graduated from PV in 2009 that he finally found the instrument that eventually would help him establish himself as one of the more promising and energetic talents on the local music scene.

“When I was 18, my roommate had an Ibanez guitar,” he said. “I liked it so much, I went down and bought one that was a little thinner. But it didn’t look like his, and it didn’t sound like his, and I hated it.”

By his early twenties, Campbell was trying to support himself by working two jobs, including one at a gas station located adjacent to Clancy’s Irish Cantina, and had largely put music behind him. One day, a regular customer, Efrain Oquita, dropped by and told Campbell he was hosting an open mic session the next night at the club. He invited Campbell to stop by.

Curious, Campbell decided to take Oquita up on his offer. Over the past few years, Campbell had become a little more comfortable on his Ibanez and had even written a few songs. It occurred to him that the open mic night Oquita was leading might be a good chance to ease back into the music scene, even if he had never sung in front anyone before and was more than a little apprehensive about doing so.

“So I went to Clancy’s and played my three songs,” Campbell said, rolling his eyes at the memory of that evening. “I was horrible. I was so bad, I forgot the words to my own songs.”

An experience like that is usually enough to turn off most budding young musicians, and that might have been the route taken by Campbell were it not for Oquita’s words of encouragement and his steady prodding. Campbell decided to stick with it, and over the past three years, he said he’s missed only two of the weekly Wednesday night open mic sessions at Clancy’s that he now leads.

“He’s had my back since the beginning,” Campbell said of Oquita. “Now, I play throughout Colorado and Albuquerque, and he’s been my most solid supporter through everything.”

At the age of 25, Campbell is still probing his artistic limits and trying to determine what he wants from his music career. But he’s enjoyed a good deal of early success while doing everything he can to inject some life into the local live music community. He’s already won a pair of online songwriting contests and played a gig at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, where he was handed the unenviable task of taking the stage immediately after the Canadian rock band Nickelback.

Campbell more than held his own that night, something he continues to do as his skills as a songwriter and performer mature. While he prides himself on his songwriting, he prefers to focus on quality rather than quantity and has finished only seven songs.

“I’m not the greatest singer-songwriter,” he said. “I feel like I’m growing, but I don’t want to force anything out.”

Campbell said he’s got a notebook full of ideas for songs, but his plan is to continue to develop his instrumental skills before he fleshes any of those out “so I can use more than four chords to write a song,” he said.

Joseph Luizzi, left, and Isaiah Sebastian perform during the open mic session on May 11 at Clancy's Irish Cantina.

So don’t expect an album from Campbell anytime soon. He has recorded demos of a handful of his songs — “Trash Can,” “Got Love” and “Coffee Shop Song” can be heard on SoundCloud — but he already has his regrets about putting that material out there, explaining that those tunes have evolved since he wrote them and the versions of them people are hearing online don’t really reflect what they sound like anymore.

“If I could, I would take them back,” he said, explaining that he’s learned not to record his songs until he’s been playing them for a while and he’s had the chance to settle into them.

In the meantime, Campbell is focusing his efforts on building more of a musical community here. He has a close-knit group of friends and fellow performers that he relies on to help carry the Clancy’s open-mic nights and the showcases he does the last Saturday of every month at 302 Espresso inside the Artifacts Gallery. The latter features two or three other performers who do a full set apiece, and Campbell uses that format to help provide exposure and experience for younger artists who are trying to break into the local scene.

One of the best friendships Campbell has made in recent years is with Thomas Roscoe, the worship leader at Desert Heights Church who is also the front man for the indie rock band Dim City Lights. The two wound up becoming roommates, and Campbell said he has learned a great deal about the music business from Roscoe, an award-winning songwriter who spent two years in Nashville working with producers who had collaborated with such acts as Taylor Swift, the Fray and the Civil Wars.

Dugan Frase, left, Eric Campbell and Isaac Moore perform a song during open mic night on May 11 at Clancy's Irish Cantina.

Campbell is also close to Dugan Frase, the drummer for the local outlaw country, blues and rock group Reverend Catfish who also frequently accompanies Campbell on guitar. That relationship led to an unexpected benefit for Campbell, as he began dating Frase’s sister Andrea, and the two are now a couple. Though they had gone to middle school together, Campbell said sparks didn’t fly between them until she showed up with her brother at an open mic session one night.

“I knew she was the one for me when she started singing all these old Motown songs,” he said, smiling broadly. “She knew all the words.”

Campbell and his friends are engaged in the task of building a stronger and more supportive local music community in spite of the frustrations he has with the scene.

“Maybe it was just because I was smaller, but it seemed like music was bigger in Farmington then,” he said of his childhood, when he regularly went to watch his musician uncle play in a local band. “Now that I’m older, I wonder where all the music is.”

Campbell blames a dearth of live-music venues for the struggles of the local scene, but he couldn’t be more bullish on the amount of talent the area produces, marveling at the number of performers who emerge from the Navajo Nation and the quality of young performers he encounters.

He’s particularly impressed with the local alt-rock trio the Deadbeats – “They’re already better than me, and they’re seven years younger than me,” he said – and Faith Chavers, a young songwriter who will perform with her father John on Saturday, May 28 during the Saturday morning showcase Campbell leads at 302 Espresso. He recalled seeing her as a child, scampering around the now-defunct Andrea Kristina’s Bookstore and Kafe during her father’s gigs there. Now, he said, she’s a red-haired 16-year-old “with the voice of Norah Jones.”

And he’s enormously pleased with the success of the Wednesday night open mics at Clancy’s, where the list of performers has grown from just a few timid souls a night three years ago to a full slate of aspiring artists now.

Eric Campbell, right, is pleased with the growth of the open mic nights at Clancy's Irish Cantina, explaining that the event has grown a great deal in popularity since it was started three years ago.

“Last week, it was so packed on the patio, people had to stand,” he said, explaining that the support of the open mic nights from Clancy’s owners Anna and Louie McMullen has made a big difference. “There are a lot of younger kids. There are 16- and 17-year-olds coming out with their parents just so they can play. It’s amazing. It’s really cool.”

Campbell dreams of opening his own live music venue, perhaps a coffee house to take advantage of the experience he has gained over the past few years while working at Starbucks. And in regard to his own growth as an artist, Campbell credited Oquita, Roscoe and Dugan Frase with helping him find the right path, as well as Studio 116 owner Karen Ellsbury and quarterly Art Walk organizer Liz Stannard with giving him his first significant performance opportunities.

“They were my very first supporters,” he said.

Campbell downplays his own role as an organizing force on the local scene, but he acknowledged that the sessions he leads at Clancy’s and 302 Espresso are designed to be more than simple entertainment.

“I’m trying to create a place where people know they can meet other people,” he said. “I’ve met so many people, and it’s changed my life already. I’m not super political, so this might be my way of giving back to a community that’s helped me so far. I imagine it will be part of my life for a really long time.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.