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Interview with John Campbell

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Near the end of August of last year, I was browsing through a certain chain music store on Bloor St W and peering through a display case at some Zoom recorders. Someone approached me and with a deep, baritone voice asked if I was looking to buy a recording device to do field recordings. The owner of the voice was a tall man, probably twice my height, and surprisingly was not a member of the sales staff but instead just a friendly fellow musician with a big smile; John Campbell. We started talking about the applications of these recorders and ended up chatting for almost an hour. He is a seasoned veteran of the Toronto music scene and I eagerly picked up on the wisdom John was offering me with his advice regarding young musicians and Smol Audio Projects, something which at that point had just recently been incorporated as a non-profit organization. When we parted ways he gave me his card and one final piece of advice, “You should really have a business card.”

I held onto his card and a few months later during another phase of the COVID-19 lockdown, I decided to send him an email asking for an interview. I wanted to capture his valuable knowledge and authentic spirit and put it into words, knowing that his words could have a meaningful impact on the lives of the right readers. Luckily John agreed and made plenty of time for us to have the following phone call. John is an intellectual person and puts his thoughts to words effortlessly. Our conversation could have easily carried on for much longer than it did - he has so much experience and wisdom to share and I’m excited that I was able to record and capture his input.

John Campbell is pianist, composer and singer/songwriter known for his contributions to the piano bar music scene in Toronto. In his time performing in the city he has collaborated and performed with many jazz, soul, RnB, and pop musicians and has performed regular solo shows for club audiences and religious communities alike, captivating them through portrayal of his true self through his musical compositions. In addition to these accolades, he also teaches music; directly supporting and guiding a new generation of emerging artists to help them find their voice and their place in the Canadian music industry. These days when he’s not stepping out for a day's work performing at a church or a club, he’s at home with his family.


Beer or wine?

JC: I don’t really drink, but if I’m going to have a drink probably wine, but it doesn’t normally agree with me.

Favourite book?

JC: The Bible. I don’t normally read fiction overly, and there are books I will use for information, but the book that I’m always in is the Bible.

Favourite album?

JC: Good question. I like Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life.

Where is the best place to travel to?

JC: I don’t know about now [laughs] but a place I’ve gone that I liked was Jamaica. My family was from there and it was pretty beautiful on the island. I think it has changed with COVID. I don’t know how easy it is to travel anymore, or which places have changed, but I liked that trip.

Who is John Campbell?

JC: I’m a person of faith and conviction and I set out to use the gifts and talents that I have for a purpose, other than to provide for my family, I have a pursuit of making some kind of impact, and that impact is truth. That’s probably why I’m an artist – it lends itself to a kind of pure use of skill to draw attention to issues, and I’m a person of faith so I do have an element of moral truth that runs through me. And so, I’m passionate about that. As a musician, that’s what drives me, it’s not so much stardom. I have a desire to speak and I continue to want to speak towards some kind of absolute truth.

When did you start playing music?

JC: When I was a boy, probably about seven or eight, my mom chose to buy a piano instead of a dishwasher. You know, that was a time when they were a big deal and I felt an affinity toward it. I would noodle with it and make up little songs, and as I continued to play I started to develop a kind of simple proficiency with it. I would play at school assemblies and play made up songs. Then I started taking basic piano lessons, though I didn’t have a great love for that form of music or reading music, I liked more the type of music you can make up, or that I heard on the radio. I stuck with it for a while, and was involved in lots of musical activities at school, playing in choral bands, took years of vocal lessons through my teens, I played trombone in school band, and after high-school I was part of different bands that played soul and RnB music as a keyboard player and singing background vocals. I have some self-teaching, for sure, and what I do now is mostly self-generated, but I do have years of classical training in both singing/voice and compositional studies – not like in University, but in private lessons with teachers.

In my teens my musical interest motivated me to take music further. I departed from that briefly when I went University, but mid-way through my degree I thought, “You know what? I want to play music.” I tried to transition, and I ended up finishing my degree eventually, but I pushed toward music as my thing. I started teaching piano lessons, gave vocal lessons for years, played in bands, played in clubs, performed and acted in musicals, made original music, and kind of evolved from there. I do have some training, but training doesn’t necessarily prepare you for what I make money doing. It teaches you some fundamentals which can be useful but rigid structure can also get in the way of adapting and changing with the times as I do now.

Of those elements of music: writing, performing, teaching; which aspect is your favourite?

JC: I guess it kind of changes. I would like to have more time for writing but at the end of the day I like performing music and touching people. And practically speaking, right now I’m playing three or four days a week, so I’m playing in restaurants and performing for people and as much as they might like to request that I play an original song, they would probably prefer me interpreting a cover song that they love. For me, in that moment when someone is really connecting with something I do, I’d rather play something they love. But, the writing of music has always been something that has drawn me. I think I enjoy them all.

Teaching is really fulfilling. When you have a student really grow and they catch on, you can really make some in-roads for their development, their expression. I used to do a lot of teaching vocal lessons and piano lessons for a living, but for me, as my personal family has grown, the best option for me has become performance. At home I don’t have the means, the space, to easily teach or record uninterrupted. It has become harder to do that, although that is changing with the demands of online content and live streaming.

Do your children play music? Is it a musical household?

JC: The truth is no [laughs]. I think they saw me do what I’m doing and I’m the parent that’s like, “I’m not going to force them.” They found their own passions and that’s what is important. I’m the guy who does music, and it’s just something that Daddy does. So no, it’s not a house where everyone plays an instrument but we do have an appreciation. But, I would love it if they did pick up an instrument on their own and find a passion in it.

If you could go back and learn another instrument, which would it be?

JC: Hmmm… I play piano and that’s what I love to play. It’s a good performance tool. Synthesizers; there are lots of sounds you can use. I think I would learn a complimentary instrument, like guitar and bass. Those instruments facilitate a lot of what I do as a singer. Those instruments, guitar and piano, they facilitate the spectrum of what we call popular music, and they are great writing and compositional tools if you can play them well. If I were to add another it would be saxophone, but guitar is probably a high number two.

How has your relationship with religion shaped you as an artist?

JC: When I read the questions you sent me, that one definitely stood out and I thought that’s an interesting question. You know, certainly the type of music that I perform, it has an effect on that. Many styles of music I sing are influenced by African American gospel music. I play a lot of soul music and play in lounges. I have a kind of a deep, soulful voice so I can play a lot of love songs. But, I probably could have pushed that further than I did if there wasn’t a spiritual, biblical conscience leading me. A lot of modern music is more overtly sexual and I have not felt comfortable in that space. Also, I’ve done music directing for churches, with large choirs and ensembles, and worship music is a particular expression of music that is wonderful and it certainly has informed the type of music I like to listen to and like to perform.

Usually when a trend happens in music, it starts in gospel or blues and then it moves to rock or pop or what have you. So, a lot of the harmonic music trends start with gospel, and my music influences in that area have helped and allowed me to take some of those ideas and apply them to the music I do. Whether they are covers or my own music, my singing style, all those things have been greatly affected by gospel music – not just gospel but Black music. In terms of faith, it’s just how I carry myself in the workplace. I would probably be a very different person without that.

Any kind of group work in a community affects everyone involved and creates a type of synergy. For instance, playing certain styles of music, say Christian contemporary or gospel, are a different kind of style than EDM or pop, and by exposing myself to different styles of music it has helped me to think of ways to express my own music and help produce others. The community factor, working with people in a musical setting, in a church setting the music is a utility towards worship. It has been a good vehicle by which I can connect with people and share and edify them with what I do. I have played music in church for a lot of my life and generally speaking it’s positive, but, like any other group situation, you can have dictated to you how to express your art and that can prevent you from developing your own singular voice.

Ultimately, in the arts it’s someone’s unique voice, their genuine voice, that resonates with someone. It’s not the ornamentation – that can catch an eye but not keep an eye. The artist that we truly find moving, and the art we find moving, is genuine art where we see the heart and soul of the person is undiluted; they present their thoughts. Somehow their spirit or motion is transferred into what they are doing. Sometimes in religion you can get people doing things out of obligation, as opposed to the freedom to express what they’d like to; the benefits and those detriments kind of pull together. As an older man now, I have more courage to express the art that I want to and I have more confidence in my ability to make the choices that I want and create new frontiers, emerge different ideas. Before, I felt more timid and felt more obligated to play in the environment that I was expected to.

As a musician, is developing your true voice the most important part? Is that what people want in art?

JC: I think that’s a good principle of life. When you think about the great, stand-out performers that are legendary, they’ve mixed a lot of themselves, genuine parts of themselves, into their music but they also have the awareness of their audiences and give the people what they want too. It’s that combination of both. I don’t think it’s someone who, “I only play for me. I don’t play for the crowd.” I don’t think that’s it. It’s when someone puts themselves into the situation of the song, the arrangement of the song, they genuinely step in and make choices that they would make but within the confines or parameters of the style of music, or style of art. When you look at people like Madonna, not that she’s the musician’s musician, but the style changes, the person can change if they’re genuine. Look at Prince, Stevie Wonder is a good example of that. You know when Stevie Wonder is performing a song, you know when Prince arranged a song, and you don’t have any doubt about that. Those are the musicians that develop the greatest confidence, the greatest following, the greatest love, because they have a unique voice that they have etched out themselves with their own choices in time.

I think your own voice is something that should be mixed with what people want to hear. If I go to a club and I play just what I want to play, old songs that people don’t know, it’s not going to resonate to success as much as if I say, “You know what? I’m going to put myself into an Adele tune and do my arrangement of that song. I’m going to play some Adele, some Justine Bieber, some Weeknd, some John Legend and I’m going to do my interpretation, soul-jazz piano, synth, and I’m going to make my changes.” The audience tends to be moved by that when they see my original choices in a familiar environment. Performance is doing two things. It’s sharing, but it’s taking people on a journey. You know? If they don’t know where you’re going, they can’t follow you.

How long have you lived in the GTA and how has living here changed you as a musician?

JC: I’ve lived here – I’d say 25 years, maybe a little longer. I grew up in Durham Region, a suburb outside of downtown Toronto. After university, around 19, I came here to Toronto. I’m living in midtown Toronto now, so there is a little more access to actual gigs and performance places. You can connect with more musicians, and there are more teaching opportunities, if that is what you are pursuing. Ultimately, it is the place where you find work as a performer, particularly when you’re looking for clubs, looking for venues, looking for performers, it’s where you go. In the country, or suburbs, there aren’t as many opportunities. Also, the clientele that shows up is different in the city, too. Some of the hotels and places I’ve played, sometimes I’ve seen celebrities and more international travellers, so it’s also the crowd you perform for. So yeah, I think if you’re in a big city you’re more leaning towards the performance of your material and you If I was in the country in Canada it would be harder to be a soul/RnB singer [laughs]. I’m not saying it’s impossible, it’s just tougher. In the city I can play a piano bar one night, play a gospel set at a church the next, so I can develop faster by having regular performances.

Having to do that over and over for years, you develop a strength that comes only by being in front of people, feeling the energy of the space, the excitement of creating something special, the possibility of making mistakes – all those things come with performance, and the city lends itself to that more than the country does.

Artists, we call them artists now, but a lot of people aren’t performing. Instead, they’re writing in their bedroom and putting it out to the world, but there is a distinct difference when you’re out performing in front of an audience or performing with other musicians. You develop differently. You become a stronger artist. And that’s not taking away from people who are in isolation and create something that they’re proud of. By virtue of being in front of a crowd who can respond, critique, that shapes your art and what you intend to work on. Toronto is a multicultural city, so for me as a black music artist, there is more opportunity for me to perform the style of music that I do.

We’re starting to see more representation of Black artists in many genres. How would you define Black music?

JC: Well, now we’re getting into a much deeper topic that may be beyond the scope of music, because a lot of people have a misconception of what Black is. You know, when we say Black we’re really talking about those of a particular bloodline who passed through the transatlantic slave trade, because in a lot of ways all communities, all human beings, have a natural dominant skin colour of black. Melanin in the skin is just a human trait. Outside of black skin is more of what we call albinism, a recessive gene. But the music we are talking about when we say Black music comes from the story of a people who uniquely connected to the struggle of slavery and marginalization. These struggles have greatly affected the outlets of music in the black community and is part of its uniqueness.

In terms of music styles, when we say Black music we say blues, gospel, jazz, rock, RnB, EDM, house music, reggae, dancehall, calypso, ska – all of that came out of the same dispersed African diaspora, or people passed through the transatlantic slave trade. But even beyond that, a lot of people don’t understand that even Beethoven himself was considered a mixed person known as a dark Spaniard. At the time the Spanish Jews were a dark people, the Moorish ruled Spain for several hundred years, they were dark-skinned people, they were Black people. That’s why Spanish people are darker, that’s why Italians are darker, because they’re a mixed people. So, people don’t understand that when you see Beethoven with his hair all fuzzy, it’s not that he didn’t comb his hair, it’s because he had an afro. Over time his images were kind of whitewashed, they were made to look Caucasian. Like with biblical characters, we know that part of the Middle East, Egypt, is in Africa, so we know the people were dark skinned.

What’s really interesting is there’s something about the slave community that survived the transatlantic slave trade that made a very powerful contribution in terms of expressing emotions through music. To this day, hip-hop dominates all music. We’re in a time when, all music really, you go back to rock-and-roll music and Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix, experimental forms of music from that time. Black music - it’s a rich music style far more diverse than the clichés and stereotypes given for just hip-hop and RnB.

We talked briefly about a historical lack of representation and recognition of Black music artists in virtually every facet of western music, from plagiarism to exclusion from musical awards ceremonies. We spoke about how inclusivity and diversity of artists of colour has been improving in Canadian music in recent years.

JC: I can remember those days, though. Again, today in the city, as a Black performer there is more opportunity for your art to be accepted. Now, everyone kind of listens to a wide variety of music. I play Black, White, Latino, music and as an artist you have a lot more freedom to play whatever you want, and I think that the added diversity has the potential to add a lot more inclusion and a lot more excitement in the music sphere.

What are your favourite local artists? Any favourite local venues?

JC: The venues themselves, since COVID, many have shut down. Even venues that I had followed before COVID, there have been venues that I have loved but that could not survive the culture of Toronto. There was a venue called the Trane Studio which was a Black-owned club just north of Bloor on Bathurst.

>After nine years of live jazz, the Trane Studio closed in 2012. Its owner, Frank Francis, left a valuable lesson during his interview with NOW Toronto, “Venues that do well and have a long legacy are places [where] the owners of these buildings have a commitment to the arts and are dedicated to it.” A warning that stings today more than ever. These days the space is occupied by a pizza joint. >

JC: I really loved it. It was kind of a jazz/soul venue. I loved that venue. I performed there, and would see some amazing acts come through that place. It was unique to Toronto and unfortunately it did close down. With the venues here there is not a lot of the style of music that I like – there are a lot of gatekeepers where it makes it difficult for me to see that style of music.

There’s a guy named Jordan John who performs periodically, he plays blues, kind of a soul singer. I have seen him and he’s truly, very good. They don’t perform a lot now, but another guy, Wade O. Brown, used to perform with a lot of musicians called the A-Team, a soul/RnB group. But I guess for me, as a musician, I show up at a venue and I’m an artist, when I’m done I leave there and I come home. I’m dad, I’m husband, you know? I'm a family man. I don’t go out to a lot of shows, when I step out I’m a working man. In the last 10 years I haven’t seen a lot of acts; I often play on my own. Carlos Morgan he’s another great performer.

How much untapped talent is in Toronto right now?

JC: I think Toronto has been harder lately for live music – even before COVID. There has been some extraordinary talent at some of the open jams that I have seen. The city is moving towards more of a DJ culture and less live music. I think it’s affecting the cultivation of live music because you can’t compete, you can’t develop. Toronto musicianship is changing. Yes, I believe there is a lot of untapped talent in Toronto but we’re losing a lot of the opportunities to cultivate that talent. We’re losing the live venues. Like, you go to The Rex or The Pilot now but you used to be able to go to the Montreal Bistro (RIP 1979 – 2006, closed after landlord dispute), N’Awlins (RIP 1995 – 2020, closed during the pandemic).

There used to be a lot of venues but a lot of these are closed now. So where do you play? I think Toronto has a lot of untapped talent; we’re coming into a new period where artists are learning how to perform but not learning through life, they’re performing through screens. They’re online talent now. Some of these changes have to happen, it’s not all negative, but the venues and festivals you used to see were mixed with so many cultures and you could see live jazz any night. It’s kind of like – when they close the gyms people get flabby. You know? If you close the venues how can you get in shape and cultivate that talent? How do you get used to performing in front of crowds? Where are you going to cut your teeth?

What’s one piece of advice you would give to an emerging artist beginning to perform in Toronto’s post-COVID climate?

JC: You have to have a goal in mind of what you want to do, and you have to adjust to the environment you’re in. What we often do with the arts is learn from the point of view of how to produce the arts, like taking piano lessons. A lot of music instruction is just about how to play music, read music, but not how to make music or make a practical living in music. A lot of music is made with electronic devices and the way that music is moving is that it is moving away from the way that we prepare and develop individual skills. So what do you have in mind? What do you want to do? Do you want to work as a musician and play a few times a week? Do you want to make a living? Do you want to be famous? Figure that out and work towards it. Excitingly, today you can do that all online through Patreon, by creating a patronage support community.

So, 1: if you want to be a performer you have to be able to play what people want to hear. Where is the money? It’s at weddings and bars and people are going to want to hear popular music. Learn covers, make them your own and make your music accessible. Pull people into your world and then make content for them to enjoy. 2: put a certain percentage of your time and what you do into original music but don’t burn out. 3: practically speaking, you have to get in front of people. Start interacting with real people who can see you perform and develop a community.

Over time, people will pay you and you will be able to grow your craft. Don’t do everything for free, you’ll have to find a financial model that works for you and suits your life. Do some things for free to build an experience. When you earn money maybe you don’t press an album and instead you buy a laptop and learn how to edit music videos. Explore the commerce options available to you and grow the value of your art by expressing your true self and your passion. Don’t be fearful of rejection. As artists we create a spectacle. Market the spectacle but don’t make money everything - you don’t want to be the Wizard of Oz, pulling levers your whole life. And at the end of the day, you gotta be saying to yourself, “Man, I love this.”

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