Brittany Campbell’s “Stay Gold” Delivers Soul Worth Its Weight

Brittany Campbell

Photos by Alexa Viscius

You may have seen Brittany Campbell flit across the screen of your laptop without realizing you’re seeing not only a gifted actress, but a production wizard, energetic dancer, visual artist, and singer with a voice that glitters.

Brittany Campbell

Her brief appearance as Kelly, a flask-toting party hopper who befriends a group of unlucky cab drivers in the Master of None episode “New York, I Love You” is a highlight in season two of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show. She also appears in Spike Lee’s Netflix reboot of She’s Gotta Have It as Black Diamond, a dancer in a troupe of corseted, hair-tossing burlesque performers on the stage of the Hot ‘N’ Trot Supper Club.

Currently, the 28-year-old New York native is living in Chicago to perform in the touring company of the hit historical musical Hamilton. We recently had the opportunity to chat with her about her extensive multimedia output, her latest album, and the journey that’s brought her from standing on the stage of Carnegie Hall at eight years old to where she is today.

Our interview took place after a Hamilton performance at Chicago’s CIBC Theatre. She plays multiple roles in the show; depending on which members of the ensemble are present on any given day, she might be expected to throw herself into the role of Angelica (the oldest, most confident Schuyler daughter), her sister Eliza (loyal wife to President Hamilton), or Peggy (the youngest Schuyler sister and daddy’s girl).

Campbell’s capability to fluidly inhabit different roles with empathy and emotion comes through in her own music, a discography that now includes two EPs and three full-length albums. As quickly as a microphone buzzes to life, she can summon a diva goddess persona to ring out over self-produced dance music tracks with clarion clarity or a warm, soy-candles-and-satin-sheet silkiness to lend light to an R&B song.

Like the superheroes whose comic book exploits inspire her visual art, Campbell’s origin story is larger than life. “I’ve been told, from a baby, I always sang. I didn’t cry, I sang,” she says. At just eight years old, a music teacher signed her up for an opera competition at Carnegie Hall.

“I’d never sung opera in my life. My mom sure didn’t know about opera. I don’t even know how my mom did this, she went combing through the city to find a teacher. We didn’t have very much money, so we went on a search.”

Campbell managed to secure an opera teacher, studying arias under her influence and choosing additional songs from The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins. When she arrived at the competition, the wide-eyed elementary schooler found she was competing exclusively against teenagers.

“Luckily, I was a very weird kid,” she says. “I didn’t really have the understanding to be nervous. I did it, I ended up placing, and people from the Metropolitan Opera were there. After the awards ceremony, they asked my mom if they could take me in and have me join their company. I did several operas at The Metropolitan Opera.”

She refers to her time with the Metropolitan as the “foundation for her voice,” a base she built on when it came time to create her own music. “I think the reason why I’m able to produce, and able to hear music the way I do has everything to do with performing at the Lincoln Center, hearing the arrangements, the symphony, in that capacity,” she says. “That kind of immersive way of hearing music definitely had a deep, deep effect on me whether I knew it or not at the time.”

From operas like Rusalka and Carmen, she moved to Broadway, performing in plays like A Christmas Carol. Later, while attending performing arts high school, she took time to just be herself and find the music that she really cared about, discovering the music of Prince. Other influences like Lauryn Hill, Debbie Harry, and Joni Mitchell helped her determine her future direction.

Like most of her classmates, she tried out for Carnegie Mellon, one of the most prestigious universities for the performing arts. It was there she began experimenting with creating her own music. “We started making all this stupid music. I mean stupid, garbage-but-amazing, hilarious,” she says. “It’s the first time I ever started some semblance of production, which set me off. I just fell in love with it. I didn’t stop.”

She began performing covers on YouTube, videos which caught the eye of veteran producer and multi-Grammy winner Rich Keller, who happened to live spitting distance from her mother in New Jersey. She began spending time in his studio, learning about production, mixing, and songwriting.

“Those were crazy years because I was making intensely poppy shit,” she says. “I started going to clubs a lot, just getting my life. I eventually started performing my music in clubs, which led into this whole crazy artsy creative world.”

Around the time of the release of her second album Heroes, her music took another turn, as her peers began graduating and she began collaborating with more jazz-influenced musicians. It’s a trajectory that makes perfect sense when you hear her latest full-length project, Stay Gold. She is not a club-slaying pop diva turned smoky jazz chanteuse; she is both, and something utterly her own, all at the same time.

Along with her musical theatre and soul influences, Campbell flexibly incorporates hip-hop into her sound. Her classically trained voice runs scales next to a smirking and profane feature from YaYa Williams on “All Because You Let Me Go.” Fellow New Yorker Crimdella helps expand the album’s title track with a verse of his own.

Campbell’s music fills the space between public relationships and intimate narratives, voicing the fears, promises, reservations, and revelations of the innermost heart to the unnamed lover/s addressed in her songwriting. At turbulent moments, we may struggle with miscommunication; Campbell’s lyricism powerfully articulates the moments of vulnerability we struggle to acknowledge even in ourselves. She acknowledges the full spectrum of love, from the dizzying, tumbling heights of heavenly infatuation to the bitter heartbreak of a relationship gone wrong.

Brittany Campbell

Her creativity is voracious, taking in inspiration from her collaborators and environment. “I’m a person who get inspired by outside things,” she says. “Something will happen and then I’ll be thrown into momentum of inspiration.” That productivity includes the visuals for her albums, which she draws (or even animates) by hand.

With her newest album, Campbell focuses on the freewheeling innovation and lack of boundaries that defined her early work. “At first when I was messing around with production I would make all this weird, weird stuff,” she says. “I’ve been trying to get back to that place. That’s why I named the album Stay Gold, [to] just kinda get back to the truth of it all.”

Equally comfortable on the stages of hallowed theaters, drag clubs, and television sets, Brittany Campbell is used to playing many roles. In her music, however, she strives solely to be the purest expression of herself.

-Lorena Cupcake

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