With the Power Pop of III , Jessica Campbell Can Count Her Blessings

11/11/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

She's a sweet Carolina native with a voice as luscious and refreshing as a glass of iced tea on a sweltering summer day. But don't let that sunny disposition and alluring Southern accent fool you.

When Jessica Campbell gets down to music, she means business. And the rest of us should be all ears.

Campbell, whose breezy third album, III, has Roman numerals written all over it, is an exhilarating breath of pop-purified air in a world polluted by Auto-Tune, electronica and other slick-trick gadgetry.

But as one of the hopeful transplants settling in a town shoulder-deep in emerging singer-songwriters seeking a publishing deal, it's a challenge to keep your head out of the brown cloud hovering over a cutthroat industry.

"Oh my gosh," Campbell sighed in late October from her home in Nashville, where she's staked out a full-time livelihood since 2006. "Yeah, it is. I just really don't think about it. I just do my thing and embrace the people who come around me and are influenced and love my music and relate to it."

Hopefully, that number will continue to grow after the Oct. 7 release of III, which symbolizes something more substantial than a coincidental figure at this critical crossroads in Campbell's life.

Part I
First, there's her surprising age -- 33. Born Sept. 1, 1981, in Catawba, North Carolina, Campbell puts her lovely, youthful lilt on full display throughout III, shining radiantly on "Better Than This" and "Brighter Days," two of the 10 numbers she wrote or co-wrote.

Over the phone, Campbell sounds as optimistic as she does on record, but as the lyrics in "Brighter Days" confirm, it takes some effort to avoid getting burned while constantly reaching out to earn your day in the sun:

Here's to the hard times
I'm waving goodbye
Here's to brighter days
Here's to the new black
Forget the setbacks
Here's to brighter days

For even someone so in tune to her craft as Campbell, making a living by making music isn't as simple as it sounds. An unsigned artist looking for a gig in Nashville is as commonplace as a handsome face waiting in line for a Hollywood audition.

Like 21-year-old folkie phenom Parker Millsap said about his visits to the Music City during our interview, "The guy who's checking you in at the hotel almost is definitely a better guitar player than you are."

Yet those agonizing thoughts haven't broken Campbell's spirit as a precious pop-rocker who knows no boundaries. On "Homesick For A Heart," her vocals are as silky smooth as Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon; on "Painkiller," she's as edgy as Tegan and Sara.

A persistent singer-songwriter for about 10 years, she is willing to do almost anything to perfect her art, and still takes jobs singing demos to prove that point.

To also help make ends meet, Campbell has performed at Dollywood, taught high schoolers at the Masterpiece Ministries summer camp in Kentucky for the past five years and written treatments for popular TV shows such as Hart of Dixie ("Jinglin' Jingle Bell" was on the "Hairdos & Holidays" episode in 2011) and two songs for the 2013 finale of Grey's Anatomy (which got rejected).

That Dollywood job helped pay for college. But since the Dolly Parton songs were reserved for family members of country music's living legend, one of Campbell's most thrilling production numbers came during a show that often was repeated five times a day -- her solo turn on Alison Krauss' "When You Say Nothing at All."

Tom McBride, Dollywood's musical director at the time, did later enlist Campbell to sing demos for songs that Parton wrote and eventually would perform as part of a children's production in the park.

"She would send the work tapes to the musical director and they would make a track and then I would sing the vocal," Campbell said. "And then when it was her time to go perform at the park, she would relearn the song. And that would be my voice, which I just think is hilarious. It was really fun. So I actually have some of her work tapes with her tapping her fingernails on the tape player and stuff like that. I'm hanging on to those."

The chance to try on some of Dolly's clothes and costumes during those Dollywood days also was more satisfying than posing for a picture with the pride of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

"It's like you line up with hundreds of other employees and you get your 10 seconds," Campbell said, obviously unimpressed.

Her tone was understandable. You see, country music never really was in this country girl's blood.

Part II
As a gospel-singing child in the choir, Campbell became enchanted with the genre as a member of the Olivet Baptist Church, where her parents and grandparents made harmonizing and weddings customary traditions.

Campbell was the only daughter, fitting smack dab in the middle of a family of -- you can probably guess by now -- three children. She also proved to be the getaway girl.

The merry wanderer said goodbye to Catawba, her two brothers, mom Jackie, who still teaches school, and dad Chris, a carpenter when he isn't tending his farm. Staying at home for life was never part of her master plan.

"I've always been kind of the explorer, the adventurous, creative type from our family," said Campbell, whose first plane trip was as a Catawba High School student on a two-week excursion to China.

So deciding to go to Nashville without a friend or mentor to guide her didn't come as a shock to Campbell's parents, she said.

"They have my back," added Campbell, who never looked back, leaving home in 1999 to pursue a music business degree at Middle Tennessee State.

Campbell had always enjoyed singing, performing in regional theater musicals such as Annie (the title role at age 9) and Peter Pan (as Wendy at age 11) while competing in beauty pageants from the age of 7 into her teens.

Crowned Little Miss North Carolina in Lincolnton the same year she starred in Annie, Campbell said, "That was just a blur as I look back on my childhood memories."

Yet she specifically remembers that, "My parents were troupers. My dad, he memorized the script with me for Annie. And I just think about that now as an adult and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, my dad was so committed to helping me and being there for me.' "

Friends and relatives who visit the Catawba residence can still see a picture of Little Miss North Carolina on her proud parents' wall. An appreciative Campbell laughed, knowing those guests just wonder, "Are they ever gonna take that down?"

That's not likely to happen. Why remove a remarkable remnant from a deeply rooted family tree that has potential to grow?

Part III
Campbell, who married songwriter Doug Waterman on April 30, 2011 (you can do the math), in that same Southern Baptist church where her first solo was "Do Lord," has music, not children, on her mind right now.

"I think there's still some stuff my husband and I want to do career-wise before we really settle down," said Campbell, who calls her springer spaniel their "fur baby."

The couple met in 2005, when Waterman was editor of American Songwriter magazine. Now he's a full-time American songwriter, his tunes including Colt Ford's recent single "Workin' On" and his wife's "My Heart Says Go," the fitting -- and encouraging -- conclusion to III.

"There's a winter before every spring," Campbell sings without a trace of irony or Southern twang, knowing full well that dealing with dichotomy in life comes as typically as a change of seasons.

Enduring three long-term relationships that fell apart, either during or after college, not only provided songwriting material but also helped her "figure out who I was," Campbell said. "I think in that journey, in that struggle, was where I met my husband."

That same year, Campbell went into "survival mode" as an artist, tired of babysitting/depending on another man who was her musical accompaniment on the road.

"I left him at the Enterprise Rental Car in Wilmington, North Carolina, and I drove my butt back to Nashville and I started learning how to play the guitar. That was my catalyst," Campbell said, recalling the first song she taught herself on the acoustic instrument was "Rain" by Patty Griffin.

Two years later, she reached out to producer Cason Cooley to form a beautiful music relationship that has continued through III. Since making an EP that was recorded in the hallway of Cooley's house in East Nashville, the pair have collaborated on three full-length albums.

"There's a lot of trust that goes into hiring a producer," Campbell said. "You hand over your acoustic, very rough work tapes to somebody and try to help them create a vision with you for the song. That can go in a million different directions."

Whether it was mere coincidence or just a fascination with her new lucky number, Campbell also enlisted two more producers -- Aaron Espe (four tracks) and Kyle Lee (one) -- on III, her Hart of Dixie placement paying for most of the recording.

Cooley and Campbell, who share an odd-couple affinity for Southern gospel music and Broadway show tunes, collaborated for the majority of the album's songs in May at Saint Cecilia in Nashville.

"We spent three whole weeks, 10-hour days, working on these six songs," said Campbell, who successfully conducted a 20-day Kickstarter campaign to cover the remaining expenses. "And, you know, a lot of producers just don't have time for that or it's a quicker process, especially with an independent artist's limited budget. So I think that just says something about his character. When he put his name on something, he wants to be sure he's put the time in and that's he's got his fingerprint on it."

A longtime Beatles fan who grew up in Kansas, Cooley did some amazing work on Vienna Teng's inventive Aims, my No. 1 album of 2013.

On III, his influences are evident, with luxurious instrumental touches by numerous musicians that sparkle, including the Harrisonesque guitar runs on "Homesick For A Heart." Yet it's Campbell's cozy croon that leaves you feeling warm and cuddly all over.

Even the playful "Lennon & McCartney Lied," which Campbell said Cooley initially had misgivings about recording because of the title, will stay stuck in your head that bobs along to "Love isn't all you need."

The complexity of falling in and out of true-or-false romance is one of the subjects Campbell has explored since her Nashville arrival during a career that basically requires a do-it-yourself approach.

She makes the most of it by playing house concerts, free shows at established venues like the Basement and some unusual and unforgettable events. One recent highlight was an 18-song performance in a packed school auditorium in Hanover, Germany, before a crowd that until that spring day didn't even know her name.

"It was just, oh my gosh, it was the most unbelievable experience I've had," an effervescent Campbell said of the highlight of what she and Waterman called their European Tour-cation. "I had no expectations whatsoever 'cause I'd never played in Europe. ... My husband and I were both ... we were like, 'Did that just happen?' "

Back home, Campbell brings her guitar and ukulele to clubs such as 3rd & Lindsley, where she recently held her album release show, while still aspiring to perform at larger venues like Nashville's recently opened City Winery or even the venerable Ryman Auditorium.

In a city filled with delusions of grandeur, it might take as much luck as talent to land there, and Campbell is wise enough to accept that realization. But that shouldn't stop her from trying.

While a popular, Grammy-winning artist such as Griffin is a major inspiration, Campbell just as quickly shows her admiration for "real underground" songwriters like Mac McAnally, the Country Music Association's musician of the year seven consecutive times, Tony Lane and Leslie Satcher. Despite getting noticed in Nashville, their names often go unrecognized throughout the rest of the country.

"They've written hits, but their songs are super-creative and beautiful," Campbell said. "So I feel like there's a lot of music that's just inspiring and influential here that a lot of people just don't know about."

The same could be said of a former pageant queen who dares to dream big. Maybe all it takes to succeed is a huge vote of confidence.

There are plenty of contest judges who believe they can pick a winner without participating in the event.

Likewise, music lovers don't have to play an instrument to know what a thing of beauty sounds like. Any of them willing to give it a listen can count on III to deliver.

Publicity photos by Fairlight Hubbard.