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Bird & Bramble: Grab it…it’s yours

by / July 30, 2017

It’s about 5 years ago this month that I first had my face near a microphone. Five years… In one way it feels like only yesterday that I sat with my no-name, no-brand guitar and wobbly lip and sang three songs to a room full of strangers. Then I think about how little I knew back then – how naïve and silly I was, and how bloody scundered I was to sing into a mic.

I was turning 30 – call it what you want but I had had enough of sitting back and waiting for some great opportunity to come knocking at my door. Because it won’t. Not ever. It might dander past your front yard, might even look in your window, but unless you get your ass off your seat and go and wave it down, it’s stopping for nobody. After a few years of playing bad Radiohead covers in dark smoky corners of dark smoky rooms, and watching friends stand up on a stage and be a part of ‘it’, I decided I wanted to see what ‘it’ was.

I wanted to ask for ‘more vocals on the monitor’, and ask people if they had a spare capo before my sound check. It all just sounded cool and knowledgeable and like they were part of this whole group of which I had no idea, no notion, and wouldn’t understand until I’d done it.

So one Monday afternoon, I turned to my husband and said “I’m going to La Boca’s open mic tonight and I’m going to sing and play at it”.

Then I nearly vomited for the rest of the evening. We arrived, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing – I’d never even plugged in my acoustic before. I knew the songs OK – they’d been sung a million

None of those things happened. It was a delight – as soon as I started I was hooked – properly…and even as I’m writing this I realise it sounds like a crap biographical blurb: “she was hooked from the start…you couldn’t get her away from a mic after that…”.

times, but I had no idea of anything else. Do I look at people directly like some strange face stalker? Do I close my eyes and then I’ll look like I mean what I’m singing about? How far away do I put the mic? What if my pick falls out of my fingers? What if I cough mid-song? What if…. WHAT IF……they all hate me and throw things at my face until I run away?!? [see the performance in all its awkward glory here:

All true. Sorry. (not sorry)

After that it became a bit of a whirlwind. One conversation led to another, led to a gig, to another conversation, to an email, to social media, to emails, to gigs, to band rehearsals and recording, ISRC codes and EP launches and what the fuck is happening how do I do this and when will someone come and tell me what to do next.

Here’s the thing I learned through all of it though…..everyone wants to help. Literally, every single person I chatted to and asked “what is an XLR? People keep talking about XLRs and I have no clue what they mean?” or “I love what you do…how do you make THAT sound on your album?” would, without hesitation, spill all. Would tell me all the ‘secrets’, would give me their email address, or we’d friend each other on social media and there was a link. A person I could ask about something any time, any day. There’s a limit, of course…other people can only give you so much. At some point it’s just you and a notepad.

I saw an interview with Dave Grohl recently where he talked about how he just “figured stuff out’…. just sat in a room, and figured it out on his own. Like playing the drums…he never had a lesson. He just decided one day he would be a drummer and he put the time, energy and commitment into learning how it worked, and he made mistakes and learned from that and now he’s arguably one of the best drummers in the world. That resonated with me a lot. That’s how I learned guitar. Now…I’m not a great guitarist – I can play a tune, and I can write, and do the basics and that’s about it. But I what I do know, is what I learned myself.

I learned when I forgot to turn off the isolator in my jack-to-jack during a gig, and because I didn’t know what I was doing just played on. Full vocals mic-ed up and no guitar. I never made that mistake again.

I learned when I presumed I knew all my songs inside out so was probably grand not really practising before a gig, then forgot massive chunks mid-song and had to fluff it – sweating and grim and embarrassed. Now I practice before every gig (or print out the lyrics… J).

I learned when I was lucky enough to have a full band play my songs that the feeling of being on stage with people who are brilliant, and supportive, and have knowing smiles when we’ve played “that weird tricky bit” really well, is perhaps the best feeling in the world.

Now, I am proud of what I’ve done–  that I just did it myself, with support from friends and family. I made so many ‘mistakes’ and errors, and didn’t quite do it all the ‘right way’, but I did it. I am proud of the songs, and what I accomplished in a relatively short space of time, but I am also painfully aware of the reality of the game. When people say it’s about the right person singing the right song at the right time to the right audience they’re not lying – that’s just fact. I’m a thirty-five-year-old English-teaching Mum, who wrote some half-decent songs and can sort of play guitar. That’s not gonna hit up Rolling Stone or Radio 1’s playlist any time soon…and that’s fine. That’s not why I do it. I perform because it’s AMAZING. I play because I LOVE it – it’s part of who I am. Anyone who works with me knows that if there’s an empty mic and a vague head nod I’ll be standing behind that same mic in a matter of seconds asking “what are we singing?”. Stage junkie is the term I think. It is an incredible experience to create and perform. It is without a doubt, my favourite thing in the world to do.

Stef Campbell Girls Rock NI at Women’s Work 2017

with Girls Rock NI at Women’s Work 2017

That little door opening into performing made me see that opening other doors isn’t quite as scary as I thought. My best friend and I started Bird & Bramble by saying “We’d love to do a thing….let’s just do the thing we want to do” and we have had the most incredible journey and worked with the most incredible people. I jumped in to working with Women’s Work festival committee last year and have been genuinely inspired by it, and am crazy stupid proud of being a little part of the planning in it. I joined Girls Rock School NI and tottered down on my own, jumped on some drums and now I’m hooked. I have absolutely no fear in saying yes to new projects, getting stuck in, being part of something class and loving every imperfect little minute of it. For someone with a history of social awkwardness and feeling never ‘quite-part-of-it’ that’s a pretty special thing.

If this sounds a bit like you…if you’re reading this and thinking “Yeah, I always wanted to try photography, or singing, or playing, or drawing, or writing…feel a bit wick though”, please, please take my advice – get on social media, email, online, ANYWHERE: research it and find an open workshop/mic/event that you can just turn up to and HAVE A GO. There are so many outlets now – especially for music – Girls Rock School NI (got me started on drums), open mic nights in bars across town, G Sessions up in the North West to name a very small handful. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be amazing AT whatever you do, but I can guarantee that you’ll feel amazing BECAUSE of it.


Being in the middle of ‘it’, and saying “I need more vocals in the monitor”, and asking to borrow a capo because yours has broken isn’t a massively secret covert group, and it’s not something unattainable……and it is bloody amazing.

So go find your ‘it’ – it’s probably dandering past your window right now.

stef campbell backing vocals katie and the carnival

Backing Vocals for Katie and the Carnival at No Oil Paintings Launch 2017

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