Sometimes the growth of an artist can startle you. Take teenaged singer-songwriter Haley Mae Campbell for instance. She dropped her first LP last year, a cuddly collection called Hugs & Disses, and it came across as a strong 10-song set of Taylor Swift-inspired country pop that was just a little too indebted to her hero's early sound.
But now, with the release of EP Phone Home, that year-old record feels more like a stepping stone to a fully formed musical identity. In place of safe arrangements and twangy, predictable sing-song melodies is a singer who, while still devoted to traditional pop rock, has an uncommon poise and an exciting backing band that feels worlds away from her previous effort.
"I recorded [that first record] in a Nashville studio with 100-percent studio musicians," Campbell explains of the five-day recording session that led to her relatively staid debut. "All of the parts were charted out. I felt like I had a lot less control. Even my vocals, every single note was auto-tuned just because that's just how they do it."
That story makes a lot of sense, particularly given Campbell's background. She got her creative start as a pre-teen in the musical theater world, but quickly realized that it was music that made the most sense for her. "I wasn't a very good actor or dancer, but I could sing," she laughs. For her thirteenth birthday, she got a guitar and started writing songs. And in this particular moment in time, any young girl with a guitar, for better or worse, lives in the shadow of Swift.
"I mean, I take it as a compliment. I'm a big fan," Campbell says of those comparisons to Swift's early, more country-pop material. "But I also don't want to be just a copy of Taylor Swift. I want to be Haley Campbell. So I was definitely trying to get away from that a bit."
That much is clear from EP Phone Home, where Campbell takes a decidedly different approach. Instead of returning to Nashville, she began collaborating with her drummer Ben Sewell on writing a new batch of songs to be laid down at Truphonic Studios in West Ashley. The sessions were engineered by Stop Light Observations drummer Joey Cox, and the Hugs & Disses template was largely tossed in favor of a broader, more expansive sound that better fit Campbell's aspirations.
Using a working band and keen to avoid the pitfalls of her Nashville effort, there's both a sense of adventure and comfort to the new approach. The lead single and title track, for instance, is a rollicking power-pop number in the vein of K.T. Turnstall or Sara Barielles, and on more atmospheric folk-pop tunes like "Tightrope" and "Curiosity," Campbell's voice soars over the tracks with a celestial grace that brings to mind more venerable names like Kathleen Edwards or Jill Andrews. The Swiftian love of clever lyrics and deep pop hooks is still there, but it's tempered. It sounds like Haley Mae Campbell.
Despite Campbell's assertion, there are still some country leanings here, too, particularly on the grandiose ballad "Who Else (Is Loving You)," the lone cut that sounds like it might have a place on country radio. Even that song, though, has more of a Little Big Town-style sense of insurgency and pop-rock acumen than the Faith Hill/Martina McBride mold, while Campbell's fiddle player delivers some of the rootsiest moments here with elegant instrumental shading.
Although the presence of such eminently radio-ready material suggests that Campbell still has her eyes set on Music City, the 17-year-old musician seems relatively open to go down whatever path her music may take her. She graduated a year early from Academic Magnet last year and has won plenty of promising open slots for the likes of Easton Corbin, Brothers Osborne, Josh Turner, and the Avett Brothers. She's putting off college for now and is content to simply continue building on her success.
"I'm hoping to tour if we can get the band all lined up," she says. "We'll see."