Living a musical life: Rebecca Campbell reflects on a musical past, present and future

Rebecca Campbell. Photo:

When the Sultans of String’s Christmas Caravan takes the stage at the Shenkman Arts Centre Thursday night they’ll be bringing with them a familiar face to Ottawa music fans. Rebecca Campbell will be part of an evening of music from around the world: from Quebecois fiddle tunes to a Himalayan sleigh ride as the Sultans say about their latest CD. If you remember the group Fat Man Waving, then you’ll know Rebecca. She took some time talk about her life these days in interview with ARTSFILE. 

Q. Hey Rebecca, tell me about the Sultans of String show.

A. It’s highly entertaining … with lots of great seasonal fare… These guys are excellent musicians and lots of fun. Chris (McKhool) brought me in to the Christmas Caravan recording sessions to do ghost tracks (from which the guest vocalists could learn the tunes), and to help arrange some background vocals … and I guess I passed the audition.

Q. You’re from Ottawa originally and music has taken you to many places. Remind folks about your musical career? 

A. I have, and continue to have a varied and expansive career, singing with countless ensembles and songwriters. I’ve written a few tunes as well, and fronted a bunch of projects, but overall, I have always been more of an interpreter and a collaborator, and those represent my richest and most memorable musical experiences. Highlights include working over many years in many settings with Jane Siberry; the decade I spent co-creating music with Fat Man Waving and Three Sheets To The Wind; working with the late great Paul Quarrington with Porkbelly Futures; years of singing great songs by great songwriters like Lynn Miles, Ian Tamblyn, Ben Sures, Isabel Fryszberg, and Collette Savard; travelling the world with composer Carol Ann Weaver, and singing loud and proud protest tunes with a purpose with the SPECIAL INTEREST group.

Q. What are you concentrating on these days? Music projects and life in general…

A. Taking care of my ailing mother and various Toronto-based projects, including Collette Savard and the Savants’ excellent new record, and changing the world one song at a time with the SPECIAL INTEREST group, also with an upcoming album.

Q. Some of your work has been as a back up singer for some pretty big names. What is the role of the back up singer?

To expand the meaning of the song and to tune in to the songwriter’s intent. And to stack voices upon voices — sing along — what better thing is there to do. You’re conveying another person’s most cherished message, and not taking up space despite the instrument’s focus. But it’s also the most fun. And you gotta dance…

Q. Where are you based these days?

A. I’m based in Toronto. I moved there 20 years ago, remarkably (but) I come to Ottawa often to hang with my folks, and more recently to help care for my mother, and I have a bunch of projects I like to try to keep alive here. Lynn Miles, Ian Tamblyn, Bec n Rusty. I sang on Megan Jerome’s new record, and will perform with her on Dec. 13 at the NAC to celebrate its release. And I brought the SPECIAL INTEREST group to Irene’s a couple of weeks ago and intend to do the same again, and to bring Collette Savard and the Savants there as well in the new year. I love Ottawa audiences, and like to consider myself a renegade member of the Ottawa musical community.

Q. In many ways the Great Canadian Theatre Company was your second home when we first met in the 1980s. How important was GCTC in helping shape your artistic persona? Are you still in touch with the old gang?

A. I am. My awesome sister Naomi and I had dinner at Arthur Milner’s place a couple of weeks ago. And my entire family still has many friends and colleagues who go back to those formative years. I sit on the board of directors of the Tranzac in Toronto, and feel that the roots of that kind of activity were planted at GCTC. My inner activist was nurtured there. My father’s and my sister’s careers in the theatre still define who I am in many ways, and I live in that world still. And I guess GCTC kind of gave me the perspective I needed to pick music over acting, which I dabbled in there in my 20s. I realized I had to focus, and music won out, despite the comfort and engagement I felt, and continue to feel in the theatre.

Q. The music industry in Ottawa is trying to get more organized. You have some perspective on that. What do you think of music in Ottawa?

A. It’s exciting and alive and well, always has been. I never wanted to be a musician from Ottawa who left Ottawa… because we have the means and the audience and whatever it is in the water for musical greatness to flourish. It’s a special place, with a great imagination and an enthusiastic, open minded audience. I was sad to leave, and have tried to keep my musical connections to Ottawa alive.

Sultans of String Christmas Caravan
Where: Shenkman Arts Centre,245 Centrum Blvd.
When: Nov. 30 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.