While rehearsing songs for this Saturday’s show at New Dominion Bookshop, Chris Campanelli’s been thinking about his audience.
But he says he hasn’t envisioned playing for the people who might fill the seats, or the passersby who may wander in from the December evening chill. He’s been thinking instead about performing for the books, for the tens of thousands of tales both true and invented held between their covers, all part of a persistent, perpetual conversation that transcends both time and space.
It’s a fitting setting for Campanelli’s return to the Charlottesville music scene, and for the debut of songs that mark a new chapter in his own songwriting story.
For a number of years in the early 2010s, Campanelli’s life centered around music. He played in local folk acts The Hill & Wood and Nettles, and, along with members of those bands, had his own project, Camp Christopher. It was “a kind of rotating circus,” he says with a quiet laugh.
In 2012, Camp Christopher released a record, Beyond the Word, and not long after that, Campanelli’s focus shifted away from music and toward other things. He got married and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife. The couple had a child, moved back to Charlottesville (where Campanelli teaches high school English), and soon after had a second child.
Though he hasn’t released music since 2012, he’s been writing all the while. Music has “been something that has continued to gestate in some ways, on a deeper level, while tending to other things,” he says. “Different songs come out of that, when music is not squarely center in your life.”
The songs that have come out of that seven-year stretch have a certain “internal coherence to them” for Campanelli, who refers to this set of songs as a song cycle. A number of themes course through the compositions, including humankind’s dialogue with the four seasons, and the question, “How do you move toward someone?” But if there’s a thread that ties it all into a bow, it’s one of affirmation.
“My tendency [is] to see a massive shadow from a little cloud,” says Campanelli, who, upon receiving an increase in his fourth grade homework had a bit of an existential crisis. He remembers telling his mother that “life is difficult, because homework continually takes away your time, and then you go to college, and then you work, and then you die.”
For Campanelli, “affirmations have been a learned way of countering that tendency.” It’s something he got from 20th-century Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
In his December 1995 Nobel lecture “Crediting Poetry,” Heaney said, “I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvelous as well as for the murderous.”
“Crediting the marvelous” is what Campanelli seeks to do in song form. He meditates on a tree (how long it’s been there, who planted it, who else has looked at it) in one song; in another he ruminates on the Vancouver clouds, how the sun hits them just so. Campanelli describes it as “wanting to freeze that moment and harvest it in a song,” so that it can act as an anchor, one of those “stable, irreducible things in the world to return to” when everything you see on the news feels dark, or unstable.
“High above the ancient plain / Where man first found his tongue confused / The tumbled clouds and sun composed / A city made of finest substance / That memory can never follow,” Campanelli sings about the clouds as he invokes the 13th-century Italian poet Dante. In Paradiso, Dante talks about how, at times, he’s been so absorbed and present in his experiences that his memory cannot follow. “I’ve always been fascinated by that notion, that we can experience something, know something, and yet not retain it,” says Campanelli, whether it’s the childlike desire to live amongst some spectacular clouds, or something else.
Another song, “Seven Years,” explores Campanelli’s experience of “reaching for something to say and not having it.” It’s “a song from the distance of exile, the distance of alienation, searching for an affirmation, knowing one’s there but not having a name for it yet.” As he points out, seven years is the amount of time Aeneas is away in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the amount of time that Odysseus spends on the cliffs in Homer’s The Odyssey.
Throughout the song cycle, which Campanelli hasn’t yet titled, he searches for affirmations, reaches them, and then falls away from them before locating them once again. In this motion, and in his evocation of classic literary themes, Campanelli says he’s “trying to draw out the grandeur of what can feel really mundane and petty.” And he’s found that some songs have stuck for a reason: “They were teaching me when I first wrote them. They say things that are better than what I say.”
“I’ve increasingly seen that as something I want to do in my songs, affirm something that other people can also have access to,” says Campanelli. “To state the obvious in such a way that you realize it wasn’t obvious.” He wants his listeners to credit the marvelous, too. It’s a gift he hopes to present to the people who fill the seats at New Dominion on Saturday.
So perhaps it’s not just the books he’s been rehearsing for, after all.
Chris Campanelli has played in The Hill & Wood and Nettles, and led his own band, Camp Christopher. He debuts his untitled song cycle at New Dominion Bookshop on Saturday at 7pm.