Alumna Campbell sparks experimental, intellectual music group

C.J. Wisler

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Up-and-coming Washington musician and ’02 Whitman alumna Toby Campbell uses both her musical talent and her prior sociological studies at Whitman to create the experimental electronica group Anomie Belle, which synchronizes electronic and natural sounds and textures to create densely-layered and original sound.

“What Anomie Belle tends to sound like is kind of [an] electronic and cinematic hybrid,” Campbell said. “I tend to use a lot of organic sounds like guitar, keyboards, violin . . . It has a lot of acoustic elements but I do a lot of electronic recording on top of it.”

The name of Campbell’s group derives from the sociology term anomie, which means “social unrest or normlessness; individual malaise, alienation and purposelessness” and belle, the old term for a charming, beautiful and popular woman.   These terms largely reflect what Campbell’s music is about.

“The name Anomie Belle, especially in my first record, offers a lot of social critique of American culture, a culture that needs some critique and re-visioning,” she said. “It gets at both the state of society . . . and the experience of individuals living inside that society, the sense of alienation we feel even when surrounded by people and modern society and the spectacle of media.”

Campbell also attempts to address generational issues in her music.

“Our community is fractured to where we don’t necessarily know our neighbors and our generation . . . we’re not involved with social movements like other generations have been,” said Campbell. “The name of the band was a way to gesture at a way to face and critique those issues though the music itself.”

As the creator and main composer of the group, Campbell records all of the instruments and vocals for her soundtracks and has a band for live performances as well.

Campbell, who writes and records all the parts to her songs, began writing and recording songs when she was about nine years old. She recorded her first album when she was 11 with the help of her father’s a cappella group cronies who had access to a recording studio.

Although she had an early start with the music business, learning multiple instruments as well as how to record at an early age, it was not until recently that Campbell decided to pursue music as a career.

“I think I was really disillusioned at that being a real possibility, because it’s really hard to make a living in the music business,” said Campbell. “I actually considered being a professor of sociology for a long time, writing papers about sociology and music, which is what I wrote most of my sociology papers on [at Whitman].”

Campbell took various instrumental classes as well as one of Whitman’s first audio recording classes, which helped build her knowledge and skill at music composition. However, her social science classes also helped her focus on the heart of her music.

“Keith Farrington [professor of sociology and chair of social science] helped me write my thesis, which was on music and sociology, so I think my sociology and philosophy classes also helped me wrap my head around all the aspects of the music industry, particularly the commercialization of art and its exploitation for commercial purposes, which is obviously how you make a living doing it,” she said.

After Whitman, Campbell worked in various recording studios and even attended graduate school at the University of Washington, where she studied the influence of sociology and media, entertainment and culture. However, upon meeting her manager she discovered her desire to jump headfirst into her career.

“I got a lot of time to explore the music business, and as I got older I felt like I had my wits about me a little more and understood what I was getting into,” she said. “The biggest marker for me was meeting my manager [Anthon Smith], he really helped me with all the logistics and business of music.”

Shortly after this, Campbell gave up her previous jobs in order to pursue music full time.

Campbell’s success as a musician has led her to tour with electronica groups such as Bristol trip-hop band Tricky and a group directed by Gustavo Santaolalla,  who composed music for “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Brokeback Mountain,” among others. She has also produced several CDs, performed at  Bumbershoot and other Washington-area concerts and worked as an avid composer for  films and even a video games.

“Film and video games . . . allow me to explore different sounds than what Anomie Belle normally produces,” said Campbell. “I’ve gotten to compose more ACDC-sounding pieces as well as trip-hop and video-game synth. What I compose tends to cross several genres.”

Campbell combines fresh style of musicianship, intelligence with her prior experiences at Whitman and as a child, her inner conflict with her passion and her distress over society and the new generation. For more information about Campbell and Anomie Belle, visit her Web site,  Facebook and MySpace pages.

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