After 14 years recording as one-half of a chart-topping, multi-GRAMMY-winning duo, going solo would be an intimidating prospect for any artist. For Erica Campbell, the task was made even more daunting by the fact that her longtime partner in gospel's groundbreaking group Mary Mary is her sister, Tina.
But 2013 packed a wallop. There was the acrimonious split from their manager — captured while the cameras rolled for "Mary Mary," their WE tv reality show — and a subsequent lawsuit. Their father died in June after a brief battle with cancer. And Tina was trying to piece together her shattered marriage. Tina needed a break; Erica needed to immerse herself in work.
"I thought maybe I would put out one song," says Campbell. "Just one song, and still be in Mary Mary and be fine. And I put out one song ["A Little More Jesus"] and it got nominated for a GRAMMY and it started doing great at radio. I knew it was just an inner push to really go out on a ledge and not be afraid to do an entire album."
Mary Mary have been surprising audiences since 2000, when they debuted their platinum-selling, crossover smash Thankful, which picked up Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album GRAMMY honors for 2000. Released on March 25, Erica Campbell's debut solo outing, Help, has also made waves, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Gospel Albums chart and No. 6 on the Billboard 200. The album's lead single "A Little More Jesus" earned her, along with sister Tina and husband Warryn Campbell, a nomination for Best Gospel Song at the 56th GRAMMY Awards on Jan. 26.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Erica Campbell discussed how the success of "A Little More Jesus" surprised her, finding her own voice on Help and the future of Mary Mary.
Was it scary to go solo at this point?
Absolutely! I'm used to me and Tina, that's been my "normal" for 14 years. I wasn't sure what it would feel like, what it would look like. But once we put the record together and did the photo shoot, my level of excitement changed. And then I realized I have a full and complete musical gift by myself. Tina has a full and complete musical gift by herself. There's nothing lacking, nothing missing, so there would be nothing wrong with me doing something by myself.
Was there anything you were able to express solo that you hadn't done in Mary Mary?
It was just the liberty of being able to say exactly what I wanted to say. It's always been plugged into what Tina thought and what Tina felt. And that's fine, but at some point you want to say what you want to say, without reservation and without consideration of another person. I think it's very healthy to find your own voice.
How surprised were you by the success of "A Little More Jesus"?
That was the first song we released. I performed it at a club in New York called the Village Underground and it was amazing. I got a call from the radio station the next day in New York, which is one of Mary Mary's biggest markets, and they were playing the song within a week! That's not usually how it happens. The song has to grow organically, there has to be a whole team, and you take it to radio and maybe they'll add it. So it was unbelievable!
What was the inspiration for "Help," the title track?
Help was exactly what I needed [during] all of 2013! It came from the terrible year that was 2013. I had to figure out a way to tell myself that I wouldn't be bound forever, that my heart wouldn't be broken forever, that things would change for me. And there's no better way to do that than to change what you say about yourself, what you say in your life.
The cry out for help, for me, was acknowledging that there was somebody that would answer my call. I didn't feel helpless or hopeless, I felt like there was somebody that would listen when I said I needed help. And that's kind of the theme of the whole record.
Do you plan to tour this album?
I do. I did a promo tour that ended with two sold-out shows that were life changing for me because it was my first time with a live band. There were crowds of people outside that couldn't get in, the reviews had been outstanding — it's been incredible. The tour will continue with me hosting and headlining the McDonald's Inspiration Celebration Gospel Tour starting May 10.
Is it scary to be onstage alone?
Not really. Tina and I didn't grow up as a group singing. I've been singing since I was 5. Tina didn't start singing until she was 16 or 17. We didn't become a group until we were in our 20s. I was a solo singer in the children's choir and then the young adult choir, then the adult choir, and then I was singing backup for people and then singing at different churches, so I always sang by myself. So this is not foreign or odd for me, it's very comfortable.
What is the future of Mary Mary?
Mary Mary will probably be doing another record in 2015, and we still have some shows, and we still have the reality TV show. So there's still a lot of Mary Mary-ness in my life, it hasn't completely disappeared!
(Lisa Zhito is a Nashville-based writer and teacher. She interviewed Kacey Musgraves for GRAMMY.com in March 2014)