Deeply Rooted

Nick Byron Campbell. Photo by Elisa Terrazas Campbell
Nick Byron Campbell. Photo by Elisa Terrazas Campbell

Left Vessel’s music uses living trees as instruments

Written by Ben Salmon

Nick Byron Campbell will say that he has been making music in the “normal” sense since his mid-teens. What’s normal? Playing instruments. Writing songs. Starting bands. Touring, recording, even signing to a record label.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Campbell, who lives in Bend. “Wildly intense.”

After a while, though, he felt his perspective shifting at about the same time the music industry was being revolutionized—not necessarily in a good way—by easily accessible recording software and digital streaming platforms.

“I still love playing with bands, releasing records—that’s still a huge thing for me. But there’s just so much music and it’s been so intensely devalued as a good,” he said. “I think I just subconsciously started wondering how I could do this differently from the way 10,000 other people are doing it.”

Inspired by a childhood encounter with the work of famed video artist Bill Viola, he started conceptualizing sound-driven art installations. He experimented with guitars and fishing line and sand, building “wild contraptions” that not only made music, but landed him a handful of gallery showings and bookings at art festivals.

“That allowed me to keep building on it,” he says, “and that led me to where I am today.”

In June, Campbell released his first solo album, One (and Driftless), under the name Left Vessel. It’s a twelve-track collection of buoyant, indie-folk songs built around the concept of connection—our connection with each other and our connection to nature. Four of the songs were written and recorded in the woods of Minnesota, where Campbell employed his latest invention: the “arbow”—a live tree that is strung and then played with a bow or by plucking, all in a way that doesn’t damage the tree.

Campell's first solo album, One (and Driftless)
Campell’s first solo album, One (and Driftless).

The result is a quartet of gorgeous tracks embellished by the chirping of birds, the crunch of dry leaves and the buzz of strings hanging from branches, pulled taut by the weight of rocks. Add Cambpell’s ethereal tenor and you end up with something that sounds like Sufjan Stevens singing forest hymns under starlit skies.

The experience was eye-opening for Campbell, and it illuminated a path forward in his music career that he can’t wait to follow.

“There’s a lot more experimenting to be done with this,” he said. “It’s a difficult instrument to play, but it lends itself to some interesting ideas and I’m excited to explore it more.”

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