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Interview - Arctic Tern: How the lows of loss inspired singer to soar to new heights


How the lows of loss inspired singer to soar to new heights

When it comes to feats of endurance, the Arctic Tern takes some beating, travelling as it goes from the UK coast to the far reaches of the Antarctic during the winter months. Indeed it could be said the hardy bird has the kind of qualities – determination and resilience – which might well be attributed to the Bangor musician who now goes by the same name.

"I think, originally, it was just a personally inspired kind of thing," says Chris Campbell, of his rather unusual professional moniker. "When I was going under my own name I always thought very personally about when I wrote songs – I was too into my own issues.

"The Arctic Tern makes the longest migration in the world ... it's restless and shows endurance. Overall, it just paints a picture for me that I can draw inspiration from."

It's that inspiration which has been channelled into the 23-year-old's debut EP, Leaves, released in September with a sell-out show.

Certainly, his emotive and meditative style is not what one might expect from his musical pedigree up until now, and speaks of a young man who has devoted the time and effort necessary to discovering and honing his sound.

"I started taking music seriously about five years ago," he says. "I was living in Toronto at the time, when I had actually played with a seven-piece ska reggae band as well, which was good fun!"

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Part-Canadian (his mother was born in Ontario, but moved to the province as a child), the singer-songwriter admits that by the age of 17, he had "tired of school", and decided to put his Canadian passport to use and spend time in Toronto.

"I did film school for two years," he says. "I was very interested in the film industry back then and I fell into music from that. The songwriting was sort of a by-product."

It was also the death of his best childhood friend from cancer – while he was in Canada – which saw Campbell turn to writing music as an outlet for his grief.

"My immediate reaction was extremely complex, I wasn't sure how to process it, especially since I had never lost anyone before," he says. "I didn't sleep well for a long time, so I decided to spend that time playing my unplugged electric guitar in my apartment – and writing.

"His passing really changed me – I became much more reflective about everything. It also made me realise that connections are the most important thing in life, and, if music I write can affect people in the same way it affects me, then that's what I want to pursue."

Campbell returned to Northern Ireland, continuing his film studies, although music remained at the forefront of his interests.

"I started by playing a few open mics each week and improving my confidence," he says. "It was at these that different promoters or bands would see me and ask if I'd like to play as support or take part in singer-songwriter showcases around Belfast."

In March last year, Campbell released the EP Paperboats – five songs which focused on the death of his friend – under his own name. As his career slowly cemented, 'Chris Campbell' was rebranded as Arctic Tern, as he began a deeper exploration of his new acoustic sound.

"I feel I'm past the stage of cautiously finding my way," he says. "As a musician I now know which direction I want to go and what I want to achieve."

This desire to veer away from the ordinary and the expected will also be seen in his next release, which he describes as a "concept EP". He is currently in the process of planning gigs and tours but when it comes to performing, Campbell – who has gigged with Frank Turner, among others – prefers low-key venues.

"I don't do the typical bar gigs," he admits. "But I'm planning to do some more Belfast shows, so I'll pop up somewhere interesting!"

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