It’s hard to imagine Erica Campbell without her sister Tina, but the gospel powerhouse has bravely stepped outside of Mary Mary to pursue solo stardom with her debut album Help. Out for nearly a week and already Grammy-nominated (“A Little More Jesus”), Campbell’s combination of faith-based tunes, class and charisma continue to be a winning formula—with or without someone singing alongside her.
Today, fans are gifted with an insider’s look at the famous duo on Mary Mary, the WeTV reality series that is not only in its third (highly successful) season, but challenging the conventional stereotypes surrounding gospel singers.
“I don’t go to the gospel grocery store. I don’t use gospel lotion. I don’t drink gospel water. I’m just like everybody else, but God is my source of strength,” says Erica during our “Digital Dish” session at New York’s Nail Lounge.
Keep reading to see what else she had to say about going solo, keeping it real with family, being sexy and whether Mary Mary will reunite.
Photo Credits: Sharifa Daniels
VIBE Vixen: You love switching up hairstyles on your reality show. Do you have a favorite?
Erica: It depends on how I feel for the day. I may feel like the long straight with the part in the center or sometimes I like the bob with the blonde. It just depends because I think hair can connect with your emotions, so if you’re feeling wild and funky you might have some big hair, or sleek and sexy.
Is there one style you wish you never tried?
I’ll tell you something people don’t know. When we shot the “Go Get It” video, I had this really long luscious beautiful ponytail on that halfway through shooting fell off. Luckily that part didn’t make it into the video (laughs), but you got to be careful when you’re wearing heavy headpieces.
Does walking red carpets make you nervous or are you comfortable with it?
It’s a combination. I’m a real woman–a curvy woman– and I like to eat, so sometimes I’m more curvy than I should be. If I had a good burger and fries before the carpet, then I’m like “suck it in, hold it in.” I don’t come in Hollywood size and that’s fine by me, but sometimes when you’re taking pictures, it can kind of catch a wrong angle so you have to kind of be a little more mindful of how you pose and how you stand.
Have you ever been pressured to lose weight or look a certain way?
No, I don’t let anybody pressure me or anything I do. It’s because I want to do it to feel good about me. I don’t really care what people think or how they feel because they can love you one day and you feel good about that, but when they don’t love you then how do you feel about yourself? You have to be really confident and comfortable in your own skin so no matter what people say– you like you. That’s how I feel about me. When I look in the mirror, I like who Erica is. Whether people are giving me praise or admiration or saying that outfit was wack; it’s okay– that’s their opinion. They’re entitled to it, but I know how I feel about me.
What is your definition of sexy?
Sexy is confidence. It is a beautiful smile. It almost has nothing to do with the outside cause there are some women who are “sexy,” but have the nastiest attitudes. That’s just not beautiful to me. Beautiful and sexy can coexist. I think the word has been wrongly defined. I think smart, I think people who help other people, I think all that can be combined in what makes a woman beautiful. Sexy doesn’t always have to be equated with sex. It can be someone who’s comfortable with who she as a woman. You know the way God created me. I didn’t gift myself my curves; I didn’t buy them. I’ve been blessed and I’m okay with that.
How do you balance being sexy with being a gospel singer?
It is a very delicate balance because I never want people to take their mind off the message. The world we live in–they see me before they hear me. So, if I’m saying I represent God who’s the greatest and the creator, should I come in looking busted? No, I should come in and people should turn and say “who is she?” Not because of the fit of the dress, but because there’s something on the inside that’s shining brighter than my dress. I’m very careful. I don’t perform in stuff that I feel is going to make me uncomfortable. I have been on tour, and it fit one way when the tour started and all that pizza and fried chicken that you eat after the show, you gain weight. So by the end of the tour, it fits a little differently. It’s apart of the ups and downs of any woman I think.
What’s the planning process like in terms of what you and Tina wear on stage?
Well, my sister Goo-Goo who is our stylist; she bears the brunt of all that drama. We’ll give her the blues sometimes cause she’ll bring stuff and we’ll give her 100 no’s, so she has to go back and go shopping because we’re two different women, so we feel different ways and depends on what kind of song. If it’s an up tempo or ballad, the job is really hers with figuring out what we’ll look like and what will fit right. She knows what we want and don’t want, so we try to make it work.
What about your songwriting process as a group?
Life is kind of my inspiration. I don’t always write in the studio. Sometimes when I get to the studio, the song has already been written. I write some stuff in the car; if I’m in traffic, I’m thinking. Especially if I’m by myself in the car; you just get creative and start singing and most of the time I’ll pull my phone out and try to record it and go to the studio and tell Tina and Warren this is what I came up with. We’ll blend it and come up with however we want to complete the song. Sometimes we write together. Sometimes the music comes first; sometimes the lyrics come first. It just depends. It’s funny–I can watch something on TV and see somebody’s story and just feel inspired by what I saw.
What has been the most challenging part about going solo?
The challenging part is doing it by myself. I’m capable, but for 13 or 14 years, that has been my normal, and on top of that, everything that I have done in my life has been with my sister. We went to school together, we dated together, we started writing. So now I am learning more about me, standing on my own two feet, learning to be independent in a different kind of way. Being vulnerable and being honest with how I feel and what I really want because everything that I’ve wanted up until this point has been co-signed by Tina.
What do you want? “Well we want to eat this.” What restaurant do you want to go to? What are we wearing today? When are we flying? What song are we signing? What kind of moves are we doing on stage? Everything has been together. Now I get to find out just what I want, I get to speak my mind. It’s very empowering and it makes me feel very strong and I believe when me and my sister do come back together–because we are coming back together–it will make us both better women. You need a break sometimes. You need to breathe and regroup and reevaluate so you stay in love with what you do cause sometimes people fall out of love and they do it just cause they have to. Luckily we didn’t have to. We were blessed with the opportunity to take a break and do something different and hopefully, people are embracing this music on this album.
Tell us more about the album.
All my writing has mostly been with my husband Warren Campbell. We do have some other people on the record like Lashawn Daniels who wrote a lot on Tamar’s [Braxton] record. A bunch of really cool people helped out with the writing, but it was mostly me and Warren putting the record together. Some stuff is really simple, some stuff I believe churchy people would understand, but I think the un-churched people–the people who don’t really go to church,but they want to know more about God; they love God, but they don’t know him very well. I think there is a lot of music that will help that kind of person to understand him a little better. People feel like God is really…like they don’t have the right to talk to him because maybe what their life has been. This album is a collection of songs to let you know he loves us all no matter who you are or where you are in your life or what you’ve done. He loves you just as who you are.
What’s on your IPod right now?
I listen to some of everything. My iPod has everything from Curtis Mayfield to Aretha Franklin. Of course Kirk Franklin and people like that, but they’re new artists like Tye Tribbett who are amazing. I adore Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand and Tony Bennett. I like some hip hop but I always have to get the Walmart version (laughs). They be doing a little too much for me, but I appreciate artistic creativity. I don’t judge anybody–some stuff is for me and some stuff isn’t.
Who’s still on your collaboration wishlist?
There’s a lot of people I haven’t collaborated with. Like Aretha, Mary J. [Blige]. Nobody sings more passionate than Mary J. –nobody. I would like to sing with Harry Connick, Jr. I just love great voices–alto voices because I’m an alto.
As someone who works with her husband and sisters, what advice can you share with people who also work closely with their family?
Be honest. Speak your truth in love. Be kind. A lot of times, it’s easy to be aggravated and then you don’t say anything until it’s at the end and you’re ready to blow up. It may be hard to have these conversations, but it’s necessary. I feel comfortable having my family around me. I know that they love me. I know that they have my back and a lot of that is how you’re raised, too. My mom didn’t let us grow up saying “I hate you.” If we got in an argument, we had to hug each other and say I’m sorry, so it carried over into our adult lives. So if we do have an argument, I love my sister more than I want the group to be successful. More than anything, me and Tina have to be straight. So if I offend Goo-Goo even by using another stylist, I’m going to her and make sure she understands. I don’t want her to be offended, so it’s about being honest and making sure they’re really capable. People hire family and they’re not really capable and you end up upset because they didn’t do a good job. If they do a good job, then let them keep the job, but keep it professional. Don’t do ghetto business. Don’t miss their payments and have them working for free.
How do you and Warren decide when to be co-workers and when to be husband and wife?
That’s’ a good question. It all mixes in. That’s the beauty of working with your husband. I can record a little and then love on him a little bit and we can be at home having dinner and talk about business a little bit and flip the script.
What do you two do when you’re not working?
Travel. We’ll hang out in our hotel or at a beach somewhere and laugh and talk. He really is my friend–my best friend. Even when I’m mad at him and something great happens, I want to call him. We have a really great connection that allows the love to be even better.
What’s the most romantic thing he’s ever done for you?
Our Valentine’s Days have always been really amazing. He proposed on Valentine’s Day. I told him I was pregnant for the first time on Valentine’s Day, and we missed the last one because my baby was born the end of January. To make up for it, I was turning 40, so he surprised me with a trip to Paris and to Italy, so that might have been the best birthday gift and surprise ever. We spent 14 days overseas- just me and him; just hanging out, laughing and talking.
How have your kids adjusted to being on TV?
They’re kind of aware and not aware. They’re just kids and I allow them to be kids. I don’t put any pressure on them. While I do prepare them for the life that their mom has–they’re still little kids. My daughter will get excited sometimes like “Oooh, I’m on TV,” but she’s still a little girl. I don’t want any bad little Hollywood little kids that feel entitled. They don’t scream at anybody, they say yes ma’am/no ma’am. They’re good kids. They may stare in the camera a little bit too much sometimes. For the most part, they’re pretty well adjusted.
Are you okay with them pursuing a career in the entertainment industry when they get older?
I’m not trying to steer them away from that. I know that my daughter Chris is really talented. She’s singing on the album on at least four songs. She’s in my video for the song “Help.” The bible says, “Train up a child in the way they should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” So, I’m trying to make sure she has the tools that’s necessary to sustain her in this kind of business. It’s not easy; you have to be so well grounded and so well balanced in order to survive. If you’re well loved at home then you’re not looking for love in all the wrong places from all the wrong people. So, I’m trying to make sure that she has everything that she needs at home and she’s got acting lessons and singing lessons and piano and dance class, but it’s all at her own pace. We don’t overdo it. I’ll ask if she feels like taking classes; she’ll say yes and sometimes she’ll say, “no I want to spend the summer with Nana.” I let her be a little girl. I’ll know the time is right and when she’s ready, she will.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from them?
They make life better. I can cry just thinking about my kids. When I come home, just the way they call my name or the way say Mommy! That’s my real value right there. I want my kids to change the world. That may be a little ambitious, but that’s what I want, and to know those little human beings love me without condition– it makes me feel important. I mean something on the face of the earth to somebody that came from me. They teach me love, they teach me laughter; they’re just innocent and beautiful and honest and great. They stress me out sometimes, like when my daughter wakes up and throws up at 3 in the morning and I have a plane to catch at six. It’s not fun, but you love them though, no matter what.
Tell us what happens behind the scenes in reality TV.
For everybody it’s different. For me, we have a really good relationship with the production company and with the network so we see the edits. I don’t feel bamboozled. I don’t feel tricked, but it depends on what kind of show you’re doing or what kind of deal you have. I know everybody’s situation is different. People often ask me what do I think of some of the shows. I feel like some of those people are set up to fail and it’s unfair. Whatever’s in you is going to come out. If you’re a good person, then they’re going to see that. If you’re a bad person with a nasty attitude, it’s going to come out because it’s so much pressure with the cameras and the scenarios. Now sometimes they put people in situations. What do you expect? This woman slept with my husband and you going to bring her in my face–what you think I’m going to do? Give her a kiss? I wish a lot us in reality TV were smarter about the deals we sign. Don’t be happy just ‘cause you’re on TV because everybody is not trying to show your good side. They want you to act a fool, so you just have to smart and wise about your decisions and about the people around you.
What is the biggest stereotype the show has broken in terms of gospel singers?
That we’re normal. I was walking down the street here in New York and this dude yelled out his car and said “Yo, them ain’t not gospel jeans you got on sister,” and I said, “tell me where you buy the gospel jeans, brother.” I just got on regular jeans. I don’t go to the gospel grocery store. I don’t use gospel lotion. I don’t drink gospel water. I’m just like everybody else, but God is my source of strength. We’re regular girls who love Jesus.
Was it hard adjusting to the cameras?
At the church I grew up at, our family was kind of out front all the time. I was always having to be prepared to be out front all the time. So, somebody was always at our house. Because I grew up like that, when the cameras came, it was a little different but I was a little more prepared for it and that’s what I meant when I said I was preparing my kids. I know that they will have a life of service. When you grow up in church, you serve the people. You sing and they have issues, and they have questions, so when the cameras came, I knew this was a different kind of service, but it still required me to witness with my life. So I had to mindful of what I said and did, but like I said before, if I didn’t really love Jesus, that was gonna show. If I was faking, you would eventually see it. People see that I am what I say I am. I don’t sing one thing and live another.
What was your reaction after seeing yourself on camera for the first time?
It’s different. They catch all angles. Sometimes when the camera comes, I’m not putting on a lash or lipstick–you get what you get. It’s a ponytail and a bathrobe, that’s all. I know some shows, they be on 24/7-nope. I got kids. This is my real life. Sometimes when they catch me at home, I’m only home for a short time. So I want to feel like I’m home with socks and sweats on.
Do you watch reality TV?
I watch a little bit when I can.
Do have a show that you love or hate?
I’m not going to say I hate nobody’s show, but I’m caught up in Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta sometimes and Real Housewives of Atlanta and R&B Divas.
What’s your general opinion on them?
Everybody’s life is different. On those 42 minutes or an hour you see on a TV show, that doesn’t represent the whole of who the person is. I think that everybody’s on a quest to be their best and sometimes you catch them in bad scenarios. I’m an optimistic person, so I tend to try to see the best in people. I try not to see the negative because people have done that to me for so long, so I dare not to do that to anybody else. Some of it is very entertaining, and some of them are just living their lives. They’re on a journey and life is not easy. When you have a camera in your face, it really ain’t easy. You’re being judged by everybody every time the show comes on. That takes a lot of guts to do.
What can we expect from this season of Mary Mary?
You see family stick together. You see why we sing what we sing. I think it gives total validity to us singing songs like “Shackles” and “Cant Give Up Now” and “In The Morning” and “Yesterday.” You understand they been through something. They not floating around saying “Hallelujah,” “thank you Jesus” and “everything’s fine” all day. You have business decisions. You have to leave your family. You have to make decisions. Things change and shift in life and you don’t always know the outcome, so I think you’ll understand us just a little bit better. We’re committed to our faith. It’s easy to say I forgive, but to actually live out that forgiveness is something totally different. The up’s and down’s of having to give is crazy, but you’ll see us walk through it together hand-in-hand.
What would you be doing if you weren’t singing?
I can’t imagine anything else. I’ve never wanted anything else in my life. Since I was five years old I knew that I wanted to sing. I dreamt of myself on stage in front of thousands of people and when I went to Christian school, while everybody else was reading scriptures and saying speeches, I would sing. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how, I didn’t know where it was coming from, but I knew that God was preparing me for something greater than me and I knew it was singing. I went to hair school, because you have to finance the dream. It don’t come free. I had a bunch of odd jobs. You sing in plays until you get there. Some people, they just waiting for the fabulous part, so they sit up being broke. You got to finance the dream. I had a lot of jobs before I was a professional singer, but I was always a singer.
Keep reading for the rest of Erica’s “Digital Dish!”