In 2015, Andrea von Kampen was sitting with her guitar on the control room couch in the SadSon Music Group studio, working on songs that, a few months later, became “Another Day,” a five-song EP that introduced the Lincoln singer-songwriter to the world outside Nebraska.
It was, von Kampen said, the first step on what she knew then would be a lifelong journey.
“Before I made that first EP, I went to a school in Nashville called Belmont University," von Kampen said. “There I realized there is no ticket, there is no easy way out. After that, I thought, ‘I want to be in this for the long game. I don’t know how long this is going to take, but I’m never going to stop making records.’”
She has, indeed, made records -- a second EP in 2016, a live recording in 2017 and now her debut album “Old Country,” which was officially released Friday.
But songs from the album -- the gently strummed travelogue “Portland,” the character study “Julia,” and her delicate version of the old-time classic “Wildwood Flower" -- have already been heard, likely by tens of thousands who follow von Kampen on Spotify and other streaming services.
That’s right, thousands -- an international connection that has established von Kampen as the Lincoln artist who has most successfully navigated today’s music business.
That connection began shortly after the release of “Another Day.”
“Trainsong,” the last song on the five-song EP, got on a Spotify playlist in 2015, which von Kampen wasn’t aware of until she checked her account and discovered the song had more than 10,000 streams.
“I thought, ‘that’s a lot of streams for a local record,’” von Kampen said. “That was the spark. It got my music onto more playlists. I’ve now got 350,000 monthly listeners. It’s a great way to reach people on a global basis from essentially the middle of nowhere.
“But you have to go out and tour. That’s the way you reach real fans. The people listening digitally are passive fans. You’ve got to get out there and get the people who’ll come to the shows, buy your merch. They’re the real fans.”
So how do you put together a tour designed to reach listeners who are scattered across the country?:
Spotify, von Kampen said, provides artists with a list of the top 100 cities where their songs are being streamed. Not surprisingly, her top 100 includes New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Using those cities as tour anchors, it’s a matter of finding what she calls “connecting cities” -- “a lot of times they end up feeling like Lincoln, places like Spokane, Columbus, Ohio. I do a lot of house shows, too.”
The house shows began on von Kampen’s first national tour last year.
“I agreed to go to strangers' houses in four different locations,” she said. “Those shows proved to be, one, lucrative, and two, a great experience. They invite their 50 best friends, who pay more than they would in a venue and they listen. I think that’s why a lot of artists like me play only house shows on tour.”
The house shows proved to be a success as she ventured from coast to coast last summer. But so did her shows in listening rooms, cafes and other singer-songwriter friendly venues.
“I was assuming most shows would be one or two people and we’d lose a lot of money,” von Kampen said. “It was, surprisingly, the opposite. Most shows we had 30 to 60 people. It was wild.”
She’ll be back on tour next week, venturing through Chicago, Minneapolis and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before returning to Lincoln for a CD release on March 2. Then she’ll head off to Ohio, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. She'll tour the West Coast in the summer.
At all of those shows, von Kampen will be showcasing songs from “Old Country” and, hopefully, selling a few CDs.
The album, which closes with her beautifully picked, expressively sung version of Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello,” is essentially the recording she wanted to make when she went into Roxi Studios (formerly SadSon) last year.
“I had notes on all the songs last winter,” she said. “I had notes for all of them about what kind of vibe I wanted, the instrumentation, everything. I was listening back to the record last week and I mostly got what I wanted. That’s so satisfying. A lot of it goes to my brother, David von Kampen. He can take the vibe I’m going for and translate it to the arrangements.”
David von Kampen, the album’s producer, played piano on the album. Engineer Lucas Kellison played bass and Andrea handled the guitars and, of course, the vocals on the exquisitely crafted album.
“He’s a total perfectionist in the studio,” she said of her brother. “He strives to get the perfect sound. He’s the best person you can have on your team. But it’s very frustrating when you get a page and a half of notes back from him when you think you’ve gotten it. OK, back in to the studio.”
The record’s title doesn’t refer to its content -- there’s nothing too old or hard country about delicate, swirling music that surrounds von Kampen’s high, soft, richly expressive vocals. Rather it’s a Nebraska literary reference.
“A lot of the songs I write are based on books I’ve read,” von Kampen said. “I’ve only lived this many years. I haven’t experienced everything and I wouldn’t want to. So a lot of them are literary based. ‘Old Country’ is one. It’s based on Willa Cather’s ‘My Antonia.' It’s when she’s referring to the ‘old country,’ Bohemia, in the book. Not old country music.”
“Old Country” will be available on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon.com and YouTube, as were von Kampen’s previous releases. But it will also be on Amazon and Apple streaming platforms, placement that was arranged by a Nashville boutique distribution company.
That company, her husband, Brett Shaw, who does her booking, and Andrea, who quit her part-time job last year, comprise von Kampen's team -- for now.
“It’s a really small operation, just the three of us,” she said. “It feels like a full-time job every day. It’s getting to the point where hopefully we can hire someone to help out. We do the booking, distribution and touring. We hire everything else out, recording, artwork, vinyl.
“In this day and age, indie artists can work like they’re a label without having to sign to a major label and sell your soul. But you have to work at it.”
Given the economics of streaming, most of that work has to happen on the road.
“With every stream, you get back .003 cents or .006 cents, depending on if the person is paying for premium streaming service,” von Kampen said. “For every 100,000 streams, we’re looking at $500 to $600. That’s just on Spotify Other services pay different rates, but they’re all close. It’s not a lot of money.
“What’s funny is there are a lot of people who say, ‘Why do I need to tour? I can reach people all over with my record.’ I definitely have thought that a few times. But you have to tour today. It’s really fun getting out there and meeting people and playing.”
Von Kampen tours nationally by herself, driving from city to city. When she plays in Nebraska, she is often joined by a full band -- as she likely will be at the “Old Country” release show and when she opens for Trampled By Turtles at Omaha’s Slowdown in May.
Regardless of whether it’s von Kampen and her guitar or a full band, those who come to the shows will see an artist in fine form who has learned how to deliver a satisfying performance.
“I think I’m a lot more confident, especially with my live show,” she said. “When I first started, I wouldn’t say anything. I figured people were just there to hear the songs and didn’t want to hear anything from me. I realized when I started telling the story behind the song, people really liked it and wanted to hear it.”
Talking in The Foundry over a cup of coffee with a Ruth Bader Ginsburg book by her side, von Kampen said her biggest challenge wasn’t setting up or playing shows or recording and distributing her music. It was something simpler and more basic.
“Because of the nature of my job, nobody’s telling me what to do,” she said. "I could take days and days of nothing and no one would know. The biggest challenge is being disciplined -- I’m going to write today, I’m going to practice today….
“I think it does start with the music. I write a lot and only put songs out that I’m 100 percent good with. There are a lot of songs that never see the light of day, for good reason.”
And she’s got a notion of what it will take to move up a rung on the musical ladder.
“I’d love to start pairing with more national touring acts,” von Kampen said. “I’d love to pair up on a pretty lengthy tour with a band. I don’t want a label. But I would like a distribution deal to get my stuff placed in movies and TV shows. And I’d like to get to the U.K. and Germany and tour there.”
No matter where she goes, von Kampen will, for the foreseeable future, be coming out of the middle of flyover country, something that she said she only realized after she’d gone to Music City and then returned to Nebraska and developed her career.
“When I was starting I really thought I had to go to Nashville, Los Angeles or New York to do this,” she said. “Ten or 15 years ago, I would have. Now, I really think it’s a benefit coming out of Lincoln.”