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Musical friendship leads to House of Songs collaboration

Peter Mongillo

Troy Campbell and Poul Krebs met more than 10 years ago, backstage at the Howlin' Wolf music club in New Orleans. Campbell, an Austin-based musician, and Krebs, a songwriter who is famous in Denmark, were part of a songwriter showcase at a music conference. The crowd, as Campbell tells it, was "heavy-drinking" and not very interested in the music.

"The crowd was so loud the person on stage was about to burst into tears," Campbell says. "I looked at (Krebs) and said, `Dude, we either got to find an exit or fire our way out of here.'"

Instead, the two won over the crowd and the next day hit it off playing music together, which led to Krebs inviting Campbell to Samsø, a wind-powered island off the coast of Denmark, for a songwriting workshop called "The Song Island."

The ease with which Campbell tells this story says that this isn't the first, or even the 10th time he's told it, but the tale gets to the heart of his partnership with Krebs. Last year, the two joined forces once again, creating the House of Songs, a haven for Danish musicians in the heart of Austin.

On Kenwood Avenue in Travis Heights, the House of Songs is a candy shop of sorts for musicians, complete with guitars, amps, a Baldwin piano, a computer and bicycles. Concert posters of Roky Erickson adorn one of the bedrooms (Campbell is Erickson's road manager). Beginning last October with the pop rock duo Leaving a Small Town, a steady stream of Denmark's musical denizens have made the trek to the house for two-week stints. Campbell has been arranging songwriting sessions and showcases at venues such as Flipnotics and Threadgill's with some familiar Austin faces, including Matt the Electrician, Kacy Crowley and David Garza.

Through the beginning of March, 17 different artists or groups from Denmark have stayed at the house. On March 20, the House of Songs will host an official South by Southwest showcase at Momo's. Artists taking part include singer-songwriter CALLmeKAT and the Good the Bad, a Copenhagen-based surf rock band that has enjoyed success throughout Europe.

The idea for the project evolved out of "Song Island." "We wanted to start up something that was outside the record labels, just songwriters to songwriters," Krebs says of the house.

There is a casual feel about the place, with people coming and going, hanging around in the living room or on the deck in back. On a warm day in January, Copenhagen-based pop singer Peter Smith was seated behind the piano, recounting a portion of a song he had written earlier that day. Seated on the couch across from Smith was Dave Madden, a singer-songwriter who relocated to Austin a year ago. Over beers, they discussed whether a few lines that Madden had written were better suited for verse or chorus.

For Smith, the House of Songs was an opportunity to add some perspective to his songwriting. "We don't get much inspiration from other cultures," he says. "The first night I arrived, the songs just came."

His focus on writing is no coincidence. Krebs says the musicians chosen to come to the house were more interested in improving their work and building relationships and less concerned with recording a hit single.

Krebs approached Campbell last year during South by Southwest about developing a space where musicians could focus on building relationships and discuss new ways to distribute music, and the two spent the following summer working out the details. The Danish Songwriters Guild, a professional organization of more than 500 songwriters, pays Campbell to manage the house and provides money for rent and travel expenses.

The guild maintains offices in New York, Los Angeles and other cities, but Austin is the only city where they provide accommodations. Campbell chose 50 musicians from a large pool of applicants. He says that he plans to approach American songwriting organizations to consider funding similar programs in Europe or elsewhere.

Campbell reveals a hint of jealousy when talking about the guild and the House of Songs. "I couldn't fathom somebody giving me money to write songs," he says. He's no slouch when it comes to music, though. In 1989 Alejandro Escovedo saw his band, the Highwaymen, in Dayton, Ohio, and urged him to move to Austin. He has been part of the music scene here since, both with his band Loose Diamonds and as a solo artist.

Though Campbell's role with the House of Songs is mostly managerial, he has taken the stage at some of the performances and can often be found jamming at the house. "I'm getting to know more and more new writers, and that's exciting to me," he says.

As for the future, Campbell and Krebs are talking about expanding the program to Norway musicians. A group of Austin musicians including Matt the Electrician and Danny Malone will travel to Denmark in May to write and play with some of their Danish counterparts at the annual Spot Festival, a music and interactive conference similar to South by Southwest.

In the meantime, musicians continue to cycle through the house. A few days after Smith and Madden sat down to write, they performed together at Flipnotics along with Phoebe Hunt, violinist from the Belleville Outfit. About 40 people packed the small coffee shop for the showcase, which also included members of Austin symphonic rock group Tiny Tin Hearts, as well as singer-songwriters Lance Sollock and Vanessa Lively, among others.

Though shows at other venues have been bigger, the size of this particular event fit the intimate spirit of the House of Songs. "We came into it wanting musicians to develop relationships, to get to know each other and write songs, and it's been through the roof," Campbell says.

House of Songs performances

March 17: Unofficial showcase with performances by Leaving A Small Town, Gudrid Hansdottir, and Jens Lysdal. The Ginger Man. 8 p.m.

March 19: Day party with performances by Gudrid Hansdottir, Jens Lysdal with Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Leaving A Small Town, Michael Ramos, John Sanchez, Nathan Felix and the Noise Revival Orchestra. Lamberts. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

March 20: Official SXSW showcase, with performances by CALLmeKAT, Gudrid Hansdottir, The Good The Bad. Momo's. 8 p.m.

Information:www.thehouseofsongs.com