Jesse Camp's year on MTV was a diversion from what he really wanted to do, but it sure helped.
Camp, the spiky-haired teenager who won the music-video channel's first "I Wanna Be a VJ" contest," secured a recording contract with Hollywood Records by capitalizing on the industry contacts he made during a year of hosting a daily video show and interviewing such notables as Van Halen.
And he got such famous names as Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen to play on his debut album, Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz, a Kiss-like pop-metal album that comes out May 25.
"This is what I want to do," Camp said. "Music gave me a love in life. It drives me, ... keeps me going. And this is the album I always wanted to make when I was a little kid."
The 19-year-old from Granby, Conn., who plays guitar, drums and tenor saxophone, said he overcame unsupportive parents and difficulty in school on his way to the rock spotlight. His parents, he said, fought his decision to pursue music instead of college.
He was touring with a band called Easy Action when, he said, he entered the MTV contest as a whim. He was chosen as one of five finalists for a job as a VJ from a crowd of more than 4,000 hopefuls. MTV's judges said they liked his mix of innocence, goofiness, bluntness, tongue-in-cheek humor and street credibility. As part of the competition he co-presented an award at a mock MTV Video Music Awards ceremony with comedian Pauly Shore, whom he kissed.
His MTV stint officially ended in April. He still occasionally appears on the channel, but now he has an album to promote. His schedule includes several performances at radio stations and appearances at stores around the country in May and June.
Camp's description of how he writes songs -- he had help from his band for part of the album -- displays the spacey image MTV liked. Composing, he said, is "making sh-- up off the top of your head and [feels like] transmissions from other planets."
To transform his ideas into a record, Camp hired producer Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls). Camp then made a wish list of artists he'd dreamed of working with and, to his amazement, Cavallo and co-producer Julian Raymond arranged for most of them to show up.
"Jesse made me feel like a million bucks, although he didn't pay me anywhere near that," Nielsen said. He plays guitar on five tracks, while Steve Hunter, known for his work with Alice Cooper, plays guitar on the whole album.
Camp said he was nervous at first about working with established rock stars, but the perspective he gathered at MTV helped calm him.
"The day I met Van Halen I was so nervous I locked myself in the bathroom," he said. "But then I heard [bassist] Michael Anthony taking a dump. We're all people."
The album's sole ballad, "My Little Saviour" (RealAudio excerpt), is a duet with Nicks. Camp said he wanted to capture a vibe like the one Nicks achieved with Tom Petty on their 1981 hit duet, "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," but he hadn't expected to get Nicks to sing on it.
Nicks said she was honored to sing with Camp. "I was already a part of the excitement because I had been watching Jesse for the past year since he won the MTV VJ contest," she said.
Though Camp didn't get to meet her, he said he hopes to team with her again on his second album and added he might appear on her next album.
The first single, "See You Around" (RealAudio excerpt), is more in sync with the rave-up tempo of the rest of the LP. Camp said the song is a tribute to the "dumb-ass" executives who make bands insecure by counseling them to dress and act in a certain way.
"We're gonna be who we want," Camp said of his band, which also features bassist Sam Yaffa (formerly of Finnish hard rockers Hanoi Rocks) and drummer Joe Rizzo (who has played with transsexual punk-rocker Jayne County). "I wanted to make a record [that would] give kids balls [just as] the music I listened to gave me a way out of a life I couldn't connect with."
Camp is optimistic about the chances for the album's success because of its accessible, uncomplicated hard-rock style and the exposure he got on MTV.
"Kids are gonna be curious," Camp said. "But I'm not gonna be happy till the nursing homes are rockin.' "
Camp said he realizes he has had a charmed existence that most of the confused youths he sings about on the album's "Summertime Squatters" would gladly trade their own lives for.
"Life could not be f---in' better," Camp said. "This record is the greatest accident that's ever happened."