By Brian Ives
Just a few short months ago, the music community had yet to hear of Cam; a few folk music fans may have recognized her from her 2010 folk album Heartforward, which she recorded under the name Cameron Ochs.
In 2013, she’d release a single under her new name, Cam, called “Down This Road.” And one year ago this week, on March 31, 2015, she released her debut EP, Welcome to Cam Country, featuring the song “Burning House,” co-written with Tyler Johnson and pop maestro Jeff Bhasker (who won Producer of the Year at this year’s GRAMMYs). Unconventional by current pop or country standards, the slow song doesn’t feature drums or percussion. And yet, it’s slowly brought her more and more fans and industry support; she has four nominations at this weekend’s Academy of Country Music Awards; “Burning House” is up for Single Record of the Year and Music Video of the Year.
“Burning House” was later released on her full length country debut, Untamed, which came out in December. Cam recently stopped by the Radio.com studios for a lengthy and wide-ranging interview, discussing all of the above, as well as the importance of embracing the things that make you different.
Untamed came out a few months ago, but it was in the works for a long time.
Yeah, it’s been five years in the making, and about 90 percent of this album was done before I actually met with labels. So it’s the product of a little family of people that have worked really hard on this, and believed in something before there was money or a big corporate name next to it.
So it means a lot that we had a big group like Sony believe in it. Nobody ever told me, “We think you should make your music like this” or “You should look like this” or anything like the stereotypical bad label stories that you hear… which I honestly thought were true.
So to have these songs come out, and now actually other human beings relate to them, it’s just so cool. I’m still trying to take it all in. It hasn’t fully sunk in that “platinum” means a million people have bought “Burning House.” That’s wild to me, that a million people have heard that song.
And that song sounds nothing like what is on country radio these days.
Right! It’s very different, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of solo female artists, and there’s not a lot of women who are putting out ballads, and especially not during the summertime, when that first came out. So it made everyone very nervous to do that.
But what’s really cool is things are so instant now. We played something on a radio show, and you could see the sales spike on iTunes. Go figure: you put a song on the radio that people wanna hear. And it just worked out.
Were you worried about being a viable commercial country artist given that you’re kind of different?
Yeah. You know, what was really cool is that the team of people working with me saw that as an opportunity. Because if not a lot of people like me are in that space, then I have a shot to be the new person in that space. So in a weird way, it’s kind of a cool little blessing.
There’s a very small window that you have to get through to get to country radio, and for women right now, you have to be that much better and work that much harder. But in a way it’s kind of a blessing because now the women that are gonna start breaking through are really good. So I really hope to be a part of that wave of women who are doing that.
This album is much different from your first one; in 2010 you released a folk album as “Cameron Ochs,” and it was influenced by the Indigo Girls.
Yeah. I love the Indigo Girls. They tweeted at me a while back. I freaked out.
Really loving @camcountry's songs, "Burning House" on repeat. -ES—
Indigo Girls (@Indigo_Girls) December 01, 2015
It seems like you changed yourself, as opposed to having anyone tell you what to do.
You know, until about 2010 I did psychology research. And that was kind of my main focus: I thought that this is gonna be my job, this is what I’m gonna do. And then I had this serious epiphany: my passion is music. Maybe that should be my main thing.
And I went in and I talked to my professor at the time, ’cause I’d always done music on the side. And I said, “What should I do? Should I keep going with psychology, or should I make music my main focus?”
She said, “Picture yourself 80 years old and looking back on your life, and what would you regret having missed out on: music or psychology?” And that put it in perspective for me; I really need to do music.
When I first started out, I actually really thought of myself as a songwriter, and I thought I just really wanna get good at songwriting. And I was a little bit older than most people normally are [when they start out], because I was like 25.
Jeff Bhasker, who’s won GRAMMYS and done some amazing records, he organically heard my music and said, “Hey, I dig what you’re doing and I see where you’re going. Let me jump on this train with you.”
So I feel really good about how that happened. If you can hold out and go through those really rough “I’m not sure if I have enough gas in the car to get home” kind of years, those years are like, the best. Even though they’re horrible, and you have a breakdown every week, that time is irreplaceable. It’s the most important foundation for who you are as a person and for your art.
So I’m really grateful for me, and the few people around me who gave me the courage in some of those dark moments to stick with it.
You are the first country artist who Jeff Bhasker has worked with, right?
Yeah. That’s a big compliment. At the core of what he does, he’s an amazing songwriter and piano player, and he comes from a place where the song is the most important thing. I don’t wanna talk on his behalf or anything, but he’s just so great at [knowing] what fits the song.
He’s a musician and has studied music of all genres. So when he comes at a song, he’s already okay with crossing genres. The intro to “Half Broke Heart” that’s kinda like this old-timey ragtime piano, that’s him playing.
He also didn’t approve of all of the songs you were working with at first, correct?
That’s so funny you have heard that. So the story actually is: I met Jeff Bhasker through Tyler Johnson, who was one my main co-writers and producer on this album. Tyler and Jeff have been nominated for GRAMMYS together, but in the beginning, Tyler was Jeff’s assistant.
But Tyler and I were trying our hardest; I thought I should be a writer, he was trying to be a writer, and we tried our hardest to write really good songs.
And I remember one day he went in to show Jeff some of the songs that he had worked on, and one of them was one of the ones we’d worked on together called “Mayday,” that’s actually on the album. And he played Jeff that song, and I was so excited to hear what he had to say.
And so we get the feedback… Jeff is a very honest person. He was like, “This is not good enough.” He critiqued the song, and it was crushing. I mean ego crushing, emotionally crushing, because we spent so much time, we worked so hard. Of course, to my ear this song was the best. We listened to anything that Jeff had done and tried our hardest to emulate that.
So getting that news, I think you can go one of two ways. You can say, “Well, I suck, and I give up,” or “I hate Jeff” or whatever. But I don’t hate Jeff. I think he’s brilliant. So you have to then pick your ego up off the ground, dust it off, and realize that the journey of getting knocked down is what will make you the better person later. And so it’s integral to your development to have someone you really admire knock you down, and it’s just about whether or not you get back up again.
So that was an important thing. And we took all of his notes, we addressed all of his notes, and that song “Mayday” I think is one of people’s favorite songs now.
I do not give up on songs. I tweak them and tweak them and whittle them down. I believe that intelligence and talent, you’re not just born with it. You mess up lots and lots of times, and you just have to have the determination to keep getting better and put up with humiliation and embarrassment, and that’s how you get to where you’re gonna be great.
It seems like it’s important for you to write your own songs.
It’s very important for me to sing my own songs. First off, because I wanted to be a writer to begin with, and for some reason I have it in my head that that’s what I’m better at, rather than singing. And I don’t know if that’s true. I love writing. I love being in the studio. And it’s a horrible experience, because every time you start it’s a blank page, and you’re like, “Am I good enough? Who am I?”
It’s a really intense thing. Once you probably get to a point where people know who you are, and they’re singing your songs back to you, it is an amazing, magical experience that I have started to experience. But until that point, you are hustling so hard… and if I was hustling for somebody else’s words and somebody else’s music… I couldn’t, I’m too lazy for that. I would probably do a regular kind of job or something.
Would you have been happy as a writer who didn’t record albums or do shows?
I thought I could be a writer, and then I had just a couple people sing my songs. And Miley Cyrus did an incredible job; I have one of the songs on her Bangerz album [“Maybe You’re Right”].
But I started to realize that I care very much about how my songs get put together. So to give someone the script, and then let them make your movie for you is like… that’s not exactly how I saw every piece coming together.
Talk about how Eric Church has influenced you.
As we started to make an album, we asked how we were going to make a complete collection of songs.
And we started “color coding” the songs; we can’t have an imbalance of too much of one color. The way we tried to understand how to do this was listening to Eric Church‘s Chief. And I’ve had that in my car since the day it came out, and I still have it in my car, and I listen to that balance on that record. And honestly, I can’t even verbalize why it’s so perfect to me, but it just is. It gives me “the feels.”
And I hope he takes that as the biggest compliment, ’cause no one starts blank. We’re all just a big product of what we’re breathing and what we’re around, and you try as much as you can to make it yourself, but there’s still this influence you can’t avoid, and for me that is Eric Church.
He clearly doesn’t want to follow too many rules, but he also wants to play to large crowds. He wants to be popular on his own terms.
Eric Church is somebody who has earned the right to make music that his fans love.
So that’s the dream, when you can consistently put out good music, have a great live show, and your fans trust you to give them something else great, ’cause they’re not just a fan of your songs, they’re a fan of you as an artist.
And that’s what’s really cool about country music. I think it’s a great format that allows for a lot more of that relationship with your fans. So fingers crossed, I’m hoping my fans will let me do that.
I know in your experience singing in a choir, you sang in lots of different languages. Could you speak all of those languages?
No, no, no, no. That started out when I was in fourth grade, all the way up until the end of high school. So it was really cool, ’cause you learn songs that are in every culture. And that was amazing.
Music is just this great way of communicating values, emotions, how to reach one another with these great stories. And so while you’re learning music in different languages you are learning new ways of speaking. And then you learn the story behind the song and why that’s relevant to that culture too, which is really cool.
One of my favorite songs is a Bulgarian folk song that women all sing together; it’s really weird and dissonant. The time signature I think is 7/8, which is what “Burning House” is. And it’s a really cool, weird moment, and I think it’s about like a town drunk.
I love stories, and I grew up listening to my grandpa. He’d be the last one to finish his meal at the table, ’cause he’s such a cowboy telling stories. And it could be like a normal day, and he’d turn it into a great story somehow.
So that’s the big dream: to be really great at storytelling, and I think that kind of foundation with world music helps give me such a great bunch of different references I can pull from.
Your references and experiences make you seem really different from most other country singers.
Which is so funny, because in the beginning when you first start out, the things that make you different in any aspect of life, make you so nervous. You’re like, “I don’t have all the same things that everybody does; I’m not from Oklahoma. What am I gonna do?”
And then as you get past that tipping point of people saying they really like your music, all of a sudden you start to realize you really value all those things that do make you different. Just embrace all that stuff. You’re gonna be really grateful for it later.
I used to straighten my hair when I was younger, ’cause I thought that was how I was supposed to be, and everybody straightened their hair. And then when you start to get to the point where like, “You know, I like having curly hair, and I like being different.”
And that process of learning how to accept who you are as an artist [is important]. A lot of times you’re trying to figure out who you are as a writer and as a singer; we all grow up singing other people’s music. When you’re a writer, you first start writing things that kinda sound like all the people that you’ve heard, and as you start developing your sound, you’re deciding who you wanna be, and it’s a really intense process to look at yourself and say “Man, who really am I?”
So it’s a big process, and I’m actually really glad that I had to go through it, I find it super fascinating. But it’s really good to be looking at yourself so intensely, actually.
Tell me about your experience in Nepal; that’s pretty different. Not many country singers spent time there.
I was there for four months. I had been working in a lab while I was in college, and I was supporting myself by working as a waitress at a Nepalese restaurant. So that’s how I met a bunch of friends that were Nepali, and they said, “You should go to Nepal,” and I was like, “Yeah, why not?”
I loved traveling, and I went through a volunteer organization. And there was a lot that that trip did for me. Like, meeting a bunch of people who have a lot less than we do in America and are super busy with the regular tasks that we have lots of machines to do for us; their whole day could be just cooking and doing laundry.
We’re so obsessed with efficiency, and you realize: they just made a meal, that was their day, and everybody’s just so happy. That was really fantastic.
And it also helps understand how to value slowing down. And the South is really good at this. Everyone stops and has a conversation [when they see each other], whereas sometimes in California we smile and say “Hi,” but we’re busy to get to something else.
Also the volunteering aspect of it, and what it means to try and get into someone else’s country and someone else’s life and try and help, and really when you get there you realize, I’m a college graduate in psychology. I don’t know how to farm. What am I possibly going to do to help you guys?
So it’s a really interesting; it had a lot to do [with my development] as a person. And musically, too: actually while I was on that trip, my boyfriend at the time was supposed to come meet me, and we were gonna do some traveling at the end of the trip. And the day before he was supposed to come, I actually told him, “If you come we’re just gonna be ‘friends.’” It was over email, and it wasn’t very nice.
And that is the breakup that I felt so bad about, that I had that dream about a burning house. I don’t normally tell that story. It’s a very embarrassing story, because it was a very hurtful thing to do. A lot of these songs are very vulnerable for me.
But I feel like we all mess up so often, and most of your life is messing up, and then figuring it out and trying to be a better person. I’m glad that I get to share it. And it’s really nice to hear back from people.
Sam Hunt had me out for his street party that was like 10,000 people, like 10,000 girls that were really excited to see Sam Hunt. And I’m thinking, “They’re not excited to see me.” And I was a surprise, so he says, “This girl’s coming out, she sings ‘Burning House,’ here’s Cam,” and they screamed.
This was the first time that this ever happened to me, so I walked out, and everybody sang every word of “Burning House,” and on their faces you could see they felt what I felt when I wrote that song. As a songwriter, [I felt] like, “I nailed it.”
I feel so good about that, because that’s the whole point: I don’t know what else in the world can bring 10,000 people together and have you all be on the same frequency for three minutes. That’s the kind of experience I never thought I’d get to have, and I’m super grateful.
It seems like that Nepal trip gave you some clarity.
I think what happened is, he and I were on again/off again so many times… it’s so funny to talk to you about this. I guess that’s it; I think the distance made me realize that I kept getting back into that cycle with him because it was comfortable.
And I clearly had more growing up to do, obviously, by the way I handled that, and it just wasn’t the right fit at that time.
It’s really hard, because movies have like “the villain”: “Take care of yourself and get out of that situation!” And then there’s the “Prince Charming”; he’s perfect. And none of that’s really real.
But then there’s also this middle lane of people that are so important in your life and that shape who you are. Like I burp the way I burp because of this guy. There’s a lot of things that I care about because of him, and we shaped each other, but he’s not the person that I’ll be with for the rest of my life.
And so hopefully this song is a warning sign just to remind people that even if someone is not meant to be in your life, you don’t have to be rude, as if they were a villain, and you don’t have to feel guilty as if they were a Prince Charming; you can have a hopefully nice breakup. Hopefully, somebody writes a song about how to do the nice breakup.
As a psychology student, you must have thought a lot about that dream before writing “Burning House.”
Actually, I called Tyler [Johnson], my co-writer, pretty much the next day: “You won’t believe the dream I had.”
And he already had this riff; he said, “I have the perfect thing.” And that is what I think is the coolest part about country music, is how to take a really complex emotion and say it in the easiest way, with the fewest words, so you know exactly what I’m saying. And he did that right back to me with that first phrase, and it was like, “We gotta write this song.”
So we actually held onto it for quite some time, kept working on it, and it was really hard. You write a verse, and you’re like, this is so great, and the chorus is supposed to be better. How am I gonna make that better? And we kept trying, we kept kind of tweaking but not quite getting it.
And we showed it to Jeff Bhasker, and he was like, “I have to be a part of this,” because we’d actually recorded the demo to send him with a fire going on in the background. He’s like, “Oh, you gotta keep that fire in the real recording.” And he says, “I have an idea for a chorus melody.” And he’s great at that kind of thing, so he stepped in, and it just came together so well.
That was a risky way to introduce yourself; with a sonically unusual song that casts you in a not-super-flattering light.
[Laughs] Yeah, and it’s like I’ve come to believe that the more embarrassed I feel, the more vulnerable I am, the more something probably needs to be said, because you probably haven’t heard it enough in just the general discourse. So I’m trying to use that awkward gut moment as a compass; like, you should probably go there if it makes you nervous.
Those are the things that resonate with people.
And you know, in psychology there actually are more negative emotions than positive. So I’m hedging my bets with the slow songs [laughs].
Tell me about writing “Half-Broke Heart.”
If you ever get a chance to meet [co-writer] Luke Laird, he’s the nicest person ever. That’s what’s great about Nashville. Someone described it to me this way, and I love the metaphor: it’s like a mountain you’re climbing, and you’re trying to get up to the top. As you get up there’s like this cloud cover of jerks and people that are fake about how important they are and all that kind of stuff, and you get to that, and you’re like, “Oh, gosh, you gotta be a jerk to be great.”
But actually, you just have to get through that group, and the people at the top are the nicest, most talented people. Because once you get to that level, you don’t wanna put up with anyone that is a jerk. So all of the best people at the top in Nashville are so great.
So Luke is one of those people. He’s the nicest person, and he just, offhandedly says, “I’ve just had this line for a while, and it’s not great or anything.” This is from somebody who’s probably on his 20-somethingth number one. He goes, “‘Um, a half-smoked cigarette’s still smoked, and a half-broke heart’s still broke.’ I don’t know, it’s bad, I don’t know.”
And I was like, “Are you kidding? That is the most amazing thing.” We started writing that chorus. We just had such a great time coming up with all those lines and phrases. And yeah, I love that song.
Talk about “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty.”
That one I wrote with my friend, Anders Mouridsen. I was going into a demo session, and I was using a guy who didn’t normally do country, so he’s like, “You’re bringing your cowboy hat?” Can I swear, by the way?
So he’s like, “Are you bringing your cowboy hat?” And I was like, “Yeah, and I’m bringing my chaps.” And we’re kinda having a fun back and forth. “You bringing your spurs?” And I was like, “Yeah, and I’m bringing my horses— scented candle.”
And I thought this was hilarious, and he was like, “Too much. That’s disgusting.” And I said, “Country ain’t never been pretty, never has been, never will be.”
[The song is] Kind of an ode to my grandpa. We spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up, and they have a horse ranch down in Oceanside. And in the mornings my grandpa would flick water on our faces and then hide. He was like, “If you don’t feed the horses, you’re not gonna ride ’em.”
My hair would be just all over the place. I didn’t wear makeup for most of my life. I just didn’t care; it’s about having a good time.
And I always think of that. My parents were both in construction management and stuff, and I just think there’s something about the realness of people that is the most important part of people.
So it’s hilarious to go to red carpet events, or things like this [interview] and you get all done up. And sometimes you can see people take it too seriously: they think this is the real part [of life], and it’s not the real part. And it’s really funny to make fun of myself. It’s like okay, you get all dressed up, and I know you think you’re fancy, but what’s really real is hard work and having a good time and not caring what you look like.
So on that song, we had a good time trying to get punchlines in there and how to craft it so that by the time you hit it people are gonna laugh, and it’s really fun.
In the song you say, “You can spend eight hours at the gym every day. But then who would bail the hay?”
Yeah, that’s touching on the whole fitness thing and body image thing. We’re not doing a lot of physical labor anymore, and everyone’s just kinda sitting in an office, so our bodies look different. And you should try and make sure you get outside and do some hard work every once in a while, but sometimes maybe over-worrying about that… again: you’re not being real anymore.
Like with Instagram and Snapchat, I think people are starting to get back into, “Okay, we know that’s not real. Let’s see the real side of you every now and then.” And it kinda helps undo those boundaries of the mysticism of what it means to be like a fancy “I’m a star and you don’t know about my life” or anything like that.
So I think it’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here and how that affects country. But yeah, sometimes it’s pretty funny for a genre that’s based on being real, it’s funny to make fun of.