Interview: Cam on why a song will take as long as it takes to write

Why music is better than psychology at exploring what is really happening with people.

West Coast native Cam has taken her time releasing her two major label albums with each one having a gestation period of five years. This pace has not impacted the success she has achieved, and she is bringing her music to In The Round Festival at The Roundhouse in London. Cam started her career as a songwriter after deciding that a career in psychology was not for her, and has taken a very hands-on approach to her career to date. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Cam at her home in Nashville just before she left for a gig in France before the April 17th showcase at The Roundhouse. She cites her grandparents’ love of traditional country and her parents’ love of psychedelic rock and folk music as helping ignite her love of music. She explains she is of an age when the then Dixie Chicks were seen as cool in high school and this confirmed her own love of country, though this is filtered through her parents’ influences. She hints at the debates she had with her mother when she decide not to pursue her career in psychology and she explains why music also allows her to explore what makes people tick.

Are you looking forward to coming to play The Roundhouse in London as part of In The Round Festival?

Oh yes, I love being there. The last time I came out was last June and my husband and daughter came with me and I opened for Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and the Eagles, in Hyde Park. So every time I come, no one lets me down and it is always a life-changing memory, so I’m very excited.

That was a very big bill, were you nervous?

Oh yes.

You are playing the In The Round Festival at the Roundhouse, are you aware of the history of The Roundhouse as a venue?

I feel as if I should know it better as from my personal history my first show in England was at The Roundhouse at The Apple Music Festival, which I don’t think they do anymore. I remember thinking wow and feeling so special at finally playing in the UK, and that the building was like nothing I’d ever been in before.

How does someone who studied psychology decide to become a singer-songwriter which is a lot more precarious profession, particularly financially?

That is so true, you are reminding me of the things my mother said to me many times. I had gotten into psychology enough to be applying to graduate school, and I had done research and had some articles and papers I had co-authored, but I just didn’t love it enough is probably the most honest answer. I saw some things that were intense to deal with, and people are always doing shady things, whatever business you are in. It turns out that the music business isn’t the only one that’s bad about it, It just maybe is the one that is most upfront about it all. The whole search I was in was to find some kind of truth about myself, about the world, and about people, and that’s why I wanted to do psychology, to understand what was going on, what is moving things and people and why we are doing things the way we do. For some reason, I was born with an intense desire to understand that, and when I couldn’t quite fit in with psychology and started doing music, my sister was like, you’ve always been good at music, it has always been in you just didn’t think it was financially secure and you didn’t do it.

So I gave it a fair shake and I lucked out, becoming one of the small percentage of people it does work out for, but it also works for me because I also get to explore much more what is underneath and what doesn’t get said, and why we all feel certain things at a certain time. You kind of feel it a bit more now that the world is more connected and you feel these waves of feelings and ideas that catch on with each other, and it is kind of fun to be able to say that out loud in the music. So I think they are both the same me trying for something, and music did it better.

Can you quantify how psychology has affected your songwriting?

In a lot of ways, it gave me tips in words to somehow understand the processes. There are a lot of metaphors and stories we use to explain what is going on in our brains, and I think they are the same sort of stories to explain what I’m feeling in these songs. There is a certain language, and it has definitely helped me get along with songwriters because when you are in the room with somebody you have to be really vulnerable and talk about certain things, and I will go, oh there’s that kind of thing people are going through. It seems to be that it stems from the same stuff, but every now and then I will go, that thing you are going through has to be to do with these stages of development, or that has to do with the grief process, and then I’m like, oh I do know a couple of things about insert here. I like it that music leaves things a little bit more unknown, whereas psychology is trying to chop it up into easily digested pieces.

You were born on the West Coast, what sort of music did you listen to in your formative years?

I had grandparents who were listening to big bands and fifties music, and some classic country records like Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson, and then we got into Ray Charles and Bonnie Raitt type stuff. And then with my parents, my dad was like psychedelic rock, and my mom was folk, and I think they had a huge influence on who I am and why my songs sometimes venture a little bit more rock and sometimes a little bit more folk. Modern country music wasn’t until high school and then it is a cool thing to be listening to at my high school, acts like The Dixie Chicks as was, Shania Twain, and that just sort of sunk in.  When I started writing music for myself it just felt that the stories I wanted to tell in a truthful way with poetic language, it was folk or country. I could see the stories I wanted in pop music at the time or other genres, but it just didn’t speak to me in the same way. Country music has such a homey way, there aren’t so many chords but here’s a root chord that feels like home, and you maybe move away with four or five chords, and I’m like OK maybe I’m moving a little bit away but I am coming back home because, in the last line of a chorus, you want to say what you really want people to understand right as you come back home. There is something about that format that feels like my grandpa taught me how to play piano in that way, it is a journey and then you come home. That is the story, you have something happen to your main character, and then you come home, and that is why I think I will never shake the fact that I will be doing country forever because it feels so much a part of who I am. It feels comfortable.

That is your view of yourself as a songwriter, but what about you the singer, you are not from the South?

Yeah, well I say I’ve travelled the world and I love seeing UK country singers, and Australian country singers, and we have quite a folk tradition in The Bay Area and it probably is the closest folk and americana kind of thing. Then I grew up going to my grandparents’ horse ranch down in Southern California, and we had the barn cowboy life, and to me, that was getting up early to feed the horses and clean up the horse shit. It is a good story to tell, a hard day’s work, and a good laugh, and that sort of vibe makes sense to me as an artist. Then as far as my singing, we had the Bakersfield Sound and Buck Owens, so it is not super foreign, it just fit. I’ve written things for Miley Cirus and stuff like that, and when I sing pop it just comes out and people say that sounds country, and I don’t know what it is.

You’ve mentioned your songwriting career, but with your own two albums, there is quite a gap. Are you just taking your time, or is there something else behind it?

Yeah, with the first one, I really took my time, that was probably five years from start to finish, and with the second one I thought I was ready to release it and then I had a kerfuffle, which is probably the nicest way of putting it, with the label so that one wasn’t really my choice, but in the time it took to sort out the business side of things I did write some of the best songs so I’m quite happy it took a while from 2015 to 2020, another five years. I’m working on a new one now and it feels like it is going faster, but then we’ve had the pandemic, so I reckon it just happens at the rate it happens, there is no grand plan of how to schedule it out. I feel that time and life don’t really speak the same language, my creativity and my making of music will just happen how it happens, irrespective of how much time is passing, it doesn’t seem to be planned out in any way or follow some form of step process. It’s just going take whatever it takes, you know.

What sort of songwriter are you, are you very disciplined or is it as the muse takes you?

I think that songwriting is very hard because I care very much and it is very difficult, and I try to find something. I may just be driving my little girl in the car trying to get her to sleep, and I’m driving and just thinking about things. I’m trying to find a phrase with a melody, I need to find them both together to feel like a good thesis or starting point to build on that, because I want such a little nugget that I care about,  so I can commit and go through all the ups and downs of can I write a song, do I know how to write a song and all the doubt that comes when you start the journey. I need to have a first bit that is so good, my main thing is to have time to daydream and take in feelings and ideas, so I can get one or two phrases of just lyrics plus a melody, and that is what I go from.

Your stage name Cam is interesting, I know it comes from your own name, but why pick that?

Yeah, thanks, Cam is what my friends would always call me. In the beginning, it was very important to me, when I was sharing stories, to be myself and be a real human. I tried very hard not to be sexualised because female artists can sometimes end up being something that is not very relatable because you are meant to be this non-human who is eternally gorgeous and whatever. So I just wanted to be someone who is relatable, and so to me, a short nickname made more sense to me, and my last name Ochs is very hard to pronounce, and in the very early days most interviewers were like, how do you pronounce it and I was like, drop it. It feels good at a show when everyone shouts a name I was called when I was younger, it feels, don’t know, more friendly.

You seem to have taken as much control over your career as you could have right from the start of your career. Do you agree with that?

Yeah, you never know what you don’t know, I guess, I just assumed that is what you do. Even now, looking back, I wish I had known more so I could have had more control. People would come to my manager, and luckily my manager is also one of my best friends and we spent a lot of time ensuring I came across as who I am, with things, an example is the label would recommend that I straighten my hair. I know that doesn’t make sense to people on the outside, but at the time they really thought that would make a difference. We said absolutely not because it made sense to stick with exactly who I was because I don’t think I could keep up with all the lies if I came up with another story. Sometimes you think it would be less work if I let go a little bit, and I’ve done that a few times on a project or a music video or something, and I’ve always regretted it because it ends up not looking how I want. I guess that is just who I am.

You’ve mentioned you are working on a new album, what else have you planned for 2023?

I’ve got a few shows hanging around after The Roundhouse, but really this year is going to be about making sure I finish that album and get it to everybody, and then planning the shows around this album. I am really excited and I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ve particularly planned this album to be specifically part of such a great live show. I’ve done ‘The Otherside’ tour which I haven’t been able to bring to the UK yet which is why I’m so pleased to be able to bring it to The Roundhouse. We had so much time with the pandemic and releasing the album after so many years to really plan something special, and I planned a small group of people on stage only doing what is necessary to pull off what is there, so it leaves space for so much emotion. I love it, it is one of my most favourite shows ever, and going into this next album it is like I’ve got to one-up this. I love shows, the way you get to connect with audiences and what it means for them and for me. I think everyone at The Roundhouse show will see how special this is, and the fun thing is I’m already working on what the next special thing is going to be.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Oh yes, I’ve just started listening to the new Feist album, and she has just been releasing little tracks, and I haven’t had chance to hear the whole album, but I’m obsessed with it. I’ve loved Feist for a long time and this new stuff is so cool, I love the track ‘Borrowed Trouble’ and there are such great lines in there. I’ve been listening to sixties music, trying to get into a headspace for some of the songs I’m writing, so I’ve been listening to The Zombies and The Hollies. And a friend has reintroduced me to Kate Wolf, the folk artist, and there is this song with the tagline “We’ve only got these times we are living in.”, and it is really beautiful and I’ve been listening to that song a little bit. There’s some playlist fodder.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK and European readers?

Just that I love you guys. I know I’ve said that a million times in a million interviews, but you are the best. If I could live there and play there all the time it would be the dream. I am so excited about The Roundhouse and I can’t wait to see everybody.

Cam’s ‘The Otherside’ is out now on Sony Music CMG.
Details of Cam’s show on April 17th at the In The Round Festival at The Roundhouse can be found here.

About Martin Johnson 402 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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