The night before our conversation, California country singer Cameron Ochs, better known as Cam, experienced one of many firsts of her career. Although she’s plenty familiar with the CMAs themselves (Cam was nominated for Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year at last year’s ceremony), Cam took to the other side of the mic as she hosted the award show's red carpet gathering.
“You don’t realize what goes into asking questions,” she said. “Having been on the other side of it, I saw that that’s when I felt like people were listening to me or connecting with me. They try to get a little bit more out of the artists. So I was trying to do that. It was definitely really fun just being in the chaos of it all.”
Though she wasn’t nominated herself this year, Cam is no stranger to awards ceremonies. Her album Untamed, and its critically acclaimed single, “Burning House,” took the world by storm, reaching number 2 on the Billboard country charts and gathering nominations at the CMAs, the AMAs and even the 2016 Grammys. For a debut, the accolades are impressive. But Cam wasn’t through.
It’s been two years since Untamed, and now Cam is back and sharper than ever. The lead single off her forthcoming record, “Diane,” dropped in October, and it’s already creating buzz in the country music scene. Though she’s quickly taking the world by storm, Cam hasn’t always been the country superstar she is now, but the music has always been in her veins.
Prior to her career as a country singer, Cam's big interest was in the field of psychology. After studying at University of California–Davis, the soon-to-be songwriter worked in labs at other colleges around the area, including Berkeley and Stanford. It was her professor that finally encouraged her to pursue her real passion.
“He said, ‘Picture yourself at 80 years old. What would you regret missing out on? Would you regret not doing psychology or not doing music?’ Definitely music,” Cam says.
With a final push, Cam finally began to chase after her dream of being a songwriter. In her early music, she experimented with genre, practiced her writing and searched for her voice. Her early work (published under her legal name) had a folkier pop sound. But eventually, she found her home and voice in country.
“It sort of makes sense, though,” she says. “Growing up, some of the first things that I’d listened to with my grandparents were artists like Patsy Cline. That storytelling and structure is something that feels very homey to me. Country is the one genre that has that poetry to it.”
Cam may have found her home in country music, but her writing style translates to many genres. In addition to her own music, Cam has written for many other big name artists, including Miley Cyrus (“Maybe You’re Right” off her album Bangerz) and Sam Smith (“Palace” on his album The Thrill of It All). Her ability to translate her country songwriting into pop gems may come from her own belief that music is not meant to be kept in boxes.
“Music isn’t meant to be in one genre,” she says. “What’s important is the beat, the lyrical content and the way it makes you feel.”
Though Cam’s music is branded as country and follows many of the same poetic tropes of the genre, her music appeals to a wider audience. You don’t like something just because it’s in one genre, she says. It follows that you don’t have to like country to enjoy Cam.
Her ability to follow this throughline and explore her sound stems from where her inspiration is gathered. In her songwriting, she finds inspiration in artists from the Indigo Girls (“They have these really emotional, really poetic lyrics”) to Randy Newman (“He’s very straightforward. I love when people just say it because they need to say it”).
When it comes to inspiration though, there’s one artist in particular that Cam couldn’t praise enough.
“Paul Simon,” she says with a swoon. “You hear what he’s saying, and it’s poetic. And he pairs it with this melody that just feels like the words and that melody have just always belonged together. And he says it in this way that just cuts into people. You know, you only need like one or two lines in a song to do that. The rest of the song just supports that. But as long as you can give…”
She pauses, then begins to sing Paul Simon’s “Graceland” into the phone.
“She comes back to tell me she’s gone / As if I didn’t know that / As if I didn’t know my own bed… And she said 'losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart / Everybody sees the wind blow…”
It’s easy to draw the parallels once you know where Cam’s roots lie. Listening to her own music, you can find that same songwriting ideology in the lyrics, melodies and emotion beneath it all. It’s that ideology that earned “Burning House” a Grammy nod; that translates into such beautiful songs like “Palace;” and that can be found on her latest single, “Diane.”
Inspired by a friend of hers, “Diane” explores a situation where a significant other is caught with another woman, and in the end, gets no apology from the culprit. In exploring this topic, Cam wanted to flip the script and give a voice to the other side.
“I got to create this world where I take on the role of the other woman,” she says. “And I’ll do the right thing. I’ll say, ‘I didn’t realize it then, but now I know the truth and I’m gonna give an apology.’
“That was a heavy thing, but it seemed like when I finished it, I kind of realized that it’s sort of the reverse of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” It’s a very human and vulnerable thing to be pleading with each other. I don’t think the anger makes a hard situation any easier. So instead of that anger, or the animosity that happens in those situations, you realize it’s about having integrity and realizing that everyone’s human.”
It’s this human emotion, this vulnerability, and the way she delivers these lines with the melody that, as she said of Simon, feels like they’ve always belonged together, that creates the unique fingerprint that is Cam. It’s woven throughout her debut, and it’s sure to be found in every corner of her follow-up.
Cam’s new album won’t drop until next year, but she’s already proud of it as a body of work. Now with a bigger budget, Cam adds strings and an orchestra into her proven equation. Even with these additions, the result is still perfectly Cam.
“The vocals are a centerpiece, the storytelling and lyrics are a centerpiece. I think I’ve just gotten a lot closer to the ideal I want to accomplish,” she says. “The better you get, the more tools you have, the more budget, the more people you know that believe in your vision, the closer you get.”
Before the full album drops, Cam is taking to the road. This year, she’s found massive gigs opening up arenas for artists like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, George Strait and Harry Styles. Now, to cap 2017, she’s going back to her roots and returning to a more intimate setting for the Best Coast Tour, which includes a stop at Portland’s own Hawthorne Theatre.
“I’m from the West Coast,” Cam says. “And I lived in Portland for six months. That was a very fun time in my life. It’s actually where I had the dream that inspired “Burning House.” All these cities I’m going to, I have a connection with.”
Though playing these gargantuan venues has been an experience, she says that there’s nothing that beats the intimacy of seeing everyone’s faces when they experience the music.