California Country: How Cam Is Disrupting Nashville's Narrative
Meet the California dreamer with the Southern drawl who has written for Miley Cyrus, worked at Stanford's psychology lab, and doesn't totally hate bro country.
There's a common archetype when it comes to the debuts of female country artists. The setting: a small town, usually rural (like Kacey Musgraves' Golden, Texas), where a young girl (say, a 14-year-old Taylor Swift) writes songs in her bedroom and has big dreams of moving to Nashville (Maddie & Tae, or Nashville's fictional Juliette Barnes) and becoming a country star.
And then there's Cam—a 31-year-old Southerner by heart if not by blood (she’s from the Bay Area), who, as a young adult, was living in places like Nepal, studying at the University of California, working in psychology labs at Stanford. The budding country singer is no earnest teenager fresh off the boat to Nashville, and that’s part of the reason why she’s so interesting. The 11 tracks on her major label debut, Untamed, are fun and fast and loud, except when they’re unnervingly intimate, full of precise details seemingly meant only for you, like on her hit single “Burning House.”
Cam feels both classic and modern, glamorous and down-and-dirty, a paradox who, on her recent album cover, can be seen serenely, coyly sipping lemons through a straw in the middle of a palm tree-lined resort. During a break in Nashville from her current tour with Brad Paisley, Cam spoke to Noisey about dealing with bro country, writing a song for Miley Cyrus, and figuring out how to be yourself.
Noisey: I’d love to hear about what it was like growing up in California. You worked on your grandparents’ ranch there right?
Cam: Well they made us work, but it wasn’t like work work, more like chores. They hey had a ranch with horses on it, so holidays and time off in the summer, we’d go spend down there. In the mornings my sister and I wouldn’t be fully awake until like noon, and my grandpa would come in our room and flick water on our faces and then hide, so it seemed like there was something dripping. And by the third time he’d just dump all the water on us and we would scream and he’d be like, “If you want to ride the horses later, you better go feed ‘em!”
We were a mess, running around with curly hair, crazy-looking kids. I have a song on the album, “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty,” and a lot of that is about our ranch time. I like that vibe, it’s funny and a lot of cowboy humor is kind of dirty, to me. If it’s tough for me to walk in high heels one night, I’ll just wear mismatching sneakers -- my sister gets embarrassed. For women, it’s just so serious about how we’re supposed to look and you feel like you owe it to everyone, like just to be in their presence you’re supposed to look a certain way.
I was going to ask about that song, because you’ve lived in bigger cities also, you’ve seen both sides.
Yeah, I definitely haven’t lived in small, small towns. Maybe 200,000 people—to me that was small, but it’s not even close to like 1,200. It was definitely a transition coming to Nashville from California and the Bay Area where I’m from. It’s a lot of developed stuff that used to be ranching, so there’s a little leftover ,but mostly it’s suburbia. And then coming to the south, in Nashville everyone knows each other. You know how when you go to the bank and they’re like, “How’s your mom?” and they like really want to know how your mom is. In California, we generally don’t talk to people we're walking by on the street, but here it’d be kind of rude if you didn’t smile at somebody. It’s a different feel, and I like that part about the South. There’s a lot of community about it. Californians are nice when you’re in our circle.
What was it like trying to fit into that music community? Nashville’s songwriting community is so strong.
Tight-knit, yeah. It’s so cool, because the industry feels like it is the town. Everywhere you go, grocery stores, you’re going to run into people you know, people you work with. It’s kind of fun. It’s pretty small. When I first got here I thought I wanted to be a songwriter, and then I learned a little bit more about the business of it, and how it’s just as hard to be a songwriter as it is an artist. I was kind of afraid to become an artist, because I thought, nobody succeeds at that. Tough statistics. But when you just start out, there’s actually no money in songwriting either, and anybody offering you a publishing deal in the beginning, nobody knows what you’re worth, so the’re going to give you a crappy job offer. So I decided, if they need to see what I’m worth, why don’t I go make the music first? I didn’t spend a lot of time in the community or building up relationships; instead, a group of friends I’d been working with and I raised money through Kickstarter, and built this album on our own, and got to invite key people we really liked as writers to help with a couple songs, because we knew we had to be somewhat in the community.
So your album took five years to make, and you’re 31 now—does it feel weird to sing songs you’ve been working on since you were 26, 27?
No, not really. Because I came to music late, like when I was 24 or 25. I had always done choirs and a capella groups and written music, but it was all on the side. When I was 24, I was doing psychology research and was working at an lab, and I asked my professor, “Should I go for it?” And she was like, “Picture yourself at 80 years old, which would you regret more? Not doing music or not doing psychology?” And I was like, definitely music. So I left and started working. This whole period of my life feels relatively new. Sometimes the weirder things are when I’m singing about breakups, because right now I’m engaged. But the feelings are still real, you still remember. Gosh, maybe when you get farther down the line, you don’t remember how you felt? That’d be weird.
So I’m curious—you’re from California, your speaking voice isn’t Southern, but you sound Southern on your album.
Thanks, that’s really sweet! [Laughs] Man, voices are the craziest instruments. There’s so many ways you can sing. I definitely try to sound just like myself as much as possible but I think there’s just certain ways of singing country music where I end up sounding like I sound. I definitely try not to sound super twangy just so it’s not super random, but it probably comes out a little bit.
You’ve worked with pop music producers, you’ve written for Miley Cyrus, but then you have Untamed, which seems to be rooted in more of a classic country sound. How do you see all those contrasting influences coming together when you’re writing music?
Well, the Miley thing actually happened mostly because, when you’re coming up, all the relationships you have are super organic. My friend Tyler was working on stuff, so I started writing music with him. And then he ended up working with producer Jeff Bhasker, and Jeff ended up liking what I was doing, so I worked with him. And then Jeff couldn’t make a writing session with Miley Cyrus, so me and Tyler ended up going. It wasn't planned.
Honestly I was like, "I don’t really want to go, I’m working on my own music." And Tyler was like, "You’re going to thank me later for this." And we went in and did it and it was really cool. Mike Will, who made the album, is a really smart guy. I was like “What’s Miley hoping to do?” And this was before she made like a left-hand turn and he was like, “Whatever you do is what you’re good at it. You should just do you.” And I was like, “Damn you’re so smart.” So I wrote honestly about what I was thinking that day, and it ended up on Bangerz as "Maybe You're Right." With songwriting mostly what you’re trying to do is be as real as possible, that’s what country music really is about, how to tell a story in a real way that makes people feel exactly how you’re feeling.
So what do you think of bro country?
I think that’s a trend...everyone tries to speculate about why those trends happen. I don’t know if it was a comforting, easy thing to kind of bob your head along to; I’ve heard some people say that the economy was unsure, so people wanted more reassuring music? There’s a whole bunch of random ideas about why things happen. Obviously it depends on who is working at the top levels of different parts of the industry, too. But there seems to be a trend for feel-good music, and I’m all about feel-good music but there definitely seems to be a lot of it.
You don’t exactly fit the classic trope of the 16-year-old girl who moves to Nashville to be a country star. You have a college degree, you mention Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer in interviews; you’re not the typical young country star. How do you think that fits in with where you want your career to go?
[Laughs] It’s kind of funny. Because you’re on the outside of it, you see it as something different and I see it as just who I am. For me, I definitely grew up in the Bay Area, where it did not occur to me that being a woman was something that could hold me back in some way. That's not to ignore the struggles that have gone on, but it was super weird to all of a sudden come into country music, and there’s like not a lot of women. I was like, "I guess that’s an opportunity, they obviously need more women." And as we started playing and things went well, people were like, “Isn’t it tough to be a women in country music? And I was like, "Well no, because it’s just my life." I’m sorry I have boobs. You kind of forget about it. So it’s weird that it’s such a highlighted thing right now. We’re like half the population, so there’s not like a unifying thing that all women get.
Being a little different, I’m finding out along the way that I don’t really fit in, for better or for worse. Definitely the age thing in the beginning, and this sounds dumb, but the fact I have really curly hair— when you’re watching people that are stars, and you don’t look like them, it’s really hard to imagine yourself doing that. I always felt kind of weird in the beginning, like I don’t know if I’m going to be successful because I don’t look like the people who are already successful. But eventually you realize that’s so dumb. Like I love Adele, she’s hilarious and doesn’t give a shit about what people think. Just trying to make real music is the goal, and you can have guys and girls, old people and young people. If it’s true enough, it means something to all of them.
P. Claire Dodson is untamed on Twitter.