Today Cam releases her sophomore album The Otherside. EARMILK had the chance to talk through the journey with the California-raised, Nashville-based songstress, and where she finds herself five years after her major label debut.
On the phone in early October, Cam tells me about performing her song “Half Broke Heart”on TV in November 2016. She's in New York City as protests rage following the Presidential election. “That’s when you remember your job as a musician is really a job in a community sense,” Cam says. “It’s not about having cool t-shirts and shit. You gotta tell stories and be in the thick of it when you’d rather be someone in the audience. You gotta get in front and say something.” Cam has never shied away from that duty since she left her psychology research at Stanford to pursue music. She regularly uses her platform to champion body positivity, women's sexuality, and equal representation of minorities in the industry.
Cam's easy-to-laugh nature and sincere dialogue mirror her songwriting. The Otherside is a treasury of witty, candid portrayals of love and heartbreak. We see the return of her producer and writer team from her debut LP Untamed: Tyler Johnson (Harry Styles, Sam Smith) and Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Bruno Mars).
The mix of styles on this record mark an overt departure from the outdated assumption that artists should fit themselves into a genre box. We shouldn't place The Otherside into one category. “It’s like Mary Poppins; the medicine’s different colors for different people,” Cam says. “I’m here to write stories and put production around the stories that serve them specifically.” She could be referring to the 1960s-era country ballad “Forgetting You" which mimics a Patsy Cline heartbreak narrative. Or “Till There’s Nothing Left", a hypnotic sci-fi theme for apocalyptic-era lovers.
An outlier for crossing into other production realms is the title track. Dark pop meets electro-country in the fierce tale of "The Otherside." Cam surfaces stronger on the opposite shore of a raging sea, sniping from the cliffside with lyrics now it's you on the other side – God willing.
She tells me about her writing session for the track with the late producer Avicii. “It was very methodical. The phonetics had to be perfect. I took a cigarette break and I don’t even smoke cigarettes! He sent over this really wild, wonderful production and he just seemed so free, he obviously didn’t care what you called a genre, you know? He was making music to meet his own standards.” Shaping the song for her album after his passing was heavy, she says. She just tried putting the creativity and personal standard into it that would make him and his family proud.
Both dark and bright things have shaped Cam these past five years. She became a mother, toured internationally, featured on a song with Diplo, and left her Sony Nashville label citing differences in values. She has since signed with RCA New York in a partnership with Triple Tigers.
It's clear that Cam's values are her compass. Soon after the murder of George Floyd she was set to perform on Good Morning America but felt conflicted being on TV and taking up space. She tried to get singer-songwriter Mickey Guyton to take her place with her single “Black Like Me.” Logistically the trade couldn’t work so during her set Cam placed a picture beside her of Daniel Hambrick, who was shot and killed by police in 2018. Cam could increase awareness of the injustice – while still tempering with it. "A lot of times you mistakenly bring your whiteness into it. You’ve got to work really hard to understand where you’re coming from and unlearn your shit before you step into some of the stuff that isn’t yours. So that was my best effort at the time.”
Cam sits on both the ACM and Grammy Diversity & Inclusion Boards but warns not to use such initiatives as excuses to stop working. "There are so many different kinds of communities that deserve someone who’s trying to further the conversation for them, in their words. It’s not fair to have this burden on Mickey, she’s one Black woman in country music to try and explain what’s happening in people’s hearts and give a voice to them. We got some work to do, you know?”
On brand for 2020, The Otherside is a story of finding yourself through the good and bad. It opens with “Redwood Tree”, the thrumming, soul-baring account of Cam returning home to discover how much she’s missing. “Changes” reflects on coming of age in a sleepy town as co-writer Harry Styles whistles a western interlude. “Classic”, produced by Jack Antonoff, longs for the good old days. “Like A Movie" shows off Cam’s versatile vocals singing about slow motion moments and sweetheart soundtracks. Foreboding church bells open “Happier For You” written with Sam Smith. During “Diane” and “Forgetting You, Cam holds her voice at a soaring altitude. Her belting of I promise I didn’t know he was your man could soften the coldest heart.
“Girl Like Me” is what co-writer Natalie Hemby told Cam is her comeback story. “I wasn’t quite ready for it to be me,” Cam laughs. “But of course it is.” She explains it as her original vision of the world being wrong; good people do bad things and bad people get past gut detectors. “But are you just going to live jaded and heartbroken? I naively thought that things didn’t happen anymore or that people weren’t like that. And they are and it is. So am I not going to do music, though? No, I am doing music. I am taking up space. I’m going to do things that bring me joy and make things better not even for people in my lifetime but for people in the next one probably. I’m going to work to make things better.” This album is Cam falling back in love with the music business, standing tall in what she values, on the other side of it all.
Photo credit: Dennis Leupold