Forthright Pop-Country Star Shares Her Tenderhearted Vision
By Olivia Ladd, Contributing Writer
The first time I saw Cam live after years of listening to her music was at Loretta Lynn’s birthday celebration in 2019. She came on, like everyone else there, for just one song, but what went down on that giant Bridgestone Arena stage in just three minutes was transcendental. She sang “Rated ‘X’” with vigor, and so effortlessly, as if she innately knew how to entertain an audience. In that moment, I realized the song she was singing was kind of her whole “thing.” Cam didn’t care what anyone labelled her because she knew what she stood for as an artist. She’s one of the most outspoken voices in the country genre and has never sacrificed her masterful creativity or values along the road to country stardom.
A few names probably come to mind when you think about modern outlaw country, and Cam’s is probably not among them. But she is truly an outlaw in the philosophical sense. Her music blends countrypolitan with bubbly pop and the tender touch of soft rock. Her ideology — and songwriting — comes from doing the work in all aspects of her life. On her new album, The Otherside, Cam zooms in with a refreshing, authentic empathy on the 20/20 hindsight view of what made her who she is. After leaving her longtime label and collaborating with an all-star cast of artists, she created a conscious LP for a time when honesty is desperately needed.
I spoke with Cam at her Nashville home a few days before the October 30 release of The Otherside.
How are you? How are you adapting to the way things are going this year?
The album feels like the most normal part, so that’s kind of nice to be able to do that. It feels like now is the time where it’s much more about music than it is music business. It feels good to put something out and just give people the stories and the feelings that music does for all of us. It’s so important. That part feels natural. I’m realizing just how special live music is to connect with people [and] even though I’m an introvert when I’m off the road, now I’m like, “I sure wish I could be in a bar full of strangers.” But it’s been a good lesson, just like a lot of the lessons on the album for me, in letting things go at their own pace and letting it happen. I don’t get to control it. I need to just be in it and learn the things I’m supposed to learn and go at the pace I’m supposed to go.
It’s been five years since you put out your first album. What was it like to get to take your time creating this one?
Well, you know, the first one took a while too. It seems like my process is to go [at] the rate I’m going. I don’t think that it’s slow or fast or whatever, but it definitely just asks for what it asks for, and then when it’s ready, you kind of know. This time, I thought it was ready at a couple different points but then I had a shift in label and some business-end stuff, and in those delays, I realized, going on other writes, coming up with “Classic” with Jack Antanoff, and “Girl Like Me” with Natalie Hemby, and “Changes” with Harry [Styles], of course I was supposed to wait and have all these things come into this really special album. Now it makes sense. It’s what it’s supposed to be.
I feel like it’s medicinal for me so that’s what I’m hoping it is for other people. It feels like more people right now, there’s kind of a softness. We’re all a little vulnerable. We’re all staring at the abyss everyday. People are willing to go deep, go inward. I don’t know if it’s comfortable for people but it seems to be not so out of the ordinary right now. That whole process is why I do music. I, for better or for worse, go there all the time. It feels appropriate that this is coming out right now.
I saw a lot of contrast on this album. There’s love songs and songs about letting go of love, songs about happiness but also this hindsight view of life and former naivety. How did those themes make it on the album simultaneously? What were you reflecting on when doing a lot of this writing?
I feel like there was a lot of living that happened. It’s kind of like I’m just sort of waking up to, and it’s a privilege that it’s happening this late in my life; how when you’re younger you get taught and your head gets filled with dreams from Disney movies and you have ideas of what you’re capable of and how your life will play out for you. Then at some point, the world isn’t going to match what you dreamt of and it’s probably going to break your heart. Then once you are in a mess on the floor, you have the decision to stay broken and jaded and angry that things aren’t how you thought they were, or refuse to even acknowledge it and stay in some romanticized version of non-truth, or, which is what I had to do and am trying to be better at doing now, you have to accept and fall in love with how complicated the world is and what a mixed bag people are and what a mixed bag you are.
You have parts of yourself that aren’t so nice and parts of yourself that are incredible. Without pushing things away or pulling things toward you to try and make yourself feel better, how can you just live with that and try to figure out the lessons you signed up to be here for? Trying to sit in that is where a lot of these experiences come from. That’s at the core at a lot of those song stories.
Whenever I was listening to this album, something that stood out to me was the collaborators. There were songs with Avicii, Harry Styles, Jack Antanoff. Can you discuss how these songs came together and how their influence shaped the sound overall?
Tim, Avicii, came out to Nashville to work on his album. I think a lot of people are drawn to Nashville and the musicianship here. Right now, it feels culturally like an interesting organic touchstone. There’s some sort of draw. I got to jump into a session with him, Hillary Lindsey and Tyler Johnson. We were writing. He had this melody he was playing on his keyboard and we were trying so hard to nail what he was looking for. Hillary went out for a cigarette break and I went with her even though I don’t smoke cigarettes. We came back in. He was like, “I love this chorus for ‘The Otherside’ but maybe in this one spot this “ah” vowel could be an “oh.” I was like, “Oh my God, he’s so next level. This is the phonetics and how they’re shaping with the melody. It was really impressive. At the end of the session, I was like, “Oh my God I love this song.”
I’m so glad he didn’t put our comfort ahead of his vision. We came away with something incredible. He didn’t end up using that exact song on the first release he did right after this. I thought, “This might be my shot, I could steal this song back because I really want this.” It was me singing on it before, too. The sad but amazing legacy of it (Ed.: Tim Bergling — aka Avicii –– passed away in 2018) is that– just trying at the very end here without him around to make that perfection that he always sought and that vision that he was going for — to own that and make that in my album in a way that was going to make his fans and family and legacy proud, that was a really huge task. As if I’m not already hard enough on myself. What a beautiful thing to have such an impact on other artists like that. What an incredible artist.
Harry, I opened for him at the Ryman. My producer and co-writer Tyler (Johnson) works with him. He heard “Forgetting You” and he loved that one. I remember I heard a demo, this is behind-the-scenes, not through management. Everybody’s getting to listen to things because we’re all sort of musical neighbors. I heard “Changes,” it was Lori McKenna singing it and Harry singing background. That’s actually his whistle still in the track. I know this ache. You don’t want to outgrow people but you are; you don’t want to outgrow your hometown but you are. I loved that.
With Sam Smith, they had this song “Happier For You.” I remember leaning over a table in New York City and listening on my phone. We always say that song is such a full meal. It lets you know where it’s going and then it goes there. It’s so beautiful to say something with such a big melody but what you’re saying is so vulnerable. I’m not okay yet. I will be later, but right now I’m just not okay. I definitely know that feeling and love those kinds of songs.
Jack Antanoff, obviously, going up to work with him on “Classic,” I didn’t know making music could be so fun. He’s such a fun person, puts you at ease. He had just done The Chicks and I was so stoked to be sitting there banging out this little toe-tapping vibe.
I thought the apocalyptic “Till There’s Nothing Left” video was such an interesting visual for a love song and almost ahead of its time, the way things have been feeling this year. Can you talk about the making of that video and how it ties into the song?
The more I think about it, the more I’m unraveling it for myself. At first, when I made that song I was like, “Ah, this is so steamy and kind of sexy.” You’re talking about quickies in the backseat. It seems really, like, not a big deal, but for some reason saying it out loud in country music, you’re like, “Is this something? Should I be kind of embarrassed?” My grandmother was a Baptist raised on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada which is the middle of nowhere. She was always like, “Sex is like a milkshake: once you have it, you’re always gonna want it,” very comfortable with all that stuff. I felt like, if she can own this, I can own this.
It’s such a long discussion. For white women, sexuality is the one kind of power that you’re allowed but you’re not allowed. Trying to own it, but then trying to distance yourself from it because of moments where [you think], “I’m intelligent. I’m an intellectual. I’m above that.” Even that distancing is you still not owning who you are. I realized, for me, while writing that song and envisioning that video, I was like, “It would have to be the end of the world, then you could be yourself.” Then I thought, how sad is that? It has to be the end of the world for me to feel like I could express myself fully. What a weird fantasy: all rules are off because everyone’s about to die, so now you can sleep with who you want to sleep with. I really unraveled that. That is some wild stuff. It kind of is true for people in a society that doesn’t allow all of us to express that. It’s still a weird taboo subject on some level.
Yeah, that’s relevant to LGBT people, too. That’s really interesting. Can you elaborate on the closing track, “Girl Like Me.” Is it advice to your younger self or a reflection on what you know now? I felt there was a really special magic to that song.
I love that. I always think of that song as the note from the author at the end. Here are all the stories that I have been living or my friends have been living and have been teaching me through this last chapter. I remember Natalie Hemby came over to the house and she started playing that verse. I said, “God, what a sad story,” and she goes, “it’s your story.” Sometimes you don’t want to see something for what it is. She gets to the chorus and I was like, “they’re gonna give up on you / you’re gonna give up on them.” I hadn’t heard someone say it like that. I needed to have someone say that to me — my younger self but also me right now.
Like what I was saying earlier, the world isn’t going to work out how you thought and then what? And then you find out how to fully live in yourself if you keep going. That’s where it really begins for you, not trying to do the thing that was right or good or what everybody else wanted. You’ve got to get cracked open to fully let go of that stuff. That feels really relevant when I see friends that have to go through the internal struggle with sexuality and stuff, too. How long are you going to say “I’m supposed to be,” or “I should be living this way”? It’s just going to keep breaking your heart. It’s a tough thing to manage. Now I have to be here to learn the lessons, be here to do the work I’m supposed to do and still get to enjoy myself and find all the really special moments and enjoy those too.
Through your place on the Recording Academy and Academy of Country Music diversity boards, how do you stand up for women, LGBTQ and non-white people in country music? Nobody has all the answers, but how do you think we as a genre can move to a place of more inclusivity?
I think the first thing is that you have to really see it for what it is. This is the time we’re in, in 2020. If it’s not your lived experience, you don’t see it. How can we all take a hard look at where we’re at now, just hard numbers, and look at why we’re here. It’s purposeful. Whenever you see a space that is all white or any kind of homogeneous space, that’s not normal. Look in nature, look anywhere. When you see something that has a lot of the same type of people and a lot of the same type of sound, that has been purposefully designed. Maybe you didn’t do it, but maybe the people before you did it and you’re upholding it by just going about your business.
You have to learn all of those things and then you have to start curbing your impulse to want to fix everything because you’re going to drag your whiteness into it. It’s just like when straight people are saying, “I wanna help out the LGBT community,” [they] don’t know it. You’ve got to have people that are living those experiences in those exact spaces leading the way. It’s not just going to be one solution, like one Black cowgirl rides in and we’re all saved. You need multiple solutions in all these spaces for people who know it intimately.
We’ve got to start building new things because the existing power structures are going to take a very long time for people to learn these things. A lot of them are really open to it and they do want to learn, but they’ve got to unlearn so much of things that are not their lived experiences.
Unfortunately, this includes me too. If you’ve had some kind of success and you are in any kind of position of power or privilege, you are part of the system, you are part of the problem. The real, difficult solutions are not going to originate from you. You’ve got to be teaching yourself, learning and stepping back. Keep going. Let people criticize you.
There’s so much momentum right now that I feel so positive about the next generation. I know right now our industry has taken a gigantic hit in terms of touring. In a weird way, it’s going to clear out a lot of people who were in it for the money. It’s going to also open up a window for people with new ideas.
Cam’s newest album, The Otherside, is available now on RCA Records.