Cam Country

The room was packed. A sea of 20-something women — some in cowboy boots, some straight out of Coachella — had traveled to the East Side of Los Angeles on a Tuesday night for one reason: to hear country artist Cam perform live.

The lights dimmed and the women (many of whom brought their boyfriends or girlfriends) hung on Cam’s every word. As the night progressed they laughed, they cried, and they cheered “Fuck that guy” when Cam told a personal story of a past boyfriend who wasn’t all that great. Half-way through the show, it was clear this evening wasn’t just about the music. It was about shared experiences and women connecting with an artist who truly gets them.

That’s Cam.

For the uninitiated, Cam (full name Camaron Ochs) is a singer-songwriter who cut her teeth writing hits for country music artists and pop artists alike, including Miley Cyrus and more recently Sam Smith. She was nominated for a Grammy in 2015 for her single “Burning House”. To date, it’s still the most-downloaded song by a female country artist since 2015.  Her new single “Diane” is equally powerful.

Cam represents a new kind of country music. Millennial country. She’s outspoken about her feminist beliefs and the need to play more female country artists on country radio. She’s pro-gun control and pro-LGBTQ rights. She’s from California but spent time on her grandparents’ ranch listening to Patsy Cline. She spent 2017 opening for the “King of Country” George Strait. More importantly, she knows how to tap into the female zeitgeist and it shows up in her candid, relatable lyrics.

I spoke to Cam, 33, about how she ended where she is today, what the future holds and if country music has finally caught up to 2018.

You were on a very different career track — a degree in Psychology, working in a lab. How did you end up a musician? 

“I always did music on the side, in choirs, in acapella groups. I was always nurturing this side of me that loved music, but I didn’t think I could be a musician. I didn’t know any women that were in music. I remember being at a friend’s house, we were hanging out and the girls were sitting around talking, and the guys were jammin’ with guitars and stuff. I turned to my friends and said ‘I think I belong over there.'”

That’s a scary choice to make, to pivot from academia to pursuing a “risky” dream. How were you able to make the jump? 

“Professionally I had just graduated from UC Davis. I was working in research labs, one at UC Berkely and then at Stanford.  My professor, who was the head of the lab, she was the only person I knew I could talk to about how I was feeling. I was preparing to go to grad school and I thought ‘I just don’t know, I love music but I’m terrified to do it’. And I didn’t feel like I loved psychology as much.

She told me, ‘Picture yourself at 80 years old. What would you regret? You’ve only got one life.’ Like YOLO.”

So that really sunk in for you? 

“Yeah. Being an old woman and looking back at how you spend your time — that’s your biggest resource and you have to be so intentional with it.

Life is not set up to be easy. Especially, as women, there are a lot of tracks we get told about that may not appeal to us and lot of tracks we don’t get told about. You have to work extra hard to find yourself … and her question made that really clear to me.”

When you made the jump, did you ever question if it was the right choice?

“It was terrifying. I lived on an air mattress and was super broke for a bunch of years but there’s something inside you that helps sustain you.”

What advice would you give to women who want to pursue a dream like that?

“Don’t have a Plan B. I don’t fault anyone for having a Plan B, especially as a woman or minority because the truth is it’s harder for us. There were days I’d be crying, I had breakdowns every other week because it’s so hard to go after this  — but in my gut of guts, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

I saw all my friend’s moving forward. I even wrote a song lyric ‘Another wedding invitation shoved between the bills, while I’m still on the pill.’

But it’s your life, you’ve got to choose your own adventure. You’re smart enough to figure out how to make money at it, even though you’re gonna get treated like shit. I know you can figure it out.”

Speaking of, you’ve been open about how country music treats female artists like second class citizens compared to male artists, can you talk about that? 

“I don’t know how many places overtly say, ‘We can’t play women [on the radio]’. I was told that ‘We can’t play your songs because you’re a woman.’ A lot of women in this industry get held back and they don’t know it’s happening.

They were telling me women want to listen to men. They don’t like to listen to each other because we like to imagine they are our boyfriends. C’mon.”

Were you ever told not to speak up? To just play nice? 

“I’m from the Bay Area and I remember when I first got into this professionally,  a lot of people that knew me said, ‘Be careful how you talk. Look what happened to the Dixie Chicks.’

With my team at my label it was more like, ‘We’re not gonna say there won’t be repercussions’ as a warning.

That’s how the whole vibe is in country music. No one wants to say the wrong thing.

But I want to acknowledge my privilege in all this. I got a Grammy nomination, I got a platinum song. I’m in a more comfortable position than some people in the industry. They’ve built a career within this system. Why would they risk their status and their money within the system that built them? And I recognize that.”

How can we see real change then? 

“The majority of consumers are women. That’s a really powerful thing, in terms of money. Women are waking up to these systemic problems and if you’re not listening to them your business will suffer.”

With so many options now besides radio (i.e. digital streaming services), will these antiquated gatekeepers be pushed out? 

“I think we are all learning how this is going down. But when people say ‘Corporate radio is going down’, well there are a lot of studies coming out right now that say the same patterns exist in Spotify. There are a few gatekeepers and they’re now working at these new companies. So if people think that we don’t have to address it because the technology exists, they’re not getting it.

I will say people are starting to call it out now, but just barely. I think we’re at a little a teetering point but not at a tipping point.”

You’re a big proponent of #WomenSupportingWomen (as are we), how can women help each other when faced with systemic issues? 

“The more you talk about these things the more you can identify them … As soon as you say something out loud, you realize how many other women are going through what you’re going through.  Having a support system, not feeling embarrassed to talk it through, these are all important.

And don’t be afraid. Let me say, whenever I say something on social media I don’t lose followers. Maybe two people actually unfollow me. But people don’t need to be as afraid as they are.”

Speaking of social media, how do you handle the negative comments?

“If I get a negative comment, I interact with people. I tell them ‘I hear you what you’re saying here’s what I think.’ I don’t think there has been a time someone hasn’t responded with kindness.

Some people say ignore the comments. You can block them. But for me, I want to engage those people. I think all of this should be a discussion. I think all of America should be more open. I try not to take it to a negative space.

But, if it’s an open threat, don’t tolerate that shit.”

Final words of advice to young women? 

“It’s easy to look at everyone whose become successful and say ‘I want to be that. They are that and I’m not that’ and feel insecure about yourself. But the truth is, as human beings, we’re all in the same spot and people who have ‘made it’, they’re sitting there in front of their huge followings and have the same insecurities.

I believe you really can pursue your dreams and do anything you want to do, but don’t buy into the fact that your life will be immediately solved because of some career milestone, it’s not. It’s about the quality of life. Take care of that. It’s your journey.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Editor’s note: Following our interview Cam was one of 16 artists named to a newly formed task force focused on diversity and inclusion within the Recording Academy and at the Grammy Awards. The task force will examine the issues affecting women, people of color and other minority groups in the music industry.

Cam’s single “Diane” is out now. For tour dates go here

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