Country Music’s Cam Reemerges on ‘The Otherside’: ‘My Life Is a Lesson in Patience’

The "Burning House" singer discusses tough lessons learned in the music industry and working with figures like Jack Antonoff and the late Avicii on a long-awaited sophomore album.

otherside album Country singer Cam other side
Dennis Leupold

Cam (nee Camaron Ochs), a California girl turned Nashvillian, came out of the gate as a country music firebrand in 2015 with the massive hit “Burning House.” Then she waited five years to release a sophomore album, spending part of that time at odds with her record company (Sony Nashville) over “value” issues she’s reluctant to get specific about. Now signed up with RCA in New York and Triple Tigers in Tennessee, she’s back with the excellent “The Otherside,” an album that shores up her place in the contemporary country-pop firmament.

Do you have sort of mixed feelings about this second album taking five years to come out? You have to think you ended up with the best possible album, with tracks that wouldn’t have been on the album if it’d been out years earlier, but the waiting can’t be fun.

Yeah, that sort of nails it. In the middle of it, there were times where I was like, “I think it’s done, it’s got to come out now.” And then there’d be a business reason or another creative push or a song that you just wrote and now you want to add it in. I think my life is a whole lesson in patience. At times I would be very frustrated. This year, I think, if you ever wanted to be reminded of how much we need this as human beings — not the music business, but music — I think this is the time. I feel like everything is getting reduced or boiled down to the most important things. And I’m happy that I get to offer something up that could be helpful or medicinal — or distracting. And it does feel like of course all of these things came together and it’s coming out right now. But yeah, in the middle of it, if you asked me if I was happy about it, I would have definitely said no.

So you did end up coming up with more songs in the latter stretches?

Yeah. I usually write things for an album trying to make it like a full spectrum. Some people are like, oh, there’s a sound, and you do it like 12 times or whatever. That’s definitely not me. I want a soundtrack for all the different moments that are happening (in life). So I was happy that “Classic” (produced and co-written by Jack Antonoff) got in there toward the end; I was just so glad to have more of an upbeat balance. And then, “Changes” (co-written by Harry Styles) is on the later end too. Hearing that song and getting so excited about it, and knowing that Harry felt good about it too, that was all toward the end, and obviously I am so glad that that made it on there.

You have songs co-written by Harry Styles, with whom you share the same producer, Tyler Johnson, and then Sam Smith, who you’ve written with before. 

I don’t normally take outside songs, but I’m just so personally moved by Harry and Sam, and I feel like they’re always in pursuit of being the most themselves possible in their art. And we do feel like musical neighbors, because everybody’s kind of connected with Tyler. Me writing for Sam and opening up for Sam, it feels like a closer connection. They don’t normally hand out songs anyway, but it doesn’t go through a lot of channels, like some sort of like “So-and-so’s pitching you this song.” It was more like, “I heard this and I have to have it.”  I opened for Harry at the Ryman, and he heard “Forgetting You” [another song on the new album], a while back before it was out, obviously, and loved that one. And then I heard “Changes” and was like, “Oh my God, can I have it?”

And you co-wrote the title song with the late Avicii.

Tim, Avicii, came to Nashville to write for himself for his projects. I got to write with him, and he’s such a visionary, incredible perfectionist — like, frustrating in the middle, and wonderful after the fact when it’s all finished. But when he didn’t put it on his next release, I was like, “Oh, maybe I can have this — can I steal it back?” Because it was my voice on it anyway. The really heavy thing with that one is that obviously, this last bit, I didn’t get to have him around to help finish it. You put a lot of expectations on yourself anyway, to try and make it the best you can. But then when you’re trying to make sure you honor the legacy of someone who was already such a visionary genius, there was a lot of tweaking on that song to get it right. In the end I’m so proud of his team and his family and his fans. I feel like we’re definitely doing right by all of them to put out the song.

“Classic” is such an enormously fun song, and doesn’t feel like any other song of yours or anybody else’s, really. It feels like the most country song and least country song on the album. It’s very poppy, almost a little bit rockabilly in its rhythm, and what Jack Antonoff is going to do will always it in a different direction — but your voice is so country on that one.

Yeah, isn’t that fun? We both were so tickled by what was happening when we were sitting in the room. I think it kind of has this “Cecilia,” Simon and Garfunkel vibe to me. But Jack is such a fun person to be around.A lot of times, there’s like the tortured artist (collaborators) — it’s like not even making music is fun. But sitting around with Jack is just like, “And what about this? And what about this?” And then when you kind of catch this wind, he’ll get excited, and all of a sudden, in a flurry, it all seems to come together. And then I was like, “What about this bridge?” And he’s like, “That’s not the bridge, that’s the chorus!” And you’re, “What?” It’s so catchy, and it has this nostalgia, but it’s also like an ode to the true loves of your life. It’s kind of nice to sort of live in that space where I think he doesn’t have any super-hard ties to what makes something country or not. It’s like, “Okay, whatever tool you need, we can just grab it… Should there be horns in there? Sure. Why not?”

Do you think about how the album would have been different if it had come out like two or three years ago when you were still on Sony Nashville and working with different people? I don’t know if you were being pressured or directed to go in a certain direction, but maybe you ended up feeling like you had more creative freedom.

No, actually, I’ve always had for, better or for worse, pretty full creative control over what was going on. I think it’s because “Burning House” was, for the country radio mainstream, a pretty different song to succeed like that commercially. So I think everyone sort of let me be… or I just haven’t listened. [Laughs.] But I’ve sort of been able to do what I want. It was more on the operations side of things, that it wasn’t the right fit value-wise. But the music, I think the only thing that would have been different back then is that It would have been good, but it wouldn’t have been this whole complete moment, the whole, complete story.

The last thing we wrote was “Girl Like Me,” which is almost like this note from the author at the end that is just the truth of it. I’m a big idealist, and I think I’ve been really lucky that it’s all worked out pretty great for me so far. But then I finally hit the wall of like my dream world and scenario for how I thought things worked — it’s not true. There’s no way you can be raised on everything your parents tell you and your Disney movies tell you — no way you can be fully prepared for the good and bad nuance of real life. And when it doesn’t match up, whatever age that is for you, it’s heartbreaking. And that last song is me having to say, “Okay, and then what? Do you just leave all the pieces on the floor and act jaded for the rest of your life? Or do you finally start living in this space of actually accepting the world as a complicated, mixed bag? And people that you love and don’t love as complicated, mixed bags, and yourself as full of all the things. How do you kind of hold space for that in real time? So yeah, I think that last one sort of is like probably the closest to touching on like what that whole journey has been for me.

I wanted to ask about “Girl Like Me,” because surely there are a lot of universal applications, but I wondered if it had to do to some degree with the stuff that you were dealing with in the business  in the last few years.

Yeah. It was not happening, how I thought it worked. And I think that’s also like a very privileged (viewpoint) — someone who’s had a big old hit, you know, a white girl in country music, to finally sort of see the darker side of things and have to start learning more, to really be better equipped, and understand it. If it’s not your lived experience, you don’t know what’s going on. And that’s a big lesson I think a lot of us are figuring out in 2020. Like, what’s it like for everybody else? Especially for us white people. So that’s all part of it. That’s definitely been the last chapter.

When you came to a loggerheads with where you were at in the business, can you say what the conflicts specifically were?

Nah, I don’t think I’ll get into it, or I feel like it’ll end up eclipsing all the other stuff. But I mean, you probably have a good guess. [Laughs.] But sadly, it’s not like an out-of-the-normal type of thing to be happening. You’ve got to find the right people who super-believe in you and want to do good work. And luckily I have those people that I’ve been working with at RCA New York and Triple Tigers. It’s a world that I think a lot of younger people — idealist younger people — are having to navigate and figure out where you can be yourself and where you’re feel like you’re being forced to compromise on those things. And hopefully you can find a way to live with where you’re at.

When you realigned labels, some people might have thought you were fed up with Nashville, or for the odds for women in country, and gearing up to go pop or something.

Yeah. No, no, no, no, no. I think just because there’s someone that you aren’t going to be working with, that doesn’t represent all of Nashville. Even though there’s a lot of work to be done in Nashville, there’s a lot of work to be done everywhere. And I think this probably comes from me coming from the San Francisco Bay area, and then coming into Nashville to work and be a part of this culture and community — I understand thinking, like, “Oh, country music is more traditional and therefore you can’t expect too many progressive ideals,” But there are a lot of great people that want music to thrive and to have great opportunities for lots of different kinds of people. And are we not executing all of it yet? Probably not, but there’s definitely a start. I know I’m seeing much more than I did before. And sometimes I get frustrated when people that are outside of it act like, “Oh, country music…” They act like the same problems don’t exist everywhere else. So I’m not real keen on that. Like, “I could go somewhere else and it will be better.”

So go where you want to be and do the things that you want to do. And keep working in your space where you have the most impact to start making genuine change. I get a little defensive sometimes when everyone loves to jump on country music, to make themselves feel better sometimes. I’m down to be critical, but not if you’re being critical just because you think you’re doing so much better. Then I’m not here for that.

How do you feel about still being a symbol or emblem for strong women in country? Do you wish we weren’t still breaking down the gender struggle in the genre that you need to be singled out like that?

The same issues are everywhere, in all of our institutions. Where I’m at is related to understanding the mistakes that get made when you make it just about gender — when you’re saying it’s a women’s issue, but really you mean a white women’s issue, and you’re not being really inclusive. I think the good thing about 2020 is it’s slowing people down and they’re like, “Whoa, I have time to pay attention to some of this stuff.”

Unfortunately, this industry has taken such a hit. I think it’s going to be kind of like other industries where the people with a lot of money will be fine and can wait it out, and for people in the middle and independents, it’s going to be really tough. There’s going to be a weird slimming out of people that had to get other jobs or didn’t want to wait around or couldn’t wait around. And then I think there’s going to be an influx of people who already have what it took me five years to learn. They’re going to know it, and they’re going to come in with a fresh perspective. I think we’re gonna see a really exciting jump forward next. And I’m excited for those people to be the emblems, the idols.

Speaking of classic, “Till There’s Nothing Left” is a very proudly sexual song — kind of old-school, in terms of the way country was more sensual in certain regards in the ’70s, but also very modern. You’ve talked in concerts about how that is not completely the standard people expect of you. Have you run into any resistance, showing that side of yourself?

It was almost an internal resistance. Because I feel like you grow up and to be the successful, intelligent woman, you almost have to like hide your sexuality, because that’s a certain kind of path of feminine power that’s looked down on. You don’t have to overemphasize it, but you don’t have to push it away — you should be able to honor it and have space for it and it’s yours, too. My grandma was from a farm in Saskatchewan in Canada, the middle of nowhere, Baptist-raised, and the one who gave me the sex talk. She goes, “Sex is like a milkshake. And once you have it, you’re always going to want it.” I remember thinking: If my grandma can own it like that, I think I can own this.

Just on a really personal level… You have a 10-month-old daughter, Lucy, who’s the hit of your Instagram account. Does she like any of your new songs best?

I was six months pregnant during that last European tour, and they say they can hear that stuff, so she loves “Diane,” which I was singing on that tour when she was inside my belly — I think she recognizes it. Whenever we’re in the car and she’s having a tough time calming down, she loves “Redwood Tree”; I don’t know why, but she stops and listens. And then with “Till There’s Nothing Left,” she’ll do a dance where she puts one hand in the air — we joke it’s like a rodeo rider.