Cam: The Best of What's Next

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In a town where talent tends to be sold for parts—a hit song plucked from one top-notch writer for a hit singer with an established fan base—Cam’s Untamed is every bit a release from an artist who insisted on remaining whole. Sure, Cam came to Nashville with the intention of burying her knack for performance and pursuing songwriting by itself—the more realistic goal, she thought, after landing two cuts for other artists, one of whom happened to be Miley Cyrus. But after feeling disappointed in the offers she received for a songwriting contract, something dawned on her: it was never going to be enough.

“It’s my job to make sure that the people I’m gonna team up with for my music see everything that I’m about: Put all my cards on the table and don’t make them guess,” says Camaron Ochs. “If someone under-appreciates where you’re at, you haven’t done all the work yet—or, you need to make sure you have, at least.”

She pulled back from the songwriting gigs and decided to go all-in on herself, preparing a full-length from a Kickstarter and the kindness of some talented buddies. What followed played out a lot like “Untamed,” the opener and title track for her freshly released debut. You see, when it begins, all you hear is crickets. That’s it—just crickets for a second, faint but pleasant and present enough that you want to keep listening. Then things hum to life a bit, with the whine of a harmonica faintly making its presence known in the background, seemingly far away, until all of a sudden a pulsing beat and a chorus envelope you out of nowhere. Yeah, Cam’s career has been kind of like that: a steady, present hum that couldn’t help but explode.

“That’s actually just an iPhone recording outside the house that we lived in—those summer bug noises that happen in Tennessee,” says Cam of the track. “My manager and I were broke for about three years together. That was the worst time of our lives and the best time of our lives. You have nothing, and it also is this great blank canvas of how to be inspired and how to dream up your whole life out of nothing.”

Ochs (pronounced “oaks”) grew up in California, singing in choirs since the fourth grade and learning harmony and theory thanks to various children’s groups. By high school graduation, she’d been exposed to music from all over the world (and sang in “like 14 different languages”), getting a taste not only for different styles, but also honing in on a knack for arrangement.

“You are what you eat, and you make what you hear,” she says. By the time she went to college—to pursue a career in psychology research rather than music—she was starting her own a cappella group for the second time, continuing a self-education she’d begun in her teens that allowed her to arrange music for groups of people as a hobby rather than a full-time gig. She may not have consciously been pursuing music, but her combination of interests supported her dreams all the same.

“This love of understanding emotions and this thing that sort of connects human beings—we all feel these same sets of feelings,” says Cam of her work in psychology. After undergrad when she was faced with the choice of a graduate degree and a role in psychology research or a no-holds-barred go at the music industry, she turned to a professor for help. ”“She said, ‘Imagine yourself 80 years old and looking back on your life. Which would you regret? Having not done music, or not done psychology?’ I was like well, that’s it. I’ll see ya later.”

She was writing with a friend named Tyler Johnson—one of a small group of collaborators she constantly refers to as her family.

“We’re both very driven people that want to do something really well; we’re very career-minded, but we want a future in music,” she says of Johnson. “So I think that helped align us.” Also joining the family was manager Lindsay Marias, who Cam says “immediately saw everything that happened and was going to happen.”

“She, just like the rest of us, was not a big established person yet. But everybody starts somewhere,” says Cam. “All of us weren’t afraid to climb this little mountain like we’re ants—just goin’ after it.” Johnson’s connection with super producer Jeff Bhasker gave the group’s work a leg up in the writing room and the recording process, and it wasn’t long after they arrived in Nashville that the publishing offers trickled in. But that’s when something distinctly different started forming, too: the idea of building Cam’s debut as its own piece of work rather than divvying up their tracks and their talents for someone else.

“At that point, I turned around and said, you know what? I want to fully do this. I want to have it be my art,” says Ochs. She and a team of what she calls “rag-tag kids” set up the Kickstarter, exceeding their goal of $10,000. In her words, “I wanted to make it the way that I imagine it sounding, and I wanted to do all this first and then bring it to the labels and make them see it. Either they’re going to get it, or they won’t.”

It’s safe to say somebody got it. Cam tells the story about her first meeting with Sony—the label that released Untamed last week—in a way that sounds like she’s describing a dream, complete with a secret elevator to the tip-top floor of a big office building for a meeting with the label’s CEO, Doug Morris.

“We sat on the couch. I had no money, and my manager was singing backup with me, and then my other cowriter was playing guitar,” she says. She goes on to tell about how the three of them together sang “Burning House” for the label hotshot, and there’s still a disbelief in her voice as she goes on to describe Morris closing his eyes and singing along halfway through.

“And at the end of it, he was like, ‘That is the reason that I got into the music industry. So that someone someday would walk through my door and sing a song just like that,’” she says. “And it was like, holy shit.”

“Holy shit” is about the reaction country radio listeners had, too, when the single hit the airwaves. It almost didn’t—Cam was in the midst of pushing another single, “My Mistake,” when syndicated radio host Bobby Bones asked the up-and-comer to play “Burning House” on a live radio broadcast.

“The climate at country radio is very, ‘let’s keep it up-tempo;’ probably best if you’re a guy,” she says with a snicker. “Probably best if you’re someone famous already.” When she played the bare-bones “Burning House” on-air, though, the single immediately shot up the iTunes chart, forcing even a major player like Sony to turn on a dime and throw their weight behind the ballad instead. “It seemed like such a risk, but it kind of got validated in that moment on that show. To see such a big response, that fast, it was really cool.”

“Burning House” went on to be the highest selling single by a female country artist in 2015. The song even nabbed a Grammy nomination—not a bad way to kick off release week for any artist, let alone a newcomer on the week of her debut—but the most exciting thing about Cam remains the big picture. It’s the full 11 songs of Untamed, from the fiery title track to the longing in “Mayday” to the unfettered wit of “Country Ain’t Never Been Pretty.” It’s the sunny California upbringing fused with childhood summers and weekends spent on her grandparents’ ranch, and the honest way that reveals itself in genuine country songs with pop appeal. Perhaps above all, it’s the woman behind the scenes who knew the worth of her work, and the team that believed in her enough to help her go get it. Betting on herself meant weathering the downturns and holding tight to her goals on the upswings, and her consistency echoes the attitude she calls upon with the lemon-yellow motifs that dot her album cover: When life hands you lemons, maybe just drink it straight.

“Don’t water it down, don’t sweeten it up,” she says. “Just take it as it is, and once you can do that, that’s this real freedom that I’m talking about. You don’t have to avoid anything, you don’t have to be afraid of anything, because you can just take it head-on.”