Two years ago, Cam was at a crossroads in her career. In the spring of 2018, she embarked on the Listening Room Tour, a series of intimate club dates that featured stripped-down arrangements and the kind of real talk that goes down between friends over a bottle of wine. But at the same time, the relationship with her Nashville label was strained, and close to ending. Instead of letting that cast a shadow over her performances, it sparked something inside of her — and having a direct line to her audience was added fuel. “I remember being so fucking spicy,” she says now. “I was like, ‘Fuck it!’ I laughed so hard, and people had such a good time. I was like, ‘This is why I’m here, not the other bullshit.’ ”
Cam, an outspoken songwriter with a soaring voice, has always done things her way, even after signing to Sony Music Entertainment in 2013 through a partnership between Sony Nashville and RCA Records. Two years later, she broke out with her unlikely hit “Burning House,” which reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and released her major-label debut album, Untamed. Her long-awaited second album was originally slated to come out in 2018 on Sony Nashville, but instead, Cam left the label that year, citing “different values,” and became a full-time artist on RCA’s New York roster.
“Nowadays, people are a little more interested in what’s going on behind the doors,” she says. “People care what you stand for — your values, your truth, what you think. I [knew] the way I wanted to do business, and it was not going to be there.” (Sony Nashville had no comment.)
On Oct. 30, she’ll finally release The Otherside, a lush collection of classic country grandeur and expert pop songcraft, through a new partnership between RCA and Nashville-based Triple Tigers, which Cam brought aboard this year. Though it’s a Sony imprint, Triple Tigers — a joint venture between Triple 8 Management and marketing company Thirty Tigers — has the small size and scrappy energy of an independent label, which appealed to an artist like Cam, who launched her career in 2012 with a successful $10,000 Kickstarter campaign. “I really wanted a Nashville home,” says Cam. “As soon as I met [partner/ GM] Norbert Nix, I just loved him. There was this mutual respect for the independent way that we were doing things.”
Over the years, Cam, 35, has been a vocal critic of the obstacles facing women in country music, particularly at radio, where female artists occupy only a small fraction of airplay charts. A Bay Area native who spent years working in psychology research, the artist born Camaron Ochs takes an almost clinical approach to championing gender parity, peppering tweets and interviews with references to false biases and predictors. She has also served on the Recording Academy’s task force on diversity and inclusion, which formed in 2018 in the wake of criticism around diversity at the Grammys and issued its final report last December.
Though she does not go into detail about her time at Sony Nashville, Cam says there is a parallel between her own experiences and the causes she supports. “As soon as I started to realize what was going on for me, I definitely started to look around the room and say, ‘What is this like for everybody else?’ ” she says. “That’s why I bother showing up to board meetings and panels. None of it’s perfect. It’s all a long journey toward something better.”
Cam credits her “obsession with truth and justice” to her childhood dream of being a Supreme Court judge. After college, she worked in research labs at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, exploring topics like relationship dynamics and conflict resolution — not unhelpful groundwork for when, upon the advice of a mentor, she decided to devote herself to songwriting in 2010. She eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where she met her writing partner, Tyler Johnson (Harry Styles), and then Nashville, where she launched her Kickstarter with the support of Jeff Bhasker (Mark Ronson, Rihanna).
One of the songs they wrote together was “Burning House,” a haunting ballad about the end of a relationship. It earned her a record deal: Sony Music’s former chairman/CEO Doug Morris offered to sign her on the spot when she performed it for him. But with its stark instrumentation, it didn’t sound like an obvious hit. “When I’m writing, my gut has to be like, ‘This lights something up in you,’ ” she says. “It isn’t ‘I hope I fit into what country music sounds like.’ It’s ‘What do I literally need to hear?’ ”
That instinct has led Cam to write for Miley Cyrus, Sam Smith and even Diplo, who featured her on his country-leaning project, Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil. For The Otherside, Cam worked with in-demand country songwriters Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna, on tracks like the sweeping “Like a Movie.” She also tapped Jack Antonoff for the peppy “Classic” and the late Avicii for the epic title track, which they originally co-wrote during a session for his own projects. Cam recalls being impressed by the Swedish producer’s perfectionist tendencies. “He didn’t feel the need to make everyone else in the room comfortable, which happens a lot in sessions,” she says. “It was a tall order to make sure this song lived well on this album [and honored] him and his work.”
If making the album was an intense experience, the events of 2020 haven’t made releasing it any easier. Unable to tour because of the pandemic, she and her team have gotten creative to find new ways to deliver captivating live performances and keep fans engaged. Meanwhile, ongoing Black Lives Matter protests have further encouraged Cam to level industry playing fields. “If I get opportunities, I’m asking, ‘Is the lineup all white? Can I remind you of some names [of nonwhite artists]?’ ” she says. “I’m glad to be part of a time when things are shifting.”
As a result of so much change — both professionally and personally, as Cam and her husband welcomed a baby girl last December — the version of The Otherside that will arrive in October is not the same one that Cam thought she would release in 2017. The tracklist evolved — lead single “Diane,” a riveting response of sorts to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” is still on the album — and the production developed. But Cam believes the winding, at times unpredictable journey to its release has only made the album stronger. “The reason I wanted ‘The Otherside’ to be the title track is because when you’re in the thick of something, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees,” she says. “This whole chapter of my life starts to make sense now, looking back on all of the things I had to go through. It feels very purposeful now — I see the threads of light and optimism in my songs.”
Otherside of the Equation
How Cam’s longtime marketing whiz, RCA senior vp marketing Val Pensa, expertly worked around a shifting timeline — and then a pandemic.
Cam started rolling out this album a few years ago. How do you sustain momentum in terms of marketing?
She released a handful of covers, she did a Christmas song. She was featured on the Diplo record, which kicked off his whole country project. It was all of these things, these collaborations, that helped us to keep feeding her fan base — and even aid in discovery and bring new fans to the table. We want as many people to be aware that the album is coming as possible. Even during this pandemic, she did this whole series called Coffee With Cam [on Instagram] for her fans to get to know her a little bit better.
How do you promote an album right now?
Cam is such an amazing performer that it gave us a lot of opportunities that maybe we don’t have with other artists. Whenever Cam performs on TV, we see a sales increase. So she has done everything from Good Morning America and Today from home. She had to fly to Los Angeles for America’s Got Talent, but it was all following COVID-19 precautions — small set, that sort of thing. Being able to do those performances has been huge for us because every time we see [a spike in consumption].
Even on a major label, Cam seems to steer her own career. How does that influence how you two work together?
Cam is definitely a CEO. If I could hire someone to run a company, I would hire her because she’s super crafty and knows how to get the work done. And I’ll tell you, you’re never going to tell Cam to do anything. She is very headstrong and very opinionated, but to be honest, that’s what has made it such a pleasure to work with her. As a marketer, she gives me such a clear path to go down.