In A Genre Crowded With Bros, Cam Lifts Off

Jun 2, 2016

When it was time to put out her debut major label country single last year, Camaron Ochs made an interesting choice. She went with "My Mistake," a buoyant expression of freedom from a young woman's perspective — specifically, the freedom to pursue the pleasure of a one-night stand. If the song's sex-positive subtext was a contributing factor in its failure to impact the charts at a moment when country radio seemed to favor more coy come-ons from male acts, nobody really brought it up with Ochs, who pays close attention to how people respond to what she's doing.

The 31-year-old singing, songwriting California native, known to friends and fans alike as Cam, enjoyed an unexpected breakthrough with her anguished single "Burning House" last year, and followed up with "Mayday," another ballad about a relationship in distress, premiering a music video for the latter in mid-May. The clip unfurls a historical narrative of a woman claiming space in a male-dominated field; Ochs plays the part of Amelia Earhart confronting public skepticism before her historic transatlantic flight. And for Ochs, a deep thinker who worked in psychology research before committing herself to making a go of a country career, the video was an opening to talk in a way that she hadn't to date about how she's maintained her artistic priorities while navigating gendered expectations in her industry.

To place things in perspective, there was nary a woman, either solo or a member of a group, in the Top 25 of Billboard's year-end Country Airplay chart in 2015, and "Burning House" was one of only three entries with female lead vocals in the Top 25 of Billboard's year-end Hot Country Songs chart, which factors in sales and streaming data alongside radio popularity. In recent years, the dearth of women on country radio has inspired countless trend pieces, as well as active campaigning from Miranda Lambert, CMT, the organizers of a weekly Nashville writer's night and a trio of industry movers and shakers to support female talent. Cam is among a small handful of new and notable female acts that have begun scoring hits. But the women experiencing success still tend to be viewed as exceptions to the rule, all too often pumped for soundbites about what it's like to be a woman lucky enough to land a spot, when there's so much more to their perspectives that's worth exploring.

Upon settling into a chair in a conference room at her label Sony Nashville's headquarters, Ochs breezily copped to wearing the very same flower-print romper and lemon yellow pumps she'd donned for a showcase the night before; it's her style to inject her radiant self-presentation with exactly that sort of pert self-awareness. She recalled with a chuckle her initial read on the mainstream country landscape: "In the beginning, when I looked at the charts and there were no women, I actually thought, 'Perfect! They need women, right? This should be easier maybe.'" The reality turned out to be far more complex. "When you're going through all this," she reflected, "it's very hard to separate what experiences are because you are a woman and what experiences are because you are new."

Jewly Hight: Mayday is pilot terminology, but it's not a given that you'd choose to make an Amelia Earhart-themed music video for a ballad about a relationship in crisis. How'd you get from the narrative in the lyrics to the one on screen?

Camaron Ochs: When you go to do a music video, you're like, "Okay, should we do this couple fighting? And then there's water kind of raising around them?" You know, the really obvious.

Literal.

Yes. Very literal. ... So we were like, "Okay, we can't do the on-the-nose literal thing. We have to be different." What happened was we started talking to Kendrick Lamar's manager, and they do killer videos. We love everything they do. So we talked to him about how do you accomplish that? And obviously they're a lot farther along in their career than we are. He said, "We learned you've gotta close yourselves in a room and you've gotta listen to the song, sit, listen to the music nonstop and think of something." ... I've loved Amelia forever, and [there was] just something about having a female protagonist in it. It sounds really simple, but a lot of times you're watching these videos and [you see] kind of what Maddie & Tae are making fun of [in "Girl in a Country Song"]: You're the co-character; you're the support.

An accessory, more or less.

Yeah. I love the idea that it's a story that's centered around a girl and she's being brave enough to do something that a lot of people maybe don't agree with. It just sort of also fit with the scene in country music, where for some reason there just aren't a lot of girls. And to be one of the few girls, you kind of get this extra attention [related to your gender], which I feel like Amelia did. She wasn't doing this to be this women's rights activist — she just wanted to fly. And since there weren't any women ...

It almost becomes an inherently political stance to make that career choice.

Right now being a girl in country music, there's a lot of talking about it. And man, I'm not trying to make any statement at all, really. I'm trying to make music that makes a statement, you know? That's what I'm trying to do. But with that responsibility of being someone that now has extra attention [comes] being a role model. And that is very important and I take that very seriously. ... I want the girls that are watching this, and the girls that are about to make country music, about to get signed, about to get on the radio, I want them to [see], "I will be one of those role models for you. I will show you that I'm gonna take it as far as I can, and then you're gonna stand on my shoulders, just like I stand on the shoulders of the people before me." It was really important to embrace that part of it.

You're the only artist I've heard express surprise at the fact that you found yourself facing not only the uphill battle of breaking through as a new artist but also the challenge of having to make the case that country has room for another female voice. It sounded like you really were unprepared to run into that.

I was raised by a family that there was no, "You're a girl so you have a limited number of options." In my community, that was never anything that happened.

In suburban California.

Yeah. And then in research, I was in a lab full of women. It literally, I think, was only women. I didn't understand that being a woman really set you apart. And that doesn't meant that I don't embrace being a woman; I think that is totally f****** awesome.

And your mom had a career in a construction field, right?

Construction management. She was the first woman to hold that job at that company. When you think of all that as normal, you don't think of that as some sort of "I'm on a [mission]." ... It honestly isn't me saying I deserve more than I'm getting. It really honestly is [that] I didn't realize [assessing a country artist's viability according to her gender] was a thing. When I came to town, people were saying, "No one's signing girls, specifically, because you are a certain kind of thing that we don't need right now."

As though being a woman is certain kind of niche thing.

Yeah! It's like, "I don't understand this. Do you have good music or not?" People started explaining that female voices on the radio, certain frequencies bother people. ... Sometimes you don't know if you're facing an uphill battle because you're new. Because I do think in country music, we move very slowly in picking our new people that we want in our homes, in our cars, in our ears.

Maybe because there's an investment in an artist for a longer period of time, rather than in hit singles coming from unfamiliar acts.

Yes. ... No matter what world you're going into, there's going to be things that are hard for sure. Nobody is going to hand you a music career. And there are some things that are inherently [related to] being a woman. What I loved about this music video was that I got to wear pants and boots. Awesome! Because most stages I'll go out on, everyone will be like, "It looks better to be in high heels." So you get on the stage, and all the guys will have grated stages that have lights underneath them, and you literally can't walk [on those] in high heels. When the guys are running around and jumping off stuff, that looks awesome. That's an awesome show. You cannot do that in high heels. Even Beyoncé can't jump off stuff.

We're about a year on from tomatogate, which triggered all sorts of responses within the industry and beyond it. I was walking around during CMA Fest last year and met some women who were hawking homemade "let the tomatoes play" t-shirts out of a suitcase.

I met them too.

Things like that showed how invested some fans were in the conversation. And it also got the attention of a lot of bloggers and journalists who don't typically follow country. So what do you want to contribute to this ongoing conversation now? And what do you think the limits of the conversation have been up to this point?

The tricky thing is music is supposed to be very mysterious; the way it's made is mysterious. Then people like to get upset with the music business.. ... When you have a conversation with fans [about] the role of radio right now and what that means for people's careers, it's a very deep conversation. There's so much going on. It is very complex. It's difficult to have that conversation with fans because you cannot fully explain this.

I think the thing that I really wanna bring is that I have a full world of music and imagination and ideas that I want to create as an artist, and that's my main thing that I want to do. But there's something about the commercial side of it and "This is what's selling right now" that [makes] people really want to follow in the footsteps of what's getting played on the radio in order to sell more. ... For country music, radio still is the main way to reach their core audience.

You emerged at a moment when masculine party songs were well represented in popular country, but you've had success with openly emotional ballads. There's this idea in music criticism that women's music tends to be more openly emotional music or deal in melodrama. How present do you feel that idea is in country?

Country music is [where] macho men can be vulnerable. That is the best part about country music. One of my favorite songs is [starts singing], "She thinks I still care." And he's not even admitting it to himself. And he's just talking about how he can't get over this woman.

"He Stopped Loving Her Today" is another great example from George Jones.

That's why it's so confusing, I think, for some people who are more traditional [country fans]: Where did that go? Because that is actually, to me, a very traditional country concept.

I have a party song, "My Mistake," that's like "I'm gonna own it and have a good time tonight." And then there's the one that's like, "I'm gonna talk about a real issue." Literally every show I have an artist or someone in the industry comes up to me and says, "Thank you. Thank you for making the music you're making. Thank you for 'Burning House.'" I mean Cole Swindell has [a hit like that] with "You Should Be Here." People love those songs.

And coming from him, with the kinds of songs he's sung up until now, it stands out.

It really does, right? I do think "Burning House," because it got a chance which was not honestly super planned and got to push through, I think everyone's like, "Maybe it's okay now to make something a little bit different." That's another thing that's interesting to understand, that where I'm at right now and the success I've had, it was kind of like a surprise attack.

As you've navigated the country music world, how have you tempered your speech? What have you been mindful of?

Honestly, I don't really temper it that much. I mean, I always try to make whatever I'm saying relevant to whoever I'm talking to.

I never did makeup or anything [before this]. I never wore makeup. I don't know how to really fully do my hair. I'm not good at picking clothes. But you are reminded you're supposed to look a certain way. I'm down for the costume side of it. I like that I'm putting on a show, and that's the way that I can wrap my head around it. The fact that I'm supposed to look any certain way just for everyday life doesn't [make sense to me].

So that part exists, but the rest of it, you know, I swear on stage, unless I see small children. During every show, when the boys [in the band] have a solo at the end of "Mayday" and they sing and everyone claps, I go, "Give it up for the band, singing those harmonies." My shtick is I say, "I like to give male musicians a chance, because they don't really get the spotlight in country music very often." Everybody laughs. Everyone thinks that's funny. So I don't really feel like I have to hide. ... I feel like I don't actually have to adjust. I'm a pretty easygoing person in general, so I don't think I naturally ruffle people's feathers. It's, like, on accident that I'm ruffling feathers by being a woman.

I really do want to do something that is inspiring for young girls; that I do care about. I think young girls should have somebody to look up to. I learned [this] when I was applying to graduate school: If you don't see someone in your field that looks like you, you honestly will not think of that as a legitimate option. ... Audio engineering — I was super into that at one point, except that I didn't at the time know any female engineers. So I was like, "Oh, I guess that's just not something that we do." And that's so weird from someone like me! I really pride myself in not thinking that way.

I know there are women working in television and speaking to a youthful, female audience in an unvarnished way, like Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, perhaps even Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City, who are on your radar. Do you identify with anything about their sensibilities?

For me, when you see more stories, you understand that there's more room for you to be you. It doesn't matter if [theirs] totally matches mine, but just the fact that [they're] being who [they are] helps me figure out who I am. ... I will listen to the Lenny Letter podcast, and there's sometimes where they're talking about aspects of feminism that I don't fully get and they're maybe a little too specific to someone who lives in New York, but there's pieces of it that I can take. It's like, "They're just doing them." It sounds so cheesy, but that is so freeing.

I honestly believe that that is what country music does all the time. That is what stories from country music are meant to be, is super honest. Maybe that's because we drink; the honestly comes out. [laughs] I love seeing women like Loretta singing about the pill. The fact that she was like, "I'm going to be real about what this did for me," that is mind blowing and changes people's lives and helps anyone watching be themselves. That's what I love about Lena and Amy.

I think women are expected to be very accommodating. I don't know where this happens in our socialization, but I think there's a lot of women artists that are accidentally too accommodating. I made a purposeful choice not to try and be super sexy, or these things that people accidentally put on you. I remember someone said [to me], "Oh, they're not gonna make you straighten your hair like they made so and so do that?" ... There's this fear that if you are who you are, it's not gonna work out.

You have found strong threads of emotional complexity in country music to grab onto.

I love that part. Maybe this is why I love Patsy Cline [singing about] heartbreak. That's just something that just gets me. ... Did you know that when a choir sings, the [singers'] heartbeats all align? Music physically puts people in this space. And I see it when I sing. I see our faces looking at each other. Everybody's in a moment, you know? Music is this way of communicating, soul to soul, what is going on. ... In psychology you can even use music to prime people emotionally before you have them do tasks. It's a great way to get at being sad or understanding a lot of those emotions. Exploring that is so helpful, trying to help all of us understand ourselves.

I don't think people tend to look at pop or country music as being all that intellectual. How has that shaped the way you've presented the thinking side of you?

It's kind of tricky. I mean, I think Kris Kristofferson is one of the smartest people on the planet.

He was a Rhodes scholar.

So I think the idea that somehow country music isn't smart is completely wrong. Maybe it's because country music values simpler things. I don't know where that started. I don't know why if you like beer and you like having a truck somehow that means you're dumb.

There are some deep-seated class assumptions there.

Yeah, that's a really weird assumption. For me, I think this is an amazing tradition and a very elite form of storytelling. I mean, there's people that are not good at it. That's fine. There's people that try to do lots of things. It doesn't lower the art form. But people that are amazing storytellers, that is such an important tradition, such a way for people to connect with one another.

When I first came in, I think it felt weird to be different. It's very scary to be different in the way that you look, the way that I'm from California. I don't know why Buck Owens and Merle Haggard don't validate [the California country tradition] already.

You're not alone in being from California even now. There's Jon Pardi too.

And Gary Allan. But for some reason there's an idea that being from California, you can't know what country is. I've traveled the entire country; country music is everywhere. Literally everywhere.

I think in the beginning I was very nervous about embracing the fact that I don't fit this typical [narrative], like, I don't come from Oklahoma. I'm nervous to explain that I didn't go to a graduate school, but I did research. And the universities that I did research at, I could live at my parents' house and go work there every day for no money while I was a waitress on the side; that part sounds country. When you find out that the research I was doing happened to be at Berkeley or Stanford, instead of people rooting for you, they're hoity-toity. It's like, "Man, I didn't get to go to those schools. I worked at those schools." But there's pieces where, okay, maybe you wish you fit into the mold a little bit. You wish it was easier for people to understand.

Which I'm sure is why particular parts of your story, like the time you spent on your grandparents' ranch growing up, have been emphasized.

Which is easier for people to understand, so maybe that's why people like to talk about that. Was it Tammy Wynette that had a hairdressing license?

I believe she did.

She was like, "I've gotta have a backup, have another job." My mom said that too: Make sure you have a degree and you can go get another job. That was a requirement in my family. It doesn't really matter what, whether it's psychology research [or something else]. I'm sure there are people that are country as all get out that listen to country music that [work] at NASA. You know what I mean?

How much attention do you feel has been given things like to the work you've put into figuring out how the business works and your vocal arranging chops? Do you feel like those things get noticed?

No, but I think it takes a while. It's kind like when you're at a party and you have a conversation with someone; they're not gonna get all of you in a conversation at a party. With what people hear, they get this first layer through the radio, or wherever they're gonna discover me. The conversation can get deeper the longer I'm around.

I think the business side of it comes from my grandpa starting his own company, my dad building himself up from where he started out with not a lot. I come from: "I need to figure out everything about this business. I'm responsible for every part of it."

Obviously you have to let people help you, but it is a business, and I think when people act like artists — when artists act like artists don't need to know all of that stuff — you're missing a way of, number one, expressing yourself, and number two, living out your life, and three, there's so much room for people to misinterpret you. It all is connected. To really be super authentic, you have to really get your fingerprints all over all of it. Man, I'm not claiming that I know all of it, but I'm figuring out all those pieces, and it's a lot to own. I hope a lot of women hear that part. Right now it happens to be men usually who are in a little bit higher of a role than you, and you [think], "Oh, they know more than I do." You can be respectful and hear them out, but you also need to acknowledge that you are the one that is gonna figure out everything about your business and get you to the next level. That's so important.

I know that you and your manager both put a tremendous amount of thought into shaping your image, playing up the sunny California element and outfitting you in yellow. It seems like that's worked to your advantage. I wonder too if you've felt like it's a double-edged sword; if you emphasize your effervescent femininity, do people take other aspects of what you're about less seriously?

Being optimistic and being hopeful, they're something that I work on every day. Most musicians have a depressed side, a dark thing. When you are so inward focused, it's really easy to run into ruts. People that are super nice, you shouldn't see them as someone that's a simple person. When I see that, I see someone that works really hard, because they are battling things. Nobody's just born nice and everything is just super easy for them. Everybody has tough stuff. People that put on a nice face while they're going through that, they're working extra hard, for your benefit.

So for you, there's an aspect of mindfulness to where you're coming from. It's not obliviousness or naiveté.

Mmhmm.

I like how [my career's] gonna be a long burn, and there's so many things I wanna start putting out there. It's tricky because you don't really have control over how your career necessarily goes. But I feel like this music video is a great example of how every time I take a step forward with [manager] Lindsay [Marias] too as my creative partner, we are going to one up everything. We had to fight for that budget. We had to throw some of our own money into it. We had to fight for the extra editing and color to happen, so that it looked awesome. I don't want to just make something that is normal. I want to make, like, Disneyland. But you have to work your way up to it and you've got to get the money to do it and you've got to be smart about how you can get that opportunity to make something that's next level. ... It'll be fun to get to talk more [about the overall vision]. It'll be nice when there aren't quite so many "lady questions." But it'll get there.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.