When Life Gave Her Lemons, Cam Made ‘Untamed’
Cam and her debut album Untamed offer bittersweet discord. On the surface, she's sugar and spice and everything nice. The opening title track is a feel-good jam, but almost immediately one learns a project five years in the making is not packed entirely with sunshine. Untamed is both moody and playful. The singer is both the girl with the soft smile that laughs with her entire body, and the woman quietly sucking juice from one lemon while two others sit waiting beside her.
There's dual symbolism to the album cover. The color yellow is her thing, but her team found themselves struggling to include yellow in this photo. She brainstormed yellow things, coming to lemons, and then the lemon trees she had on her property growing up in California. When she and her sister were young, they convinced their father to pluck one and stick a straw in it for them to suck through like a Tropicana orange juice commercial that was popular many years ago.
I think life gives you lemons and the thing that I’m working on doing is not watering it down, not putting sugar in it. Just drink it straight.
“And my dad’s a very good teacher that way," the "Burning House" singer says, smiling at the memory. "He’s like, ‘Fine. Sure.’ He puts a straw in a lemon and we try it and our faces were like yuck!”
This is hail fellow well met Cam. You'll meet her first. She's friendly and engaging, unless she's a little tired, and then she says she's only slightly less friendly and engaging but still prone to smile. The other Cam is quieter. She's a thinker who treats important moments and conversations “the same way I treat people in my life, I hold on very tightly.”
“That part, that internal dialogue that has a lot of ups and downs and darks and lights and stuff. That I think is where music comes from," she says. "I think the face that you put on when you’re talking to people and making small talk, I don’t think that’s where music comes from.”
That's not the face you put on to overcome obstacles on your way to a Grammy nominated single, either. It took the better part of five years for the songs on Untamed to be written and recorded, because she pushed herself and her motley crew of co-creators to not settle for good. Jeff Bhasker, a producer well known in the pop and hip-hop world, produced the project. When she and co-writer and eventual co-producer Tyler Johnson approached him with their first batch of songs, Bhasker said they weren't good enough.
“We picked our egos up off the ground and decided to keep working,” she says.
How Cam got to Bhasker is an interesting story, especially in a town known for pairing new artists with hot producers and songwriters in an effort to maximize interest and involvement. Unintentionally, she ignored the proven formula for success. She worked backward.
It started with a bad publishing deal offer and a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to record her songs herself "and then come back and show everyone." Anyone that believed in her could play along, but none of those people (Johnson and writer Anders Mouridsen, for example) had a lengthy resume to show off. Johnson was learning under Bhasker, a man known for his honesty and for working with Kanye West and Jay-Z. So they went to him.
Between the time he panned original versions of songs like "Mayday," a thundering, mid-tempo struggle-with-love song, and the time they went back with what would end up being 80 percent of the album, they learned from his history and work ethic. Compare quotes:
Earlier this week, Bhasker was nominated for his own Grammy Awards in the Producer of the Year and Record of the Year category (he co-wrote and co-produced Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk), and tells Entertainment Weekly, “We slaved over it for nine months. That’s always the challenge: to take a really special moment of inspiration and then turn it into something that maximizes its full potential — not just settle for something that feels good.”
Of her tendency to live with songs she’s written forever until they’re perfect, Cam says, “I’m going to spend the time to work on and work with these songs to make them the best they can be.” Co-writers are welcome, but she’s not going to bring them in just to speed up the process or learn what it takes to follow the tested formula.
“I didn’t want that. I want to build this myself. I want those skills. I want to put the time in to be that great and I want a career where I can make my own music.”
With "Burning House," Cam says she knew she had something great, but her debut single was the uptempo, playful and yet somehow still stinging "My Mistake," and it barely cracked radio airplay charts. So like the Band Perry did with "If I Die Young" in 2010, she turned to a tragic ballad to break her to larger audiences. Urged by reaction from airplay on the nationally syndicated Bobby Bones Show, she took a home run swing and hit it on the screws.
The song was born in Nepal. Cam volunteered for three months in 2007, and a boyfriend was set to come visit when she finished. They were to travel together, but "the day before he was going to get there I emailed him and said if he came we were just going to be friends and basically broke up with him over email the day he was supposed to get on the plane."
"And he didn’t get on the plane.”
Instead she got the email one would expect to get in return, and some time later had the now-famous dream about the burning house. The pain and guilt is still wrapped around her neck. There's no sardonic smile to break the ice as she tells the story, but she doesn't shy away from what she did. That's an awful way to dump someone, and she knows it.
This is where someone might say "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Cam won't.
Lemons built Untamed. The digital booklet tells how each of the 11 songs taught her a lesson. "Hungover on Heartache," Mayday," "Cold in California" and "Half Broke Heart" are a few titles that scream devastation. They all represent things that she learned in her 20s. This is the second part of the dual symbolism.
"Not all of them were fun things to learn," she says. "I think life gives you lemons and the thing that I’m working on doing is not watering it down, not putting sugar in it. Just drink it straight. The more you can take life head on … it’s gonna make you a better person and then you have nothing left to be afraid of. And what an awesome way to live.”
"Village" was the toughest lesson to learn, and it's the most difficult to sing. In fact the closing track was almost omitted, but the girl it's about gave her blessing. A friend named Claire lost a brother in an avalanche. Cam knew him well too, and she watched (in fact, she's still watching) as this girl and their families tried to recover.
"I spend my days with ghosts, who all love you the most / But no one quite like I do," she sings, her vulnerable flutter seeming on the brink of shatter. "Your whole heart's a village / Everyone you know has built it / And I've been working there myself / That's where I'll be / With a front row seat / To watch you live your life well."
Cam believes that as a songwriter it's her job to take complex, deep and very real emotions and turn them into relatable stories with just a single phrase or two. The result is Untamed, an album that embraces every emotion (yes, there are more buoyant moments to be found), but squeezes hardest on the lemons.
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