The Big E: A California girl isn't afraid to burn country's norms to the ground

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WEST SPRINGFIELD — Understanding country singer-songwriter Cam requires knowing the stereotype she embraces and the stereotypes she defies.

In regards to the former, Cam (born Camaron Ochs) has curly blonde hair and is perpetually wearing yellow, a not-so-subtle allusion to her California roots. But this is surely just a branding strategy, a way to distinguish her from the scads of male and female country stars who regularly sport blue jeans and hail from the country's interior, right? She must detest the implication that her image is tied to something as superficial as her home state, one might think.

If she does, she's adept at hiding it.

"The yellow for me is like my little California sunshine, and it also is the optimism that I don't just have all the time, but I need ... when things are hard, I need to be smiling, and I need people smiling back at me," the Lafayette, Calif., native told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview in advance of her Big E appearance at Xfinity Arena on Sept. 22.

One of the reasons Cam craves this positivity is because she has devoted much of her energy to overcoming what she deems some of country music's disheartening norms. For instance, the 32-year-old said the industry prioritizes familiar sounds and lyrics, which completely counters her mission as an artist.

"I think the point of art is to obviously talk to people and relate, but you should be adding something new to the dialog," she said.

"Untamed," her 2015 debut album as Cam, has started some different country conversations. (Her debut studio album, "Heartforward" was under the name "Camaron Ochs"). In its most popular song, "Burning House," a woman has a dream in which she and a scorned lover hold each other in a smoldering abode, their fate sealed. "I did you wrong," she says.

"[There have been] a lot of females that sing about someone else's fault, and you're angry. You're sad. So, I think kind of having it be my fault and my control is definitely a different take on it," she said.

The originality of "Burning House" also stems from its instrumentation, or lack thereof — the song has no drums, something Cam said many around her balked at initially. "I remember everybody saying, `No one will ever play that on the radio,' " she recalled.

Country stations are where Cam believes most fans listen to the genre. They are bastions of the blase, she says.

"They actually just have a rubric for what makes something familiar or not, and they rate it [based on] what is familiar [and] what isn't, so it's not even really about a kind of music being better or worse than another," she said.

For a pop-country artist with that coveted crossover quality, Cam creates lyrics that starkly contrast with many of her contemporaries who are dominating those airwaves by opting for the "bro country" pillars of beer and trucks and rowdiness.

"Right now, bro country is sort of like the biggest thing, the biggest trend, but it's not that kind of music's fault, like, I love certain songs that are a part of that wave," she said.

Instead, she said, it's just the repetitive nature of songs that songwriters and artists feel forced to make in order to ensure their work gets heard."I know it's a safer bet, and I know you're trying to pay your bills just like everybody else, but we need a couple more things on the radio," she advised other country singers.

Cam has provided a couple of her own, and audiences and critics alike have been receptive. In 2015, "Burning House" was nominated for best country solo performance at the Grammys, and another single, "My Mistake," has been praised (and raised eyebrows in some country corners) for unapologetically celebrating the benefits of a one-night stand while also hinting at its drawbacks.

She and her fans, however, particularly seem to enjoy "Burning House," she said.

"We're all going to have this moment of being sad together but still like holding our arms around each other," she said of how people react to the song. "I love, I love that."

As a West Coast, female country singer, Cam's convention-breaking transcends her music, but that is where she chooses to concentrate, especially on songwriting. She was a psychology major at University of California, Davis, studying "emotions and culture and attachments," which is what she seeks to examine in her lyrics.

"I'm kind of obsessed with figuring out what is going on inside for me and for other people," she said.

She'll do some more exploration in a forthcoming single and album, the latter of which is slated for a 2018 release, she said. But before that, she'll be stopping in West Springfield. She's hoping to see all the "colors" fall foliage has to offer, but perhaps one hue in particular.


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