Cam Talks “Diane,” Her Sophomore LP & Writing A Song For Miley Cyrus: Interview
A stark, emotional ballad built around an intricate guitar riff and muted strings, Cam’s “Burning House” broke all the rules when it became a slow-burn hit in 2015 — eventually peaking at 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and selling platinum. The rising country star applies the same creativity to the topic of cheating on current single, “Diane.” Instead of covering well-trodden ground, she comes at it from the perspective of the other woman. Only there’s no shame or aggression. This is about compassion and healing.
I recently caught up with Cam in Los Angeles before a string of intimate gigs to chat about “Diane,” her much-anticipated sophomore LP and the importance of writing songs for women. As expected, the singer pulls no punches, bouncing from topics as diverse as country-pop collaborations to country radio with complete candor. We also chatted about her surprise songwriting credit on Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz LP (she co-wrote “Maybe You’re Right”) and collaborating with Sam Smith. Get to know the rising country star a little better in our Q&A below.
The line between country and pop is more blurred than ever. I think “Burning House” was at the forefront of that. It was a little bit out of the ordinary back then.
Thank you. It was super out of the ordinary! From a personal level of intention, I was just literally trying to make good music. I started doing that kickstarter and had 90 percent of the album done and went into Sony. Doug Morris, who was head of Sony, at the time in New York, sat there and started singing along to “Burning House” by the second chorus. He was just like, “I don’t want you to leave this building without signing something.” Then, when we started thinking about how Country Radio would react to it.
It didn’t really even cross people’s minds that a song with no drums and such sparse arrangement would work. It didn’t seem like a plausible option. Then when I played it for Bobby Bones, it just shot through the iTunes charts. You know, there is a sound that comes from Nashville… we’re such a specific little ecosystem that we have these five writers that write all the songs, and these couple of producers that produce all the songs, and even the same musicians that play on all the sessions.
If you’re not careful, you start going down a factory line and at the end of it, when you thought you had gotten the best of everything, you end up with something that sounds like everything else. I think the lucky thing about “Burning House” breaking through, is people that I really like and think are great artists told me it’s really nice to hear something like that played on radio. I hope it inspired some people to do things differently.
Do you think the country/pop moment we’re having is just a passing trend?
I think country music, when you listen back through the ’80s and ’90s, the truth, the storytelling and the lyrics sometimes get a little shallower than other times. But I think that element of country music generally stays, and the production is probably what shifts. You can hear it in some Dolly Parton tracks from that period. It goes in fads just like everything else production-wise, but I’d say that — because I think core country music listeners still need truth and still care about lyrics more than maybe other genres — if you stray too far away from that at some point, it’ll have to veer back.
Would you ever do a club track like Maren Morris and Zedd’s “The Middle”?
Well, Zedd actually approached me about doing a song like two years ago. It was called “True Colors.” I think at the time, doing a song on pop and doing a song on country radio, everyone felt like it would make country radio uneasy and maybe make them less likely to play you, so in terms of the models, usually you do country radio first and then you move onto pop if you’re going to have some sort of country song that can live elsewhere. It just wasn’t the right time for me, even though I think he’s really talented and the song’s great.
It just wasn’t the right thing for me to do, but I think for Maren and that song, it just sounds so right and it sits so well. I think it’s not only a testament to how great they both are and what it sounds like, but that I think literally the difference between two years ago and now… it’s just so much more open.
I love that “Diane” shows infidelity from a fresh perspective. What was the inspiration for it?
Literally everyone has been one of the characters in this story at some point in their lives. Country music traditionally has tons of cheating songs, so we’re all trying to figure it out. I see the people in my life that didn’t get truth and didn’t get honesty, and how much it hurt and how much they still carry with them. There’s so much shame they feel like they can’t even talk about it. So I just felt like this would be so helpful. I’ll take on the role of the “bad guy” right?
Just to show you all that somebody can speak honestly and treat someone with the respect that another human being deserves, and it doesn’t have to be the big lie that we get sold, that women don’t like each other. My biggest supporters are women. It’s like what Dolly did with “Jolene.” She’s asking her. She’s not angry. She’s not hysterical. She’s not slut shaming. She’s saying, “You know what, Jolene. You really could take him, but please don’t.” She says the word “please,” such a beautiful sentiment.
How is the song being received?
It’s getting a very passionate response from people. I see people singing it at shows at the level that I saw with “Burning House” when it was number one. I see that without the radio play for “Diane.” And I also get a lot of people that are radio programmers who don’t like the song and they can’t seem to tell me why.
It might be pressing some weird moral button with them.
It’s weird and it’s kind of fun. Somebody told me, “You know, women don’t like to be reminded they were cheated on.” And I said, “That’s so funny because the biggest response that I get is from women who needed this song because they were cheated on.” I think I’m very much done being explained to from men what it is women do and don’t like to hear. So it just makes me more strong in that space, because I know that women deserve stories and deserve to hear their stories, and as one of the few women who get to have a platform, it comes with a big responsibility to make sure that you’re saying something that’s real and that matters.
Did Jeff Bhasker produce this one too? He’s incredible.
He’s insane. He’s so talented.
Are you working on more songs with him?
He and Tyler Johnson, who did my first album, are doing this [whole] album. The whole thing is full of …left-hand turns to make sure that what I’m making is true to me, but also stands on its own and isn’t just like, “Well, this is trendy right now.” Fair weather fans come and go, but when you have people that seek out your music and love what it is your doing and the fact that you’re being unique, they stick around.
Do you have a rough release timeline?
With country, they always like to time it with radio, so you kind of end up being beholden to that process. Later this year is the best that I can tell you. I mean, I just got to play the music in a meeting this morning for the sync team and licensing team. The response I’m getting is just so… it’s the response you want to get when you’re playing people your album. I’m excited for you to hear it.
Is “Diane” reflective of the album or is it a bit of a mixed bag?
Oh, I think both. I grew up loving soundtracks. I’m definitely not the artist that has one sound and you have 12 tracks of that one sound. I mean, some people like that. But I think for me, it has to be a journey. So not one song sounds like another and they all are unique stories, but I think they all come from the same place. I think if you like “Diane,” you’re going to like all the rest of the songs. But they don’t all sound like “Diane.”
Earlier you mentioned that country artists are a little beholden to radio.
Do you think that makes it harder for country artists to break? With pop or rap, there’s Spotify and SoundCloud. You can make things happen on your own.
I love how you’re asking me these industry questions, this is amazing! My perspective as an artist is that you get to work with all different kinds of people, the whole spectrum of how it gets put together is in contact with you. So for me, I would venture to say that in country, yes, it’s harder to break and it takes longer time, but your fan base and your career is much longer. It’s like a slower absorption, but in pop, you have a spike. And you’re in, you’re hot, you’re there, and sell millions of copies, and the next day they’re like, “Wow. Where’s the next hit?”
And then we forgot you already. In country music, it’s slower… there’s a strong community, bonds are really strong with fans. They show up for you in a really big way, and show up for the genre in a really big way. You know how with metal fans, they don’t just get served metal easily. It’s not on TV all the time, it’s not on all the radio stations, so you have to work to find it. So when metal fans go to shows, they love it. They know every song. While it’s not as hard for country fans, it’s not just handed to you. So you have to be invested.
Before I finish, I’ve got to ask you how you ended up on the Miley’s Bangerz album? I love “Maybe You’re Right.”
I love that you asked that. It was so crazy. What happened was, Jeff Bhasker was hit up to go in and work with her on that album. This was pre-Bangerz, we didn’t know what she was about to do. And he couldn’t make it, so he sent Tyler and I instead. So we met up with Mike WiLL Made-It, who was producing it… in hip-hop they’ll come in with a full track and just no vocals. He played it for us and I was like, “This is so good.” And he’s like, “You should just jump in the booth and sing over it.” And I was terrified, and he’s goes, “Yeah, you go this.”
And I was like, “Well, what is Miley up to? What does this next album sound like?” And he goes, “Just do you, like whatever you do, that’s what I want.” And so I sat in there for what seemed like an hour, but was probably like 20 minutes, and just sang through this chorus idea and go, “Okay, I got it.” And they’re like, “You got a melody?” I was like, “No, I got a chorus for you.” And I sang that chorus just as it is. Mike WiLL was like, “Dope.” And that was it. We started working on the song and Mike was like, “Hey, I’m going to the club.”
And me and Tyler were like, “Is this how it goes? Do people just leave before the song’s over? I don’t know.” And he comes back like 30 minutes later and he’s got Miley in tow. He picked her up from the club, I guess, and brought her back and she was just like, “Oh my God, I love what you’re doing, it’s right between pop and country.” So it was really cool to have her. And then she ended up singing it. As a writer, when you’re writing something, it means a lot when someone sings it in a way that you feel is really true to the song. And she sang it just how I thought it should be sung, and she did such a good job with it.
How about the Sam Smith track, “Palace”?
Tyler was working with Sam on his album and played him one of the songs off my upcoming album and he was like, “I love this, I’ve got to write with her.” And Tyler was like, “Oh, well I know her and she’s down the street.” So, I went over there and I actually played guitar on that one, and we sang, and we just jived on what we though this specific heartbreak was about. And it just came really easy and it was so cool to be over there and sing it live with him for his fans. I mean it’s such a beautiful song. It’s a hit in Japan, so I can’t get over that.