Interview: Bay Area native Camaron Ochs (Cam) pursuing difficult conversations

Camaron Ochs, Cam

Camaron Ochs, better known as Cam. Courtesy Chelsea Kornse.

Looking at it with hindsight, longtime Bay Area resident Camaron Ochs sees the clear connection between the career she thought she’d have and the one that actually brought her acclaim. The songwriter and singer—known best as Cam—who broke out in 2015 with double-platinum ballad “Burning House” before getting a Grammy nom and working with Sam Smith and Diplo, first studied psychology at UC Davis and took part in research experiments at UC Berkeley and Stanford.

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“The same reason I was interested in psychology, I’m interested in songwriting,” Cam says in a video interview from Nashville, which the artist who grew up in Lafayette now calls home. “I’m just trying to figure my experiences out. For some reason, music is an OK form of letting things get expressed that I normally don’t feel comfortable expressing in speaking life.”

Ochs, who’ll turn 37 next month, has loved singing since her youth. With the Campolindo High School choir and Contra Costa Children’s Choir, she got to perform in places like Canterbury Cathedral and Royal Albert Hall in England, St. Chappelle in Paris and in front of Pope John Paul II inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. But it was psychology that called to her in college.

It was the research aspect of the science that she was most interested in; she didn’t want to be a therapist. For one year, she performed eye tracking experiments, studying attachment theory by seeing how people reacted to being exposed to certain visual stimuli using a machine that bounces infrared light off their eyes. At Stanford she studied culture and emotion, digging into what people consider positive states of being. And at UC Berkeley, she studied conflict resolution through marriage conversation, which tracked spouses’ relationships with each other over 20 years. All the while, she lived at home with her parents in Lafayette.

“They’re [the experiments] not as edgy as they were before we put in all those ethics codes,” Ochs says, laughing. “You can’t do the same kind of prisoner experiments they used to do.”

As the story goes, a college professor made Cam realize that she would be happier working with music. Within a couple of years of switching gears, she was writing songs for Miley Cyrus, Styles and Smith—among many others. Her debut album, 2015’s Untamed, and “Burning House,” opened many doors.

But it would be five whole years before she released a follow-up: 2020’s The Otherside. It shouldn’t have taken that long, and she had enough songs done by 2018 but chose to leave her label, Sony Nashville, over differences in “values.” She’s yet to go into specifics, but delves into some of that story on The Otherside closer “Girl Like Me,” cowritten with Natalie Hemby.

The album includes contributions from both Sam Smith and Harry Styles, as well as heavy-hitters like Jack Antonoff and Nashville all-star writer Lori McKenna. “Diane,” one of the oldest songs on the record, is notably a response to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” written from the perspective of Jolene herself, and remains one of her favorite songs years later.

The title track itself, meanwhile, was a cowrite with the late dance music artist Avicii (Tim Bergling), as well as Tyler Johnson and Hillary Lindsey. It was originally meant for one of Bergling’s projects.

“People come to Nashville I think because … everyone wants to come touch the sound or this songwriting craft,” she says.

Bergling, an extreme perfectionist, began playing a melody over and over to the point that Ochs and Lindsey had to take a break and regroup while he kept playing. By the time they went back inside the studio, they were singing the chorus to the song.


Cam on her love of Bay Area artist Miko Marks and her collaboration with Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito on “Rolling Through California.”
I love, love Miko, and … I love all their stuff because their clothes and everything is just amazing, fantastic. [The video was about] Black cowboys and the rodeo. … Working in country music, you have to work really hard to unlearn and relearn that this is in a white space. All white spaces are really unnatural white. You have to be like, ‘How did we get here? And, where do we come from, and when did people start putting in fake barriers so that it did start looking like this?’ … ‘Oh, yeah, Black cowboys!’ Like, why is that surprising to us? I think it’s like one in four [cowboys are Black], and it was a big part of the West. Any time that comes up, I love it. And I just love unique Bay Area artists that are hip to all of it, too.

“Tim was like, ‘That’s perfect, except this one vowel could be a different vowel,’” she says. “It wasn’t even based on the meaning, it was based on like the phonetics and a melody matching the phonetic up-and-down cadence of a phrase. … He just was so committed.”

Avicii didn’t end up using the song and let her try to finish it herself. He passed away at 28 in 2018 before she could finish. His management team, which includes his family, approved Ochs using it later.

“The Otherside” ended up as the title track for the album because it spoke to the overall theme of looking at past turmoil from a distance and place of healing. The songs were painful to sing at first, but Camaron Ochs is able to appreciate them as art now.

Switching labels “was a very difficult process and a very eye-opening process. It sounds really naive, but just realizing that a lot of people were not on my team [was surprising],” she says. “You have an idea of villains and heroes and good guys and bad guys, and as you get older, it gets real blurry, and you get heartbroken about it.”

That gets addressed on “Girl Like Me,” she says, describing it as a song about getting let down by others, but needing to move forward and falling in love with music again.

“That was how it was even for ‘Burning House,’ too,” Ochs says. “In the beginning, it’s embarrassing when you’re saying things that are so personal. And then, I think, the more you say something or do something, it ends up numbing it.”

She released the album late last fall, during one of the heights of the pandemic. If that is not difficult enough for a music artist who is unable to tour and support herself, add to it becoming a parent for the first time. Ochs and her businessman husband, Adam Weaver, welcomed daughter Lucy in December 2019. They had just a few months of normalcy—which for Cam included a trip to New York with Lucy to make a late-night TV appearance and meet Will Ferrell—before the craziness set in.

She had to figure out how to be a mom in a new world. In October of 2020, her close friend (and tour photographer) Chelsea Kornse moved in with Cam and her family.


Cam on visiting the Bay Area and her Halloween plans.
My parents actually ended up moving down to my grandparents’ ranch down at Oceanside. Then my sister is down in the Cayucas; San Luis Obispo area. It’s really just my friends that are back there now. My best friend from second grade lives right on the Oakland/San Leandro border. Her neighborhood is super cute, so after I play Outside Lands, I’m going to jet over to her house, and we’re going to take Lucy trick-or-treating around, which will be really fun.

“She’s immunocompromised and couldn’t go anywhere. We weren’t working, and she couldn’t get a job anywhere,” Ochs says. “It was such a nice shift just to have like a little family going on, with me and Adam and Chels. It helped a lot, and especially when you’ve got to do a Zoom or when you got to do some kind of work; you can shuffle around. People are always like, ‘Have you asked Carrie Underwood for advice on how to manage being a mom in the industry?’ And I’m like, ‘Carrie Underwood’s probably got like 10 buses, and I got one bus.’ There’s a difference in how you can manage what you’re doing with your work-life balance.

“Overall, I’d say I feel closer to my baby and I feel much more grounded; but it was not all easy-peasy,” she says.

This summer, Cam has finally had a chance to play some festivals, concluding with Outside Lands next week. This has required more work than in the past due to the pandemic, such as staying on top of different states’ health mandates and creating rules that everyone on her team is comfortable with.

“I wasn’t ready to just write out a whole COVID protocol sheet, but here we go,” she says.

She, her band and team felt some anxiety with the first few shows and wondered whether it was safe to do what they were doing. But she was encouraged with the experience at Lollapalooza and liked the safety measures that producers of Outside Lands and Austin City Limits were taking.

Camaron Ochs, Cam

Camaron Ochs (Cam), courtesy Chelsea Kornse.

“Also, everyone still needs to work. We lost a lot of people in this industry that just had to leave,” Ochs acknowledges. “You do the best you can. You get tested often. My nose is probably a different shape inside at this point. Then at a certain point, you know you gotta make some money for people that need some money and hopefully put on good shows. We’re not living in the perfect hypothetical vacuum, unfortunately.”

Camaron Ochs is already well on her way to making a third album. She’s got several tracks that have two throughlines (which she’s not sharing just yet) and is figuring out whether they belong on one or separate projects. In the past, she’s charted the mood and feel of all her songs in a grid to make sure she had all her bases covered, variety-wise, on her albums.

Camaron Ochs, Cam

Camaron Ochs, courtesy Chelsea Kornse.

She’s not sure if she’ll stick with that strategy this time around but is prepared to let the music come in its own time. It shouldn’t take five years, however. And that’s how her songwriting is much like the research she was doing in psychology.

“Really, it’s all just trying to understand myself and people around me,” she says. “I’m trying to understand things that are difficult to say out loud in normal conversation. If I can sing them, for some reason there’s a little bit more of a channel open to get some stuff out, and it feels more like I can address it. It’s the same pursuit, but I realize it looks very different.”

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