With roots going back to UC Davis, Cam is a new, original voice in country music.
The fans sprinted for their spots in front of the stage on this cool April evening. As is the custom at the century-old Clovis Rodeo outside Fresno, after the bull riders clear the arena, the spotlight is on music.
On this night, Cam is the headliner.
Cam is Camaron Ochs ’06, a relative newcomer in the country music scene. She writes her own songs and, like many in that genre, speaks her mind. Her breakout single “Burning House” was nominated for the 2016 Grammy for best country solo performance and went double platinum this summer (it’s sold 2 million copies).
In Clovis, she saved “Burning House” for last, inviting a fan onstage to sing the song with her. She knew all the words.
Earlier that same month, Cam performed in front of a very different audience in London, singing “Palace,” a song she co-wrote, with pop-soul star Sam Smith at the O2 — sold out to its 20,000 capacity — for four nights.
At press time, she was gearing up to release her next studio album. Two songs already debuted — “Diane” and “Road to Happiness” — and provide a glimpse of what’s to come. She has promised the forthcoming work to be confident and real — words that also describe the petite songstress who has said she isn’t afraid to write what she feels and call herself a feminist.
“I felt like going into this album I could make whatever I wanted, how I wanted and explore all these directions,” she said. “Instead of being afraid and making whatever I just made again, it’s progressed in such a way that it’s definitely the best music I’ve ever done.”
Cam grew up in Lafayette, California, in the East Bay Area. She sang in a children’s choir, listened to indie rock, learned to play guitar and wrote songs in her spare time. She also arranged vocals, crafting the right sounds and melodies for her songs.
When it came time for college, she visited a few campuses, but said she still recalls taking the tour of UC Davis. “I was like, ‘I want to be here.’ It was such a great vibe,” Cam said. “Everyone was friendly and easy going.”
She moved into the Cuarto dorms, where she met friends who she still counts as her best. And she immediately joined the co-ed a cappella group The Liquid Hotplates. At the end of freshman year, she approached fellow Hotplate and friend Jaclyn (Fromer) Cohen ’06 with an idea.
“She came to me and said we should really start our own group. I was like, ‘sorry, what?’” said Cohen, who is now a rabbi in Los Angeles. “Her vision was all-female, with more of a social dynamic to it, where we are supporting one another and creating things together. She used the word empowering, but for us back then it was about lifting up the voices of women. I had no idea how bold that was until much later in my life.”
Together, they formed The Spokes, the first all-female a cappella group on campus.
That first year, eight members joined The Spokes. (The group is named for part of the bicycle wheel because it relies on each piece for support.) They quickly became a close-knit group focused on performance from start to finish: identifying a repertoire, arranging the music, assigning parts, regular rehearsals and even choreography.
“This was before a cappella was cool. We were nerds,” said Cam.
The Spokes performed regularly on campus, singing a wide range of songs like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” They also started an annual concert called HellaCappella to showcase a cappella groups from Northern California.
Ultimately, Cam double majored in psychology and Italian, studying abroad in Italy for junior year and the Netherlands for a shorter time.
Through her Italian studies, a new world opened up. Margherita Heyer-Caput, professor of Italian studies, remembers Cam as a good student, one who regularly contributed in class.
“Studying abroad gave her a new confidence,” Heyer-Caput said. “It was really a growth process for her. She was one of those students that we see flourish.”
In psychology, she studied attachment theory under Phillip Shaver, now distinguished professor emeritus. He said he remembers she won an award from the department in her final quarter.
From UC Davis, she went to work in psychology labs at UC Berkeley and Stanford University, as she contemplated a graduate degree. But something didn’t feel right.
She went to talk to her professor, Jeannie Ysi, at Stanford. “I remember asking her ‘should I continue?’” said Cam. “And she said I should just picture what I would regret more at 80 years old — missing out on psychology or missing out on music. And I decided on music.”
Cam surprised even her friends when she ventured into country music. But the singer said she is a longtime fan of Patsy Cline and the Dixie Chicks and could be seen line dancing at The Graduate during her UC Davis days. Plus, the songwriting made sense to her. “It’s just truthful,” she said.
A few early successes landed her songs on other artists’ albums: Miley Cyrus sings “Maybe You’re Right” on the Bangerz album in 2013, and Maggie Rose sings “Fall Madly in Love with You” on the Cut to Impress album that same year.
“I thought I should just be a writer. I didn’t think I should ask for more than that,” Cam said.
But in 2015, things changed.
Cam was signed to Sony Music. Her EP, Welcome to Cam Country, came out in March, and her second studio album, Untamed, debuted in December that year. Both featured the song “Burning House.”
It wasn’t the first single off the album, but she sang it on the nationally syndicated country music radio show The Bobby Bones Show and it quickly became the second. Host Bobby Bones told UC Davis Magazine he immediately liked it because it was relatable (it’s about seeing an ex at a party).
“For me, it was a mix of how great she is as a performer and being able to assign my own narrative to it. On my show that day, I played that live version over and over,” said Bones. “She had come in to the studio to introduce a different single, but because my audience had such a strong reaction to ‘Burning House,’ her team decided by noon that day to switch to it as the new single.”
And just days later, Bones and iHeartMedia made Cam their “On The Verge” pick, a program that shines a light on new voices. “Burning House” peaked at No. 29 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was the best-selling song by a female country singer in 2015.
Cam went on to open for Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, George Strait, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw and others. She also played her own shows in smaller venues.
In 2016, going back to her UC Davis roots, she had The Spokes as her opening act for a performance at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
Anusha Suresh ’18 was in the group at the time. She said she still gets chills when she thinks about that night. The Spokes practiced their songs in the car on their way there and ultimately gave a 30-minute set.
“We normally did college auditoriums, so having that experience was an opportunity that doesn’t come very often,” said Suresh. “I was honored to be a part of it.”
In addition to performing in a professional venue, Suresh got the chance to talk to Cam and ask her about taking professional risks. A cell biology major, Suresh struggled with her own decision — go to medical school or try for a singing career.
“When she told me about her professor asking her about what she would regret at 80, I knew there was a way to change your mind [about your path]. I am pursuing music because of that night,” said Suresh, who was set to release her own EP this fall.
Cam marked another career milestone with a headlining show at the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville on Sept. 26.
The performance was set to kick off a 16-date fall concert tour. Instead, she postponed the rest of the tour and announced her transition from the Sony Nashville label to RCA New York. (Both are owned by Sony Music.) The move could mark a departure for Cam. While Sony Nashville is distinctly country, RCA has released multiple genres of music, from rock to hip hop, jazz to country.
On Sept. 1, Cam told fans via social media, “This is an incredible step forward with RCA New York and means this new music will have the best launch possible and the perfect tour will be happening with this music at a later date. … I will be back soon to give you the show you deserve with new music, a clear conscience and happy heart.”
The summer already saw many tour dates, as Cam opened for Sam Smith on his North American leg and had her own shows in London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
At 34, Cam is prepared for the next phase.
And Cohen, who has stayed in touch with the singer since college, said though her life has changed, Cam remains the same fierce talent and good friend she met freshman year.
“She’s exactly the same,” said Cohen. “Part of it is that she got into country music when she was a little bit older than someone like Taylor Swift. Going into it a little more seasoned has given her the ability to be a little more reflective. She has a deeper perspective, and she’s more focused on the music than anything else.”
Whether she’s speaking up for female representation in country music or something else, she will do so wearing her signature yellow — a symbol of optimism.
“I thought I’d have to work my whole life to get a Grammy nomination, but it doesn’t make me sleep better at night, make my relationships better or solve my anxiety,” said Cam. “You’re still going to be the same person, no matter where you’re at. Even when you hit what you’re hoping to hit, your dumb brain sets up another goal that’s farther away.”