I first paid serious attention to the Polaris Music Prize with the announcement of the 2015 longlist – and what a collection of albums that was. I added a number of artists to my watchlist as a result, but one who caught my particular attention was Steph Cameron with her debut album “Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady,” a spare but winning collection of stories set to song, with Cameron’s guitar as the only accompaniment. Not that any other was needed – her stellar and sublime playing was the perfect partner to her storytelling.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, Cameron finally announced a few months ago that her next album was on its way. “Daybreak Over Jackson Street” arrived last month, bringing a gorgeous new set of songs for listeners to enjoy.
While “Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady” was a revelation for its immediacy and power, “Daybreak Over Jackson Street” delivers a subtler – but no less powerful – punch. The album opens with the title track, a meditation on the intersection of power (and the abuse thereof) with human life framed in the context of a dawning day. Songs like “Young and Living Free” and “Richard” are wistful reflections not only on what was but what might have been, while “Winterwood” captures an otherworldly glimpse of nature’s beauty (yet still rooted firmly in reality). “California,” which was the first track released, finds Cameron experimenting with layered harmonies, a new texture to her already well-rounded sound.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Steph Cameron a few questions about her new album, and grateful that she took the time to respond.
Has your approach to songwriting changed at all for this album? (I assume – perhaps incorrectly – that a second album is planned a bit differently than a first one.) You’ve said that the songs for this project were “selected for their depth and maturity” (and certainly the songs from your first album were not lacking either in depth or maturity!).
I suppose the maturity of the songs on Daybreak Over Jackson Street is partially the result of reflecting on experiences I had in my youth from an adult perspective, and partially my natural development as a songwriter. My approach has not changed however, and I continue to write music as a way of interpreting my life and the world that I observe and experience.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “Winterwood” – the visual of the deer on the side of the road at the beginning of the song is just magical. As with many of your other songs, however, reality intertwines with the magic – you sing about hitching a ride to Saskatoon when the weather allows. How important is it to you to merge what is occasionally harsh reality in life with some of life’s beauty?
It’s interesting to me that you describe the song as magical, because I see magic there too and I’m happy that backdrop comes across to the listener. This song’s imagery- the lacy frost against the black, starry sky – the lonely deer and the hitch hiker – I suppose it does intertwine life’s harsh realities with beauty but they’re often inseparable and there is true beauty in struggle.
Your first album came on the scene a bit like a rocket flare… was that experience a surprise to you?
I had no idea what to expect with the release of Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady. I was completely outside of the music industry, had no expectations and no reference to which I could compare the experience. So, the response was surprising. I had no intentions of entering into a career in music, even then. The record was just something that was happening and I felt I was being thrust onto a path or a journey.
Prior to “Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady,” you’ve said most of your performing was in the form of busking. It seems to me that busking doesn’t often result in a lot of interaction with the audience (who are often just passing by, and might only stop to listen for a short time), whereas concert performances can create more of a connection with listeners. That’s my perception from the seats, anyway – how does performing on a stage differ from your perspective?
When you’re busking, your livelihood depends on a flash or a spark that you can create in someone – to pique enough interest that they are compelled to contribute. The interest doesn’t have to last and the moment can be fleeting, but the energy you put out needs to be magnetic. Performing in front of an audience is akin to leading people through an experience – you are hosting an event and you are guiding the audience through the emotional dynamics of your songs and performance. The performing artist is committed to the audience in a way that doesn’t happen with busking. An audience tends to respond as a group, whereas the passerby responds to the busker as an individual. There are unique cues the artist needs to be sensitive to in these different types of performance.
For those guitar geeks among us: can you talk about a bit about your guitar(s), tunings, etc.?
There’s nothing fancy about my tuning, although I almost always use a capo as it is my belief that my guitar is there to support my voice and not the other way around. I play a Larrivee guitar and a Gibson J-45. Those guitars were gifts, actually. My stepfather, who along with my mother are very supportive of my music, bought those guitars for me when I recorded Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady because he felt that I should not be performing on a cheap guitar that would never stay in tune.
When I was young, about 13, I cut my teeth on a Fender acoustic and I played it until I was in my early twenties. It was a very reliable guitar, I took it on trains and hitch hiking and lived off the money I earned playing it on the street from Vancouver to Halifax. Eventually, someone accidentally put their foot through it and that was the end of that.
On “California,” you experiment a bit with adding harmonies to your own tracks… is that something you might develop further on future projects (or even working with additional instrumentalists)?
I was hesitant to lay those harmonies on, but I’m glad I did and I’m moving more in that direction now with my songwriting. For the most part, I’ve wanted to keep the songs on these two albums as close to their natural forms as possible. These are songwriters’ songs. I want them to be as clear and concise as they can be and without elaboration or decoration. I just want them to be themselves.
You’ve mentioned John Prine as a musical influence in several interviews; are there other musicians who have shaped how you sing, write, and play?
Buffy Sainte-Marie has been a strong influence on my songwriting and how I view performing. Touring with her in 2015 was an absolute dream come true and I learned so much from watching her every night. She is a remarkable songwriter, and that’s a large part of what draws me to the folks I admire. Joni Mitchell, who is from my hometown of Saskatoon, SK, has influenced my song-writing, as has Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Doc Watson, Towns Van Zandt to name a few. I was listening to a lot of Michelle Shocked (The Texas Campfire Tapes) and Neil Young when I was writing the songs on Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady.
Do you have plans to tour with the new material this summer?
I continue to travel and write and will post tour dates on my website www.stephcameron.com as they are announced, but nothing is scheduled for the the immediate future.
Photo credit: Mark Maryanovich