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Personal Playlist: Alex Cameron Gives The Stories Behind Five Of His Songs

On September 12, 2019

Welcome to “Personal Playlist,” a recurring interview series at Vinyl Me, Please, where one artist picks one song from each of their albums to talk about (or one song from every band that they’ve been in). Here are the five songs Alex Cameron chose, focusing on his upcoming album Miami Memory, which has a Vinyl Me, Please exclusive vinyl out that you can purchase here.

Alex Cameron's slinky charisma, tireless hustle, and stellar songwriting have made the Sydney, Australia-native crooner one of the most exciting and boundary pushing figures in pop music. Though he self-released his debut Jumping The Shark in 2013, its 2016 U.S./U.K. reissue reintroduced Cameron taking on the persona of an older, washed-up lounge singer, complete with latex makeup, slicked-back hair, and a provocatively creepy onstage vibe. With songs as strong as the synth-led "Happy Ending," Cameron's act was a welcome one.

In 2017, he took off the makeup but still sang in character on his follow-up Forced Witness. The narrators that populate that LP aren't particularly likable, as Cameron explores the worst impulses of masculinity throughout songs like "Candy Mae," "Marlon Brando," and "Stranger's Kiss." His hard-luck protagonists on the LP find themselves waiting for prospective romantic partners turning of age, getting catfished online, at the end of their rope, and feeling like "Marlon Brando circa 1999." It's a searing take on toxic behavior but the songs are so infectious it both works as satire and pop music.

For his latest album Miami Memory, Cameron is no longer writing songs from an imagined perspective. The 10 songs on the LP, by and large, are straight from the heart, without any character work or ironic distance. The result is striking. It's a love letter to his real-life partner, actress and artist Jemima Kirke, and features some of his most daring work yet. Here, Cameron is earnest, like on the title track, where he details, at great length, why he and his partner have fallen in love with and in that city. In anticipation of the new LP, which is out September 13, Cameron has chosen five songs from his catalog to reveals the stories behind. Read on for his picks below.

"Happy Ending," off Jumping the Shark (2013)

VMP: It's crazy to think that this album has been technically out for six years. When you self-released this LP in 2013, you were in your early-to-mid-twenties and living in Sydney. What was a typical day like for you when you were writing these songs?

Alex Cameron: I was basically working Monday to Friday, nine to five in a public legal office. I'd spend my days taking complaints from members of society about police misconduct. They had all been mistreated by police and I had to essentially compile and organize these complaints and assess them. I'd figure out whether or not they were either valid and should be given to an investigation or if they were frivolous or not valid for whatever reason. I'd be doing that nine-to-five and then I would go home every night and I had this little studio in an apartment that I was sharing. I would just record. I had three synthesizers in there, a sound car, and a mixing desk, and that's when I'd make these songs. I did all the songs at nighttime and on the weekends. That was kind of my life. I was drinking quite heavily at the time, mainly vodka. I was actually making decent money at this job because it was like a high-profile legal office. As a young guy, making a decent amount of money without a university degree was great. I knew I wanted to make these songs and I just thought of putting together and piece it bit by bit.

How much were these songs influenced by the people you'd meet at that day job? You've always written from the perspective of hard-luck characters and interacting daily with people who have been victims of police misconduct was probably pretty emotionally taxing.

One-hundred percent. There was not only like the fact that they had experienced trauma from the police but we're talking about socioeconomic, class struggles and things like that — people in financial corners that were struggling. At the office, they would teach us about a thing called an empathy threshold. At some point, you either learn how to stop feeling and to do your job correctly or you end up quitting. Those are your two options. Cause you can't take it all on board. I didn't realize, but after a few years working there, I had to go on tour so I took a break. When I came back, I was surprised to see the job was still there. They just told me that the job had such a high turnover because people would work there for two or three months and say, “I just can't do this anymore.”

What I got out of it creatively was that I was learning how people speak when they're at the tipping point emotionally, when they've experienced trauma. I think that's what kind of makes the record so strong. If it has a strength, it's that I was learning how people who are down and out communicate. A lot of those tones and a lot of just the way the characters are speaking in those songs was heavily influenced by my job. So there's a realness that I think may have resonated. I guess both of those albums were influenced by my job. I wrote a lot of the songs on Forced Witness while I was working there too. I think I kind of assumed the role of narrator. It's always been a thing. I've always been encouraged when I was a kid to write things down. My imagination has always been like a really kind of powerful thing, I guess to my detriment a lot: suffering from anxiety, depression, and at points sort of paranoid delusion. It was a good outlet for that because I was connecting with these people I was working with and that I was able to sort of put that into these characters, [finding] something that I had in common with and amplify that, using a skill I've always worked on, which is storytelling.

Why specifically this song out of all of Jumping The Shark?

"Happy Ending" was the first song that when we started playing it live, because it has that synth intro, people started really cheering when they'd hear that intro. It was the first song that I thought, "Oh shit," about. It wasn't necessarily my pick on the record as my favorite song, but it started to be the crowd's favorite. That song is actually about a friend of mine. I was once at a barbecue, a family and friends kind of affair. My dad came up to me and said, "This friend of mine had just come back from Hong Kong and he had a bit of a breakdown." He told me this story: He cheated on his girlfriend, his life had spiraled out of control because the banking lifestyle in Hong Kong was hard. You work 18 hours a day, you go drink a lot, and barely sleep.

And I related to that in terms of my drinking and my lack of sleep and my hours at the office. So I just connected with it and the lyrics happened real fast. I had sort of this back beat and this synth groove, and then I just started singing on it. It's kind of the first time where I realized that this kind of songwriting didn't require a struggle inside me. I wasn't searching to be hip. I wasn't trying to fit in with anything. I was just trying to tell a story. That's where I got my emotional kick from. So that song kind of was the first where I started to resonate with songwriting and also the first one where the crowd started anticipating it. It kind of was that moment where it all clicked.

"Country Figs," off Forced Witness (2017)

How did your life change and how did your mindset shift about your art going from Jumping the Shark to Forced Witness?

There was a period where I didn't pay rent for like three years, just staying with people and being low on funds. I actually saved up when I was working full time and quit my job in 2014 and moved over to Europe and was just floating and picked up shows where I could. That song rather was kind of like me amplifying my situation and kind of writing a song about what it would be like if me taking that risk didn't work out. [It’s about] where would I be in five years if I left everything behind in Sydney and found myself without an audience or without success.

I remember [I] was on a double-decker bus in London. I was staying on my sister's couch, just trying to get shows. Then that piano riff came to me in my head. I was like, "Oh, this is like a powerful, like, Tina Turner vibe." It was really energetic and felt like highway rock. I remember doing a voice memo on my phone and then going to my sister's place, putting on my headphones, and just recording it. Then the melody came to me and it was all happening in my head. It was all a matter of remembering it.

There was a line on there that came from the time where me and Roy [Molloy] were touring in Australia and our car broke down. We had to get it towed from halfway between Sydney and Melbourne, in a town called Gundagai. The head gasket on our Subaru blew and the whole car was just a write-off. A lot of those lyrics came from a conversation with our tow truck driver. He was saying that if he got to an accident, which he said happened once or twice a day, and he saw that there were no skids or brake marks at the accident, he'd realize it was a suicide. That kind of struck a chord with me and ended up being, "And I hear truck driver's singing / As they speed to a red light / No brake marks mean suicide, honey," in the song. I also just can't stand it when people accelerate into red lights. If I see a red light, even if [it’s] the brake light in front of me, I realize I should take my foot off the accelerator. But it's often I'm driving with people [who] accelerate right up until they've got to brake at the red light. With that lyric, it all comes from that conversation with the tow truck driver in tandem with my position as a person contemplating what it means to be so down and out that you want to drive your car into a tree full-speed ahead.

This was the first LP you worked on with Jonathan Rado. How was the experience?

We were in Los Angeles and I just brought over these kind of half recordings. I'd done the drums in Berlin and we had all these pieces and it was just exciting to be in his home studio everyday for a month, just fleshing out these songs. The thing about Rado that makes him good is that he's on the search for that really perfect song. That's all he wants: good songs. We bonded over that and he's not interested in anything except making sure that the song is as good as it can be. There's no ego with him. He doesn't control the situation. He just plays when he needs to play and steps back when he feels like he should step back. Forced Witness was kind of a co-produced record where you can really feel both of our ideas all over that album. While we were making it, we were like, "This is the one! This is a motherfucker of an album!" We felt like we were doing something that's gonna really put us on the map, not only for him as a producer, but me as a songwriter and me and Roy as an act. It was exciting to see like how far we could take it with the budget we had. It was just an exciting time.

"Miami Memory," off Miami Memory (2019)

**Your career has had quite an ascent thanks to Forced Witness and that success also coincided with your long-term relationship, which is the subject of Miami Memory. **

I've never, never had a relationship like the one I have with Jemima. It's so fucking inspiring. There's a powerful love that at times is challenging but we get to collaborate together, which I've never had before. I've never met someone who was so sure of their own ideas as I am of mine. We kind of, like, feed off each other's confidence, to the point where it's inevitable that we have to make something together, whether it's video clips or writing together or taking photos. It's like this really dynamic, powerful thing that we're, we're both a part of. It kind of came out of nowhere. Jemima wrote to me after she'd heard a song and she got her agent to reach out to my manager at the time. It just happened to be that we were in New York when she had some free time and we met up and she wanted to make a video clip. But since then she told me she had some ulterior motives there romantically. The first time she reached out to me I googled her and found her paintings. I'd never seen Girls or any of the acting work she'd done in movies. But her painting is so fucking beautiful and it's like the perfect kind of portraiture for me.

We started to hang out and it kind of just became obvious to both of us that we were falling in love and had this mutual admiration. It's gone to the point now where Jemima has had so much success on the back of her own creativity that the only gift I could give her, I felt that was like really putting myself on the line was to write a really honest record and give it to her as a gift. It's to show her that I'm willing to, to go there with my own career I was sacrificing in some ways, you know, the role that I was on doing character work. Here, I'm writing something honest from my own perspective.

This record is so striking because it's no longer character work.

That's always been my dream, to not need to write about characters. I've been trying to get good enough as a songwriter where I can write songs about my own life and still make them relatable. I always really appreciate the hyper specific, putting subjects under a magnifying glass and picking something sort of singular about that character or that moment. And this album has been thinking, let's turn it on myself and see if I can do that successfully. One-hundred percent these are my favorite songs that I've ever written because they are about me and the people around me. They're for me and my friends and they're for my girlfriend.

What about this song made you want it to be the lead single and also the name of the album?

I had a couple of moments in Miami with Jemima. You ever have a moment in a city, whether it's a romantic moment or just a personal moment, where you just feel at home? Where you feel like everything you need is in that city? I feel that with Miami even though I've never spent more than two months at a time there though. I could live there and buy a house if I could save enough money. I remember we'd be playing shows and then Jemima would fly in from New York and be waiting for me in Miami. I hadn't seen her in a few months from touring and it was just so explosive. And the desire and the whole like missing each other thing, just made the perfect location to set these songs in. I just wanted to remind her that we have this city that we love and we connect in. We've had our biggest fights there and we've had our best sex there. Everything has happened in Miami. It's just the place for me. It's the place for us, really.

So compared to your earlier work, was writing lyrics for this easier or harder given the subject matter?

It was challenging, but it was the most fun that I've had. It's the most fun I've had writing a record lyrically because I just felt the words were flying out of me. I knew what that song was about. I knew that "Miami Memory" was going to be dedicated to Jemima. If I could make her feel emotions or see her cry when I would play her demos, those were my benchmarks. All I wanted to do, the goal was to make her feel something. There was no consideration of an audience except her. That's what made it so much fun. I wanted her to know how powerful I could be as a songwriter. I think it's the closest I've come to writing sort of the perfect song in my eyes. When I say it's the closest I've come, I still think [there’s] a huge margin between the actual perfect song and what I'm able to do. But it's definitely the one for me. I feel like it has everything that I want in a song. It's me showing that I'm willing to put myself on the line artistically for Jemima as much as she is in her work.

"Far From Born Again," off Miami Memory (2019)

In Henry Rollins’ bio for the album, he wrote that "Jemima's community of friends and the independent sex work community completely informed your perspective on contemporary sex." Can we unpack that?

Jemima has had and has friends who are independent sex workers. I definitely want to make the distinction between independent sex workers who set their own rates and set their place of work, and choose their clients, compared to, like, forced sex work or sex trafficking. Those are completely different industries. When I talk about independent sex work, I'm talking about the men and women who are really in charge of what they do and ultimately should really be recognized. People should be educated on the legitimacy of that industry. For a period of time, Jemima was also painting sex workers as subject matter. So I got to be around people in the sex work industry and speak to them. At the same time, me and Roy, when we play live in certain cities, have a big group of sex workers as audience members. They come down and we hang out after the show because they know the best clubs. We've sort of made our own friends that way, especially in Atlanta and Las Vegas and California. Over the past 18 months, I was really spending more and more time with sex workers and realizing that their main complaint was if they appear in pop culture or in media and film or songs, it's normally just being discussed as either being like downtrodden and needing help, or being just commodities. They were never really spoken about [as] being people with jobs. This song is my attempt at dedicating or broadcasting that sex workers are people. Their industry is just as legitimate as construction or whatever.

There's one sex worker I know named Faye who would probably define herself as an escort. She made a point that people in America and Australia and England are more comfortable sending their 18-year-old son to war than they are letting their 21-year-old daughter be a sex worker. They claim that sex work is more dangerous, she made a point of saying that statistically from what she'd read that it was just as dangerous to work on a construction site. This song was just trying to express an understanding that it is possible to educate yourself and get an understanding of what the benefits of sex work actually is. I just wanted to make an anthem for them and prove that it's possible for a white dude to take some time to educate himself and turn it into a positive thing.

"Gaslight," off Miami Memory (2019)

Your music has always tackled the worst impulses of masculinity and this song is a clever way to unpack toxic behavior.

I wanted to show Jemima specifically that I was able to listen to her experience with previous relationships. When she would tell me about them, I wanted to, like, write a song for her or for anyone that's been gaslighted before and say, "Hey, this is a thing that's actually happening." The idea of gaslighting is to make someone feel not only unsure of their own mental stability and feel ashamed [of] that behavior but also to feel like they need this person to make them better. I just wanted to say that not only have you been a victim of this, but on the other hand, these people know what they're doing when they're doing it. Whether or not they know the terminology or know the phrases and can say that they're completely conscious of what they're doing, they know that there's something going [on] and they know that they're manipulating.

I just wanted to embody that character who was actively endeavoring on a gaslighting campaign against someone. I remember Jemima at points being like, "Holy fuck, that person was gaslighting me the whole time," and that it really made her distraught. It's a serious thing. The idea of that song being really sort of soulful and, and peppered with like this joyful element was to show how someone can set up almost this abusive dynamic where they're convincing someone that they're not OK. And then they gaslight, even if it's manipulative, [it’s] like, "No, it's OK, it's beautiful. Come to me, come to the warmth. I've made you feel like everywhere else is cold and bad and negative and anxiety-inducing, except with me. I'll make you feel OK." And it's that manipulation and that challenging of someone's mental health and their perception of reality that makes for the perfect environment for gaslighting.

What else about that song sticks out for you?

I'll say one thing about that recording. I was thinking the whole time that it needed a piano accordion. We would record in Los Feliz with the doors open so the music would be blasting out to the street. And this guy walked past and said, "You know what that song needs? A piano accordion." And I was like, "I know! That's what I've been saying!" But then he actually had a piano in his car. He played that lick just by chance. It's this wonderful lick. It's such a beautiful moment and it's exactly what I wanted. It just fit the song very well.

Profile Picture of Josh Terry
Josh Terry

Chicago-based music journalist Josh Terry has been covered music and culture for a number of publications since 2012. His writing has been featured in Noisey, Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, Chicago Magazine, The A.V. Club and others. At Vinyl Me, Please, he interviews artists for his monthly Personal Playlist series.

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