A twanging vocal harmony floats through a sunbeam-filled field, fortified by the accompaniment of a nostalgic acoustic guitar and defiant drum. On stage above a swaying audience, a woman stands weaving a tale of closure in love. Her black dress flows behind her, and the blonde ringlets pushed back by her sparkling headband bounce with every movement. Part of the crowd huddles attentively against the stage’s edge; others sing along from cushy picnic blankets, dispersed like a planet’s moons.
Country musician Cam was one of many lauded artists invited to perform at San Francisco’s Outside Lands music festival this October. The festival was canceled in 2020 due to pandemic-related safety concerns but made its comeback this year with a star-studded lineup including Tyler, the Creator; Glass Animals; Lizzo and Tame Impala. Cam, whose 2015 song “Burning House” earned her a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance, told The Daily that performing in-person at Outside Lands brought her mixed feelings. Although the festival required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for entry, the dire reality of the pandemic was feeding a constant worry in the back of the singer-songwriter’s mind.
Still, Cam said it felt amazing to be singing for an audience again: “Singing totally calms me, and I think it calms a lot of people, and there’s a whole human being reason that it feels good.”
The Outside Lands performance took place against the deep green oak and redwood trees of Golden Gate Park over Halloween weekend. Festival attendees made for an almost-comical crowd: costumed pumpkins and “Squid Game” characters cheered enthusiastically as Cam played tracks from her latest album, “The Otherside.” In between songs, she talked about the meaning that each held for her. After announcing that she’d be playing a cover of The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” Cam made the audience laugh, saying, “some of you look a little young to be cheering” for a ’90s song.
Cam’s hit song “Burning House” struck a chord with Vivian Wang ’25, despite it being different from the lo-fi genre that she normally prefers. Wang did not attend Outside Lands but has listened to Cam’s music on her own. She said that appreciates Cam’s authenticity in sharing the experience of “not being able to turn the page and continuing to pine over a far fetched dream.”
Despite loving music from a young age, Cam initially pursued a completely different career. After high school, she went got a psychology degree from the University of California at Davis and began a career as researcher, eventually working at Stanford. Her interest in research stemmed from the same root as her love for musical expression, however. “I’m trying to understand myself. I’m trying to explain things about myself and my feelings and all of our stories,” Cam said.
Cam wavered on her occupational choices until a conversation with the head of her lab, psychology professor Jeannie Tsai ’91, which delivered a striking moment of clarity. According to Cam, Tsai asked whether, decades into the future, Cam would more strongly regret missing out on psychology or music. This simple query opened up an even greater question for Cam, who thought, “You only get so much time, so what’re you going to do with it?”
The answer was music.
Cam still holds warm memories of Stanford, like dates spent eating Taco Bell at the Rodin Sculpture Garden. More broadly, she thinks back fondly on what a “beautiful space you get to be in” — although she never misses the trials and tribulations of finding a parking spot on campus. In the end, Tsai says, it is clear that music was the right decision for Cam.
“There was a point when Cam was visibly torn between her love of music and her love of psychology,” Tsai said. “She was playing gigs late at night, and then working in the lab during the days.”
Changing gears into the music industry called for a terrifying leap of faith. Cam second-guessed everything from her own abilities to the practicality of making a living as a performer, but decided in the end that she wanted at least to have tried it. Ultimately, the decision has been incredibly fulfilling, according to the artist. Cam passionately described the joys of her current life, gushing about the satisfaction of finishing a song that meets her own high standards and knowing she produced the best art she possibly could. Her other favorite part of being a musician is looking into people’s eyes during a performance and seeing “they’re feeling the thing that I felt when I was writing, and that I want them to feel,” she said. This vulnerability was certainly present in Cam’s show at Outside Lands, and it will continue to drive her in creating.
Raised in the San Francisco suburb of Lafayette, Cam is proud to call the Bay Area her homeland. She also spent much of her childhood visiting her grandparents’ ranch, where country music became an integral part of her identity. Cam’s grandparents impressed upon her a love for old country music artists such as Patsy Cline and Ray Charles, and that love only grew with time.
She said that in country and folk music, “you’re not really reinventing melodies as much as you are lyrics. There’s something about those comforting, familiar melodies with little twists and turns, and the emphasis being on lyrics and storytelling, that’s perfect for me. I’m obsessed with telling stories.”
Cam’s early music education took her well beyond the scope of the country genre. She was a member of the Contra Costa Children’s Choir beginning in the fourth grade, then took voice lessons until the end of high school. This formal guidance taught her to read music and gave her a crucial understanding of musical arrangements and harmonies. The artist said music “picked” her, not the other way around.
“Music keeps me super present, and I think I just always knew, even as a kid singing, it just felt right,” Cam said.