Country Singer Cam Dreams Up a Smoldering Ballad With 'Burning House'

Kristin Barlowe
Cam photographed in 2015.

In the months after Gary Overton's March 17 resignation from his post as Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO, many questioned how long the division could function without a specific person running the ship.

That spot was officially filled when new CEO Randy Goodman started July 13, but he walked into a situation where the staff doesn't always need direction to do the right thing. The evidence lies in Cam's second Arista single, "Burning House," released in a flurry after it generated a buzz on the syndicated Bobby Bones Show. She performed the song, a fragile ode to a torched relationship, during her May 29 Grand Ole Opry debut, and when she appeared on Bones' show on June 10, he asked her to reprise it. Cam played just one verse and chorus of "Burning House," and it became the fastest-rising country download on iTunes, bolting from obscurity into the top 20 that day.

No CEO was required to organize a reaction -- the Sony departments huddled quickly and decided to release the track to country radio via Play MPE on June 16. It entered the Country Airplay chart dated July 11 at No. 48, making it the highest debut of the week. It's bolted to No. 29 in its third charted week, indicating the label's belief was well-founded.

"I'm assuming that's normally very hard for a corporation to turn on a dime like that, but Sony Music made it look like it was nothing," recalls Cam. "We had a meeting with everyone that represented every department, and everyone was like, 'We're gonna do this .' "

In fact, "Burning House" was the song that convinced Sony to sign her -- the song that caught Overton's ear, the one that got the attention of RCA Music Group CEO Peter Edge in New York and the one that led Sony chairman/CEO Doug Morris to offer her a deal on the spot when she played it at his Manhattan office.

Even before it was a completed song, producer Jeff Bhasker (Fun., Bruno Mars) wanted in on writing it because he was convinced of its potential.

"That song seemed like it would be the flagship song, a song that I could take to anyone and play it and be like, 'Wow, that's just a winner,' " he says. "It's [already] a hit in that sense."

In another sense, it's a positive result from an unhappy event. Cam had been in an on-again, off-again relationship during her collegiate years at the University of California-Davis, and when she broke it off the last time, she did it rudely. Two years later, she was invited to a party that her ex would be attending. The prior night, she plotted how to apologize, and when she went to sleep, she dreamed he was on the floor of his home in flames, with firefighters warning onlookers that it was too dangerous to rescue him. In the dream she rushed into the burning house, ready to die alongside him.

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The next morning, Cam Skyped songwriter/producer Tyler Johnson ("My Mistake") in Los Angeles and recounted her vision. A devoted Metallica fan, he had long wanted to write a song that mimicked the acoustic guitar opening in "Nothing Else Matters," and as he formed his own quiet riff over the phone, he fashioned her story in two off-the-cuff opening lines that alternate between standard 4/4 time and 3/4 bars: "I had a dream about a burning house/You were stuck inside, I couldn't get you out."

It was all they had, but when they next saw each other, Cam and Johnson talked about it near a campfire and recorded the snippet with the logs crackling in the background. Johnson later played that piece for Bhasker while the two men were moving furniture, and Bhasker was struck by the melody -- and by the snap of that fire coupled with the image of a burning house. By the next morning, he had come up with a chorus for the tune, and the trio finished it up in a couple days of writing and recording at Bhasker's home studio in the Venice neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Cam came up with a staggered, hesitant pre-chorus that rises in optimism, only to tail off with resignation before the hook. And when they reached the bridge, they took a unique approach, alternating three new musical lines with three repeats of the chorus' final phrase, "In this burning house."

"Whenever you can repeat words in a song and it's natural, you know you're doing something right," says Johnson. "I've never been involved in a bridge like that, where the repetition comes in the bridge."

Johnson played the guitar that day, but he couldn't make the last four notes of the central riff work. They later hired Cam's guitarist, Doug Showalter, to redo the part. He was able to thread the four notes together, though he could never replicate the emotional impact in Johnson's playing, so Bhasker spliced their two performances together. Bhasker added a subtle acoustic piano, and they also recorded bass and drums, but ultimately decided to mute them in the final product, opting for a stripped-down take.

"A lot of times, a production might just be there to make up for anything that the song is lacking," explains Bhasker. "If you've got a great song, you let it shine, and I always personally try to write a song that stands on its own, that can just be played with a guitar and piano."

There were some other additions. They found a crackling fire in a sound-effects library and laid that underneath. "It's not very overt at all," says Bhasker, "but I did kind of think that that needed to be on there." 

Johnson also commissioned a string arrangement from Oakland musician Hamilton Ulmer, then recorded three players in Nashville, stacking each three times to form a nine-voice ensemble.

Cam sang the song repeatedly with the lights down low to set the mood at Bhasker's studio, then went at it again several months later, using portions from both days to build the final performance.

"Those vocals took a long, long time -- lots of choices and takes," says Johnson. "She sings everything great. There's not a pitch issue, there's not a timing issue, but when you get into that great of quality, it's about that 1 percent. That's what sets the difference between Adele and the 100,000 other girls that want to be Adele -- it's that last 1 percent."

A good percentage of the song's development is now complete. Cam got to apologize to her ex-boyfriend in what turned out to be a much less dramatic conversation than she had imagined. Meanwhile, as "Burning House" spreads to a wider audience -- thanks, in part, to Sony's decision to make it a single -- it's having a dramatic effect on many who hear it. Women who meet Cam at concerts have pointed to guys in the audience who represented their burning house. And there've been even more heartbreaking stories.

"I've had at least three people who've told me that they've lost loved ones in house fires, and this song -- on another, obviously more literal, level -- means so much to them," says Cam. "The main thing is just that it connects."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.