“Burning House” gave Arista singer/songwriter Cam quite a start. Debuting at a time when women were struggling at country radio, she lobbed the unconventional song into country’s mix last summer, ascending to No. 2 on both Hot Country Songs and Country Airplay. Built around a blazing dream sequence, it also grabbed a Grammy nomination for best country solo performance.
Cam follows up that single with “Mayday,” a song that relies on maritime imagery to weave its tale of a sinking relationship. In the process, she has segued topically from fire to water, a move that amuses even her.
“We think about this all the time,” she says with a laugh.
It’s not the only dichotomy at work in “Mayday.” The song’s plot is one that requires immediate action — “This is an emergency,” she sings in the chorus — but its creation happened slowly and methodically. It has been at least five years since Cam started working on it, and its seed was planted even before that.
“Burning House” co-writer Tyler Johnson — who co-produced Cam’s Untamed album with the Grammys’ producer of the year, Jeff Bhasker (Bruno Mars, fun) — started “Mayday” before he ever met Cam, at a time when he was drowning in a relationship that didn’t seem to be working. He was frustrated and stuck, and that inspired the introductory lines in the first two verses, plus the key part of the chorus.
“The important part was the hook of having a song where you go ‘Mayday, mayday, this is an emergency,’ ” says Johnson.
When he played those portions for other people, they invariably thought the idea had the makings of a hit, but he was unable to move forward with it, in part because he was stuck in the negativity he associated with the relationship, even after it had ended.
“You want to hold resentment, but that’s like drinking poison to make the other person sick,” he says. “That’s what the song is kind of about: owning up to your part and recognizing that if you’re not happy — guess what? Make a change.”
When Johnson met Cam and started writing with her, around 2010, she was in her own dead-end relationship, so the idea of “Mayday” was “super-easy to connect with,” she says.
“Maybe you’re saying you’re the victim, but really it takes two to be in it,” Cam continues. “You want more, and you know you want better, but a part of you might be like, ‘No, this is all I can get.’ You hear this internal monologue back and forth, just trying to decide with yourself, ‘How bad is this really? Should I put up with this? Oh, it’s their fault that I’m here.’ You’re putting all the power and the blame on the other party.”
As dark as the concept was, Cam added some positivity as she found the lines to finish each of the verses Johnson had started and helped bring the chorus to a conclusion. She also came up with a twisty, mantra-like melody that connected the syncopated phrasing in the verses with the more straight-forward sound in the chorus. She sang that section with an open-throated “aaah” as a placeholder, assuming the right words would come along. Eventually, they decided against any lyrics in that spot at all.
“At one point we wanted to find words for it,” she recalls. “But it was kind of a nice break, because the verses are so wordy, to have like a lamenting sort of sigh that’s going on at that point.”
Cam programmed a drum beat to the first version of the song that sounded a bit tribal, and in her first attempt at recording it — in a basement in Portland, Ore. — she stacked some harmonies onto the verses. Cam and Johnson were pretty sure they had something special, so they were taken aback when Bhasker panned it; he told them it needed more work before it could become a hit. They were tempted to ignore his comments, but they went back and found ways to improve “Mayday.”
“Jeff’s criticism of it was just perfect,” says Johnson in retrospect. “It’s a song that wasn’t good enough that we worked on to make good enough.”
They made a few minor tweaks to it, including a chord change in the chorus, and about three years after they had started it, they brought another version to Bhasker. It was better, he thought, but the chorus still wasn’t working. Ultimately, they lifted the “Mayday” opening in the chorus to a higher frequency, brightening it up a bit, and it made a ton of difference.
Most of the instrumental parts were recorded at Fool on the Hill in ?Nashville’s Berry Hill area, with guitarist Tom Bukovac playing a key role. He spent an inordinate amount of time chasing down the right parts, which Cam took as a sign of respect for the song.
“He does so many sessions a day, and he’s very — I don’t want to say ‘picky,’ but he likes what he likes, and if he doesn’t like it, I don’t think he’ll go searching for stuff,” says Cam. “But he really liked this, so he’s playing and playing, and he was talking about how like every take he was getting closer. I thought that was the coolest thing.”
Bukovac also recommended a drummer, Ian Fitchuk, who plays keyboards, writes and produces. His versatility helped him match the right percussive feel to the other parts of the performance, and his contribution is key to the sound of the end product.
“He brought this kit that was a little bit wobbly — I think there was like duct tape on it,” recalls Johnson. “But he was just the perfect drummer. The pocket that he has is so great, and I think he plays with a lot of sensitivity.”
The track was mostly completed when Cam signed with Arista, but a ?major-label deal meant they had a budget to work with, so they took “Mayday” back into the studio with steel guitarist Russ Pahl, who brought in a bundle of pedals that gave him the ability to change the tone. Ultimately, he found the right sound to provide a swell at the start of “Mayday” that balances out some of the rhythmic heaviness.
“We have like a love/hate relationship with the song because we couldn’t get it right,” says Johnson. “We knew it was great, people liked it, but we couldn’t get it to flow right. It always bugged us, but the pedal steel part, we put it in the top, put those harmonies in, never touched it again. Done.”
Johnson had to fight, though, to stay done. Touring had made Cam’s voice stronger, and she insisted on going back into the studio and punching in on “Mayday” to toughen up one vocal segment. But Johnson didn’t think the new take worked.
“There’s something a little more innocent and fragile about [the original],” says Cam. “It was the one time Tyler threw a huge fit. He would not put the new piece in there. We’re bitching back and forth, and in the end, he was right.”
As Cam hit the road for her album Untamed, “Mayday” seemed to generate the biggest response from fans, and Arista released it to radio via Play MPE on Jan. 26 with a Feb. 15 add date. Thus, the label asked radio to commit to her water-drenched song the same day that her fire-sparked “Burning House” was up for its Grammy. “Mayday” entered Country Airplay at No. 54.
As urgent as its lyric is, “Mayday” required years to get from its inspiration to the marketplace, which speaks volumes about Cam’s tenacity.
“It was such a difficult battle,” she says, “but we do not give up.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.