Camaron Ochs walks into an East Nashville taco joint on a crisp November night, and she’s instantly the brightest presence in the place. A shock of platinum-blond curls frames the country singer’s face, and her yellow flower-print dress is paired with a mustard-hued shawl, a look that mirrors her sunny disposition. There’s most definitely a theme here.
“I thought, ‘What are the most interesting things about who I am, things people can get?’ And yellow is a thing you don’t have to think that hard about,” says Ochs, 30, explaining her look. “It’s just like: ‘I love yellow and sunshine — I’m a songwriter!’ ”
Her manager, Lindsay Marias, hands her a phone for a peek at the final art for Untamed (Dec. 11, Arista Nashville/RCA), her debut LP as just plain Cam, as friends and fans call her; Ochs flashes an approving smile. Its cover is a spin on the old Tropicana ad: Ochs sipping from a bright yellow lemon through a straw. But savvy branding isn’t the only reason Ochs is making a big impression. “Burning House” — a billowing, percussion-less ballad inspired by an anguished dream about an ex — couldn’t be further from the galumphing hard-rock attack of recent country hits. Still, it reached No. 4 on Hot Country Songs, has sold 560,000 copies (according to Nielsen Music) and cracked Country Airplay’s top 10 — just the second song by a new female act to do so this year. “Everyone who looked at data and stuff would say, ‘A slow song, in summer, by a female? That’s like a career-ender,’ ” she recalls. “But people wanted it.”
No one would’ve predicted country stardom for Ochs growing up. She loved music, but inherited her mom’s disdain for celebrity. “I’ve never wanted to be famous,” she says. “That has never been a part of any dream. I do remember being little and thinking I might want to be a singer. But not a famous singer — just, like, a singer.”
Her parents, who worked in construction management, raised Ochs and her sister in Lafayette, Calif., a hilly Bay Area suburb. But the family would escape to her grandparents’ horse ranch in the Southern California desert, where the two girls could savor the cowgirl life. “My grandpa would come in with water and flick it on our faces at 6 a.m. and be like, ‘If you don’t get up to feed the horses, you don’t get to ride them,’ ” she remembers. “We’d get up.”
Down at the ranch, they listened to Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline, and at home, Ochs’ folks spun Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Her musical diet broadened drastically when she joined a choir in elementary school (Bulgarian music, Portuguese lullabies). Later on, she took up Glee-style a cappella pop groups, but music was simply an absorbing hobby. Placed in a class for gifted students, Ochs envisioned herself becoming a Supreme Court justice. “I’m embarrassed to tell this,” she says, cringing. “When I was in first grade, some psychologist told my mom if I didn’t go to graduate school, she basically failed as a parent, because I had the aptitude to do it. Which is so dumb. Huge pressure!”
Ochs nearly did go to grad school, for psychology, a subject that appealed to her fascination with people’s hidden emotions. She got a head start by working in labs at UC Davis, Berkeley and Stanford and even publishing research, a rare achievement for an undergrad. But she also never stopped making music. In 2010 she found herself torn between the two and sought advice from a professor. “She was like, ‘What would you regret more: not doing music or psychology?’ That kind of shut the door on psychology in my mind,” says Ochs.
Through a guy she was dating, Ochs met writer-producer Tyler Johnson, who recently had made a similar choice — music over law school — and they started working up songs. (Coincidentally, it was through Johnson that Ochs later met her fiance, Adam.) Their labors yielded modest fruits at first: a cut with newbie country singer Maggie Rose and an inauspicious publishing contract that Ochs turned down. “I was like, ‘The next time I show someone my music, they’re not going to underestimate me or undervalue me,’ ” she says.
Enter producer-songwriter Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Fun, “Uptown Funk!”), who began mentoring the pair after hiring Johnson as his assistant. “I nitpicked the hell out of them,” says Bhasker. “All the little details: ‘This chord doesn’t feel right,’ or ‘This lyric isn’t strong enough.’ And they solved every puzzle I threw at them.” Through Bhasker, the two of them wound up co-writing Miley Cyrus‘ “Maybe You’re Right,” a Mike Will Made It-produced cut from 2013’s Bangerz. Says Ochs, “I was trying really hard to be pop for her sake. But everyone was like, ‘Oh, it’s so pop-country.’ “
Ochs’ own album, a mix of pop-rock gusto and rootsy warmth, already was mostly completed when she finally got her recording deal in 2014 after an audition for Sony Music head Doug Morris; he was so impressed that he had her perform when he was honored by the New York Songwriters Hall of Fame that June (honorees at the prestigious yearly event typically pick superstars to fete them). With such an illustrious introduction to the industry, it’s easy to see why Ochs wasn’t initially concerned about recent controversies over country radio giving female artists a cold shoulder. “My general idea of the world is that I’m not different at all because I’m a girl,” she says. “So I get blindsided sometimes, because I forget that that’s a thing.”
Her lead single took a chance: “My Mistake” is a sex-positive take on the prospect of a one-night stand, uncharted territory for a female country act in 2015; it stalled at No. 52 on the Country Airplay chart. “People didn’t bring up to me it was a sex-positive thing on the radio tour. Maybe I should’ve been more forward with it,” says Ochs. “I wasn’t sure how much people were going to take from a new country gal.”
But they did take to her next single, “Burning House,” and in a big way. The song scaled the charts, though it was still a different animal for country radio, better-suited to private pining than party starting. That hasn’t stopped fans from singing along to every word at shows, Och says. “Afterward, everyone always wants to come up and give me a hug after. They’re like, ‘I think we’d be friends.’ That’s a life I want: meeting people and relating to them.”
Listen to Cam and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.