There was a time when native Californian Camaron Ochs spent her days in a psychology research lab at Stanford and dabbled in music on the side. Then came a pair of cuts — with Miley Cyrus and rising country act Maggie Rose — and a fan-funded recording project. With the help of her producers Jeff Bhasker (Bruno Mars, Kanye West, Beyonce) and Tyler Johnson (Taylor Swift, OneRepublic, Ed Sheeran), the effervescent singer-songwriter signed to Arista Nashville and fashioned herself into simply Cam. Now she has an unlikely first hit on her hands with “Burning House,” an emotionally intense dream sequence about clinging to a former lover, that’s received upwards of 250 impassioned covers on YouTube to date.
You released your ballad “Burning House” over the summer, when melancholy songs often flounder. Why do you think it took off?
It’s one of those songs that every time I play it live, everybody has a moment. That’s what’s really cool — that it’s not just this moment at a show, but people really want to have that song to listen on repeat at home by themselves.
Your name is attached to published psychology research. How big of a deal was it to give that up for music?
In 2010 I was doing pretty well. I was going to go to graduate school. But I remember asking my professor, ‘What should I do?’ And she said, “Picture yourself at 80. What would you regret not having done more: psychology or music?”
The title of your EP, Welcome to Cam Country, suggests that you’re trying to establish your own brand of country music. What do you want to become known for?
I would like to be known for honest, relatable writing and stories that that are real. There’s just this shift I think is happening in a lot of society right now where being your most real self, however embarrassing or vulnerable or weird that is, is the coolest. I feel like that’s what Lena Dunham’s about and Amy Schumer’s about. There’s this freedom in just being who you are. I’m just hoping to find a place that feels like that.
You’ve talked about Patsy Cline being a major influence. What other singers and songwriters are important touchstones for you?
I think Alison Krauss is one of the most amazing singers ever. As a songwriter — this is gonna sound cheesy — I love Randy Newman. And my mom passed on a love of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. At one point I was so into the Indigo Girls, just like I was so into the Dixie Chicks, those female harmonies. Right after college I got really into St. Vincent. She just is so cool and out there. I think that’s super inspiring. And tone and mood-wise, I just love Patsy Cline and Ray Charles. These are all the things that I hope to be, but I’m sure I just sound like myself, whether I want to or not.
The scarcity of successful women in country has been a hot topic for a while now. What’s your take?
My general idea of the world is that I’m not different at all because I’m a girl. So first off, I kind of get blindsided sometimes by [gender imbalances], because I forget that that’s a thing. It’s a money-driven thing. If you see a scarcity of women and you’re trying to make an investment, you’re like, “Maybe there’s a reason people aren’t investing; we’re going to follow that trend.” I remember people telling me, “No one’s signing women.” But I was like, that’s an opportunity. If no one else is doing it, there’s a window.
Listen to Cam and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.