Brett Cameron is an independent singer and songwriter who has shared the stage with Jon Bellion, Hall & Oates, Kodaline, and Drake Bell among others. He was previously a member of the bands Chasing Moonlight and Kalimur and is currently one half of the collaborative project Lost//Alive. A tour of his new album, It Comes in Waves & When It’s Here I’ll Know, was originally booked to begin in August but is now on hold due to COVID-19. He will be donating the proceeds of his single “Human” to City Harvest, a charity that provides food to those in need. It Comes in Waves & When It’s Here I’ll Know was recently nominated for two Independent Music Awards. Brett Cameron has been featured in The Huffington Post, EARMILK, PopDust, and iHeart Radio, among others. His new single “Faith” was released on July 17 and he is currently working on an LP anticipated for this autumn.
Amelia Spalter: When most people start playing music, they have limitless enthusiasm, yet many become disenchanted with it before they’re even fully proficient on an instrument. Do you think the passion required to break into the industry is something you have to be born with, or was there a difference maker in your music education that helped you stay the course?
Brett Cameron: I’ve analyzed this a lot and have been through waves of reflecting on my own intentions. When you’re younger, you think about things in a less explicit and conscious way. So around eighth grade, when my music started to get me more attention from girls, and even from my friends, of course I was still really interested in music [for music’s sake], but for any kid to realize, “Oh, this gives me a different kind of attention,” is going to change the game a little bit. When something gives you positive feedback, you may unconsciously start to shift your intentions to sometimes not be super pure, especially when you’re younger. Like, “Oh, I want to do this because I want someone to tell me that it’s great,” or “To have the applause,” just to have that recognition and the validation. Over the years, I’ve learned both from my own experiences as well as from talking to other artists, the importance of keeping some semblance of your identity away from the music and even away from any sort of success. I think that goes for anyone in any career, but particularly for me as a musician, it’s a big deal.
To get to the heart of the question: when I don’t reflect on my intentions, music becomes something that it’s not. I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t want a lot of people to hear the music; I do. And I imagine that shrouded in what I think is my primary intention of the love of music and the love of connection is some sense of seeking validation and seeking that applause, but I really try to keep it at bay. When it does come in, it mostly helps me, because when I get on stage I really make sure that I’m getting on for the right reasons, which are the love of the craft, the love of connecting with people, and the feeling of building a community in that experience.
AS: Early on you dreamed of being a professional baseball player, but when did you realize your commitment to music had surpassed all else?
BC: I realized in ninth grade that pro baseball was not going to happen. I had an elbow injury. I did Cal Ripken Baseball League and then Babe Ruth in seventh and eighth grade, and we went to the world series both years. So, even though it’s not a real world series, there was some justification for me thinking I could make it. But I was a benchwarmer, and if you can’t start in Little League, I don’t think you’ll play for the Yankees. Then I started doing music in eighth grade and taking it seriously in ninth grade. I won the Young Singer Songwriters Award for the Singer Songwriters Circle in New York. That was the first moment where I actually made money from music and thought, “Okay, here’s some recognition, so maybe this could become something.” From there I’ve always had a strikingly similar attitude, where even when balancing music with school then, and working as a teacher now, I’ve always taken my music career more seriously than just a side hustle.
AS: Was there any specific moment where you realized you had made the transition from fan to artist?
BC: Yes – when I started witnessing the behind the scenes of concerts, the whole artist-perspective was really deconstructed. On the one hand, seeing the inner workings of a concert production might dispel whatever magic you felt when you were younger going to see your first live show. But at the same time, there’s a brilliance to understanding how it’s all put together. So, through trying to recreate for other people what I’ve been given as a fan, I’ve gained a new perspective into all that goes into creating that experience. So when I go to see other shows, it’s just a great thing to understand all of the moving parts, both in front of the stage and behind it.
One of the really cool moments was when I opened for Kodaline. It was at a venue that I had dreamed of playing, called College Street Music Hall. I’d seen some of my favorite bands there, and every time I went in I was always thinking, “I would do anything to get on this stage.” So being able to then play the show there and be behind the scenes of it, that was a prime example of what I meant in terms of deconstructing how these shows are put on, while still having a wonderment about that discovery as well.
AS: Who’s been the most memorable artist to do a show with so far?
BC: Either Jon Bellion or Kodaline. I was an undergrad at UConn [the University of Connecticut] and Jon Bellion was playing the fall concert, so he got together with the students who organized the concert and the artists that opened for him afterwards. One of the really great things he talked about was making sure your identity is not completely tied to success. Because if you have successes, that’s what you’re going to base yourself off of and you’ll feel like the king of the world, but when you have failures, you’re also going to feel as if your sense of self and purpose is tied into that failure, which is definitely not actually the case. To hear someone of his stature talk about that was really cool.
AS: Those of us who aren’t professionals usually only see the well rehearsed, highly refined sides of concerts. Can you tell us about a time when something went horribly wrong on stage?
BC: There are more of those examples than the great moments, for sure. I mean, almost more than I could recount. Oh man, there was one recent show that actually turned out to be a great show, but… Okay, so, we were playing The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. My live setup right now is a full band alongside a backing track containing supplemental instruments, like synths and strings. We practiced a song of mine, “Something to Believe In,” before the show a few times, but it was always a little uneasy. There’s a drum track intro before we all start coming in with the instruments and the timing was always a little bit wonky. This is always a nightmare scenario, but I had to stop the song 30 seconds into playing, because I’m realizing, “Nothing is synced up.” And it was funny, because Jesse Kristin from Jukebox the Ghost, which is a band that I really admire, actually came to see the show. So I was looking at him while playing the guitar riff over the drums and I was just dying inside.
I mean, there are also just so many shows in dive bars where there’s not a lot of people listening, and I’ll hate to admit this, because I feel like the theme so far has been, “Do it for the love of the music.” But there are definitely moments where you’re in an empty venue, playing to the bartender, your sound guy, and a few people who are there more for the alcohol than your music. I wouldn’t sit here and lie to you and say that it was all for the love of the music in that moment. Those are more, “I feel like we’d have a better time practicing in a basement somewhere than playing this actual show.” So, I mean, there are also just a lot of those. But I’d like to think it builds character.
AS: You’ve always been an independent artist, and your recent Independent Music Award nominations make it clear that was the right call. But back before you’d built up a fan base, what convinced you to take the risk of forgoing a label?
BC: I would love to be signed through a label. But I am equally as proud to be independent and particularly proud that I have a lot of control over my artistic vision, so to speak. I mean, I taught myself how to record and I built a home studio setup. So the amount of room for exploration that I have in terms of forming my own artistic identity, primarily when it comes to figuring out my sound, has been a great benefit of being independent. I can try to combine influences on a record and make it cohesive, like having a rock track with a spoken-word bridge section, and then an electro-pop anthemic banger. So that’s been really great, but it’s also indicative of how much the music industry has changed.
There are still stories out there proving some people take the first flight to Los Angeles, play the networking game, and find their way into circles of industry tastemakers right away. But it’s become so much more decentralized and democratic, which adds a lot more noise into the fray. Things like Spotify and the ability to record from home studios were unprecedented 10 or 20 years ago. That’s given people like me the opportunity to put our music out there. But it makes it all the more difficult to find those tastemakers that are important for certain artists, like myself, to break through that noise. It’s this back and forth of the benefits of being independent and the benefits of making music in this modern age and the freedoms that come with that. But I also recognize the significance of having a team around you to help do the legwork of pushing the music to tastemakers, radio, and potential listeners. So it’s something that I’m still trying to navigate in terms of how best to build my team and if being independent is the best route or if signing a contract would help push things to the next level.
AS: What advice would you offer to anxious young musicians who are looking at a pandemic-induced recession and thinking to themselves, or even hearing from friends and family, “Maybe it’s time to put the keyboard away and get a job with a guaranteed pay day.”?
BC: Striving towards being only one thing is a recipe for an identity crisis. Granted, there are forces within society that are pushing this idea of specialization, that you should be really good at one very specific thing. But, especially with the gig economy and whatnot, we are moving towards embracing people being multifaceted in their skill sets and their interests. There is still a big push for, “At a certain point, put the keyboard away. You’re a banker who specializes in your very specific area of banking and the only way you’re going to get ahead is if you have tunnel vision around advancing in that track.” But there are mental health repercussions to that. And when your mental health is affected, that usually means everything else in your life will be as well. It’s one thing to say, “You know what? I’m not feeling it like I used to.” Or, “I found this other type of community, and I really just want to put all my passion into that.” Unless it’s as organic as those types of scenarios, then you’re forcing yourself to put away something that gives you happiness, that benefits your wellbeing, that allows you to explore the multifaceted person that you’re meant to be as a human being. That’s going to come back to haunt you.
That’s looking at it from more of a mental health perspective; but logistically, I have always balanced music with other endeavors. If you’re passionate enough about it, you will always find the ability to carve out time to prioritize music. In my experience, it’s never come at the expense of personal relationships or financial stability. I would caution everyone to not look at their larger life choices as a dichotomy of either this or that, “It’s either music or something else.” And at the end of the day, music is something that brings color and comfort to life, that connects people, and creates community. It’s all the best aspects of humanity. So consider what you’d really be giving up before saying you’re willing to give up the music.
AS: How do you recommend young musicians find balance between being their most sincere and authentic while simultaneously being their most profitable and public facing?
BC: There isn’t any selling out in selling yourself if, again, your intentions are pure – for example, if you’re trying to sell something that is a true story that you want to tell or a real emotion that you felt that might comfort other people. And I use the word “selling” liberally. It’s a little cliché, but put yourself out there, you have nothing to lose. As much as there is a lot of noise, there is also a lot of desire for connection, especially these days. We as humans connect better with other humans when we’re being honest and open and real about what we’ve been through and what we’re feeling.
In terms of being palatable to other people, again, same idea. I don’t think you’re being inconsistent by trying to create something that is palatable to listeners while still artistically enriching to you and your process of making it. You’re not at odds with yourself because you both want to make music that’s true and be successful. And you’re not at odds with yourself if you want to write lyrics that are personal and create music that resonates with you, but also make it pop and create high-end studio-quality recordings that could be on Top 40. At least, from my perspective, I would just love for as many people as people possible to hear my music. So it’s just about finding that balance between something that can reach more people, but also still, always, holds that core of who you are. Striking that balance is an art form in and of itself. As long as your work holds onto that core of what you stand for, it will even cut through the noise that much more. The two work in tandem.
AS: We got to see those two working in tandem on your recent single, “Human,” for which you donated all the proceeds to charity. Which came first, the song or the connection to City Harvest?
BC: I wrote this song about a week into the pandemic. I sat down at the piano a few times before I wrote it and was having a little bit of writer’s block. Then I went, “I feel like I need to get a song out about what I am experiencing right now if I want to be able to write more songs while all this chaos and concern is unfolding around me.” Everything from the chord progressions, to the lyrics, to the overall production expresses this idea of concern and anxiety, but at the same time calls out the better parts of humanity that do have this incredible will to survive, to get through, and to be there for each other. Especially if you look at the frontline workers, they’re doing just that. So on that note, I was thinking of City Harvest, because it’s giving food to people on the frontlines and it’s relatively local to me in New York. The best change that people can have is usually local change, so it just felt like a really good fit. It felt like the message of the song resonated with the purpose of the charity, so donating the proceeds was a no-brainer.
AS: What is the most underutilized resource for independent musicians right now?
BC: It’s contextual, but I would say that I’ve benefited a lot from having a home studio. It is so accessible if you save up. Granted, I definitely come from a privileged perspective in that I was able to get a job and then save up money to get the equipment when not everyone is in a position to use the money they earn when they’re younger on music gear. But if you’re able to do that, ultimately it will save you money because you’re not paying for studio time. It just gives you so much freedom and time not only to be able to create material that you can share on a consistent basis, but also, again, it just gives you the space to figure yourself out as an artist. So as much as it is harder to be seen and get noticed today because of all the noise, there is unprecedented opportunity to be an artist if you want to be. So, from a creative standpoint, I’d say a home studio.
From a promotional standpoint, I would just say using social media in a way that is smart. Pay attention to artists that you look up to and think, “Why am I attracted to checking their Instagram posts? What are they doing differently? Are they doing professional photo shoots? Are they interacting with fans a certain way?” It’s all there for us to see. The tricks of the trade have become more transparent in terms of building your audience. Just trying to emulate what’s in plain sight as best you can is something that can be really helpful.
AS: What song should everyone add to their playlist right now?
BC: “Play Dead” by Between Giants. Between Giants is an amazing band which my friend [and bandmate from Kalimur and Lost//Alive] Tyler John is in. I highly recommend everyone check them out.
AS: To stay relevant in today’s industry, you have to release new music on a hyper-consistent basis. To what degree does the demand for new content influence your creative decision making?
BC: There’s this great tension within artists of really believing in yourself enough to put yourself out there, whether it’s by playing in front of hundreds of thousands of people or by sharing your music on the Wild West that is the internet. But this tension is born of a balance between that belief and a desire to be accepted, of having some sense of your artistic career hinge upon validation from other people. So when it comes to knowing if a song is good or if I should keep pushing a certain vision for whatever endeavor that I have, there’s always that tension, “Am I crazy? Should I be listening to other people who are saying that this is not my best thing? Or do I feel a real sense of passion about this idea enough that I should be sticking to my guns?”
It’s always that dance between the two where you will go crazy if you go too far to either end of the spectrum. You’re going to go crazy if you base everything you do on external validation, and you’re going to go crazy if you never listen to people who are saying, “Maybe this is not your best work or something to really put everything that you have into.” Finding that balance has allowed me to stand behind my decisions when I push forward with whatever I’m doing. Similar to what I was saying before about intentions, if you can, always have a premeditated approach of, “Why am I putting this out?” “What is the message of this?” “How does it make me feel?” Whenever you can, really stand behind those pillars. It’s a lot easier to be decisive at that point, because once you put something out, you’ve got to stick by it.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.