Steph Cameron's music and lifestyle seem to echo another time and place. Think of the beatniks in the '50s, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. Think Greenwich Village circa 1963, and the beginning of the Dylan-fueled folk explosion, or a late '60s commune in northern California perhaps.
In fact, Steph Cameron and her community of like-minded friends have made their own time and place, right here, right now. They have chosen to share music and ideas around the campfire, or by candlelight within the rural cabins they have built themselves.
That is the environment that has spawned Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady, the astonishingly accomplished debut album from Steph Cameron. Out on Pheromone Recordings, it presents the B.C.-based singer/songwriter in an honest and unvarnished setting, showcasing a genuinely exciting new roots music talent. What could be more organic and pure than an album simply comprising voice and guitar (with an occasional judiciously-placed harmonica), recorded to 2-inch tape?
There is an undeniably retro feel to Cameron's work, but she is certainly not mired in the past. "I've been involved in the underground punk and hip hop scenes for years," she says. "I have always felt an affinity for music that comes from the street or other places of conflict." She goes on to to express a "respect for music that admires the resourcefulness of struggling people and demonstrates a distrust for authority." Steph acknowledges that her core passion, however, remains "folk and blues music." This ranges from the country blues of Lightnin' Hopkins to the bluegrass of Doc Watson to the vintage '60s folk of Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and early Joni Mitchell.
Hints at these diverse influences can be found on Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady. Songs like "Five Dollars," "Railroad Boy" and "Blues At My Window” have a talking folk-blues feel, while the sensual and bluesy "Poppa You Can Take Me Home" projects a Maria Muldaur vibe. The closing cut, "Many Miles To Go," is a breezy bluegrass gem. "Joe Dunphy had a guitar in the studio done up in Nashville tuning, giving it that ethereal tone," Steph explains. "I used that guitar on the spur of the moment and it worked beautifully."
Along with its refreshing eclecticism, the material here has a lovely dynamic range. From the upbeat feel of "Railroad Boy" and "Blues at my Window" (which boasts the memorable lines “I got a heart full of loving and a belly full of gin”) to the quietly sinister "Ellis Pine" and gently compelling "Glory," Steph explores a vast emotional terrain with convincing skill, thanks to her pure, strong and supple voice.
Cameron's crisp and rhythmic playing is another key component to the album. Self-taught on guitar, she explains that she has made a recent major breakthrough on the instrument. "I have been playing for a decade, but only seriously for the last few years, after a friend gave me a set of metal banjo fingerpicks. I now find guitar interesting, which challenges me to progress and compels me to write songs."
Lyrically, Steph's songs dig deep, drawing upon the experiences and lessons learned from a fascinatingly nomadic and sometimes turbulent lifestyle. Born in Saskatoon, she has since spent time living in East Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and now the Kootenay region of the B.C. interior, as well as logging serious miles traversing the country.
Her songs also draw inspiration from her circle of close and creative friends. "In some ways, the songs are like a sounding board," she explains. "I write music as a way of digesting events that have shaped me and my community. A storyteller has to be honest - even, and often especially when that honesty is uncomfortable. Some of the songs on this record are light-hearted and playful, but the songs that are most meaningful for me acknowledge the turbulence in my own life and the lives around me. " Cameron also finds creative sustenance in living simply, for the last several years in cabins she has built herself. "My dog and I used to live in an 8 by 8 foot shanty I built in the bush on Vancouver Island. In the winter, when the rain would beat down on the tin roof, it sounded like a drum. I wrote ‘Goodbye Molly’ about the rhythm of the rain and the feeling of water rising all around me."
"I use oil lamps and candles and heat with a wood stove," she says. "I have never been a stranger to cities, though. The songs on this record concerned with the city recall the sadness and trouble I've found there." As examples, she cites “Glory,” “a song that’s written about the street kids I grew up admiring,” and "Ellis Pine", "a song," she describes, "from East Vancouver."
Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady was recorded in just three days at elite Toronto studio Revolution Recording this past summer. Initially, plans were for Steph to lay down just one song there, she recalls. "I came to Toronto, met Kim Cooke [head of Pheromone and a partner in Revolution)] for the first time, and we decided to record, mix and master one song, 'Goodbye Molly,' as a test run. We had Molly down within a couple of hours so we chose to keep going. We recorded for three consecutive days, finishing all 13 songs on the record. I had made a short trip to Toronto and left with a finished album."
Cooke notes that the timing was fortuitous bordering on magical. "All three rooms of the studio were booked solid that month, except for a Monday to Wednesday slot that coincided with Steph being here." The initial recording template was put in place by Revolution engineer Joe Dunphy, with further recording by Jack Clow. The analog approach perfectly captures the warmth and intimacy of Cameron's voice and fluent guitar playing. It's only fitting that a release on vinyl is being planned.
For Steph Cameron, music has always been a passion rather than a career choice. She has performed extensively across Canada, primarily in a very unstructured fashion as a busker . "That's how I've worked my way across Canada for nearly ten years," she says. "With my friends and our dogs, we hitchhike and ride trains to get into cities. We take over a spot, play music for a week, make enough money to keep going and then move onto the next place." Busking has helped shape Steph into an engagingly communicative and energetic performer. The shift from busker to recording artist is not one Steph actually pursued or predicted. The catalyst was a friend from Victoria. "He pressured me into making a demo about 18 months ago," Cameron explains. "I had been playing these songs around the fire and he really enjoyed them so he got after me and we set up a recording date in our friend’s bedroom." This same friend then gave the resulting demo to Cowboy Junkies bassist Alan Anton, who was highly impressed with what he heard and offered encouraging advice to Cameron. "When Alan contacted me, I had a feeling that this could all get a little more serious than I intended."
That first demo then found its way to music industry veteran Kim Cooke at Pheromone Recordings. Knocked out by what he heard, Cooke reached out to Cameron, eventually signing her to the label. “For someone new to this, Steph has incredible instincts and she knows exactly what she wants,” says Kim. “I think she is a unique character who has already led a fascinating life at a young age, and it is on display in her music.” Cameron reflects that "I had a good amount of time and space between hearing from Alan and meeting Kim. I was able to write a lot of material for the record in that time and was able to digest what was going on. This is all about small steps for me. It is not something I was pursuing or felt driven to do. It is just something that has happened, and we'll see where I take it."
Steph Cameron is now gradually surfacing from the underground, but with ideals intact. With Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady, she is ready to take her eloquent material and compelling voice public on a much wider scale than simply sharing it with friends around the fire or passersby on street corners. For that, we can feel very fortunate.