On her new album Daybreak Over Jackson Street—released April 14 on Pheromone Recordings—Steph Cameron seems to be following a creative trajectory similar to many of her songwriting heroes. While her acclaimed 2014 debut Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady introduced her as an observational folk troubadour in the classic mode, the new album captures how much she has matured as a singer/songwriter since then, largely through a willingness to get introspective.
For Daybreak Over Jackson Street, the Saskatoon-based Cameron once again worked with producer Joe Dunphy at Toronto’s Revolution Recording, drawing from a deeper pool of material than what was on hand for her debut. The result is a collection that explores love, loss and finding joy in troubled times, themes that are accentuated by the album’s intimate sonic approach.
The key seems to be the distance Cameron has started to establish from her hardscrabble years as a busker and living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. On songs such as “Richard” and the title track, she’s found a new sense of empathy, offering moving glimpses of living on the margins of society, making for another powerful statement from one of the country’s brightest young voices.
What makes Daybreak Over Jackson Street stand apart from your debut?
Daybreak Over Jackson Street is a more reflective work. I am looking at my life now from an adult perspective, which has changed the way I view myself, the world around me, my relationships and my past. Writing from that perspective offers more opportunity for insight and depth, which is what I believe I’ve captured with this record. The way the album was recorded makes the sound much more present than Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady. I wanted these songs to sound as if I was in the room with the listener. This album is also very deliberate whereas the recording of Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady was completely spontaneous.
Is there a particular track you feel symbolizes how you’ve matured as a songwriter?
I’d say it would be “Young and Living Free.” The guitar work and the structure are more developed, and the lyrics are more contemplative than other songs I’ve written. I feel the work was an exercise in subtlety and thoughtful storytelling. The guitar part is quite different from other songs I’ve written and therefore more challenging. I was teaching myself an entirely different style of playing the guitar while writing this song.
You lived the troubadour life for a long time before your recording career began. What are the greatest lessons you learned from that experience?
I have learned that flexibility and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances are very important skills to have. There is a beautiful line in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go” that really captures this spirit: “I was an oak, now I’m a willow, now I can bend.” I imagine the willow in a storm that is able to bend in the wind, whereas the sturdy, unmoving oak is at risk of breaking.
If you could change anything about the music business, what would it be?
If I could change anything about the industry—the mainstream industry—I would change the sexualization of artists that occurs, and the promotion of unhealthy and dangerous body expectations. It horrifies me when I see young girls and women singing along to songs that exploit their fears, target their self-esteem and normalize the concept that they are less powerful and less deserving of the right to self-determination. These are messages that instil the idea that a girl or a woman is only as important as a boy or man decides she is. And all of this is an effort to make them vulnerable to marketing.
This messaging also damages men and boys since it does little to model positive relationships or healthy expectations. The industry promotes the worship of wealth and status above everything, notably above happiness, health, self-esteem and positive relationships. Artists who deliver mediocre lyrics that are vapid or shrouded in negative messaging are nurtured instead of challenged to improve. I would be busy if I were set to this task!
What are your fondest musical memories as you were growing up?
I sang constantly as a child, and I loved to perform. Recently unearthed home videos show me hogging the camera and demanding attention be paid to whatever performance I was giving at the moment! I have very happy memories of singing with my grandmother and my auntie as a young girl. We would drive to the lake in Saskatchewan where my grandparents had a cabin and we would sing the whole way there. They taught me to harmonize when I was very young by singing “You Are My Sunshine.”