Sydney-born musician Alex Cameron wants to create stories about “actual things that exist in the world” — and indeed people. With that comes a necessity to represent the not-so-nice side of humanity; the defeated, the frustrated, the flops and the morally repugnant all feature widely in the sleazy cast of characters he dreams up and embodies in his songs. In the final track off his 2016 debut, Jumping the Shark, a down and out desperado resigns himself to the fact that “I ain’t half the man I wanted to be”. In Cameron’s lyricism, masculinity and failure combine to terrible, theatrical effect.
Cameron continues along the same vein in his most recent album, 2017’s Forced Witness, a surprisingly good humoured record that glimmers with all the warm, poppiness of an 80s’ movie soundtrack. This time, he takes the tragedy from the stage to the World Wide Web — “I live with a deep regret of what I do on the internet,” he sings on the stand-out track, ‘Candy May’. By his own admission, Cameron spends a lot of time on the web, “engaging with it pretty regularly” and the record ripples with the sort of sad, strange sagas of a life lived online. In ‘True Lies’ he assumes the role of someone with an addiction to speaking to anonymous women on the net — “When I feel it really coming on strong/ Yeah I know I really shouldn’t log on” — or in ‘Studmuffin96’, the speaker — presumably a internet lurker preying on underage girls — announces, “I’m waiting for my lover/She’s almost 17”. While, in ‘Strangers Kiss’, a duet with Angel Olsen, she sings, “They made a meme out of my legacy, darling” — a lyric that is as pathetic as it is accurate about renown and significance in the 21st century. Somehow, Cameron manages to sing about ugly things, all the while ensuring that the listener smiles and sings along with him anyway.
However, Forced Witness isn’t just a reflection of our contemporary cyber obsession — according to Cameron, “Berlin is a huge a part of the album” too. In 2016, Cameron spent several months living in Neukölln, hopping on the tram and recording the album in Funkhaus Berlin. For Cameron, Berlin has not just been integral to Forced Witness, but “my music, and also, my life”, he confirms. As he prepares to return to Berlin this weekend to play at Torstrassen Festival — along with his collaborator, saxophonist Rob Molloy — SLEEK sits down with the chameleonic crooner to discuss everything from short stories to on-stage dancing to learning how to be a “bearable human”, both on and offline.
Many of the characters you present deal with failed or tragic masculine figures. How did this become an aspect of your work? Why was it something you wanted to portray?
Well, it was just everywhere. I started writing the lyrics for Forced Witness back in 2013, so it came from observing and also from the place where I worked — a government legal office. I was working as an investigative assistant accessing instances of corruption and assisting victims of corruption. It was my experiences in everyday life and my job at the time that led me towards these characters that were everywhere. They are not a minority, they are everywhere.
What are your key influences in music or otherwise?
I like authors, especially short story writers. Classic writers like Flannery O’Connor and people who create grotesque visions. I also like George Saunders, who is a contemporary writer. I am inspired by people who can find little sparks in hyper-specific stories and expand upon them, and bring the characters into a larger feeling, even though they are very small.
Forced Witness is filled with references to the internet. How has the internet shaped you as an artist?
Well I had the internet as a kid, even in primary school, so I’ve always engaged with it naturally. It’s interesting having been there since the beginning — in terms of the internet being widely accessible — because it was almost like no one was entirely sure what the rules were yet. The way I wrote about the internet on Forced Witness describes how people are existing in that grey area — not necessarily convinced that it’s a real thing, because the idea of fantasy and the screen means that they are doing things that are questionable morally. That could mean someone lying about who they are and getting money out of another person, or someone communicating romantically with someone who is underage — it’s these incidences of romantic drama that I think are very interesting.
Do you view the internet as a positive thing mostly or a source of negativity?
I don’t know. I think that communication is very important. Communication and information should be widely accessible at all times, so I believe in a free internet for all.
Your dancing is a significant part of your identity as a performer. Were you always a dancer?
I wasn’t always a dancer. I started dancing when I was younger on stage, around 18. I think it’s probably easier to dance on stage to entertain an audience. I find that I am much more comfortable dancing on stage than I am dancing sober at a party. When the mood is right, when I’m with the right people, if I’m dancing with my girl, I’ll dance anywhere, anytime, but I certainly dance on stage as a response to the audience.
Your music and your on-stage persona are very unique. Do you have any advice about staying true to yourself in that sense?
I think it’s a matter of finding how you can operate at a level that gives you a degree of consistency and you have got to balance that with necessity. It’s a really amazing opportunity if you find something that you’re good at, that you find bearable and inspiring, and you can do it regularly for money. We’re talking about employment here: how you can earn money to live. I wanted to be a musician since I can remember so some might say I got lucky that way. I don’t know if staying true to myself is necessarily my priority. My priority is more making sure that you keep yourself fulfilled. You fulfil yourself with beautiful music, romance, education, entertainment, socialising, community — these are all buckets of water that have to go into the well, and then you can start to function as a bearable human. The shorter answer is that you’ve got to find something you can do, so when you do it, you mean it.
Lastly, what can we expect from your gig on Sunday at Torstrassen Festival?
We will have the full band with us. We have never played this set and will play songs off the record that we haven’t played before. I am just excited to be back in Berlin. Last time we played here the vibe was really strong and I really like Torstrassen Festival. The organisers are really good people and the crowd seem to be really strong and sweet as well. I am just excited to come back and put on a red hot show.
Alex Cameron will perform at Torstrassen Festival on Sunday, June 10 at Volksbühne. More details here.