It's been over a month since Alex Cameron has stepped foot in his Brooklyn apartment. Like every person who’s ever profusely apologized for the messy state of their living quarters, it’s not actually that messy. But these days, he spends most of his time writing with accomplice Roy Molloy out in the Rockaways, a beachy peninsula in Queens where he wrote the bulk of his new album Miami Memory. "Before, I was being honest about what I see,” he says while we talk about the LP on an August afternoon. “Now, I'm being a little more honest about what I do and how I feel."
It’s often lazy to describe an artist’s work as their “most personal yet,” but Miami Memory is Cameron’s only personal work yet. His first two albums were written entirely from the perspective of characters based off the toxic men he grew up around, often explicitly deploying satire in undeniable hooks. If Cameron never exactly crossed the line on either of the projects, he certainly held a magnifying glass to its dark crevices, occasionally catching sunbeams through the lens and inciting flame.
Miami Memory trades in the costumes for amplified candor on modern domesticity, delivered with the same piercing stare. “It's me resolving all those characters and stories, and bringing that baggage with me into a relationship,” Cameron explains. Indeed, most of the record’s sentiments trace back to his partnership with actress Jemima Kirke, who he met while making Forced Witness. Yes, these are love songs, but it’s love in the most vaudevillian sense — every gesture feels grand, from the empty threats of “Divorce” to the unrestrained raunch of the ultimately sex-positive title track, where he sings about “eating her ass like an oyster.” “I remember playing her the chorus [of "Miami Memory,"] and looking over and seeing that she was smiling, but there were tears,” he recalls.
For Cameron, the tonal shift in Miami Memory all comes down to emotional transparency. "The only thing that would keep me up at night is if something was murky and meaningless, or if it could be interpreted too many different ways," he says. "I have a strong desire to make sure that I'm clear with what I mean this time."
For your first two albums, you were writing and singing as someone else. How did that character develop?
Instead of writing as myself — which is one narrow, restricted perspective — I decided to be the narrator for a set of characters. It gave me access as a writer to understand people's perspectives. I worked at a public legal office in Sydney, interacting with and accepting complaints about police brutality from members of the public. A lot of my interactions were with people who were having a really hard time with the law due to racial bias, persecution, or mental illness — this really diverse and tragic group of people who needed help. The first two records were heavily informed by the dialogue I was having with that community. I was able to witness how they were living and communicating. As a way of coping with the work, I was injecting my experiences into the songs and creating characters that were combinations of stories.
Forced Witness was well received when it came out, but it also arrived during a cultural breaking point.
I decided to make Forced Witness in 2013, and it didn't come out until 2017. That record was based on my experiences in Sydney as well as America. I’d been planning that record since childhood, observing the men around me: the men in my high school, the men in the sports teams I played in, the men at parties. Then, we got Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, and he started saying shit like, "Women belong at home ironing." He said that Jesus would turn back illegal immigrants — all this bizarre shit. And this was 2013. I was like, "Now is the time for me to write these songs, because there's a guy leading the country wording this shit that I'd see as a kid on the rugby field."
So I developed this character in my mind who had deeply conservative, bigoted views and falls in love with an illegal immigrant. I started to write love songs from the perspective of a bigot, in order to distort them and undermine their bigoted values. I felt like I was planning a musical or something. It was just cosmic that the record hit right at the moment that Weinstein and Trump happened. I was like, "Fuck, I'm putting out a record in Trump's America that’s about someone exactly like Trump." For me, it just solidified that I wasn't crazy. I knew I was punching up because these people were ruling the world.
Did everyone understand your intention?
The only concern with my songwriting is that people won't get it and they'll think that I'm actually that person. "What about the people who aren't in on the joke? What if they get hurt?" I don't control that. You don't not write a villain because villains are scary. This huge internet conservative uprising has happened because there's no conversation from men about how men should behave. Constantly being told by women to get our act together is just not good enough. Men need to do more. Fathers need to raise their sons right. That's the fucking crux of it.
Do you feel like there’s any major dissonance between American and Australian ideas of masculinity?
No. It's the same.
What was it like performing those songs live?
Sometimes, if I see a rowdy bunch of people singing it, I'll say, "Careful singing along with this one." But I’ll never write music concerned about the audience. That seems pretty cynical. I knew exactly where I wanted to take it, and that's where we took it. My goals had to constantly shift. By touring the record, we had to constantly remind ourselves where we started on that path. It was just about holding on tight and going forward.
Had you known Jemima when you recorded that album?
I was halfway through recording it when we met. She’d heard a song of mine and reached out because she wanted to make a music video for “Stranger’s Kiss.” We started hanging out more and we quickly realized it wasn't just a work thing. By the time I was getting ready to release Forced Witness, we were going steady and strong. She has a way of meeting me halfway with my ideas and taking them the extra yard. She shows me what the songs mean to me. which is the kindest thing you could do to a songwriter.
That exchange feels paramount to Miami Memory.
I'd reached a point where I started writing a couple of songs and thought, "Maybe I'll throw in a few love songs on the new record." They just kept coming. I realized I was building this monument that I wanted to present to Jemima as a gift. All the songs aren't necessarily about her — sometimes they're me trying to express an understanding for a situation, her life, and her experiences.
The album came together in about six months. When I’d come back from tour, I’d go to this place in the Rockaways and sit on the piano for a week and write. I just knew what I wanted to do. Jemima would be reading or writing, I'd be playing the piano next door, and she'd come in and be like, "What's that one?" When she did that, I knew I was onto something. I'd play her a demo, and she'd start to cry, and I’d say, "Okay, it's good." If she'd laugh, I'd say, "Good. Good, good." I wanted to just get something out of her. If I could do that, then I was on the right path.
The city of Miami, itself, also feels so specific and momentous to this record.
Jemima and I have had our biggest fights, our best sex, and our highest highs in Miami. There's been moments where I’ve pulled a nine-hour drive just to get there to see her for six hours before she flies out. It’s just been this little destination for us — a meeting point. If it's been a couple of months since we've seen each other, we meet in Miami. The way the world's going, that city might be underwater in 100 years. If one day the city doesn't exist, and there's this album out there called Miami Memories, maybe people can listen and get an idea.
It all sounds like Miami to me. The way I rehearsed for tour is I'd drive around, listen to the songs, and just practice the lyrics. When I listen to them, I still get goosebumps because it makes me feel what I want people to feel. It makes me feel excited to go back to Miami. This is the first album where I think the recordings are as good as the songs. I co-produced the last two, and I don't want to do that anymore for my own albums. I get to hear the songs more from someone else's perspective, which frees me up to focus on my vocals and lyrics.
What was the vibe like at Jonathan Rado’s studio?
"If you're in town, let’s make a record together.” It's one big live room, one big control room, and a kitchen, all next to the river in Los Feliz. We were there for 30 days. That's what you work for — you tour for fucking three years so you can afford it, and the label chips in. That's the privilege of it all, actually getting to record your music. It's the only time in my life that I've ever gone into a studio to make an album.
I'm a big fan of a nap in the studio. I love napping for an hour, waking up, pressing play, and hearing the songs. When I'm by myself, I do it a lot. I'll get tired, and I'll be like, "Fuck, I'm going to sleep." Even if it's 3:00 in the afternoon. I'll do a siesta , wake up out of some bizarre nap dream, and list what you've been doing. It's a really nice thing. I was just so tired by the end of the day. I could work with Rado every day of the year. He's one of my dear friends, but on top of that, he's a lot of fun to work with. I've got no qualms being with him in that space. I want to make three records with him.
“Stepdad” is really intense, but also a subject that's very normal.
I've always seen the stepfather cast in a negative light — "You're not my real dad.” I wanted to write a song about how it's not about whether or not I'm your real dad — I can be your friend for life. I have two children in my life now that I really have a strong relationship with, and I wanted to write a song that they could hear and be like, "He wanted to be here, to be part of the family." I also know from experience that being a third parent is so rewarding and beautiful. I just wanted to write an anthem for anyone that's either been a step parent, or had a step parent, and has loved it.
Tell me about the song “PC With Me.”
It’s a song about realistic conversations. When I met some of my closest friends, and certainly, when I met Jemima, everything was on the table to be discussed. It's about this freedom you have with certain friends. How open can we be with each other? Not about our beliefs or opinions, but about the reality of the world. It's about that spark that's fused when any idea can be discussed. In those relationships, we get our power from being open with one another.
Jemima and I were talking, and I said something like, "I wouldn't say this in public," and she said, "I don't want you to have to be PC." I was like, "Oh, that's fucking a good line." I don't think personal friendships are necessarily about political correctness. It's more about trusting who the person is when you're discussing an idea. The song's not even necessarily about politically correct motivations — it's just about open dialogue.
Miami Memory is out now via Secretly Canadian.