Upon meeting Alex Cameron for the first time, it’s difficult to know what to expect. The Australian performer is as much an actor as he is a musician, inhabiting a swath of characters when he sings; the man behind the songs can be a mystery. For his debut record Jumping the Shark, he adopted the persona of an aging, struggling entertainer, wearing fake wrinkles on the cover art and singing ballads about failure. Now Cameron returns with his sophomore album, in which he sings from several identities, all of them aggressive men defined and crippled by their overbearing machismo. Forced Witness is a searing indictment of toxic masculinity in which Cameron wargs into the archetypical misogynist—the men on the album are sexist, vulgar, and lacking a few IQ points.
But Cameron himself is none of those things. Sipping an early evening beer a month in advance of his album release, the singer weighs his words carefully before he speaks. He’s a writerly sort of man who articulates his craft and concerns with a little bit of humor and a great deal of thought. “I understand songs to be short stories,” says Cameron, citing George Saunders, Seth Fried, and Flannery O’Connor. The stories by the latter, with their troubled character portraits, are the closest touch point for Cameron’s new batch of songs. But if the lyrics read like a darker, more modern O’Connor story, the music itself sounds like Bruce Springsteen filtered through Ariel Pink.
Cameron began writing the songs that would become Forced Witness two years ago, writing lyrics and melodies before fleshing things out with his friend and saxophonist Roy Molloy. Molloy, who joined Cameron for this interview, grew up on the same street and went to the same school, but the two didn’t grow close until Molloy got Cameron a job delivering pizza and the two started bonding over music. Today the two are business partners as much as they’re bandmates. They recount a pre-music pipe dream about opening up a body-positive gym that only included dumbbells.
Molloy says Cameron has always been a storyteller—“He could always sell an anecdote”—but he’s grown into a character-driven narrative style with time. For his part, Cameron says he finds performing these personas personally empowering, as well as a way to connect to his audience. “Discover what a character’s tragedy is, then more often than not, people are at least going to know someone like that or someone that can relate to it.”
The characters on Forced Witness, however, weren’t written to be relatable, exactly. Talking about “Marlon Brando,” a song about a catcalling, slur-spewing, and fist-swinging garbage pail of a human, Cameron says, “I wanted to tear this person to shreds, this bigoted, ignorant bully.” Then, as if he can’t actually harbor that much aggression, he adds, “My goal was to paint this realistic portrait that if a person ever came across it, they’d be compelled to have a look at themselves.”
In some ways, Cameron posits “Marlon Brando” as a sample of contemporary male culture, “an artifact that’s relevant to be read in the future.” But in another way, it’s a direct response to Cameron’s recent confrontation with toxic masculinity. Three years ago, he was showing a friend around the Bondi neighborhood in Sydney when they passed the bar where Cameron had his first beer. “This guy just leaned out the window and started hurling abuse at me for being a freak” because he was wearing a tight-fitting, vaguely effeminate shirt. Cameron was surprised to find this attitude in his hometown—he praises Sydney as a progressive, LGBT-friendly city that set a good example for him as a kid. “As an adult, it was weird to come across this very defensive, very threatened heterosexuality.”
That defensive masculinity, inflated like a frightened cat, is at the heart of Forced Witness. As Cameron began to see how people like the man in the Bondi bar are a global phenomenon, he endeavored to expose the way their attitudes have infected pop culture. “The first moment when I felt like I was turning a love song on its head and writing about the toxicity of that perspective, that was what started the ball rolling.”
“I wanted to tear this person to shreds, this bigoted, ignorant bully.”
Some of the songs on Forced Witness are more recognizable as inverted love songs than others. “Running out of Luck” tells the story of a man and a stripper on the run; “Stranger’s Kiss” recounts romance at random. Other tracks like “The Hacienda” have the musical trappings of a ballad, but really cover something darker, in this case an especially depressing brothel.
There’s something else connecting these characters other than their hyper-masculinity, though: the Internet. Many of Cameron’s characters live creepy second lives online. “Truest Lies” is most obvious example, a song about a man who exchanges pictures and sultry messages with a woman he suspects is actually “some Nigerian guy.” Considering why all his characters seem to have some issue with the Internet, he explains, “I suppose I have some issues with the Internet. I spend a lot of time online. I’m a little bit amazed and perplexed by how easy it is to access people.” He and Molloy estimate they spend 3 hours a day online, at least.
Cameron is just old enough to remember when the Internet was new; he seems nostalgic for it now. “It was once a place for outcasts. The Internet feels a little bit like this weird part of the schoolyard where only the freaks used to hang out, but for whatever reason all the jocks and beautiful people caught on and decided they liked it too, and they’ve kind of infiltrated it and now the freaks aren’t welcome anymore.”
Playground politics aside, he’s concerned. It’s become another platform for the harmful attitudes he’s seen in the rest of world. “It feels nightmarish and tumultuous at the moment.” Hence he writes songs about men in dark rooms who solicit nudes from teenage girls.
Of course, taking down the patriarchy is easier said than done. Cameron knows this and recognizes that, as a straight white male, his work speaks from a place of privilege. But he argues that Forced Witness is all the more urgent because of this: “There’s not necessarily a voice coming from the straight community artistically, condemning this kind of thing. It’s all well and good to tweet about something or say you support a cause, but to actually incorporate it into your art and actually put yourself on the line is something I was drawn to.” Later he reflects, “I’m more offended by bands that say nothing in their art.”
Reflecting on current events, Cameron recognizes that if there’s a time to say something, it’s now. Toxic masculinity arguably has a bigger platform than anytime in recent memory. “It keeps coming up. It’s a problem when someone gets aggressive at a bar, it’s a problem when the President decides to say some out-there shit. It’s a problem from the bottom to the top.” The problem is so pervasive that Cameron decided to step out from behind the characters that define his writing style for the closing track on Forced Witness, “Politics of Love.” It’s a soaring call for compassion that feels like a breath of fresh air after an album that can make you want to take a shower.
“There’s not necessarily a voice coming from the straight community artistically, condemning [the patriarchy]. It’s all well and good to tweet about something or say you support a cause, but to actually incorporate it into your art and actually put yourself on the line is something I was drawn to.”
“The song did end up becoming a kind of mission statement,” said Cameron. “I’ve written all these songs, and now I want to write this one that I can get behind and believe in. That song is like the voice of reason on the record. You consider all this garbage around it, still it’s not going to impact the end result. Apart from all this decrepit shit going on, all this brutality, I think that we’re going to find a way to transcend that.”
It’s an optimistic thought, and it’s encouraging to see that Cameron believes it. For all the ugliness you may come across, there’s a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. For his part, Cameron will keep on chasing it, spinning stories out along the way.
Alex Cameron’s new album, Forced Witness, is out this Friday, 9/8, via Secretly Canadian
Photos by Paige Winston