Katie here, and as many of you know, I have two jobs— I get to write columns here, but I also get to teach at the University of Evansville. In addition to all the other wonderful classes I get to teach, I’ve taught individual seminars in advanced poetry and taken master’s level poetry classes. Somehow those things feel sort of necessary to proceed from here. This week’s new artist, Cameron McGill, is a friend of mine, and someone whose music and art I respect greatly. But any number of my friends can attest, if Cameron is brought up (which happens fairly regularly in the two small circles— poetry and music— that I run in), I usually say:
“Oh, Cameron McGill? That’s the guy whose life I ruined with poetry!” (Cam, to quote Harry Chapin: “I might never have said it to you, but I said it about you a lot.”)
It all started because, early in my career(s), I was intrigued by the many similarities and also differences I found in my music writing and my poetry. I pitched to my colleagues and the editors at Measure magazine, a metrical poetry journal, the idea of running some lyrics and poems by musicians, some poems and lyrics by poets, and then finally some essays and interviews to talk about the dichotomy. I had a copy of Cameron McGill & What Army’s Is a Beast, and I knew he was someone I wanted to talk about submitting lyrics to the journal. “I Don’t Believe in Magic (But All My Friends Seem to Disappear)” and “The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs” showed off a sense of humor (very much drenched in anxiety and dread), and that was exactly the tone I wanted to project. So, as one did in 2011, I went to Twitter and introduced myself— and found what he called “Tour Haiku,” which was what the world looked like outside the window of a tour van, broken into small Twitter-sized bites.
It was all compelling, brilliantly worded, to the bone, and… dammit, I knew he was one of us. The poor guy was a poet. I didn’t want to be the one to break it to him, but I had a bad feeling after he sent me the next record— Gallows Etiquette— that someone was going to have to tell him. Not because his lyrics are poetry: quite the opposite. Cameron’s lyrics are lyrics, the good, meaty kind of narrative that stitch together character and voice in a way that leaves a lot on the table but a lot of holes. I had to tell him because, listening to his record up against reading what he saw as (I think) a small Twitter exercise, I knew he had the potential to write poetry.
(Here’s where I should make a brief editorial statement: one art form is not necessarily higher than the other, but that certainly doesn’t mean you can conflate the two. Show me 75% of poetry written and I’ll show you a Mountain Goats song that destroys it in terms of emotional impact. It’s a different medium, period, and probably no one knows that better than Cameron.)
To make a long, lovely story short…Cameron now has a terminal degree in poetry from the University of Idaho, he teaches at Washington State University, he’s recently been a semi-finalist in Beloit Poetry Journal’s chapbook contest, aaaaaaand he’s the poetry editor at Blood Orange Review.
Everyone who knows me from Underwater Sunshine— you know what time it is! It’s time for me to try and interfere with Cam’s life again!
This time, though, he actually beat me to the punch: He was already deep into working on new material when I called and asked if he had any interest in dusting off the keys and becoming a part of the Underwater Sunshine family. I’m excited to see the new stuff live but I’m excited to see any of the songs live. Despite our friendship and my absurd knowledge of his back catalogue (music and poetry: I buy everything the guy’s name is on), I’ve never actually seen Cameron perform in person!
As a writer, he had an almost-too-prescient sense of the dystopia we were teetering on when Gallows Etiquette came out and it is especially visceral in songs like the haunting soul-drenched piano ballad “Slow Vampire”:
I’ve lived here my whole life and I feel that I must stay
Wear a cross around my neck to keep away the Lord
But I hope He comes anyway
Everything is on the fire, everything’s on the fire
Middle America’s a slow vampire…
I miss you already
I miss you proud
Well, the bigots have you now
I guess they’ll never let you go
Honestly, it’s scary to me to think that somehow McGill saw this version of middle America back in 2013, but it’s a still a timely portrait of a place that seems to encompass the best and worst of humanity. It’s easy enough when he’s pocketing a hard truth in a joke— which McGill does deftly— but he doesn’t have to do so to write an effective song, and better than that, to vocalize it. If you were listening to the song, you’d still feel the tension underlying it, whether you stopped to parse lyrics or not. Cameron is an expert at finding a way to use backup vocals in surprising places, or when to use almost vaudeville-era piano techniques to lead you plinking away from the awful thing he’s about to say. For example, because there is no way for me to fully express what a fantastic transition the piano into the lyrics is on “American Health Insurance,” I’m going to need you to all go look it up, listen to the first bar or so, and then come read the first line of the song.
OK, that out of the way—
I got health insurance that only works if I die
Oh, but what if I live?
America is when there’s no words left to say
you don’t like it kid
Give me that wrecking ball of faith
Give me the heart it knocks down
One day all those asses you’re kissing
They’re gonna bite you on the mouth
Who’re you gonna shove?
How’re you ever gonna stay?
In a world that you don’t love?
In live performances, McGill sounds equally at home alone on a piano or guitar as he does with a full band— the original recording of “Slow Vampire” has brilliant brass, back-up vocals, and percussion. Watching his old Daytrotter and YouTube videos though, I sometimes thought sardonic lines like, “folks are scared to talk to other people on the streets/ afraid they’re all just rapists and murderers out there murdering,” were almost more effective when stripped bare, because you could hear both the truth — and worse — the ridiculousness of the truth. There’s a surrealist and an absurdist philosophy in McGill’s lyrics, especially when contrasted with the beautiful, lush music he’s written. It’s almost like hiding a pill by dissolving it in something sweet: “Ok, if I put some great punctuating horns on the end of every line of the second chorus, can I get away with the health insurance industrial complex as a conceit for American society at large?”
Well…yeah. But he could have anyway, because he’s clever enough.
I have loved Cameron McGill and his music, in every setting or record or band or collective, since I knew of him— over a decade, now, I’m finding— but when I heard “Athena, Fate Isn’t Very Fair,” it did something that few things ever do for me in music: It reminded me why I wanted to be a fiction writer. I couldn’t have come up with a repeating line like he gets out of the pleading, open-chested, “I made so many sacrifices, you were there/ Didn’t I love you baby?/ Didn’t I love you baby?/ Didn’t I love you?” but so much of my writing is based around that idea: wait, you were there— didn’t I love you? That said, “Athena” is full of snippets like that, moments that build an entire world in the song.
So these friends introduced me to a girl at a party
She was a dancer, I couldn’t move her
So we talked to pass the time
And then we didn’t
She was well-versed in the impolite sciences
Of the body. Said, “The dynasty starts here,
So does the party.”
That first stanza is so visceral, that lines later like, “‘Bring me a beer,’ I yelled from the bath/ I got white wine, rough sex, and a devil laugh” seem less like the story of two people falling apart, though they are, and more like the beginning of a very literary love story. That’s why the wail in the second chorus— the first time he says “Athena”— feels like ripping muscle from bone. The saxophone that follows just picks up in pathos anything McGill’s vocal left on the ground.
But what kills me in the end is that the song is a fiction writer’s dream. After beginning the last verse, “I tried to explain to her I wasn’t sure about taking that much,” and giving us imagery like, “My fingers down her throat,” he has the brilliance to know when to pull back and end the song:
So I left her asleep, and ruthless
I grabbed my books, and man, I felt so useless
Didn’t I love you babe? Didn’t I love you?
His last officially released single was “Canyonlands/godspeedyoudaredevil,” which is a fantastic example of his versatility. “Canyonlands” feels like it would be at home in the Laurel Canyon Valley any time from its heyday through now, and “godspeedyoudaredevil” has a strange timbre that mimics the Biblical and scientific descriptions of creation from a primordial swamp. I should say a little more about those songs but it’s about time to wrap this up so I’ll just say that I don’t know exactly where Cameron McGill is going, but that’s where he’s been.
What Cameron McGill gives his listener—in any and all of the music he’s released— are the ghosts of a hundred great stories, all eking their way inexorably from the Midwest to the West Coast, from 140-character Twitter poetry to a classroom, from some universal and unspecified here to some as-yet-undreamt-of there. And somehow, I, or rather WE, have had the luck to be in the right place at the right time to see all of it happen.
My original vision for this article was to go super artsy and write in snapshots of all the moments we’ve met in person, where we didn’t have to text cross-country or email. Every once in a while, we’ll end up in the same city and share a meal and talk about art and I was going to allow you guys to sit at all those tables with us.
I decided I enjoy my privacy with Cameron a little too much for that.
Welcome to the Underwater Sunshine fam, Cameron. I am so deeply glad you’re here.