Dove Cameron On Finding Her Voice And People

Arts & Celebrities

Musician/actress Dove Cameron released her debut album, Alchemical: Volume 1, this past Friday (December 1). For Cameron, the album expresses who she is in 2023.

“I was angry and I had a lot of energy that I needed to get out that felt declarative and felt bold. And it was coming from a place not of celebration as much as it was repressed. I had felt so infantilized, so missed and not seen for the person that I had been. I’d been performing for so many years as this thing that I knew people wanted me to be,” she tells me.

The compelling and honest eight songs on Alchemical: Volume 1 were written, as she explains, in hotel rooms often at three in the morning while traveling. That was fitting for Cameron, who says part one of the album was in a very transitory phase of her life. Now, however, as she works on part two she is in a much more settled and happy place. Thus she says part two will be a big departure.

The important thing for Cameron though is she writing the songs that depict her real life and her truth. We spoke in depth about songwriting, the food that fueled her debut album, finally finding her community with other musicians and much more.

Steve Baltin: The release day is still one of those things that even though it doesn’t have the tangible physical thing that it once had, there’s still a very much a sense of excitement about it. So how are you celebrating release week this week?

Dove Cameron: Yes, there’s a huge sense of excitement. Funny enough, I’m leaving for D.C. to go perform at the Kennedy Center. So, I’ll be traveling during release week. I’ll be on the road with my team rather than my friends and family, who I would normally be with. But my team is like my family as well at this point. Probably when I get back into town, I’ll get all my friends together and we’ll do something nice and lowkey and maybe cook and read tarot cards and have a sleepover or something like that. Just something intimate. I’m a really lowkey person. I don’t leave my house very much. I’m sort of a hermit writer type. But yes, just being with my people is going to be perfect.

Baltin: The first obvious question, what food would you cook to celebrate? Billy Corgan, from Smashing Pumpkins, is a friend and he once did an interview with Zane Lowe, where Zane asked him about the secret of the Pumpkin success in the ’90s. And Billy was like it’s the right chicken piccata And I love that answer so much. And he and I ended up getting into this long conversation about what food fueled what music, like what food Led Zeppelin would’ve used or Velvet Underground. So, what food fueled this album?

Cameron: I was writing a lot of the album with some of my really close friends — Connor, Riley and Ryan. And I feel like almost every night we were getting these like kimchi rice bowls with loads of Asian fusion different spices. Like every night some new experiment from this place that they kept ordering from. So definitely some kind of fusion, something healthy. But also, then we would always end up ordering something horrendous later on to counteract the health. We were obsessed with this cookie joint in L.A. I wish my answer was better, but I live like such a vagabond when I’m writing. You’re always constantly ordering food to some dark, dank basement where you’re just making beats and losing your mind and you haven’t seen the sunlight for 14 hours. But I think for release nights I’ll probably have my friends come over and do like a potluck. And I’m really scared to cook. I’m trying to learn right now, but I’m a proficient baker. I’ll probably attempt to make macaroons and scones and something uber complicated just to prove that I can do it because I’m a Capricorn.

Baltin: That’s a great answer. When you go back and listen to this record, do you hear that weird food combinations in there of kimchi and cookies?

Cameron: Now that you’re asking, I would’ve never thought about it. But yeah, it does feel very much like a lot of this record feels very much like a record for processing. I always say that so much of it came from these poems where I was laying on my bathroom floor at like 3:00 in the morning, immovable [laughter]. I had so much to process and so much to say and so much that I wanted to set to music. And it felt very much like you could be anywhere in the world anytime, because again, I’m always on the road. So, a lot of these poems really were in hotel rooms at 3:00 in the morning, very lonely for the past six months in a bunch of different apartments that I was staying in all over the world. So, yeah, if it was a movie, what I would give that character to eat would be some kind of Asian fusion takeout and then some strange back-alley cookie restaurant order [laughter]. I love that question.

Baltin: Like I said it started with Billy as a joke, but it is fascinating because all these different things that you do infuse the record. I’m a big believer in environment affecting writing and recording, especially writing. So, when you go back then and think of all the places that you wrote these poems, at three in the morning in hotels, do you start to see those places in these songs?

Cameron: Yeah, definitely. It’s a funny ephemeral space that these songs came out of where in a lot of ways I was transitioning in my personal life. I was transitioning professionally; everything was sort of in transit. And I feel like I hear a lot of that on this record. I hear a lot of faith and loneliness, a sort of emotional echo. Especially with the more haunting vocals and heavier production and the future leaning feeling of some of it. If you took out a lot of the elements of “God’s Game” it would be a down-tempo, melancholic record. But we decided to put this kind of tempo and almost interstellar like feel. When that comes in, like right before the second verse, that sort of twinkle starlight feeling, it’s very cinematic. And a lot of my year, there was so much space and no nesting. There was no landing. It was always slightly like floating two feet off the floor, but not in a positive way, just in a way where I could not get my f**king bearing. I decided rather than trying to fight that and write a record full of songs that I knew were definitely going to be radio songs. I was like, “This is where I’m at right now. I’m writing my album. This is what’s going on the first half.” Because I think as the artist, you have to charge yourself with the responsibility of writing from a place that you are now, rather than trying to contort yourself into shapes. I personally don’t think that’s the artist. I think that’s the ego when you start to think about contorting yourself into shapes for some kind of external result. So, I took where I was in the moment, and I definitely hear a lot of the last two years on the first half of this record. It’s going to be interesting to see how the second half shakes out now that I’m feeling so totally different and like my brain is kind of online in a way that it hasn’t been in a few years.

Baltin: How would you describe your writing process?

Cameron: I tend to blood-let and hit these big energetic walls. And it’s like, “If I do not get this out of my body right now, I will be writing about this forever. Or if I don’t write about it, period, I’m not going to write anything good in the next five years.” And because careers are long, lives are long, and you have to write like you’re going to be doing this for the rest of your life, allowing yourself to write from where you are is the healthy thing as the artist, I believe. I realized, like after I’d written “Boyfriend,” after I’d written “Breakfast,” that was really where I was at in that moment. I was angry and I had a lot of energy that I needed to get out that felt declarative and felt bold. And it was coming from a place not of celebration as much as it was repressed. I had felt so infantilized, so missed and not seen for the person that I had been. I’d been performing for so many years as this thing that I knew people wanted me to be. So again, I hit this energetic block and I was like, “Wait, no, what am I feeling right now? What needs to get out of my body literally right now? Like if we were old-school medicine practicing and we were putting leeches on me. If it were the 1800s before we knew what was happening, what would be coming out of my blood right now? That’s what needs to be in these songs.” Then after that era of bombastic self-expression, I was so melancholic, and I was searching for a soft place to land. That’s where the first half of the record came from. Now that I’ve done that, it’s like the ghost left me and I’m in this place where I’ve never been before. I’m well, I truly [have] two feet in my adulthood, I trust myself as a writer now and I know what I want to do. Whereas last year, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was sort of feeling around in the dark. Now I find myself in the place of writing the second half of this album. And it’s one of those really wacky human experiences that you can’t anticipate or plan. Then you’re like, “Oh, that’s maybe why we did that without knowing.” I think the two-part album was really prophetic. Because I never could have written from this perspective earlier and I wouldn’t have ended up with the record that I’m going to end up with when the second half is released.

Baltin: What is your definition of success?

Cameron: I think the best part about all of this is just getting older. Because as I get older, the only person I care about pleasing is me and then my peers that I really respect, and people close to me. And that is the ultimate level of empowerment, truly separating your relationship with your career from the external perception of your career. Because otherwise your career is going to drag you by your hair behind a truck for miles and miles. And that I think is sort of my new definition of empowerment, and that’s been just the biggest blessing.

Baltin: Who are those peers for you that have inspired you when you think about finding your own voice?

Cameron: Good question. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with a lot of people who I deeply admire or at least crossed paths with people I deeply admire. I have a really good friend of mine, one of my best friends actually, who is this kind of surreal person in my life that I think I fully manifested since I was five years old. But Alan Cumming somehow is one of my best friends in my life. I have no idea how that happened. That’s one of those like multiverse of madness I’ll never understand. I also just can’t believe Alan’s a real human being. But then secondly that I sleep at his house and we like girl talk and gab. He’s become like a father figure for me. Because my father passed away, Alan very much stepped up into a father role with me. He is someone who I’m in constant conversation with creatively, just emotionally about everything. He’s someone whose opinion I take really seriously. He’s in touch with the other side of it. Like I always notice people that feel like they can just see through the very thin veil of what’s going on on the planet. Metaphysically, he’s just one thin veil of gauze away from knowing what happens in the afterlife. He’s such a fascinating human being he shouldn’t even be real. And it’s people like that that I take the most seriously because they see life through such a strange lens. I always felt like I was one of those people where it was just so rare for me to find kismet people, kindred spirits. Even when I was a child, I was like, “Am I ever going to have community? Am I ever going to have friends? Am I ever going to find this thing that seems so easy for other people?” And it turns out I’ve just been collecting the strangest pixie human beings along the way. Alan, for sure. There are people who I see once in a while. Like I just saw my friend Jennifer Hudson. I take her opinion super seriously. She’s really kind. She’s always given me the confidence I needed to believe in my talents.

Baltin: Do you feel like music has become part of your communication with the world?

Cameron: Yes, absolutely. I definitely think that music is my way of communicating with the world. I also find that up until I started really writing, my entire world was really active. And now, like one of the most important people in my life right now is also a musician. And we’re real people too. Most of my conversations, I would say, center around trauma and existentialism and hacking the nervous system and how do we juice the most out of this life and everything like that. But then, quickly after that, it’s all music. And it’s amazing to spend my time with other musicians because it’s not that we talk about music. I think there’s a certain type of person where their brain matter is organized around the romanticism of making music. There are a thousand different types of musicians. Some people are more about production, some people aren’t really writers, they’re more singers and people who know what they want to say, but they’re not the ones with the pen on the paper. But the people who are bleeding hearts, poets where it’s 3:00 in the morning and rather than watching TV, they’re sobbing for their third hour. And trying to pick themselves off the floor to write their ninth poem just so they can get it out. When you’re surrounded by those types of people, it’s life changing because you feel like so much less of a freak. I used to walk around the world feeling like I was witnessing something that literally nobody could see or cared about or was affected by in the same way. I felt like my heart broke every single day. And I felt so alone in that. And then I found musicians, and now it’s like everywhere we go, me and this person and me and my other musician friends and everybody like that, everywhere we go, we notice all the same things. The sound going by hits us in the same way. We’ll both witness a magical, invisible thing happening and make eye contact. And it’s like, “Oh, this is just what it means to be a highly perceptive sensitive, who has to put it somewhere and has to be with people who can feel it too, or else they literally lose their minds and become debilitated.” And that’s been life changing and lifesaving for me.

Baltin: Do you remember those first songs you heard from other people that communicated that way to you so you didn’t feel so alone?

Cameron: My dad was a really amazing pianist. So, I grew up listening to a lot of classical music, like Beethoven and Franz Liszt. “Moonlight Sonata” was an every night occurrence in my house as I was drifting off to sleep. But then also my dad was a huge jazz fanatic, which is why I think a lot of my music has a lot of jazz elements in it now. Even though it skews modern production, dark pop, it also has a lot of jazz elements if you break it down. There’s a classic waltz on the record. I grew up listening to a lot of Little Richard, Elvis [Presley] and Prince. And Cream. Cream, for me, was huge. “White Room” and everything off of that record. The Doors were huge. I obviously grew up in Seattle, so that grunge era ’90s was just everything. But then as an adult I guess I would say starting around age 15, the first song that I heard that just rocked my s**t was “Vincent,” by Don McLean. That song continues to f**k me up to this day. It is just the most beautiful song about suicidality I’ve ever heard in my entire life. “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” It makes me so connected to myself and so like, “Right, we’re all going to die. And all that matters is that we love each other so much and we express how we’re feeling while we’re feeling it. And there’s nothing else except for the intimacy with the self and those around you.” It’s just one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m also having a big Beatles renaissance right now, big [David] Bowie renaissance, big Iggy Pop renaissance. I think the second half of the album is going be a huge departure.


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