It’s Australian music’s night of nights, the ARIA Awards. But Alex Cameron, Australia’s most perverse musical export, isn’t there – as guest, performer or nominee. No, he’s where he usually is: on the outer, striding a stage on the dark edge of town, singing about anilingus. “Eating your ass like an oyster/ the way you came like a tsunami” he croons to the crowd, while 1200 passionate fans, including his retired parents and their friends, sing merrily along.
Miami Memory is a classic Cameron love serenade: sexy, surreal and (in this case, literally) tongue-in-cheek. And on this late November night at Sydney University’s Manning Bar, a pub choir of diverse fans is showing why Cameron hits nerves and strikes chords like few other artists, as they echo every lyric of the next cracked ballad Far From Born Again (refrain: “She’s doing porn again”).
Among them, likely bellowing every blasphemy, is actor Russell Crowe, an unabashed fan and a regular social media spruiker of Cameron’s videos and overseas gigs. “Alex’s version of honesty may be too raw for some,” Crowe tells me later, “but I find his need to open his desires and perversions up for delectation highly courageous. Wherever I’ve seen him perform in the world, audiences sing and smile at the right times. They get it.”
So it seems. Cameron, 34, draws considerable critical acclaim, most of it from outside Australia. He’s played the world’s biggest festivals (Primavera in Barcelona, Roskilde in Denmark) and crooned in its coolest clubs (headlining at filmmaker David Lynch’s Club Silencio in Paris). He’s also a coveted songwriter, currently working on feature film soundtracks in Los Angeles. But he’s most famous as a prized collaborator for American band The Killers, with whom he’s written two albums and toured the world, from New York’s Madison Square Gardens to London’s O2 Arena.
All this is remarkable given Cameron’s songs frequently go where most lyricists fear to tread. For all his star-spangling and globetrotting (Taylor Swift lets him crash at any of her homes around the world), Cameron’s songs are raw, sometimes even downright repellent. He usually writes about outcasts and creeps, making anthems of gnarly taboos like domestic violence, toxic masculinity, catfishing, internet love scams, step-parenting and drug therapy.
His gift is empathy. “Failure is underexplored in music,” he says. “My characters come from a place where ambition, crippling self-doubt and tragedy intersect.” And with a couplet like “I live with a deep regret/ Of what I do on the internet”, Cameron is tapping into the noxious underbelly of modern society, its deepest fears and guiltiest pleasures.
Yet across his four albums and 150 annual live shows, the Bondi-born crooner achieves the bizarre feat of making his listeners squirm as they simultaneously groove. And that’s perhaps the weirdest thing about him. He gussies up his dark symphonies in the slinky rhythms of 1970s and ’80s pop, with cheesy synthesisers and swaggering saxophones. Then, in a deep tenor, delivers them like Bryan Ferry nailing karaoke on The Love Boat.
This shtick rubs many the wrong way. Cameron “may be exactly what you don’t want to hear a man singing about right now – or ever”, declared The New Yorker in a 2017 review. Pitchfork, an American online music magazine, was similarly offended in 2022, caning his composition Cancel Culture: “He’s calling out hypocrites and culture vultures with the air of someone enlightened, but the meta nature of the song makes it feel even more slimy.”
But for every Cameron hater, there’s a high-wattage fan. “There’s a lot of posturing and sucking up going on out there,” says Killers frontman Brandon Flowers. “I love that Alex is straight from the hip. He’s bold and doing it for the right reasons.” But what are his reasons? Is Alex Cameron taking the piss? Are his songs brilliantly B-grade music noir – or offensive twaddle?
Cameron’s own take? “I write about the outlier, the table-for-one guy whose life is a constellation of microscopic tragedies, from the perspective of a man starved of meaningful purpose and confused about the state of the world.”
On stage, Cameron is every bit as weird as his wordplay. He stands two metres tall, skinny as a rasher of bacon, wearing a leopard-print singlet and suit pants once owned by Hollywood star Dennis Hopper. With blond hair back, knees kinked and hips swinging, he slow-grinds like a demented disco mantis and watching him, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“When I perform, I’m killing the fear of humiliation most people have, those negative thoughts that whisper: I’m shit. I’m weak. I can’t do this,” he explains later. “Deep down, beyond the music, it’s why people come to my shows: to see someone face that fear and create a spectacle on the knife’s edge. It’s real. They get it.”
As I watch him dance into the discomfort zone and the crowd abandon itself to ecstasy, I wonder if this is what Crowe means when he says: “I find people who are cynical and downtrodden by life and I introduce them to Alex. His music has restorative powers … it should be available through Medicare.”
“I began to realise what it was to be misunderstood, desperate, delusional, and I related to it.”
A few blocks back from Bondi Beach sits the house where Alex Cameron grew up. Like him, it’s long and lean, a freestanding semi with a grevillea thatch out front and views at the back to the valley of Edgecliff. When in Australia, Cameron splits his time between this bucolic scene and the family farm in Deepwater, northern NSW (pop: 307), where his schoolteacher mother, Heather, 70, was raised. Cameron’s grandfather, Ian, was an RAF pilot shot down over Holland and interred as a POW at Stalag Luft III, where he became one of the tunnellers in “the Great Escape”.
I’m wondering whether this lineage makes Cameron a natural creature of the underground when he greets me at the door in short shorts, a towel over his shoulder, a glint in his eye. Although he’s lived in New York since 2017, Cameron is crashing in the dank stank of his old boyhood bedroom while home on tour, sharing a mattress with bandmate Justin “Juice” Nijssen.
With his fine, pale features, Cameron is “like something out of a Danish, made-for-TV Narnia”, reckons his ex-partner, actor-artist Jemima Kirke. But scars on his lip (“I tried to separate two cattle dogs having sex when I was five”), ears (“the veins were too big, so they had to pin them”) and wrists (“I broke them both in a Brooklyn gutter”) tell stranger stories.
Peter Cameron, 69, sips coffee at the kitchen counter after his morning surf. Stouter than his son, the retired stockbroker named Alex for a war-veteran mate who died reeling in a big black marlin. Peter and Heather raised Alex and his siblings in an “always busy, usually happy” home, he says. Brother Ian, 42, runs his own business in Germany, while sister Joanna, 40, helms a software company in London. “Alex was always a storyteller,” Peter reckons. “He wrote to get recognised. As for the stories in his songs …” he chuckles. “Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, I guess, but no matter how weird they get, there’s usually a moral in there.”
Two doors up from the Camerons lived saxophonist Roy Molloy, his best mate and loyal band lieutenant. “We were seven years old when his mum made him come out and play,” Molloy says, laughing. “Al was scrawny and shy but even then he was the funniest guy in the room, cool and interesting, self-deprecating and silly. Life to him was a big mystical joke.”
Barked farewell by his dog – a gift from an ex (“she also gifted me a scorching case of thrush”) – Cameron and I walk to Bondi and I begin a long day of kinking my neck to meet his eyes. Cameron was six foot tall at 12. It got him some stick at school (“he fought back with words,” Peter says) but made him a basketball star at private boys’ college Scots. Cameron’s grades were good but he was wracked by anxiety and insomnia. “Wearing an XXL basketball referee jersey didn’t suit a 17-year-old me,” he says, grinning. “It’s where I was introduced to panic attacks … but music enhanced my feelings ten-fold, so performing always felt natural to me.”
Like Brian Wilson, who wrote Beach Boys songs in a sandbox under his piano instead of braving the madding crowds and Muscle Marys on the strip, Cameron grew up hating the beach. “I was a gawky kid in a world of tan surfers with six-packs, so pretty early I felt like a freak who didn’t belong,” he says. These days, though, it’s rare for Cameron to make a music video without showing off the concave chest he once hid. As he strips down to swim, I see it, soup bowl-deep and hairless. “My first albums were really a way of processing a childhood fear of going to the beach, taking my shirt off and exposing myself to the world.”
For a writer of kooky love songs, it’s no bad thing to have a hole where your heart should be. That’s why the rough folk and open plains of Deepwater (the Ngarabal called it Talgambuun, meaning “dry country with many dead trees”) was where he found most early inspiration. In 2006, at age 17, inspired by the gutter poetry of AC/DC’s Bon Scott (“power, attitude, filth”) and vowing to embrace his inner freak, Cameron formed pop-electronica outfit Seekae with his schoolmates John Hassell and George Nicholas, and began gigging to local acclaim.
Despite no musical training (“An amateur creates, a professional recreates, I just trust in what I’m feeling”), Cameron cut three albums with Seekae, but only the last, released in 2014, bore his vocals. “He kept the true performance side of himself secret,” reveals Molloy. Deep down, Cameron says, “I knew I didn’t wanna just make music, what I really wanted was to tell stories.”
While touring with Seekae in his early 20s, Cameron held down a job as office clerk for the NSW Police Ombudsman. “My job was to file complaints against police and flag if they were frivolous or genuine,” he explains, as we skirt the cliffs from Bondi to Bronte. “They taught us about ‘the empathy threshold’ – a point where you either learn how to stop feeling and do your job correctly – or quit.” Cameron did neither. With every desperate call, “I began to realise what it was to be misunderstood, desperate, delusional, and I related to it.”
As his compassion for the marginalised and dispossessed grew, Cameron had an epiphany. He would abandon his own musical voice and inhabit theirs, performing from deep in the lived experience. He kept filing complaints from the people who rang – the luckless and loveless, the angry conspiracists and heartbroken desperadoes – but he also wrote them up as lyrics. “I was a terrible employee,” he says, laughing. “I spent my whole day turning angry rants into songs.” By 2013 Cameron had an album of them, Jumping the Shark, home-recorded, which he released on his website for free download. (It was reissued in 2016 by indie American record label Secretly Canadian.)
True to its title – a term given for evermore ludicrous events staged to hide declining quality – Cameron spent 2014 performing the songs in character, wearing make-up and prosthetics, playing the polarising alter ego of an aggressively pathetic yet swaggeringly self-absorbed and fiendishly deluded lounge singer, an alias he dubs “the unreliable narrator of my songs”. It sounds deranged but “Alex wasn’t joking, he was researching”, says McLean Stephenson, a solicitor who befriended Cameron and started photographing his act as a hobby. “He’d listened to the stories of people down on their luck and broken by life. Now he shared them.”
Tough sell. Pharrell Williams’s Happy was No. 1 – who wanted paeans to the pitiful? Punk poet Henry Rollins, for starters. “Jumping the Shark is the sound of one man chewing rented fur on borrowed time,” he raved, also commenting, “Alex Cameron – a sharper, more dialled-in songwriter you’d be hard-pressed to find.” Listening, too, was a singer with more than 20 million album sales but a bad case of writer’s block. “I came across Alex’s video Take Care of Business and got a little jealous,” The Killers’ Brandon Flowers chuckles down the line from the US. “I knew I had to find out more about this guy.”
As Cameron and Molloy spent 2015 and 2016 gigging in the US, sleeping in cars or in swags by the road, playing tiny club stages and busy street corners, the cult began spreading. Acts such as indie favourites Kevin Morby, Mac DeMarco, Foxygen and Angel Olsen took them under their wings and out on tour.
Then, on October 17, 2016, Flowers’ email landed. “First I thought someone had signed me up to a Killers mailing list,” Cameron recalls. “Then I looked closer. ‘Holy hell, Roy! Brandon Flowers is emailing me!’ ” Praising Jumping the Shark as “fantastic” and Real Bad Lookin’ and Mongrel as “top-shelf”, Flowers wrote: “Alex, I envy your restraint. I struggle in that department. I hope it’s fun for you. It must be.”
Flowers invited Cameron to his hometown of Nevada. “After three years on the road sharing a bed, Roy and I suddenly each had a penthouse on the top floor of a Las Vegas casino!” Cameron laughs. He and Flowers bonded so fast that he co-wrote five songs for The Killers’ 2017 album, Wonderful Wonderful, then toured the world as the band’s support act for 18 months.
“Songwriting is a vulnerable business but Alex and I are kissing cousins,” Flowers reflects. “It’s a relationship where we can pick up right where we left off, no matter how long it’s been … I appreciate how honest we can be around each other, even if it means hitting the target isn’t gonna happen until further down the line. The faith is there.”
For his part, Cameron says Flowers “taught me a lot about the pressure that comes with writing songs for the world. And I helped remind him how to write for himself and people close to him. He said he likes my writing because it’s personal but not self-indulgent.” (It inspired his own hit song for the world, the 2017 homoerotic cowboy banger Big Enough, co-written with Kirin J. Callinan and featuring Jimmy Barnes; its YouTube video has notched 69 million views.)
Cameron was still broke enough in 2018 to side-hustle, as in the 24-hour telethon he and Molloy hosted on social media to “save the music industry and pad out our pantry”. They hit their target of selling 1000 copies of Cameron’s second album. Forced Witness is a swaggering journey into dark web romance, told via the warped lens of a lovelorn older gent. Think lyrics like these on True Lies: “There’s this woman on the internet, even if she’s some Nigerian guy/ You should read the poetry he speaks to me/ I don’t care if they’re just beautiful lies.”
“Alex had gone undercover long enough, making himself into this uncomfortable character. But he was starting to make the crowd uncomfortable, too.”
For these sharper, funkier laments, Cameron dropped the latex he’d long performed in. “Alex had gone undercover long enough, making himself into this uncomfortable character,” explains his solicitor friend McLean Stephenson. “But he was starting to make the crowd uncomfortable, too.”
Cameron found out just how uncomfortable when Junkee attacked his conceits, particularly his use of the word “faggot” on the fan-favourite track Marlon Brando. “The layers of irony don’t shield a queer listener from the impact of hearing a slur they’ve likely had hurled at them,” it said. “It does, however, shield Alex.”
After watching him recite a passage from The Loaded Dog over Henry Lawson’s wastrel grave at Waverley Cemetery, I put the criticism to Cameron over a schooner of Resch’s at the Clovelly Hotel. “Marlon Brando is actually about the masculine energy that destroyed Sydney’s nightlife – the king hits and lockdowns,” he responds. “And for every queer journalist who has written that it isn’t my place to sing that word, I’ve got 10 nights where queer guys have told me they came to the gig to hear that song. So shocked as I was to find out I offended a few – I did get a few threats – I’m proud lots of queer people have embraced it as a sort of anthem.”
Marlon Brando is also important to Cameron because its video was directed by his ex-girlfriend Jemima Kirke, the British-American actor most famous as Lena Dunham’s bestie Jessa on Girls and today a revered filmmaker, painter and socialite in chic Manhattan circles. Kirke knew Cameron’s music before they met in 2017. “I liked working out to them or staring at myself naked in the mirror while a song played,” she says. “They made me feel hopeful and horny.”
At the time, Kirke was a mother of two toddlers and coming out of a seven-year marriage. She fell for Cameron’s fearlessness and romanticism. “Career-wise he’s reckless,” she observes. “But despite the occasional whining and self-doubt, Alex does what he sets out to do artistically. He always shows up the way he intended. His greatest quality is valiance.”
Although they broke up late last year, Cameron maintains Kirke “is still the most important creative influence in my life”. It was Kirke who convinced him to drop the mask and sing as himself. “When my friends are telling me to pull it back, she’s ‘Go all the way’. She plucked me out of obscurity.”
And then introduced him to celebrity. Cameron is not a name-dropper but over fried chicken and longnecks he regales me with tales of dinners with DiCaprio and DeNiro, drinking Keith Richards dry of vodka, and visiting nudist beaches with Taylor Swift.
During the pandemic, Cameron wrote 2022’s Oxy Music, an album he claims is “a work of fiction, from the perspective of a man in dire need of a reason to live”. But that’d be a “true lie” from his “unreliable narrator” again. “Alex needed help,” McLean Stephenson confides. “He was stuck in Wales [as Kirke filmed Sex Education for Netflix] and his career and self-esteem derailed because he couldn’t play or perform. Life just got the better of him for a while.”
Cameron got his mojo back in an unusual way: ketamine infusion therapy, a birthday gift from Kirke. Once a notorious party drug, ketamine is being used as an antidote to trauma and mental illness, intravenously interrupting and resetting pain signals to the brain. For Cameron, the radical cure meant owning up to his sins, then checking in and letting go.
“If I was going to write about the opioid crisis, I wanted to know how they treat it,” Cameron figured. “So I went to a clinic, put on a helmet, and they injected a massive dose of that shit into me. I got 10 years’ worth of counselling in a couple of hours.” What did you find, I ask? Cameron drains his beer with a flourish, then flashes me a grin, eyes glinting. “I found God. And God was an emu in a nurse’s outfit.”
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