Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady, the freshman album from British Columbia, Canada-based singer-songwriter Steph Cameron, is a happy accident, one that wasn’t even supposed to happen. At least, not yet. Cameron came to Toronto to record just one song, “Goodbye Molly”, with her label owner and partner in the recording studio. She was to lay it down as a test run. However, they had the cut down pat in just a couple of hours, so they kept going. Three days later, they had a 13-song finished record. Recorded to two-track tape, and featuring just Cameron’s plaintive voice, an acoustic guitar, and just a touch of harmonica here and there, it’s hard to draw lines to what Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady sounds like. It’s not country. It’s not really pure folk. Not particularly bluesy, either, though there’s a touch of it. It’s as though Cameron has just shaken up those three genres, and put her stamp on a rootsy kind of music that’s distinctly individual. Sure, Steph Cameron is not Radiohead, pushing music into new and unheard sonic territory, but, gosh, she’s practically just as good. Her album is strongly fulfilling, immensely captivating, lush, and gorgeous — even when she’s dealing with the nitty-gritty — and the mark of a real talent. Steph Cameron is just someone you’ve got to hear. Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady is a very, very stripped down, acoustic album, but Cameron makes it all hold together throughout the course of 13 songs. You would think music of this nature would get tiring after 13 songs, but Cameron keeps you coming back for more.
Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady is a fetching slice of Canadiana, it turns out. She’s unafraid to put Canadian place names into her songs, and even the first track and premiere single “Railroad Boy” is loaded with such references, which is a brave move, despite the fact that the world is changing and singing about Canada is not the taboo it once was. “He’d follow me to Montreal / And he’d follow me to France / He’d said I’d give you just about anything / For one teeny tiny chance,” she sings. Saskatoon and Nova Scotia is also named in the song. Additionally, Cameron comes off as a Canuck Tom Waits at times. Not in terms of gravelly vocal delivery, but how she takes the masculine and bends it to her own will. The suicide-themed song “Bury Me Where Wild Roses Grow” has the memorable line “Give me a kiss and a good shotgun shell.” Cameron sings of bad landlords, boyfriends who’ll steal your money, and life lived in the sketchiest of bars. All country tropes, to be sure, but Cameron straddles the line between being sweet and innocent and being a tempting femme fatale. There are multiple personalities on display, but Cameron sings of the life lived hard, but with a kind of flightiness that suggests that something else is right around the corner. On “Railroad Boy” she wants to settle down with her partner who traveled the rails with her and marry him, which would be a contradiction of terms.
However, as good of a raconteur that Cameron is, it’s the music that pulls you in and keeps you coming back — as simplistic and bare as it might be. It suits Cameron’s persona as a dewy-eyed wild woman very well. The title track is a nimbly, finger-plucked minor key ballad that sounds remotely like Johnny Cash. “Goodbye Molly”, the track that got Cameron onto the path of creating an album in the first place, is a rollocking roots stomper. You can easily see how this was recorded live off the floor, along with the rest of the album, but that raises an interesting point: this is a finely honed record. There are no discernible flubs or gaffes; every note — either sung or plucked — has a passion behind it along with precision. That feeling carries into songs like “Blues at My Window”, which is full of pessimism but is sung in a way that isn’t world-weary in the slightest, and it’s great to hear Cameron having fun with the material. It’s as though Cameron is saying, “Meh, the world is a bad, violent place, but I have a carefree nature that will pull me through it.” That is astonishingly confident, especially from someone so seemingly young.
Wise beyond her years, Steph Cameron has unleashed what should swiftly become a Canadian classic. This is such an enjoyable disc, all the more so considering that it was recorded quickly and seemingly on the cheap. Cameron’s songs are raw and impassionate, along with an agreeable optimism. In many ways, Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady has the hootenanny feel of a folk record, but she tiptoes into country with that well-placed harp, and some of the songs have a bluesy swagger. It’s phenomenal to hear just the kind of range that Cameron has, and that she can easily weave in and out of genre so cavalierly.
Adjectives fail me at describing the nature of this album. It’s absolutely fabulous, and nothing feels out of place. Time will tell if this record becomes as revered as, say, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush or Harvest or even Joni Mitchell’s Blue. However, this disc has all the hallmarks of an archetypal Canadian record, and it may just be that some time from now, your kids might be asking you where were you when you first Steph Cameron. Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady is a monumental, brilliant album stocked with zero filler (even though it has two guitar interludes) and heralds the crowning of a bright new talent. Considering that this record might have not gotten made in the fortuitous way that it was, we should consider ourselves fortunate and lucky to have heard this, because Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady is the kind of platter that, if all goes to plan, is going to make Steph Cameron a little less sad-eyed and lonesome when she takes the stage at a concert hall near you.