Alex Cameron and Sarah Snook Decide Who’s The Better Australian
It’s difficult to pinpoint when, exactly, Alex Cameron’s career took off. The musician himself would argue that things kicked into gear during his teenage years, when he religiously orbited Sydney’s karaoke circuit. Others feel that his 2013 debut album Jumping the Shark, which he self-released online about a decade later, solidified his status as an artist’s artist—someone who Angel Olsen and The Killers frontman Brandon Flowers listened to at the gym. But things began in earnest for the Australian synth-pop artist some years later, when he landed a gig at Silencio, David Lynch’s Paris nightclub. Cameron, then a concept artist whose morose cabaret persona drew mixed reviews beyond his small knot of cult followers, was convinced that nobody was paying much attention to him as the crowd trickled in to catch the night’s later acts, but he was wrong. The California indie duo Foxygen was in attendance, and it wasn’t long before, with the band’s endorsement, Cameron found himself touring with psych-rock royals like Mac DeMarco and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
But perhaps it’s best to consult the Succession breakout star Sarah Snook, a fellow Australian and fan of Cameron’s since his early Sydney days, what makes the artist—who just released his fourth studio album, Oxy Music—so magnetic. Below, the pair discuss the challenges and rewards of making art without an audience, being your own biggest fan, and the satisfaction of embracing the ultimate artist taboo: failure.
ALEX CAMERON: Thank you so much for doing this, Sarah.
SARAH SNOOK: I’m sorry it took so long to organize!
CAMERON: Oh, I’m a patient man. How long have you been listening to my music?
SNOOK: Since Jumping the Shark.
CAMERON: So, you go way back. You told me once that you’d heard “Happy Ending,” which is maybe the first song I ever wrote.
SNOOK: I love that song.
CAMERON: I also really like that song. I’m my own biggest fan. I think I listen to my music more than anybody else.
SNOOK: What’s your favorite song from Oxy Music?
CAMERON: I really like one called “Prescription Refill.” Have you heard it yet?
CAMERON: No shit! Oh my god. You got the advance. I don’t know if I’m trying to convince myself of this, or if it’s actually true—but I really try to enjoy my music, so that it doesn’t matter if no one else does.
SNOOK: I feel like that’s really healthy. That’s so antithetical to the typical musician persona. When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?
CAMERON: I used to go to this dance class when I was in primary school called Dance With Dennis. It was this guy named Dennis, and he would play chipmunk versions of Elvis songs, and we’d have to dance.
SNOOK: [Laughs] Was this an extracurricular experience?
CAMERON:It was at school. It was Woollahra Public in Sydney. He taught me the Macarena. Not privately—in a group. That was my lightbulb moment. I was like, “Oh, this is cool. I’m doing the Macarena, and I kind of like it.”
SNOOK: So that’s how you became a performer. Can you describe Dennis to me, though? Because in my head, he’s sort of like…
CAMERON: Ok, tell me what you think Dennis looks like.
SNOOK: He’s a bit daggy, a bit scruffy, but actually pretty cool in a low-key alternative way.
CAMERON: Yeah, he was hinting very slightly at rockabilly, but perpetually slurping tomato soup. He always had a hot soup in a cheap Tupperware and he would make the kids dance to the chipmunks.
SNOOK: That’s a really weird character.
CAMERON: Yeah, I found him on Facebook the other day. He’s still doing dance classes, but at geriatric homes. Isn’t that weird? And he was the first person I ever saw wearing loafers. He had really nice loafers, I guess that’s why I’m really into loafers.
SNOOK: You’re taking style tips from Dennis?
CAMERON: Oh, definitely. I took a certain panache from Dennis. A high waisted pant and loafers, yes, but I wasn’t so into the shirts. They were a little too sparkly. Were you always into drama?
SNOOK: As a kid, you do things and people say, “Hey, you’re good at that,” and you want more of that praise. I still find, when I see a group of like, eight teenage girls, I’m terrified. The fear, the anxiety of being a girl in a pod of girls, it’s terrible. That’s why I preferred more disparate groups, because you can always escape to a setting where you feel more comfortable.
CAMERON: Speaking of high school trauma, I still have fucking nightmares of waking up and being late for something. I go over to the teacher and I’m like, “Hey, I think I shouldn’t actually be here, I’m fucking 30.” It’s awful. How Australian do you think you are, on a scale from Mel Gibson to Lleyton Hewitt?
SNOOK: I’m guessing Lleyton’s the real Australian? I want to be smack in the middle, far away from the two of them.
CAMERON: You didn’t have to answer that. You played sports?
SNOOK: My Australian-ness comes mostly from childhood memories. My family went camping a lot in the bush, and when I get back in touch with that, I feel very much more Australian. I’ve managed to never officially live in the States or in Australia since I began my career. I move around a lot.
CAMERON: That’s similar to me. I don’t really need a home, because I play like 150, 200 shows a year so I don’t need to stay anywhere.
SNOOK: That must get exhausting though. I’ve recently gotten a home and I feel really at peace now.
CAMERON: The other day, I was thinking of what home was, and decided that it’s a place I can comfortably leave, but know will always be there. Because if I can’t leave, then I’m not at home. There has to be the potential to bail. I have to be able to fuck off, and fast.
SNOOK: I totally agree. I think that, in marriage or love, having the space to choose to stay, is more important than being made to stay. I’m now married, because we were like, “There’s no other option here. We’re so in love that we need to be married.” I think it has in a weird way translated to a feeling of home. It’s not in a physical place, it’s in a person. Weirdly. I moved around a lot as a kid, so home was always quite a transient idea to me.
CAMERON: That’s fucking beautiful. I didn’t move at all. My mom was raised on a farm in north New South Wales, so I would spend quite a lot of time with the cattle.
SNOOK: Does your mum still have the cattle farm?
CAMERON: When her old man passed away, her brother took control of the property. He runs it and she goes up there. I went up there every chance I got until I got into music and started playing in bands.
SNOOK: How did you become a singer?
CAMERON: I loved karaoke, I was always doing karaoke. That’s where I found that I could sing. The first time I properly sang publicly was at the Opera House—that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. I was in a band and we managed to sell out the Opera House. I’d written some songs and I was like, “Well, I just want to try this out.” I don’t know what I was fucking thinking. I was probably 21 or 22.
SNOOK: That’s pretty great.
CAMERON: I was really nervous, but once I did that, I couldn’t stop doing it. It was too exciting.
SNOOK: Have you developed a persona or a character for your performances?
CAMERON: I used to do that more. I used to put liquid latex on my face and age it. I guess I was trying to merge drama and music. I would go on stage very angry, and try to create a world of confusions. But, I got really bad reviews. I was still playing small venues, and people just weren’t enjoying it. Finally a friend of mine said, “You can’t always hand out lemons. Sometimes you’ve got to hand out lollipops.” I was like, “Okay, fine.” I broke it all down and started behaving how I wanted to behave— happy and excited and grateful to be there. That’s when things started to click.
SNOOK: Isn’t that really nice? Being able to put that out there on stage and have it be reciprocated?
CAMERON: Definitely. It was such a trend at the time, transitioning out of shoegaze and Britpop and into indie. This is 15 years ago now, but I found a niche where I could experience the show with the audience instead of keeping a distance.
SNOOK: That’s an Australian thing as well, to not celebrate too much. It’s kind of teenaged “cool” behavior. It’s really nice when you meet people who are grateful, and you’re able to build rapport based on good things, instead of that whole, “Oh, I hate that band” thing. It’s like, where do we go from here? We’re just being negative together.
CAMERON: I think it happens when there are really defined scenes. That’s also why I like to move around a lot, because I’m never in one place long enough to start scrutinizing whether or not I’m satisfied. I don’t ever really want to contemplate that. The busier I am, the less spiteful or envious I am. God, fuck that. It’s sad to think about, but I used to hate hearing good news about friends. Thankfully, with time, I’m able to feel that a win for you is a win for me.
SNOOK: I struggled with that when I graduated from drama school. I found going to parties and social things quite difficult in an industry that felt very small, where you’re going for the same kinds of roles as the people you graduated with. Everyone goes through that stage. I realized that, if I’m feeling bad, then everybody else must be too. So why not just celebrate the person who wins, then?
CAMERON: It’s bizarre how instinctive it is. I guess it’s a show business cliche, but envy is so unproductive because it closes you off to opportunity.
SNOOK: I used to do something similar with work as well, sticking to the script and making sure I was perfect. There’s no room for mistakes to get in, which is when something interesting can happen. Just allow some life and freedom to sneak in.
CAMERON: I am, to a certain degree, still mortified by the idea of fucking up in front of a crowd. The more I embraced those little errors, the more I transcended the moment, which is so much more exciting. You have to break down your inhibitions to access a place where you can create publicly.
SNOOK: Absolutely. I found that Succession exponentially improved my ability to deal with embarrassment and shame. It was difficult when I first started, I was like, “How am I supposed to get this right when everyone’s improvising?” I had to accept that there was no right way. You just have to trust the creatives around you. It feels very philosophical, but the more important thing is choosing good people. When they come together, leaving your comfort zone leads to incredible things. I think Neil Young said, “If you’re not going to believe the good critics, then why would you believe the bad?”
CAMERON: When I get a bad review, I’m like, “Do they even realize what they’re fucking with here? This is my livelihood! Do they know how many people I employ?” I really value conversations with critics, but I’d much rather let my music do the talking than have someone vouch for me.
SNOOK: I feel now, that space is just Instagram. The number of followers you have equates to your success. I don’t know how to engage with it in a way that feels honest to me. It’s just a fucking minefield.
CAMERON: All of a sudden, we have an audience and they can give us feedback.
SNOOK: It lends it veracity.
CAMERON: Yeah, it sticks with you somehow. I fucking love Succession. I can’t express that enough. I’ve watched the whole thing three times now. It’s problematic in my life.
SNOOK: Do you find yourself swearing more from watching it?
SNOOK: A friend of mine started watching it—I mean, a friend of mine, who’s now my husband—and he’s turned into this horror of a person, drinking whiskey and swearing because of Succession.
CAMERON: I got put onto it by, do you know Brandon [Flowers] from The Killers? I was writing on one of their records, and every night at the end of the session he’d be like, “I got to get home.” I was like, “What’s going on?” And he’s like, “Succession.”
SNOOK: In the same way you like your own music, I am genuinely a fan of the show. When I’m not in the scene, I don’t see Kieran [Culkin] or Jeremy [Strong] or Matthew [MacFayden] do their thing on set. I get really into it as I watch, like, “What did they do? What happened?”
CAMERON: If you guys are excited for scenes that you’re not involved in, then that’s fucking special. That’s really an energy you don’t fuck with.
SNOOK: It’s a terrifying one as well. I panic when people say, “Oh, this is definitely a once in a lifetime job.” But I’ve only just begun!’
CAMERON: If you could appear in a remake of something what would you want to have a crack at?
SNOOK: Hmm, that’s a good one. The first things that come to mind are things that I watched as a kid, which were mostly Disney films. I’d want to be Ursula or Scar. Even as a kid, I did not fucking want to be any lead princess characters. They got the boring stories.
CAMERON: So you would like to play a villain, a Disney villain?
SNOOK: For sure. Something about the high drama, but also the realness of it.
CAMERON: If I ever get a chance to act, I really want to play a villain in a horror film. I’m gangly.
SNOOK: I was about to say, you’ve got the right physicality.
CAMERON: I’ve got a concave chest, and I’ve got the mole. I really appreciate that streaming culture has created this new space for B films. At the moment there’s no reason there can’t be exceptionally good, legitimate low budget B grade movies that have a spark to them.
SNOOK: The internet loves unearthing things that the world seemingly passed over. CAMERON: In my first band, we did an interview that went up on YouTube or something. I remember saying, “That’s going to be there forever. The internet is forever.” If I tried to find that right now, it would be buried under thousands of dead web pages and old hyperlinks that don’t fucking work.
SNOOK: Someone will find it.
CAMERON: I’m eating a kebab in it. I’m wearing shorts. Did you ever do ads?
SNOOK: The only one I did was for Kia forever ago. I can’t remember what the car was, a cube or something.
CAMERON: A cube? What did it look like?
SNOOK: Like a Rubik’s Cube on wheels.
CAMERON: Oh my god. Do you remember the experience?
SNOOK: I just had to look in a rearview mirror and then run on a treadmill. It would be interesting to see now, knowing who I was at that point, and the levels of anxiety and self-confidence and hatred—all those feelings that you experience as a 20-year-old. Watching that, I’d be like, “Oh, poor, baby.”
CAMERON: Whenever I talk to a younger musician trying to find their way in the business, I’m always like, “Shut down 80% of the thinking that you’re doing right now. You’re good enough.”
SNOOK: You’re in New York, right?
CAMERON: I’m in Red Hook, and I love it. New York is a much better place to be a musician. In Australia, you can play like 15 shows a year and your agent will be like, “All right, time to cool off.” Over here you can do like 75 and you still haven’t hit all the cities. Then it’s a seven hour flight to Europe, and you can do another hundred shows. It was an important step, definitely. I remember a lot of labels and a lot of agents and industry people who wanted to work with me would be like, “Oh, you’re in Australia? Well, call us when you’re closer.”
SNOOK: There’s a mindset that’s kind of American-centric. It’s the only time zone that exists, right? Certainly as an actor, L.A. is the place you need to be. I didn’t want to capitulate to that.
CAMERON: I don’t think I would have been able to make the move over here if I wasn’t, interestingly enough, confident in my Australian-ness.
SNOOK: So you feel like you’re quite Australian?
CAMERON: Everything that informs my writing is lyrically very Australian. I was raised on fucking Slim Dusty and Banjo Paterson. I still fucking tear up when I read a Banjo Paterson poem, The Man From Snowy River. That fucking poem makes me cry.
SNOOK: I need to reread it.
CAMERON: I read it sometimes just to be like, “That’s right. I am bloody Australian. I’m fucking Crocodile Dundee. They fucking don’t know what’s coming.” It’s a secret weapon.
SNOOK: I read an old David Bowie interview in Interview, and someone asked him, “Do you write to gain or lose your identity?”
CAMERON: Do you want to ask me that question?
SNOOK: I’m asking you that question.
CAMERON: That’s a fucking good question. I can confidently say it’s to gain. I would much rather feel like I discovered a song as opposed to I created it. In that way, I’m collecting as opposed to trying to lose myself in something.
SNOOK: I think I would say the same. I quite like taking something from every character I get to play and learning more about myself in the process. The cherry picking.
CAMERON: What did you take from Shiv?
SNOOK: Certainly more confidence—directness or firmness of opinion. You can be firm and direct in an idea and still be Sarah, who welcomes other people’s opinions.
CAMERON: Have you ever accidentally switched on Shiv in real life?
SNOOK: Yeah, I have. When my luggage went missing on a flight from Spain to Italy. Usually I would’ve said, “Oh, you can’t do anything for me? Okay.” But I was like, “Fuck that, you lost my luggage! Oh now you’ve found it, but now you want me to drive three hours to pick it up when I’m on holiday? You lost it. Bring it to me.”
SNOOK: It was an out-of-body experience.