Five years ago, Australian musician Alex Cameron caught the eye of producer Jonathan Rado at Silencio, David Lynch's club in Paris. Ever since, he's been on a whirlwind ride to indie stardom. Cameron and his saxophonist and "business partner" Roy Molloy have become festival mainstays (including at Oregon's Pickathon), sell out shows around the world, and have collaborated with the likes of Angel Olsen, the Killers' Brandon Flowers, and Rado.
But for his current stripped-down duo tour with Molloy, Cameron wanted to scale things back. "It's the original experience," Cameron says by phone from El Paso, Texas. "This tour is really all about how Roy and I got our start in America and Europe. We used to just get up there and do the songs and not really think about the logistics of everything like we have to now. Just the songs on a pedestal—which is where I want them to be."
Cameron and Molloy will play two sets at Doug Fir Lounge on Valentine's Day. A made-up holiday allegedly about love but more to do with consumerism seems the perfect setting for the various down-and-out, often toxic characters who haunt Cameron's songs. Over the course of two records—the icy, electronic Jumping the Shark and the deceptively jubilant, more rock-oriented Forced Witness—Cameron has introduced enough pestilent characters to populate a Donald Ray Pollock novel. In "Real Bad Lookin'," a character who has a habit of leaving her child in a hot car while she gets shitfaced in a bar introduces herself as "the drunkest, ugliest girl at the bar," and meets "the dumbest, richest guy at the bar." The Brandon Flowers collab "Runnin' Out of Luck" concerns a "man on a mission" and a "stripper out of luck" navigating a "neon boneyard" that calls to mind the parts off the Las Vegas Strip where dreams go to die.
Asked if he's ever worried people will fail to separate him from his characters and take umbrage with some of his lyrics, he says: "I think the only way I'd be worried is if people understood the characters and actually liked them. That would be cause for concern. I certainly encourage constructive thinking. And I'd welcome a conversation about whether it's OK for an artist to write or sing a certain thing. There's a difference between, say, a writer saying a certain thing and a politician saying something."
In conversation, Cameron communicates with the kind of directness you'd expect from a vocalist who embodies several characters over the course of a single set. That directness and self-assurance has served Cameron well and wholly informs his writing style. "I'd been in plenty of bands in different roles, and during that time I was sort of taking notes about what I didn't want to do when I started songwriting," he says. "I didn't want to write murky, meaningless songs that anyone could assign meaning to—I wanted to write really direct, 'this is what this means' songs. With these songs, I want to hit a bull's-eye. If I'm gonna fuckin' play, I want to hit a bull's-eye, you know?"
The world of crushed dreams and faded glory that the people in his songs inhabit exists in juxtaposition to Cameron's own blissful reality. He and actress and artist Jemima Kirke have been dating for more than a year now, and Kirke's talented younger sister Lola will be opening the Portland shows.
Cameron says his Rado-produced new record's main theme is love. "I've always wanted to make my version of an honest love record, and this feels like I've edged towards that," he says. "I really have such a beautiful feeling in me about this new album. The songs are just so alive, and I want to keep water on the plant. That feeling of making a good song and realizing you've done it and landed on your own two feet—that's what you chase, really."
Given that, it seems like Cameron's Valentine's Day sets would be a perfect way to test out a bunch of amorous new material. "If the crowd is very sweet to us, then we give them a new one. That's how we've been doing it, and when we play a new one, the feeling in the room has been electric," he says before adding mischievously, "Maybe I'll get some red balloons, maybe chocolates. Or flowers—I'd love to give everyone flowers. I'm gonna think about that."
SEE IT: Alex Cameron and Roy Molloy play Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Bunside St., dougfirlounge.com, with Lola Kirke and Emily Panic, on Thursday, Feb. 14. 5:30 and 9:15 pm. $17-$20. 21+.