Homeless and Riding the Rails: Four Ways Steph Cameron Has More Street Cred Than You

Sophomore album 'Daybreak Over Jackson Street' sees the Saskatoon songwriter writing from a more reflective place
Homeless and Riding the Rails: Four Ways Steph Cameron Has More Street Cred Than You
Photo: Mark Maryanovich
Steph Cameron blasted onto the scene in 2014 with excellent bare-bones debut, Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady, recorded solo and live onto tape at Toronto's Revolution Recording. Though her sophomore record Daybreak Over Jackson Street (out now on Pheromone) sees Cameron recording in a similar manner, in the same studio, with the same folks, those continuities arguably underline some key differences in Cameron's life. She's settled, with her husband, in Saskatoon, but Daybreak Over Jackson Street reflects a lot of formative experiences in Vancouver and across Canada. Here are some of the gritty realities that helped shape the album.
1. Cameron has literally ridden freight trains and sung for her supper.
When Cameron sang about a "Railroad Boy" on her debut, it came from experience. She would spend summers hitchhiking and riding freight trains before returning to work in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. "I was a busker," Cameron tells Exclaim! "I would occasionally have a bit of work here and there [but] I would panhandle, squeegee and I would busk. Busking was always my primary source of income, and it was always something I could fall back on, ever since I was a kid. I started busking when I was 14. When you're busking, you have a very small window of opportunity to connect with people and you're singing for your supper, so it's really important that you can connect with somebody. So I guess some of my stage presence comes from busking."
2. She spent time working and living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Cameron moved to Vancouver at 17 because she wanted to work at Insite, the first legal supervised drug injection site in North America. That didn't happen, but she did spend nearly half-a-decade working in housing and income-assistance advocacy.
"I was so inspired by the community and the activism and the fire and the spirit, but also the reality that it's just devastated by poverty," she says. "I [was reflecting] about my time there, about the way that people are kept down there in this slippery slope that is very hard to escape from. I just wanted to honour the Downtown Eastside and the people I knew down there by writing about it through a compassionate lens, with kindness, and expressing love for the people and understanding about their circumstances."
3. A former punk, her demo — the one that got her signed to Pheromone — was made under the name "Steph Infection."
"You know Michelle Shocked?," Cameron asks. (Folk singer Shocked released her 1986 debut, The Texas Campfire Tapes, on Mercury Records; it was recorded on a Sony Walkman, complete with chirping crickets in the background.) "My whole youth I spent really involved in the punk scene, so I was really inspired when I heard Michelle Shocked and the Campfire Tapes. So that first demo, I put under the name 'Steph Infection' — it was an homage to Michelle Shocked."
Cameron also did vocals briefly for a punk band. "It was really hard on my throat," she laughs. "I used to play in an acoustic folk punk band years ago in East Van and we played exclusively punk and metal shows.
4. "Little Blue Bird" is about the cycle of giving and receiving that's essential to at-risk communities.
"I experienced [kindness] by the handful when I was traveling as a busker," she says. "I had so many people give me so much. This one time in Nelson [BC] I was getting harassed by the bylaw enforcers." (Busking in downtown Nelson, BC isn't allowed without a licence; the city views it as running a business.) "The licence was $30 a year. I had so little money that that was an impossible amount for me to come up with. This man, who put coins in my case every time he saw me, came by just as I was getting kicked out, and he said, 'What's the problem here? What's going on?' He said, 'Pack up your things and come with me — I'm going to buy you [a licence].' I had so many experiences like that. ['Little Blue Bird'] is about being in a position where I was a little bit more settled and stable and able to offer that kindness to someone else."