Romance films have conditioned viewers to believe that passionate romanticism and fierce independence are mutually exclusive, but Dove Cameron has not let falling in love stop her from being unapologetically liberated. She teeters on the edge of what she describes as a "rose-colored glasses world" and one where she puts up walls to protect herself, using creativity to document her feelings while she is stuck in between.
That battle has perhaps never been more apparent than in the lyrics of her latest single, "We Belong," co-written with Casey Smith, Jesse Shatkin and Noonie Bao. The song, which has all the components of a strong pop hit, is filled with lyrics that bleed frustration and desire. From "Said I need space, but I don't need space/ I need you to come to me" to "Think I'm allergic to every other person/ You're the one now I'm certain," Cameron passionately breaks down the need for someone to be close while trying to navigate the world and her sound on her own.
But her lyrics are also packed with vivid imagery that gives insight into the warmth of love she experiences. In Cameron's last single "Remember Me," which was released in April, she sings "No shoes dancing 'round your living room/ Pulling off my T-shirt putting on a show for you/ We look good in black and white," a verse that feels as though it should be preserved in a Polaroid picture. The theme of the song, which focuses on remembering the best of times, can act as a metaphor for Cameron's growth: she is moving forward with the best parts of herself.
The same can be said for Cameron's music. She is no longer Liv, Maddie or Mal; the only character Cameron has left to develop in music is her own. Cameron's success speaks for itself, and her artistry is the driving force behind her uprising as a household name — and her 36.9 million fans on Instagram alone would likely concur.
At just 24 years old, Cameron has checked boxes that most can only dream of: she has a daytime Emmy award for her dual role as the titular characters in Liv & Maddie, was cast as the lead in the Descendants film franchise on Disney Channel and landed a starring role in the off-Broadway production of Clueless.
Now, after shedding her Disney skin, Cameron is introducing us to her standalone sound: a sultry, pop voice with deeply personal lyricism often reliant on her inner monologue. "We Belong" is only the latest entry in a musical diary curated by Cameron's experiences, and it is a chapter that reflects strength and growth as an artist.
Cameron is a multi-hyphenate artist, but she is also a person who is revealing herself to the world on her newfound limitless platform. When it comes to love, she is putting herself first. And, like most things, she's still figuring it out.
First of all, how are you? What's new in the life of Dove?
It's such a strange time all over the world for everybody, and I'm attempting to find my healthy rhythm in quarantine. Work is so central and obviously, that's true for everybody, but it's also really important for me in terms of my mental health because my work is my creative expression. Because those things are at an intersection, I've really been prioritizing working, luckily I can do a lot of it from home. Obviously, I can't go off and finish my two movies in my apartment, but with what I can do, I've been writing loads; this is my second single release under quarantine.
I've started recording again with all the qualifications that we need in this new world. I was filming two movies at the time of lockdown, and that was my main focus for a long time because we didn't obviously know what was going to happen. So I was like, "We'll go home for two weeks and then we'll come back and we'll finish them." But they've been on hold for nearly six months now, and I've just been writing my life away and planning music and planning more releases. FaceTiming my family, working on my mental health, learning French, writing loads, things like that.
2019 marked the first time that your fans really got to hear you and your musical vision on Bloodshot/Waste. No band, no Disney Channel, just you. What was that experience like to really begin developing your own sound?
It's a strange combination to be from the Disney Channel, but to not have your sound be shaped by the Disney Channel... All the music I did with Disney, which was a lot, was always through a character and it was never mine. I know a lot of people probably think they know my voice or they have me associated with that sound, but when you're on Disney, you're like a session singer. I would just come in and they'd be like, "This is what you're recording today." And I'd be like, "Great, love it for the new movie." And then you leave and that's it. The music that was representing me for a long time had 0% to do with me as a person... Everybody knew that my first release, especially because I waited until I was virtually done with Disney, was me speaking to my music. I think that was unique, and I also think that it was a bit scary. But people are so supportive; for as many people as I am terrified of in the world, there are so many really kind people who have a really varied perspective. I don't have to go above and beyond to be like, "That was nerve wracking. I'm still figuring it out. I hope you like it, and this is new to me." I don't always have to tell people that, because there's so many wonderful people that are like, "We know that. We leave room for you to be developing as an artist, and we leave room for you to be learning and moving and growing."
"I don't want to be what people expect, I want to be whatever is genuinely coming from a place in me that is creating only for me."
I also do think that it is a rare thing to be a fledgling artist and to have so many eyes on you from the jump because my acting career and my career with Disney was so established. I do think that's presented as an obstacle, because I think that whatever my sound would be completely authentically, just me sitting alone somewhere, is sometimes clouded by me being like, "What do my fans want?" or "What do people expect?" I don't want to be what people expect, I want to be whatever is genuinely coming from a place in me that is creating only for me, really. And I have to shed a lot of my earliest and up 'till now, the entirety of my career to be able to find what that is, and I'm definitely still working on that. But I do feel like I have room to explore that, and that's been really nice that my fans have given me that and they've been so supportive, and I'm really proud of what I put out so far. This single is no exception.
You mentioned that you waited to put out your own music until you were pretty detached from the Disney brand. Did you always know that, musically, it would be really important to you to claim a more personal, more "adult" sound for your music to appeal to a broader audience?
I try not to just talk about Disney all the time, but like my experience on Disney was honestly great. I have not a bad word to say about them. But what was interesting that came out of it was that I — the way that I handled my career with Disney was always very much like I didn't see myself building my own career. I saw myself being a part of the Disney image. While I was there, I was like, "I understand what's expected of me by the company that's very well established, but also by the people that watch Disney. I understand what would be rocking the boat, I understand what would be unsinkable. I understand what would cause unbelievable friction, and I don't want that for myself or for the company." What's the point in that? I would never do something like that to the audience, to Disney and to myself for just the sake of it. It's like while you're in my house, you operate under my rules with your parents. I was very much like, "Okay, I'm going to do this, and I'm going to do it fully, and then when I'm not here, I'm going to figure out what that means for me." But I think I wasn't really paying attention to how much it was shaping my image on a global scale. And while I was leaving it, that came as this weird shock to me. I understand from the outside that seems so stupid and beyond unthinkable... But I genuinely wasn't. I was thinking about being a team player and I was thinking about having it all work.
I also believed in myself outside of the channel to figure out whatever I needed to figure out on the other side, so I was just kind of tabling that conversation, and now I really understand. This last year has really brought to my attention how difficult it is to shake that image because I believed that the truth of who I've always been as an artist and the music I've always wanted to create kind of came through a lens. But I don't think it did. With the established nature of that platform, I think that people really take it for what it is, especially because the fanbase is so concentrated. You know what you're getting when you turn on the Disney Channel, and I probably could have set aside a little bit more of who I am and who I always have been to make this transition a little bit more smooth. But I definitely knew I always wanted to separate myself musically from them, because I just knew that whatever I was going to create on the channel was not going to be what I wanted to create outside of it. I wanted to start fresh and really be able to show people who that is naturally and have them receive it with no preconceived notions.
Since Bloodshot/Waste came out back in September, has your taste in your own music changed between that release and "We Belong" now? Have you been able to tailor that sound to who you are in the last year?
Along the way, some of what I released has been, I would still release it exactly the same way today. Some of the songs, like "Waste," I feel like is something that I would release when I'm 30 or 35. That's one of those songs that will forever be one of my favorite songs. But I think like any artist, you kind of figure out what resonates with you as you're writing as you're releasing. And then also in the aftermath, I feel like I look back and I'm like, "Oh, I really love everything I've done. And I definitely feel like I have a better handle on what it is I want to do going forward now." I think that your sound is a forever changing thing.
I actually think that, in quarantine, a lot of these new songs that I've recorded... I recorded "We Belong" a year ago, maybe a little bit less. But a lot of the songs that I've recorded, especially in quarantine, I really feel like, "Okay, there it is. I'm really on the path to that sound." You spend all this time speaking to your label and speaking to co-writers and speaking to other people trying to say what your sound is, and it's really hard to do that when you don't have a physical example because music is so complex and varied and it really depends on the listener. The words that I use are going to form completely differently in your mind. Now that I feel like I've really started to tap into this sound, it's really exciting for me because I feel almost like I was walking, and now I feel like I'm running.
In terms of the creative process, what is a day in the life with you during that process of creating a song? Where are you? Who's with you? What does that process look like for you?
Every song is different. A lot of songs have been co-written, some of my earlier releases were just early batches of songs that were sent to me and things that we kind of developed along the way and things that I worked with producers on. Like I said, in quarantine, I've been writing a lot and I've been kind of working with people differently now. Because now it's less about like, "Okay, what are your first few releases?" And it's like, "Okay, how do we specify who I am as an artist?" Every song and every collaboration or artistic effort is really different; a lot of it looks like finessing. I'm very involved in the post-production aspect of it. I'm not the kind of person where I'll go in and I'll cut a song and then I'll walk away from it and hear it back and I'll be like, "Great, whatever!" I'm very — I don't even want to say controlling, but I know what I want it to sound like. I feel like I am very editorial when it comes to my music. Once I have it down and once I can hear it down to the tiniest, no one is ever going to hear it besides me, half a millisecond of detail, I want to be involved. I need to have it be exactly how I hear it in my mind before it goes out, or else will always be like, "It's unfinished." That has also been really freeing to have my label trust me with that and not to be tossed into a corner with like, "Hey, how long have you been doing this?" They're very much like, "Okay, you're the artist. What do you want? What do you need for this? And we won't release it until you feel like it's perfect." That's been so great for me, and all of my music, I think especially now and going forward is going to be very, very different sounding, even the stuff I put out just over the course of the last year.
You mentioned that you recorded "We Belong" around a year ago. In that year that it has been since you really visited this song in its wholeness, have you changed the way that you feel about it? Does it take on a different meaning for you?
It always does. I think when I first heard the scratch of the song, I was really taken with that lick. [sings] That is so crazy and it stuck with me so much; I love an upward riff. And that's really what it is. Melodically, it's actually quite difficult. It took me ages to be able to do it easily. The first way that I really fell for it was musically, and the way that it was coming together as we were creating it. I think the production elements of it were really exciting to me like towards the very end where the music drops out during the final chorus, we hear that "bang, bang" on its own and all the distortion on the vocal and all of that bass. [imitates bass sounds] That is all very moody and sexy and crispy and crunchy and the production really gets me excited. It's almost like when you're in a movie: the movie's great, the script is great, but when you put on the wardrobe, you're in it. The song's great, it's great on paper, I love the lyrics. I feel very much like we're telling that story of what we were just talking about, but the production gets me in this space where I am this character... I have a very hard time dropping my crush on productions. I'll record something, and then a year later, two years later, I'm always like, "Oh, this fucking gets me going!" I'm a production bitch; I am a little bitch for production, and I always have been. That's why I love noise pop and that's why I love the Sleigh Bells and that's why I love hard bass and Diplo and big sounds.
I think what really changes for me on a song is actually my own vocal. I'll record something and I'll be like, "Damn, that's a banger. That sounds great. Shelf it, can't wait to release it." And then within a month I'll be like, "Should I go back in on that? Do I like the way I sound on this?" Because I get so self-conscious about my own vocal, especially because I'm like an incredibly classically trained singer. When I got the song back, I was also doing an operetta at the LA Opera, and before that, I was doing an operetta in London in the West End. I don't know what my voice sounds like naturally because it had to do so many things with it over the years, but I know I can be very classical, musical theater, opera kind of world, and that is not my sound when I'm recording my own music.
As a singer, it's great to be able to do so much, but that also means that I have to be really disciplined when I'm in the booth with what my sound is for what I'm trying to convey in my music. That is equally as important in a song as production, as lyric. It's the tone, the tone of your voice is what's selling it; it's the girl, it's the story. If I ever think twice about anything, when I wait to release a song, it's always my own vocal, but that's also like not being able to see yourself in the mirror or not being able to watch yourself perform, I think that's always going to be something that you have heavy feelings about. You have to let go and trust that, while you were in the booth, you were feeling it so much, and people are going to be able to hear that.
I want to dive in really specifically into "We Belong." In the first verse, there's "Said I need space but I don't need space/ Need you to come to me." In the bridge, there's "Think I'm allergic to every other person/ You're the one, that I'm certain." From a listener's perspective, it feels like this internal battle: struggling between distance and wanting someone. Do the lyrics in the song mirror your experience with falling in love while also breaking away and becoming independent as a person and artist?
I think I've always had this internal battle between being a really independent person. I am not, by nature, somebody's girlfriend, by any means, but I'm an incredibly intense romantic. And I think those two things together are always kind of fighting with me. I am not only one of those things, they are very opposing, and I also think that my desire to be a full-fledged romantic where I don't think about the practicalities and where I am only living in the present and adventure is also incredibly natural to me. And then I'm also really left-brained: I'm independent but almost to the point where my walls can go up really quick... It's got nothing to do with the person, nothing to do with my romantic partner. It's this internal struggle where I'm like, "Actually, I'm meant to live in a penthouse alone, and I'm meant to keep my feelings to myself. Maybe I'm a little bit harder than this, maybe a little bit hardened." I can be kind of icy quickly, and that's like a protective mechanism.
"I am not, by nature, 'somebody's girlfriend,' by any means, but I'm an incredibly intense romantic."
It's strictly my own struggle that I feel going back and forth between needing that independence, needing that space and knowing who I am outside of the relationship and being like, "I'm not a relationship person," but then also being like, "Wow, you're in my world." It can be kind of hot and cold, especially in this industry where you're constantly traveling, and you're like, "I'm not going to feel like I am not who I am when this person isn't around." I know who I am, and I'm not going to feel compromised by just not being in their presence. I'm not going to give myself like that, and then also believing that love is like the most important thing in the world. I think this song is at the intersection of that.
I think "I'm a production bitch" is going to be my Twitter bio; I'll attribute it to you. [laughs] So, the pandemic has changed the way that we're consuming music and the way that you are making music. You have a Twitch show today, July 30, and it's going to be your first time performing with a full band. How are you feeling?
I'm actually a little bit concerned about how we're going to be able to do that because, obviously, we can't all be in one place. I'm really trusting, really letting go of my control elements where I'm like, "Wait, wait, wait. But how are we going to handle the delay?" They're like, "We have people who do this for a living, please shut the fuck up." [laughs] I'm very much looking forward to seeing how that goes. I think it's going to be strange to have a virtual mini-concert be the first time I'm performing with a live band, but I really trust our showrunner, who I love so much. [I'm also excited] to hear my music through live instruments, because in the same vein of "I'm a production bitch," one of the first things I ever said to my label was "I am not an instrument person, I am a machines person."
"To work with other artists doing stuff that I don't do or that I don't understand or that they know more about than me — there is no greater high in my life."
... I feel like a lot of my music doesn't really have a lot of natural elements, but I've heard some earlier recordings of this particular band, I think it was "Waste" I heard them on, and they sound so fucking unbelievable. Hearing live artists back your stuff that you are so proud of and have them turn it into something that — I've never heard my songs played that way. The guitar goes so hard and the distortion is incredible and the drums, it's really exciting for me as an artist, as a musician, as somebody who loves music more than anything, to hear my songs in a completely different light and to hear them go hard doing what they do best. So I'm really excited to perform, and hopefully we get to do it in person one day.
I love that you acknowledge other artists, too, in creating with you. I think that is really cool.
That's the highlight of my life. That's the thing that I talk about the most. That's the thing that I lament; if I'm ever feeling really, really low, a lot of it is feeling like I don't feel like I'm being seen. Where are my people? Where is my connection? And when I come home off of a session or when I get on the phone with another creative that I feel like we're in the same space, or I just worked with these producers who I can't talk about right now but I'm so fucking stoked on it because they brought out like this strange instrument at the end and they were like, "Alright, we're going to rerecord the whole song and you're going to sing it through this thing." Just having other people that are feeling from this strong point of view, this strong vision, and it shocks me. It's something I've never thought about, it's something that excites me as an artist. That feeling is what I'm alive for, and if I don't feel that, I feel very empty. I feel very low. I feel very confused. I feel very lonely. I'm like, "Where is that feeling of connection?" And then when I have it, I feel like I'm running. To work with other artists doing stuff that I don't do or that I don't understand or that they know more about than me, there is no greater high in my life.
That's so exciting. I love to hear about the art of collaboration. Looking back at the livestream show, it is featuring donation options to Color of Change and Feeding America's COVID-19 Response Fund. What does it mean to you to use your music and your platform to fuel change-making on such a large scale?
Obviously, there's nothing more important right now, but I think I've always felt that there was nothing more important... I feel like my day-to-day experiences of human beings are small talk. It's like if you ate saltine crackers every day for a month, you'd be like, "I need sustenance, I need protein, I need something. I need water." And then when you watch something that someone has put so much creative effort into, that makes you feel alive. It's like you're getting soul nutrition. I think that that is what music and movies and books and TV do for people; it translates things that you can rarely find in a human interaction. It's difficult to get those things that feel like they're giving to you in that way and art does that more than anything else... If we don't use those things as a tool to cut to the hearts of everybody around us, we are wasting so much effort and so much time. It doesn't make them any less romantic, it makes them more romantic because it's bringing us together in a way that nothing else can.
"Anytime that we as artists... have the opportunity to turn our work into something that affects change or even just remind people that these things are still going on, we have to. I don't think that it's a great thing or it's even something to be commended, I think that we have to... It's our responsibility."
... [Social media] really feels like it's a by the people, for the people situation. It's making such an impact on, especially, this younger generation and how we communicate and see each other in general as equals and peers. We are bonded in this way that I think was keeping us separate before... We see officials and leaders taking action, because we as people are demanding it, and a lot of that has to do with artists and a lot of it has to do with how we consume media. Anytime that we as artists, or we as people, who have influence over the platform, have the opportunity to turn our work into something that affects change or even just remind people that these things are still going on, we have to. I don't think that it's a great thing or it's even something to be commended, I think that we have to. I think it's our responsibility, and I think that it is the new way. It is our new world, and I couldn't be happier to be a part of that and to have a platform to feel responsible with.
One last question: 2020 is a pretty big year for you. You have movies that you are working on, but what is next for you and your music for the rest of the year?
I feel like I'm splitting my focus right now with just making sure that everything goes how it should and everything's getting done. But once both of those movies are like in the can and being edited, I have recently recorded three new songs. I'm hoping that after "We Belong," I have another single that is one of my favorite singles I've ever done. That'll come out, I'm hoping, next month in August. It's a very different sound for me, but ... it is closest to the new sound that I'm currently developing. I recently cut this other song with some of my new favorite producers, and I think that might be coming out soon, as well. The music industry is just such a wild west, I feel like I can't tell you very much concretely. I'm thinking at least two more songs coming out in the next few months, and then we'll go from there. I really want to work on an EP, but I just feel like I need to get these next few releases going, and then hopefully, I can turn my attention to a greater body of music.