By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor
In quarantine, “Joy of Missing Out” has become a kind of mantra for Cam Chambers.
“I gotta remind myself JOMO, JOMO, JOMO every day,” says the New Kensington-based r&b artist. “Like literally, I tell myself JOMO because it’s like, ‘Ok you’re rushin, you’re rushin.’”
He may need to remind himself of the Joy Of Missing Out, and that it’s ok to chill a little bit in the day-to-day. But when it comes to his art, at least, Chambers is good at letting things simmer.
In November he released his first record, Prodigal, which has been in the works for about three years. And as a (partial) result of his patience, and his willingness to let things happen at the right time, Prodigal is a sophisticated, well-constructed and remarkably fully-realized debut.
Chambers folds jazz and hip hop into his sound, which gives his songwriting a swaggering edge. He’s a crooner and elegantly shows off his considerable range while staying sing-along-able. In his more straightforward moments, like his first single “Nuedae,” Chambers recalls the grown-up, radio-ready R&B of the mid-aughts. Other times, heavy beats and self-aware lyrics put him more in the neighborhood of someone like Frank Ocean.
Chambers comes from a musical lineage — he’s related to bassist Paul Chambers, who played with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue and John Coletrane on Giant Steps, among other canonic jazz records. Cam grew up playing drums in church, where both his parents sang. (Opening track “Fin” features an audio clip of three-year-old Chambers and his mom singing together). “Literally everyone in my entire family could be a choir,” he says with a laugh.
Gospel introduced Chambers to music’s power. “Growing up in church … seeing what powerful music can do to people,” he recalls, “when I saw that music does that … that’s when I said, ‘I gotta do this pretty seriously.’ Because I knew it was nothing to really play with, if you can really contact someone emotionally like that.
“My main goal when I’m doing any kind of music is to take [listeners] to a good place. As long as they’re feeling something, that’s the main base of what I do.”
While studying music and communications at California University of Pennsylvania, Chambers joined a band and started playing regular shows.
“There were a lot of places that were booking us but it never became an official thing,” he says. He knew he wanted to make music, but wasn’t quite ready to put out his original work. “This is really just practice,” he thought at the time, “but I love this.”
Financial constraints stopped Chambers from finishing school, so he started working. “I had odd jobs, I sold cars … But the craziest thing about it was that I was gigging.” He played anywhere he could, including, on one occasion, at Shults Ford, where he worked. “That’s the kind of stuff I did for three years,” he says. “It’s been a balancing act, but I wasn’t trying to give up on music. With the music, I found literally everything I ever need.”
Chambers has some major advocates in the Pittsburgh music scene, including vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/producer INEZ, who mixed and mastered the first song Chambers ever recorded; and rapper Mars Jackson, who’s recent single “Look Up” features vocals by Chambers. At the suggestion of Chamber’s long-time collaborator Dan Sullivan — who along with another close collaborator, Bobby Webster, worked extensively on Prodigy — Mars stopped by one of the recording sessions.
Within minutes, Chambers says, the two were already writing “Look Up.”
“And that’s how we became friends, that whole experience of writing that song together, putting that into the world together.”
Mars and Chambers have some collaborative projects on the horizon, but for now, Chambers is trying to slow down and let Prodigal have some time out in the world. Which brings him back to his mantra, and the very last song he wrote for the record, “JOMO.”
The idea of celebrating the joy of missing out was inspired by quarantine though, Chambers says, he’s realizing he’s always kind of lived his life that way.
“With ‘JOMO,’ it’s the whole situation of not being able to chase anything right now, but having to be confident that you’ll get there eventually,” he says. “It’s about being calm in the situation and making the best of your world as it is in the moment. Even though everything else is burning down you gotta make the best world around you.”