The Fever Room – Exclusive Interview with Cicada The Burrower

Above: A rare photograph of the publicity-shy, Cameron Davis.

Cameron Davis produced one of the most original albums this year under the alias of Cicada The Burrower. Mixing atmospheric black metal with Santana guitar melodies and jazz drum shuffles is ambitious if not unprecedented, but her latest album, Corpseflower, is a masterpiece of emotion and heart-wrenching honesty. Every guitar passage radiates with sombre reflection, like a widow going through her old photograph albums in the ninth decade of her life. At the centre of the music is a profound melancholy. As we said in our review of Corpseflower: ‘This album is torment personified; the music has an eternal quality to it that makes you want to keep walking onwards in the false belief that the horizon will eventually disappear. It won’t. Those things we put off with procrastination and trepidation will one day catch up with us.’

We had to catch up with the artist behind the most moving record of 2021 to find out more about the ruptures in Cameron Davis’ life that brought her to where she is today.

Corpseflower has touched the raw emotions of most people who’ve heard it, including Scream Blast Repeat. Why do you think your music has connected on an emotional level with your audience?

When I wrote Corpseflower, I did it with the intention of writing something that could make me cry. Succeeding that, I think even though the experiences recounted on the record are extremely personal, people will readily empathise with them because there is a unifying quality to those experiences due to their human nature. The end result may not be a response that is as visceral as the one that I get when I listen to the music, but the feelings I put into the album are rarely missed as a result of that initial intention.

Of course, the big event in your life between 2017’s The Great Nothing and your latest record is your gender transformation. The lyrics to the song, ‘Where Old Crystals Grow’, describe the agony of coming out as transgender: “I’ll shine like a diamond/ That’s stuck in the rough/ Waiting for the right moment/ To say what I must/ When we reach the top/ No gem left untouched/ I’ll find the courage to say/ That I am trans to you.” What was the defining moment when you realised you couldn’t live with this transgender dysphoria anymore?

For me, the only definitive moment I can recall was the announcement of the transgender military ban in the US. It felt like an intense, personal attack and that reaction forced me to start questioning my identity. As best as I can tell, gender dysphoria is the kind of thing I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life, but there are ways to manage and reduce the severity of that condition by way of social and medical transition. I spent a lot of the past several years trying to decide whether or not I’d be better off continuing to live with unchallenged dysphoria, or if it’d be better to face the societal consequences of being visibly trans.

Writing Corpseflower helped me come to a conclusion on the matter. It is too early to tell if I’ve made the right choice. I only started my medical journey a few months ago, but since then my internal experience has been dominated by a profound tranquillity that I had never experienced before in my life.

Let’s talk about your multi-instrumental skills. The drums on Corpseflower sound like a master jazz musician behind the stool. Did you play drums on this record or programme them? If the latter, how is it even possible to instruct a drum machine to play to that extraordinary level of rhythmic expression?

I programmed them. Before writing Corpseflower, I spent a few months learning how to play some basic jazz shuffle patterns on the drums. That wound up helping me a lot when I started work on the project. When I wrote drum parts, I’d always spend some time closing my eyes, playing back what I had written, and visualising how it would be played on drums using the fundamental knowledge I had gained earlier in the year. If something seemed off, I’d go back and correct the part until it sat right with my imagination.

Which albums and artists influenced Corspeflower?

Between 2016 and 2018 I played bass in a pop punk band called It’s All You, Cowboy. At the start of every practice we’d listen to a ton of jazz bands from the UK and Japan, artists like Ill Considered, Ryu Fukui and Takuya Kuroda, as well as AOR acts like Steely Dan and Michael McDonald. I think being placed in an environment where I was actively encouraged to seek out artists and listen to bands that were outside of my comfort zone had a major impact on my personal philosophies regarding music composition. It definitely impacted the overall sound on Corpseflower. Aside from that, artists that really push black metal forward as a genre – Zeal & Ardor, Deafheaven and A Pregnant Light to name a few – really light a fire in me and make me want to push myself, artistically, in similar ways.

You say this album took inspiration from adult contemporary music. To us, it sounds like you incorporated cinematic lounge jazz into your experimental black metal soundscapes. In your opinion, what are the best albums that mixed jazz with metal in the past?

The ones that immediately come to mind are Via Dolorosa by Mamaleek, the first and most recent records by Oranssi Pazuzu, and pretty much anything by 夢遊病者 (Sleepwalker). When these bands mix those genres, it never feels like a gimmick or the kind of thing that was just added on to something traditionally metal. It always feels like a necessary part of their sound. I highly recommend checking them out.

The listener will marvel at the bass guitar work throughout Corpseflower. You include some impressive bass solos in the title track. Why did you hold back on the technical guitar solos on this record?

I didn’t think it would add anything to the compositions. It seemed like if I littered the record with technical guitar solos, it’d sound more like needless masturbation as opposed to something strictly emotive, which served the intentions of the record better.

Above: Corpseflower album art by Sawyer Hildebrandt.

The quality of your note choices is remarkable. It’s like you underwent a painstaking process to capture the same emotional poignancy of a Beethoven piece before settling on a melody. How much of this is due to a knowledge of music theory?

Surprisingly, very little. When I had a guitar teacher, he encouraged illiteracy beyond teaching me major, minor and 9th chords. In addition to a music theory 101 course I took in college that seemed like total bullshit to me, that’s really the extent of my music theory knowledge. I think, for the most part, my compositions are the by-product of writing a ton of music under different names over the course of thirteen years. Just constant trial and error.

How much easier was it to show friends and family how you were feeling during the last couple of years by presenting them with this album rather than having to face them in person?

I came out to my family, friends and co-workers back in 2018, so showing them this record was pretty easy for me. The third track on Corpseflower, ‘Where Old Crystals Grow,’ is about how I felt knowing that I’d come out to my dad once we reached the top of this peak in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are some things on the album that are more personal than I am comfortable sharing with people. That made me a little anxious sharing the record, but it really pales in comparison to telling a loved one you are trans, not knowing how they’ll react.

What attracted you to black metal when you started to write music under the moniker of Fossegrim back in 2012?

When I first started playing guitar back in 2008, I picked up an issue of Guitar World that had this article on second wave black metal. I was immediately attracted to the aesthetic that the article presented, and when I listened to black metal for the first time, I was overwhelmed by this sinister, uncaring catharsis. The atmosphere black metal is able to produce was so powerful to me, that I wanted to do the same.

How important is it these days to keep pushing yourself as a musician and to strive for continual improvement as a guitarist?

It is of the utmost importance to me. I’m very far from my personal goals, artistically, so I try to dedicate about two hours every day to practicing drums, guitar, bass, piano, and vocals.  I’m always tracking my progress and trying to figure out ways to improve my routine to get better results. It’s an exhausting process, but I think it has gotten me much closer to my long-term goals.

Final question: What will it take for you to make the transition from bedroom musician and multi-instrumentalist to a live musician with a backing band?

I don’t think that Cicada The Burrower will ever play live. The songs make me too sad, and I don’t think I would enjoy playing them in a live setting. I do have a new solo project that I’m working on called Devour Every Star, though. I could maybe see that band going live, assuming I find the right line up.

*** Cicada The Burrower released Corpseflower via Blue Bedroom Records on 23 April 2021. You can read the original SBR review here.