Q&A: Hotel Books frontman Cam Smith talks about how music saves lives
Fronted by California native and spoken word poet Cam Smith, Hotel Books have been recognized for their brutally honest and impactful lyrics. But at their core, the band is about is emotional endurance and the basic, fundamental need to help others. Since their inception in 2011, Smith’s music has been giving listeners a reason to believe they’re not suffering alone.
Hotel Books are gearing up to release a new LP, and in the interim Smith will hit the road on a solo tour. He plans to tithe a portion of ticket proceeds to a disaster relief organization working to help Hurricane Katrina victims who still are struggling to rebuild their lives. In appreciation of his truly inspiring efforts, we caught up with Smith about getting involved, staying consistent and speaking up for what you believe in.
As both a musician and a creative force, people look up to you. Do you feel it’s your responsibility to use the platform you’ve created to shed light on certain issues?
Yes and no. I think it’s important that artists are honest and a part of that is being blunt about things. At the very least, artists have a responsibility to say, “This is who I am,” and if there’s a part of us that supports something then I think that part should be just as apparent as the broken parts. At the same time, I know a lot of amazing artists who don’t ever help out charities or at least publically don’t, but I still think they’re amazing because they’re writing music that’s helping kids and that’s charitable. Not all bands have money or time, but maybe they have some lyrics out there that are helping people more than my band is with what we’re doing.
What do you think about the glamorization of mental illness and finding a way to reach the people who are really struggling?
The band that’s really doing the best job at this is Sorority Noise. I don’t really know those guys super well, I’ve met their singer a couple times, but that band is getting on stage and playing songs that are saying, “Life’s not as bad as you think, quit glamorizing something that’s hurting people.” When I attempted suicide, I had parents who were able to get me into therapy immediately. I had doctors, I had health insurance, I had every resource that a 16-year-old would need to get better and some kids don’t have that, so I wanted to write songs that said, “You’re not struggling alone.” I think that there are so many victims who are screaming for attention, who deserve attention because they’re hurting and I just wanted to create music for those people who don’t have friends or parents who understand them, but maybe they have some songs that they can listen to. It’s important to talk about those things but it’s also important to understand that there are real steps we can take within music culture to help. There’s literature, there are free resources that our community could be printing out and distributing.
There’s a lot of alienation involved with being different or feeling different. At shows, do you feel like you’re finally in a room full of people who get you?
When I was in high school, I was just waiting for Friday to come. Nothing made sense, my teachers judged me because I wore all black, my parents were trying so hard to understand me but the music and lyrics I would digest didn’t make sense to them. My siblings were getting straight A’s and I wasn’t, kids at school would call me some pretty vulgar things and I just remember waiting for Friday and going to a show and being like, “Holy crap, finally! Life makes sense!” So if this is the anxiety I’m feeling in this small town of very few people, then I can’t imagine how punk kids and goth kids feel in big cities where there’s even more people, more oppression, more agendas, so that’s why we just want to throw as many shows as we can. There’s no reason not to be packing out houses right now because there are so many people who need that. It’s like an AA meeting for people who struggle.
Is there a way that you connect directly with fans to show them that acceptance and support?
We have this thing on our website, imalmosthappyhere.com, where we just let kids send in their stories and we want them to feel like they can start conversations with us about whatever they need to talk about. We’re just trying to create a hub where people can come together and exist and not struggle alone.
You’ve addressed bullying both on social media and in your tenure as a band. Do you think that the genre has a lot to contribute in terms of helping victims of bullying cope?
I posted something yesterday that got me into trouble about how some kid said he won’t listen to Twenty One Pilots anymore because he’ll be bullied for listening to that band because they’re on the radio and they’re too big and I’m like, “If there’s anyone who needs to listen to that type of music, it’s bullies.” The people who are out there shaming us are the people who need more than anyone, to hear honest music about pain and coping with pain. If there are people victimizing others because they’re different, then that’s the exact audience that a band like Twenty One Pilots should be reaching. If those songs are saving our lives, why aren’t we letting them save other people’s lives too?
Can you tell me a little bit about what Hotel Books has been up to in terms of the organizations you’re involved in and what inspires your action for change?
Our band is involved in a Christian practice called tithing. In the bible it says give it back to God, but we give it back to the people, so we put 10% of our revenue toward organizations that are doing something that we can get behind. For us, we’re not really stapled to a specific organization, we just look at the ones that are doing good things that are also experiencing a deficit right now and we noticed that with all the tragedies going on around the world, a lot is still happening with Hurricane Katrina victims and a lot of people are pulling their funding out simply because there’s more pressing issues happening in the world that seem more current. And there should be people who avert their attention over to the current issues, but I also think it’s important to stay consistent with something that really hurt us. Maybe things are getting better now but that doesn’t mean that the problem disappeared.
What organization is really speaking to you right now in terms of continued funding and support for New Orleans?
There’s this organization that I worked with when I was in high school and literally a week ago we got plugged back in with them. It’s called Nazarene Disaster Relief. They’re down in Louisiana right now, and I’ll be going out on a spoken word tour in April to do house shows and coffee shop shows trying out new poems, and we’re going to tithe that out to Nazarene Disaster Relief. It’s a little weird because we’re all scattered as can be, living in different places, hearing about different things going on, but we’re always trying to get involved and when we can’t be as hands on as we’d like to be, we use our finances to help out in any way we can.
You’ve been in the studio working on a new LP, in terms of the new material, what do you want to instill the most?
We’ve been telling the exact same story for the five years we’ve been a band, and this is the first record where we’re not telling that story anymore. It’s about survival skills, specifically surviving suicide and thinking about all my friends who didn’t and how much it hurts to know that I was the one who lived and they didn’t, because I feel like they had so much more to give the world. I think with the new material, I’m just trying to tell the stories of people who didn’t get their shot. I want people to walk away with the idea that everybody has a beautiful story that we should be listening to, so let’s not cut these stories short.