In Season Finale, Ryan Cam Becomes The Newest Winner On ‘Songland’

On Monday night, Ryan Cam became the final winner of the second season of Songland, the show which features songwriters pitching their songs to a panel of celebrity ‘producers’ — Shane McAnally, Ester Dean and Ryan Tedder — and a guest artist. This week, the guest artist was pop-culture icon Usher, who ultimately chose to record Cam’s song “California.” Exciting, informative and upbeat, Monday night’s episode capped off a truly monumental season for the NBC show. 

Videos by American Songwriter

What makes it so monumental? 

Well, if you like numbers you can look to the commercial success of the songs generated by the show. So far, the second season has merited three No. 1 hits on the U.S. iTunes sales chart, which isn’t even to mention the tens of millions of streams the songs have all garnered collectively. These stats are no small potatoes considering that many of the contestants on the show are relatively unknown. Songland offers an unprecedented opportunity for these writers to cut their teeth on the upper echelons of commercial music — an embodiment of a changing tide in how music is represented in mainstream media. 

If you’re not crazy about numbers, perhaps you can look to that ‘changing tide’ as what makes Songland’s second season so monumental. While shows like American Idol and The Voice have been putting a spotlight on undiscovered performers for decades, Songland gives air-time to the more underrated and underrepresented side of the music industry. Usually living hidden in the shadows, songwriters have long been an afterthought for the general music-buying demographic. Through celebrating the work of the writer and highlighting the complex and nuanced process of writing a song, Songland is giving invaluable insight on how our favorite tunes are actually made. This is not only validating to see for the millions of songwriters in America, but it’s also inspiring to those who are aspiring writers. Many of the contestants from season two have told American Songwriter that watching the first season of Songland was an invigorating and eye-opening experience for them.

Basically, in short: Songland is like a love letter to the songwriter. It celebrates them, it validates the hard work they do and it inspires folks to learn more about songwriting, maybe even try it themselves. Considering that this is American Songwriter… c’mon, that’s pretty cool!

Which brings us back to Ryan Cam, the winner from Monday night’s episode. A fan of the first season, the opportunity for Cam to actually be on the show was tremendously eye-opening for him. 

“The experience as a whole has had a huge impact on me,” Cam told American Songwriter. “I even wrote a song on the plane ride back home from taping and thought ‘this is so much better than what I was writing before the show.’ It’s really made me rethink the direction I was heading in before. It’s realigned me to a more beneficial direction. I plan to be really consistent — I want to have the right people around me, producer-wise and engineer-wise. I want to love every single element of who Ryan Cam is.”

Now, you might be asking ‘okay, who is Ryan Cam?’ Don’t worry — we also had that question.

“Ryan Cam is an independent, hardworking and determined kid who is going to figure out how to bring out what he sees he can be to the fullest extent,” Cam said. “I truly believe that I can be a successful and commercial artist and that is my goal.”

Prior to being on Songland, Cam found underground success as a SoundCloud artist and vocational success as a professional model for the Wilhelmina agency in New York. If you can’t tell from his endearingly unabashed self-definition, Cam is refreshingly and infectiously determined to get his art out there. 

“Growing up I always dreamed of doing music and being an artist, but I never really considered it a real possibility,” he said. “So, I went to college for computer science, but there was a lot of friction because I wasn’t loving it. Then, sophomore year I bought myself a mic, I taught myself how to mix, I wrote my first original song and I released it on SoundCloud. People loved it, I loved it. I really enjoyed the creative process. It was after that when I decided to do this music thing full time.” 

From there, Cam began writing, producing and releasing songs and EPs on SoundCloud. It was shortly after graduating from college that he got in touch with Songland.

Songland actually reached out to me about two months before I even wrote the song that eventually got chosen,” Cam said. “They were like ‘we like your music, send us some songs.’ I sent them one song and then they asked me two more times ‘hey can you send us another song?’ I ended up sending two more songs and then I went to my family’s hometown in Greece, where I wrote what would become ‘California.’ Then, they were like ‘hey, do you have any songs for someone like Usher?’ I thought of the one I had written in Greece and felt that it was perfect.”

It’s an anomaly that Songland contacted Cam instead of the other way around — how this came to be remains a mystery for even Cam himself. While he has suspicions that a family member may have submitted some songs on his behalf, Cam’s family denies any such submission. Regardless, the fact remains the same that Cam ended up being the right person in the right place at the right time: Songland liked “California” and invited him to be on the show.

Originally a slightly different tune by the name of “Staying Over,” “California” is an encapsulation of Cam’s feel-good artistry. “My friend had sent me a beat and I really liked it,” he said. “I liked the way it made me feel. It felt like the surroundings around me, it felt like Greek summer, sunsets and islands. So, I used it to write the song about a girl I knew back in college inspired by the aesthetics of the island. It created a really cool vibe.”

That cool vibe went all the way from Greece to Los Angeles, where it landed in Usher’s auditory cortex — he also thought it was cool. As did Ester Dean, who became Cam’s producer on the track.

“It was incredible working with Ester,” Cam said. “We had the session that they show on the show and then we had another session at her studio. It was like a seven-hour session or something —we basically reformatted and reassembled the song together. That experience was unreal. She knows how to paint a picture, she knows how every word will feel for the listener. I learned so much working with her. Even now, whenever I write I try to imagine that Ester is in the room with me because I feel like I know what she would say. The experience of working with her was very impressionable on me. I think it really directed me in the right way.”

The creative relationship between Cam and Dean comes back to that special magic which makes Songland such an intriguing and exciting show. Cam, who was already an accomplished enough writer that he penned a tune for Usher, experienced a creative renaissance after working with Dean. In a way, this is an embodiment of the songwriting process itself; regardless of how long you’ve been doing it or how good at it you are, there is always something more to learn. There’s always a different perspective, a different twist, a different ear. 

Every contestant from Songland’s second season has an entirely unique artistry and story — as do the show’s three producers — yet, they are all able to come together to create beautiful work. In this regard, Songland reminds us that what makes a great song is… well, a great song. Aesthetics, setting and context aside, the best music is the music that unites us in the common practice of loving a good tune. Through providing this to millions of Americans every week, Songland is providing a fantastic service to us all.

Watch Ryan Cam perform the song that would eventually become “California” below:

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