CAAMP is poised to become a household name. Out of Athens, Ohio, Taylor Meier and his buddy Evan Westfall were two ordinary dudes playing open mic nights and local house shows. Little did they know what was about to happen.
In early 2016, the duo uploaded their plucky stunner “Ohio” to Spotify, and things almost immediately took off. “That song is our absolute champion,” Meier told American Songwriter. “One morning, we woke up it was at 5,000 plays. The next morning, it was at 38,000. It was like, ‘Whoa! Something’s going on!’”
“Ohio” had been added to a batch of other Spotify playlists, too, and the crashing streaming numbers sent the song into the Viral 50 chart. With the release of 2016’s self-titled debut record, they flexed not only a tenacious handling of traditional folk and bluegrass music but married their tight-knit playing with Meier’s incredibly powerful, vivid and visceral songwriting. Other songs like “All the Debts I Owe,” a road-weary tale of life’s heavy price, seemed to also connect in a big way – the song currently boasts 14 million streams.
That was only the beginning. Band manager Adam Sensenbrener (of Mick Management) soon caught wind of their music on a Spotify playlist and instantly connected to their work. “I’d been looking to work with another artist. Coming from North Carolina, I grew up with a lot of folk music, classic rock ‘n roll, bluegrass and Americana,” he explained. “Their core songwriting really spoke to me. I found Taylor’s lyrics, in particular, to be very poetic and thoughtful and creative. I felt like they had a knack for these sweeping melodies and catchy phrases. I have a background in music, and I grew up in church choirs and majored in vocal performance myself, so I’m a voice guy. Taylor’s voice is very much a one-of-a-kind and immediately recognizable.”
In between touring legs, Sensenbrenner was taking a breather when an opportunity presented itself to strike while the iron was hot. “Jeff Koenig, who is now their attorney, sent me their music. I was like, ‘Man, this is really good. I feel like if I go to Europe, I’m going to miss it and someone else will have scooped them up.’ I asked him if he could intro me to the band,” he remembered. “He had already been talking to them a little bit. I had a Skype conversation with Taylor and Evan. We hit it off. I called them back the next day and was like, ‘If this isn’t too forward for you guys, I’d love to get on a plane and come see you and hang out for a couple of days.’”
Sensenbrenner hopped on a last minute flight and met the talent in their hometown “They were just a couple of guys in Columbus, Ohio and didn’t really know much of anything about the proper music industry, so to speak. From their perspective, I think it was pretty cool that someone from New York was going to fly to see them,” he said. “I very much want to meet artists where they are. They have such a strong sense of home in their music, and a lot of their writing deals with that. It was important to meet them and spend time with them and get to know their home.”
Once back in New York, things were already in motion. “I landed, and they called me up to say, ‘We’d love to work with you.’ I think they just appreciated that I had enough respect for them to get on a plane and take a risk and meet them.”
A deal was signed soon after, but there was no rush to move on to the next thing. “We had the luxury of time. I really believed in the music and the ability for it to find an audience if we could give it the time. The guys were really patient. They weren’t big-headed, and they didn’t want to sign a record deal or publishing deal.”
Such free, independent spirit continued to be a driving force behind Sensenbrenner’s approach. “I wanted to foster that spirit and find appropriate partners I felt could further their ambition and audience but not do that in a way that would take control away from them.”
The band opened for alternative rock band Rainbow Kitten Surprise on both fall 2016 and spring 2017 tours. Despite not being a perfect stylistic fit, the road experience was necessary. “I told them they just needed to be out on the road,” said Sensenbrenner.
Meanwhile, CAAMP’s streaming numbers continued to climb. One-off single “Misty,” out late 2016, is currently approaching 20 million streams. A set of EPs dropped in 2018, Boys (Side A) and Boys (Side B), pieced together as a complete album, and each release resulted in more streaming success. “So Cool” and “Books” have notched 14.3 million and 6.9 million streams, respectively.
Meg Tarquinio, Senior Lead of Spotify’s Curation Strategy, commented on the band’s slow, but calculated, rise: “The interesting thing with them is it has been years. I’ve seen them play a packed Bowery Ballroom show where everyone is singing along to every word and dancing with their neighbor they just met to a crowd amassing outside an impromptu set at Newport Folk. Now, they’re going to be playing Brooklyn Steel.”
Such live performance growth is, more than anything, clearly traced to their music. “The songs are great – the melodies, the lyrics, the guitar/banjo/keys combo they do. It’s beautiful. They’re also really lovely humans, and that comes across, as well. They’re very positive and uplifting,” said Tarquinio. “They even lift other bands up in their space. If you go to their artist page, they have this playlist they’ve been making since 2016 of songs they dig. They combine classic and contemporary favorites in that space with very few of their songs and a lot of great, local midWest Ohio bands. They have almost 5,000 followers there.”
Ahead of their second proper full-length record, Meier and Westfall enlisted long-time friend and bass player Matt Vinson to join. 12 tracks feel rooted to the past but with a keen eye for the future. By and By was released on Mom+Pop Records late July 2019, and much like their previous releases, they continue to be a streaming hit. “No Sleep” is heading toward six million streams, while “Penny, Heads Up” is sitting just south of 4.5 million.
This album cycle also witnessed the group sending their first single to radio. “Peach Fuzz,” a groovy galloper, recently hit No. 1 on Triple A radio and has amassed nearly 4 million streams. “The boys were hesitant about radio. They didn’t want to become a radio act and overly commercial,” noted Sensenbrenner. “They didn’t want to become known as just a radio band.”
Instead of mounting a radio tour or actively asking for radio adds, Sensenbrenner said they simply “evangelized” the band with show invites to programmers. Across the board, including their latest solo headlining tour, for which they utilized Spotify’s listener data, “the pace of growth has quickened this year and it feels stable,” he said.
The key to such impressive growth is “always having new music and having dates live. Any time you go to the CAAMP site, you can buy a ticket to a show. It’s creating this illusion they’re always on the road,” he explained. “Granted, they’ve been touring a lot and working hard in that way. If it’s spring, we’ve got fall dates up. If it’s fall, we’ve got spring dates up for the next year. We’re always trying to give a place for fans to connect offline and show they’re not just a streaming or online band.”
With 2020 looming, the band is positioned to completely flip the industry on its head. “Next year is about doing more of the same. It’s continuing to build on the hard work we’ve done before,” teased Sensenbrenner. “We’re playing Red Rocks in 2020 and playing outdoor amphitheatres for the first time. We’re trying to get to some marquee venues around the country that are more 2-3,000 cap rooms.”
CAAMP’s rise is truly a rags-to-riches story.
On a recent phone call, Meier reminisced about his upbringing and being exposed to a vast range of music. “My mom used to have this red Jeep Cherokee,” he remembered. “She used to pick me up everyday from school, and it was always Dixie Chicks, REM, Dave Matthews. I loved all the music my mom loved for a lot of my childhood.”
It wasn’t until his high school days when he became fully infatuated with music and the songwriters behind the hits. “The first artist I fell head-over-heels for was Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. His music really hit me over the top of the head. It was overwhelming, lyrically and melodically,” he offered. “Sonically, it was so huge and so meak at the same time. He continues to inspire me. He’s one of the most important musicians and lyricists of my life. Ray LaMontagne is a close second. Trying to sing his songs is how I found that I could roar like I did.”
It was around the same time the self-taught musician began playing guitar and expanding his musical palette. “Guitar and drums, that’s really all I do well,” he said.
Westfall and Meier first met their sophomore year. “We had a couple classes together and got close. Then, we kept in touch and became closer friends. We had a high school band that was our senior project. That fizzled because it was what it was,” said Meier. “Evan and I kept in touch, and when I moved to Athens [in 2013] and started writing songs that would become the first album, people were coming to open mics just to see me. I felt it was started to change a little bit.”
Westfall moved to Athens two years later, and the duo began honing their live performance style and piecing together their debut record. With nothing but a fire in their gut and a couple guitars and drums, Meier and Westfall laid the foundation for a career now aimed for superstardom.
“We’ve had a really steady rise and a lot of fun along the way. It’s been a lot of luck and knowing good people,” said Meier. “It’s enough of a rise to keep us excited, but not too fast where we get overwhelmed.”
Meier spoke with American Songwriter about his songwriting evolution, key album tracks and his next destination.
How have you grown as a songwriter over the last six or seven years?
Songwriting has always been a raw and intimate art. I am not a classically trained musician. I just strum and play and base it all more on feeling than knowing where I’m going in the song. Through these years of touring, putting out records and getting better at guitar, it’s been awesome. Even within CAAMP, there’s many sonic alleys and motifs. It’s all beyond what I thought I could do, I guess.
In the coming years, after the success of “Ohio,” more and more songs have been playlisted. Was there a moment when you realized something really big was happening for you?
Oh, yeah, when we got to open for Rainbow Kitten Surprise [in 2016 and 2017]. We had just hired a manager. We didn’t even have an agent. Somehow, this huge band had heard of us and chose us to tour with them. That was an “oh wow” moment. We were going to these venues and having people sing our words back to us. It was magical and humbling.
“By and By” is the backbone of your latest record. In the song, you talk about looking back and wishing you had more time. What’s the message here for you?
This is a song I wrote – not at a low point in my life – but I definitely had been through some shit. I had been out on the road and just fell out of love with a long-time affair of mine. It just felt real and heavy. Every verse hit me. It was all true to me. My favorite line is: “In this past year, I got so much older.” I really feel that way. I don’t feel run-down necessarily. It just feels like I’ve learned a lot about life and what that means. In the last 12 months, I’ve figured out things about myself and about the world and where I see myself living within it. It’s also about still riding regardless of the rut.
You bookend the record with “Of Love and Life,” which has such a considerable vulnerability to it. One of the more powerful lyrics reads: “We all walk the same out here / Our blood is pumpin’ red.” What is the driving force behind this song?
I actually wrote this song a long time ago. I wrote it when I was 17 years old… back when I could barely play guitar. It was one of the first songs I brought to Evan, and he was picking up the banjo. He played it over that, and it was a super powerful and real moment for us. He was like, “How the fuck did you write that? What are we going to do with it?” I can’t even really explain why it didn’t make the first or second record. I felt like I needed to live a little longer and let a lot of it come true first. It’s not only the last song on the album, but it’s the last song we cut, along with “Feels Like Home.” It’s very intentional in the way we put them at the top and the bottom.
You’d say the poeticism in your lyrics has always come pretty naturally, then?
Oh, yeah. I love words. I love reading, and I love English. It’s the way my brain works. I like to spin the words and syllables together and see what comes out. Everything happens pretty simultaneously. I’m both limited and elevated by my lack of musical knowledge. It’s all feel for me.
Are you the kind of songwriter that will scrap pieces of writing that aren’t working or do you hang on to them?
I save it if I like it. I don’t write any songs that I don’t like. I won’t finish it – even if I don’t think it’s for me. If it’s not resonating with me or if I don’t think it would with others, I don’t finish it. I have hundreds and hundreds of voice memos of hooks. I go back through those and tie them together or finish them out completely. I’m always saving the tidbits. I don’t overwrite at all. Sometimes, I’ll go three or four days without touching a guitar on purpose – just saving it up for myself. So, when I do get an outlet, it pours out of me. It feels good like that.
Where do you want to go next, creatively?
You know, we’ve always managed our own pocket. I’m releasing a solo record, which will definitely be a bit crazier. It’s a little more old school but also very weird. Evan and I are talking about what CAAMP will be next. We love our rock ‘n roll stuff, and we’ll continue to put that out. We’re under the impression that we’ll put out a full-on folk record next, kind of back to our bones.