Ginger Root adds Spice to Indie Pop
Cameron Lew connects with music and video
BY PAT MORAN
“When you listen to music that hits the right chord for you, it’s a really cool feeling [and] you want that moment to last,” Cameron Lew says. “That’s what I’m trying to do for people.” Harnessing the mystery of the perfect pop song and connecting to listeners on a deep, almost cellular, level may seem like a tall order for a 23-year-old musician and film school graduate from Huntington Beach, California. But Lew, who composes and records as Ginger Root, seems well on his way toward achieving his goal. Ginger Root has earned over 85,000 monthly listeners on Spotify with bright keyboard-driven bedroom pop tunes that occupy a sweet spot between the funky low-key atmospherics of Toro y Moi and the lush indie rock of Feist, a genre Lew playfully describes as “aggressive elevator soul.” Mahjong Room, Ginger Root’s sophomore album, garnered online and reddit raves when it was released last year by Acrophase, a Nashville-based label that Lew inadvertently discovered by reconnecting with a long-lost kindergarten friend.
The Chapman University graduate started playing quirky cover tunes and producing and directing their accompanying videos while still a film student. Lew had a long break between two classes, and instead of commuting back and forth from his parents’ house in Southern California traffic, he started loading up his car with instruments and bringing them to school. Thus was born the music video series Toaster Music volumes one and two.
“The first [video] I made was on the rooftop of our visual arts building,” Lew remembers. “The cops showed up because I had wires, cables and mics. They were like, ‘What is this kid doing?’” After relocating to a new production space, Lew turned Toaster Music into a weekly music video challenge. The skills gained in the process have come in handy for the videos Lew currently creates for himself and other performers, like the “Changes” video he recently directed for Chicago-based musician Neil Francis. Like the songs they accompany, Ginger Root’s videos are often playful and quirky. SoundSplice starts the conversation with Lew by discussing his video for “Weather,” where an Asian-American family battles over the TV remote as they flip through retro low-production-value programming including a tennis match, a game show, a news cast and more – all of which feature Lew in different roles and guises.
The “Weather” video seems to be set in the late 70s or early 80s. What piqued your interest in all these old TV genres?
In a visual sense old TV shows made sense to me. Older shows have a look that fit the feeling I was going for. I was feeling nostalgic, not necessarily for me because I wasn’t around for most of those shows. But when I was sick and home from school The Price is Right would be on, and old reruns would be on. So maybe they were hidden in my subconscious.
I have my actual grandparents in the video to watch those shows that they watched when they were younger. The girl in the video is my sister, and the little boy is a family friend.
I found the vintage TV and the furniture. The couch I got for $12 at a thrift store. All the props and clothes are from swap meets. The stuff I’m wearing in the video is flea market finds. My grandparents are wearing actual clothes that they found in their closet.
You played in other bands. How did you transition to Ginger Root?
I started playing music when I was ten. My parents got me a guitar for Christmas, but not because I asked for it. It was like, “Here, it’s something to do.” In high school [Huntington Beach High], I was in an after school arts program that was like the movie School of Rock. We learned how to play covers of rock ‘n’ roll and pop songs. I learned a bunch of instruments like bass, drums and keyboards. From there I started writing music under my own name. I had a band with Matt Carney who plays drums for Ginger Root. Then I had this other band, Van Stock that put out one EP. It was a guitar-driven, alternative rock [band]. [Then] life happened. I started going to school full time. The guitar player went into computer engineering.
I write a lot, so I had all these songs that didn’t really fit that band. They collectively sounded like a project so I fleshed [it] out. That became the first Ginger Root record Spotlight People. It’s all these quick recordings in my bedroom that I self-produced and released on the internet. Then I started playing gigs as Ginger Root as a three-piece. That’s where Ginger Root is now.
Besides drummer Matt Carney, who else is in the touring Ginger Root trio?
Dylan Hovis plays bass. Ginger Root live is Matt, Dylan and I. Ginger Root studio and video is all myself. Playing live is great, especially with Matt and Dylan, because we’re really good friends and we know how to play with each other. We know when to start and stop at the right time, and how to win over a crowd. We’re still playing as openers so we’re trying to make the crowd feel good for 30 minutes while not trying to leave to go to the bar.
Our first tour was last November with the band Khruangbin, who gave us a shot. We toured with them and that opened the door to another tour with them. And then we started touring with other bands, being the opening band for many people. We got to see the world because of it, which is super cool and something I never thought I would do.
Tell us how your sophomore LP, Mahjong Room, came about.
My best friend from kindergarten, who I reconnected with on Facebook, posted one of my Toaster Music sessions. He’s friends with Dan Asip, [who started Acrophase with George Seay]. Dan saw [the Toaster Music session] and got in touch with me. He asked if I was free and if I wanted to fly to Nashville and play a solo show. It was great. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never met this guy, [but] I went to his house and played a couple of house shows around Nashville and we became really good friends. We worked really well together and we’ve been working together ever since. Dan’s also our tour manager when he’s able to.
Ginger Root released four or five singles with Acrophase. Then I had a batch of songs, comprised of those four or five singles [plus] a batch of another five songs [and] we collected them into a record. I didn’t know that it would become Mahjong Room but it turned out to be what Acrophase was looking for at the time. Mahjong Room is the first full length album that Acrophase put out. [The band and label] were both flying by the seat of our pants, just learning what worked and what didn’t work.
Is there a new album coming out?
It’s not coming out any time soon, but it’s in the works. There’s a new single coming out in November that I just did a music video for. It’s called “B4.” And I always do a Christmas song every year, so we’ll have a Christmas song happening in December.