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A Style All Her Own: The Undefinable Cammie Gilbert

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“I don’t know if I could say if I am a full-blown metalhead, as I don’t fully understand what that means,” laughs Cammie Gilbert, singer of Oceans of Slumber. Gilbert, a product of the MTV generation in which a large and culturally diverse demographic of TV watchers discovered heavy metal through music videos, cites Pantera, Type O Negative and The Gathering as early influences on her non metal-centric singing style. As a young African-American, Gilbert might provoke some side-eyes, but she’s also known for putting melody at the fore of her powerful voice.

Gilbert was a vocalist for what she describes as a ‘post rock’ band that opened for Oceans of Slumber at a benefit concert a few years ago. That chance encounter led to Oceans asking her to do some vocal embellishments and background singing. Her project at the time seemed to be going nowhere so she said yes to the opportunity. “We hadn’t recorded anything to really figure out what direction we would have gone musically,” she recalls.

The Houston, Texas, native didn’t grow up with metal in her household, but music was prominent, as was the fact that she was slightly ‘different’ from other people around her. When her family learned that she was singing in a metal band the response was, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense,” she laughs. “I was never really musically satisfied with anything until now. I grew up Baptist in an area where there was a lot of country music, and then there was lots of rap, hip-hop and R&B. I was always looking for more, more of an extra ‘oomph’ in music, like there is with this.”

One year after that benefit concert, Oceans of Slumber asked Gilbert to step when vocalist Ronnie Allen, who appeared on their 2013 debut, Aetherial, departed the band. Not only is her physical appearance a natural progression in metal’s evolution as there are more men and women from various ethnocultural communities involved than ever before, but her preferred vocal style represents more of classic hard rock and metal’s emphasis on power and bravado than the often-stereotypical, hyper-feminine classical vocal narrative. With the release of Winter (released March 4), the band’s second full-length and the first with Gilbert on vocals, she offers a different approach that suits the uniqueness of the band.

“(Since then) my vocal style has been brought up a lot, simply because I’ve replaced a male singer and usually that is a big switch for a band to do,” she says. “In the beginning it was happenstance for him to come into that role, as he was originally their guitar player and then tried his hand at singing. For me, this is my background, my expertise, so it adds more of a dynamic to what Oceans can do now vocally, versus what they were doing before. It’s not much as trial and error, as ‘this is what we want, now do it.’”

She does note that there have been those who question her vocal approach. “In the trolling of YouTube comments, there are those who say they are too clean,” she laughs. Unlike other black rock and metal artists, you can’t get away with applying racialized descriptors, such as ‘soulful’ or ‘bluesy’ to her vocal style. “There is a different kind of balance of my style, which is more of the undertone of interpreting metal, but I think that it goes very smoothly with the music. I don’t sing too clean on purpose – it’s just that I’m more formally trained. I like that sound, so that’s what I’m going for. But on the album, it’s all over the place. There are times when I’m heavier and there are also highs, there is more room for vocal acrobatics with this sound.”

Gilbert deftly incorporates other musical styles into her vocal repertoire—check out the interlude “Lullaby.” On “Winter,” the interplay between Gilbert, guitarists/vocalists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary is phenomenal; not only does she hold her own, the male contributions also position the band’s more aggressive influences, which infer that they aren’t just a jazz-noodling heavy band that is not-so-secretly begging for mainstream attention. “‘Lullaby’ is a family song,” she says, “Even though it’s not a very optimistic song, but the first verse is from a song that my dad would sing to me all the time. Then I wrote the second verse, which fit really well with Keegan’s bass melody.”

Jeremy Pierson
Jeremy Pierson

Gilbert emphasizes that not only is she grateful to be involved with a collective of seasoned musicians, including drummer Dobber Beverly, bassist Keegan Kelly and keyboardist/synth player Uaeb Yelsaeb that she has a close friendship with, but that she has the musical freedom to express herself as a singer. “It makes me so happy to be in Oceans as there is this full spectrum of emotions,” she says. “I can sing stuff as soft as ‘Lullaby’ and as hard as ‘Apologue.’ If it were any other genre I’d be stuck singing one way all the time,” she adds. “With this, I have no limitations, no boundaries, I can do what I want, as much or as little as I want, which is so satisfying as a musician and as an artist. You don’t want to be limited, and I felt that a lot of my previous outlets were very limited. For this to fine me, I think that it was a very fortunate pairing. We are family. It just so happened that we are on the same wavelength musically. It feels natural to me. So I’m incredibly fortunate and the timing was serendipitous.”

Prior to Winter, the band released an EP, Blue, which Gilbert says served in part as “kind of an introduction to a new singer, to demonstrate our influences and where we were going to go.” The cover-friendly album, containing cuts from Candlemass, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Emperor, might have raised eyebrows for the scarcity of original material, but the band wanted to demonstrate how their musical influences could be used as a template for their original work. “We took a gamble releasing what could be seen as a ‘cover album’ first, but we were very precise with what was released as to how it represented our influences. It’s good to see that it translated well.”

And it served its purpose. “Winter,” the self-titled first single and almost 8-minute track, showcased how Gilbert’s powerful, self-assured vocals deftly intermingle with the rest of the band. Instead of being positioned as a ‘hired hand,’ she naturally blends into their present configuration. Oceans of Slumber incorporate flourishes of black metal-esque double bass runs and crunching guitars that eftly intermingle with melodies which, while complimenting clean vocals, aren’t there to make room for a woman singer. “We have a much wider, Antimatter feel with our lighter stuff, but we also reinterpret grindcore sounds with our heavier stuff,” she explains “Yes, we are across the board when it comes to splitting genres, but I can’t say that it’s been too hindering to us.”

It’s pretty easy to categorize Oceans of Slumber as a progressive metal band, but as Gilbert mentions, women vocalists, especially those who don’t alternate between clean and harsh styles, are often labeled ‘symphonic’ and expected to be hyper-feminine with their vocal and attire. “We don’t mind about the progressive metal label – you have bands like Riverside or Anathema that do a lot of crossover, and that is similar to us in the sense is that there is something for everyone,” explains Gilbert, whose partly shaved afro (she notes that she changes her ’do quite often) makes her stand out from the pack. “[Our music] isn’t purposefully ‘cross-over,’ it’s just more about wanting to convey our musical experiences. Our label (Century Media), can give people a preconceived notion of what our sound is going to be, but progressive metal tends to be this ‘catch all’ phrase to define music that doesn’t really fit into any other, stricter categories. It’s fitting because that’s what we are, but we also get caught up in being compared to other female-fronted progressive metal bands, which as mentioned before, tend to be symphonic.”

Note the awesome first-US-tour-in-deacdes Anathema tee shirt.
Note the awesome first-US-tour-in-decades Anathema tee shirt.

Prior to interviewing Gilbert, I put quite a bit of thought into how to approach the discussion of her physical presence. Despite the fact that her interest in metal is not rare, her physical presence is. North America is currently experiencing an intense level of social and political unrest, as race and gender divisions are more publicly prominent and the level of hostility both within the metal scene (Phil Anselmo) and outside, i.e. the ‘real’ world (Donald Trump), makes the presence of a black woman within this scene more contentious than ever. Because of this, should Gilbert’s position as one of the handful of black women to hold a prominent position within a heavy metal band even be mentioned in this piece?

It’s obvious that her ethnicity was not much of a thought when she joined an all white and male band. “A big part of what we do as musicians is in the tradition of service,” she explains. “We are here to be a catharsis and be an outlet for others, and to be available to show support for the things that people are going through. While I haven’t had any real direct kind of role model-esque experiences, there have been comments on our social media outlets that demonstrate that my ethnicity does matter. One was from a black girl who wrote that she identified with who I was, what I was into and what I was doing. And she wrote, ‘Thank you, because you are a now role model for me,’ which I obviously thought was cool. Because I am a singer and I happen to be black – if that’s something that resonates with people, than that is part of the service, too.

“When we went to the 2015 Prog Power USA Festival, there were two guys, one was South Asian and other was black. And the black guy came up and just quoted a number to me. I said, ‘What?’ and he responded, ‘We count every year how many black people and how many Indian people are here,’” she laughs. “Prog metal to me seems more diverse than other genres, and that is really cool, so for us, it’s a good fit in a lot of different ways.”

The band plans to hit the road for a good portion of 2016. After completing a short stint this fall in North America, Gilbert is excited to get back on the road. “People are watching, and people are watching to gain something from us,” she believes. “I want to make sure that what they gain is positive and empowering and not just something that is flashy and disposable.”

—Laina Dawes

Oceans of Slumber’s Winter is currently available via Century Media Records. Follow Oceans of Slumber on Facebook on Twitter at @OceansOfslumber.

Laina Dawes is the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, available from Bazillion Points. Follow her on Twitter at @Lainad

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