Cavetown: “It’s important that people feel heard”

Robin Skinner is an artist who means more to his fans than most. Already a bedroom pop sensation, new album 'worm food' sees Cavetown pushing out towards new horizons.

Robin Skinner is an artist who means more to his fans than most. Already a bedroom pop sensation, new album ‘worm food’ sees Cavetown pushing out towards new horizons.

Words: Neive McCarthy.
Photos: Emily Marcovecchio.
Photo Assistants: Sophie Scott, Vendy Palkovičová.

Many of us will remember hearing the beloved story of The Little Prince as children. If you need to jog your memory, it’s the dreamy-eyed account of a narrator who meets the little prince of a small planet and learns about loneliness, friendship, sadness and love. It’s an embrace of that open-mindedness you have as a child and how we inevitably lose sight of that as we grow older. 

The video for Cavetown’s ‘1994’ sees Robin Skinner assume that princely role. Flying through the cosmos, that narrative is flipped on its head; instead, the story acts as a means of coming to terms with leaving childhood behind. It’s the kind of contemplative, incisive creativity that only he could be capable of. On his latest album, ‘worm food’, that role of loving, thoughtful navigator through an uncertain time seems to come naturally to Robin. As he delves into his own coming-of-age, he extends a much-needed reassurance to his listeners that everything is going to be okay.

In part, that healthy output seems to stem from the equally restorative environment in which the album came to life in. Returning to the home studio where each Cavetown project thus far has been born, a change in mentality proved crucial. “Both me and my management team have learnt a lot about me and the way that I work, or the way that’s best for me to work,” reflects Robin. “When I wrote the last album I released, I was also on tour, so it was a stressful experience. It was good to go through because I learnt what my threshold is for busyness and responsibilities. On this album, I’ve been given a lot of space and a lot of time and a lot of trust. It’s been a much better experience mentally for me.” 

That proved fundamental for ‘worm food’ – at one’s own pace, with as little pressure as possible, creativity blooms. The result can only be something more productive and assured, something which rang true for Robin. “If I’m feeling good, I’m able to attach this album to feeling good, and I’m able to feel more proud of it because it has formed in a more comfortable way. I’m definitely feeling better about this album now than I did about ‘Sleepyhead’ at the same time when I was working on that. I’m still very proud of that album, but I feel more in control of this one.”

Gaining control often stems from understanding, something Cavetown has been working on consistently and often chronicles on ‘worm food’. It’s an empathetic, caring body of work that acknowledges that things take time and that a great deal of growing up is a learning curve. “Every time I release something, I definitely put pressure on myself to make the next thing better than anything I’ve ever made,” Robin admits. “At a certain point, it gets unrealistic. That can make it difficult to keep myself focused and not get frustrated if I’m putting pressure on myself. I don’t think I feel pressure externally. It’s all myself. That’s something I’ve learnt to get better at, being compassionate.”

Though being more tender towards yourself is a vital lesson at play on ‘worm food’, it’s not always sustainable. For that learning and growth to occur, there has to be some awareness of the less than savoury parts. It’s a journey, after all. ‘Kill U’, for example, is an infuriated examination of the aspects of yourself you dislike so fiercely you want to kill them. A particular line in the chorus, “I can’t fall asleep / because this is adulthood,” seems to epitomise a key part of the album’s struggle. Even in the face of things you don’t want to admit, you have to continually show up and fight your battles. By accompanying these realisations with effortless vocals and a steadfast current of lowly growling guitars and stomping beats, Robin makes them less barbed. 

“I definitely put pressure on myself to make the next thing better than anything I’ve ever made”

Robin Skinner

“I definitely think on this album there’s a good balance,” Robin affirms. “It picks you up and down as you listen through. There are a lot of songs where I’ve consciously tried not to add too much if the song is good on its own. I can get carried away adding more and more instruments, but it’s good to pull it back and keep something more gentle. Some of them barely even have any percussion and stuff. I do try to bring the levels up and down quite a lot within songs. I like having little sections where it’s a lot more gentle – that can make the bigger moments more exciting within the same song. I think that comes quite naturally. I go through phases even within an album cycle of wanting to scream and shout on stage and then also wanting to whisper the words – it kind of works in my favour in that way.” 

An innate affinity for reflecting the rollercoaster-like state of emotions allows the album to offer an opportunity to unleash the full weight of its feelings, whether that’s bouncing around to tracks like ‘Heart Attack’, or curling up into a ball and allowing the heart to be soothed by the string quartet employed on ‘Laundry Day’. Robin’s penchant for storytelling-like lyricism acts as a hand to hold through each wave of hurt, joy, bitterness and glee. It feels at times like he will always have the most comforting thing to say at each moment on hand – across ‘worm food’, he somehow provides a track for every mood and mixed feeling.

“A lot of the time, I can’t tell you where certain lyrics come from and sometimes, I don’t really understand them until afterwards. They just feel like the right words to say,” says Robin. “I like to think that I have the words in my head to understand things that I’m struggling to process or things that I’m going through, but I just haven’t linked them together. Writing a song about it really helps me to make those links and turn something confusing and maybe upsetting into a tangible thing that I am in control of and that I can feel proud of.” 

As music lovers, we turn to songs to reassure us in all periods of life, but those songs need to come from somewhere. Artists like Cavetown provide those moments of solace through the nature of their lyrical style. When your innermost feelings subconsciously pour out onto the page, it bridges that gap between artist and listener and turns that relationship into something akin to a confidante. For a lot of Cavetown fans, this seems to be the case. With TikTok comment sections rife with confessions like “he doesn’t know how many young people he has helped, his songs got me through everything going on in life”, it’s safe to say that in processing his own emotions through his songs, he, in turn, helps his fans process theirs too. 

“It’s an interesting thing that I hadn’t deconstructed,” Robin contemplates. “I find it hard to talk about what certain songs mean because they might be difficult things, or things that I am ashamed of or have been finding it hard to process. Yet at the same time, I’m sharing it with whoever in the world wants to listen to it. It’s a private thing, but I’m sharing it with the world for some reason. By being shared, they can be heard and understood. Even if I don’t want to directly talk about it with specific people in my life, it’s good to be heard in whatever form that happens to take.”

Once out in the world, Robin’s songs often take on new meanings and resonate differently for different people. It’s an act of letting go in a way – as if having encapsulated those experiences into a song, the hard feelings can now be released. Ultimately, it is up to the individual listener to decide what to do with those going forwards. “It’s really special. When I’m in the zone writing, I forget that that can be a result of putting music out. I do it for me and to help me with what I’m going through. When I’m reminded that happens because I do my own silly processing on my own, it’s very cool, and I’m lucky to be able to give that to people.” 

“A lot of the time, I can’t tell you where certain lyrics come from – they just feel like the right words to say”

Robin Skinner

It will come as a welcome comfort for many as Robin continues to lead the way through this journey so many of his fans will be experiencing too. It returns to that need for compassion and growth. While on ‘Sleepyhead’, the Chloe Moriondo feature track ‘Snail’ saw Robin declare, “I just wanna be a kid again!”, this time around, there’s a newfound acceptance for what might come next. ‘1994’ focuses instead on treating yourself in the present as tenderly as you would your younger self; it’s less a need to revert to when things were easier and more an attempt to make peace with the fact things are not. When you look in the mirror, somewhere inside of you is the carefree six-year-old you once were – they don’t just disappear. It’s a realisation that favours kindness, sensitivity and progression over avoidance.

“I find it hard to connect myself now to past versions of myself,” Robin explains. “They feel very separate. But if a child was stood in front of you, there are some things people say to themselves that you would never say to a child. Why is it different when it’s you? I think that’s important to remember. It’s such a simple concept, but it’s taken me a long time to internalise. It’s still a process, but I think it’s an important thing to learn to do.”

That softness pads out the sharper edges of ‘worm food’. From the tranquil guitars of ‘Juno’ to the airiness of the album’s title track, it feels as though with each hard truth is the chance to exhale and deal with the hit. It’s a tumble through time and space with each gutting acknowledgement, but with a padded fortress of blankets and pillows to break your fall in the end.

To curate such a sonic boost of love and affection, Robin called upon his own loved ones for some assistance. ‘Wasabi’ is a particularly special cut – Robin’s voice takes on a searing quality in an attempt to come to terms with feelings around a crush. It’s an open wound, an aching, sore moment nestled in the album. Yet, once again, Robin finds a sonic plaster to seal the wound. In this case, it’s Robin’s mum, a baroque flute player who had long since been prodding him to get her involved with his music.

“She would have been so upset if I got some random flautist,” laughs Robin. “Since I produce whilst I write, I can hear in my head what will come next. I was hearing a fluttery, distant flute just flying around. I wrote a little thing in Logic, and I asked if she wanted to play. She plays for serious orchestras, so it’s a very different experience for her. When she does recordings or plays live with them, you have to get it right in one go. I don’t think I communicated to her that we can stop and start, you can chop it up and make it sound like a full take. Bless her, she got up in the morning, went to my studio and tried to learn it. It’s very fast, and there’s not really anywhere to breathe. It’s a very complex melody. She came back inside really emotional, and she was like, ‘Robin, I’m sorry I can’t do it! I can’t play this! It’s too fast. I don’t think you’re going to get a good take!’. I asked her to play me one bar, and it was perfect; we could do it piece by piece. She was stressed because she wanted to do it perfectly first time, but we did it bit by bit. It’s something I know she could play if she had the time, but I sprung it on her a day before, so it was difficult, but when I played her the full edit of it, she had tears in her eyes.” 

“I find it hard to connect myself now to past versions of myself”

Robin Skinner

The flute wraps around you when you listen to ‘Wasabi’, making the raw pain of Robin’s lyricism easier to bare. It’s a beautiful moment, one that captures the poignancy of the album completely – bittersweet and breathless, it proves that everything will be manageable eventually. Sometimes all it takes is a soul-stirring flute solo to make things feel better.

It’s not the first time a Cavetown track has included a more rogue instrument than you might expect. However, those more surprising moments are something Robin was more conscious of including this time around. “I definitely pushed myself with having more exciting builds and drops and stuff and imagining what I would be doing at those times. You have to consider, is this a moment I can be jumping around or do I have to focus on singing? I’ve given myself the space to jump around more to help with the energy in my builds. I’ve definitely pictured in my head what the live set can look like, and with the production, with the lights and stuff we’re able to do more and more every time. I’m excited to see what we can design for those exciting drops – I think it’s going to be really cool.”

‘Frog’ features a bouncy, cartoon-ish synth moment that undoubtedly will have audiences enamoured and just as buoyant, whilst the expansive ‘Grey Space’ is bound to be disconcertingly immersive in a live setting. In considering these factors, the tracks become bigger than their predecessors, in fact. Having that live conception in mind transforms them into their own larger-than-life entities, far beyond the album. 

“I’ve given myself the space to jump around more”

Robin Skinner

It’s fitting, too, that there’s such an intense level of thought towards how an audience might respond to certain aspects of songs and settings. Cavetown’s fanbase is incredibly close-knit, and there’s no doubt that this stems from the care Robin has for them. It’s evident that even in making such deeply personal music and going through this journey for his own sake, the Cavetown listeners are always in the back of his mind.

“They have always been so sweet and lovely. They really deserve to be cared for. Especially in something I’m organising, like a show, it matters a lot to me that they feel safe, welcome, and comfortable. It’s what it’s all for, touring, for them. I want to make sure everyone has as good of an experience as they possibly can. Even outside of a show, I want them to feel like I know they exist, and I care about them, whether we do that through some kind of charity thing – someone who is going through something related to that charity could be like, oh, that’s cool, he recognises people like me. I think it’s important that people feel heard in that way.”

It becomes resoundingly clear that care is at the core of ‘worm food’, in many different iterations. Care for fans, those who have had Robin’s back every step of the way. Care for himself and the child he once was. Care for the small details that make the record so rich. It’s an album born from the very core of Cavetown – involved in every step of the way, it feels like an album that could only have been made by someone as sensitive and thoughtful an artist as he. As Robin and others embark on this journey into adulthood good and proper, they have the sonic antidote at hand to soothe any worries about what comes next. 

The Little Prince famously said, “all grown-ups were once children.” ‘worm food’ hones in on that message completely. It instructs you to take care, to treat yourself with kindness and to never lose sight of how far you’ve come. To keep that inner child of yours, and the light they had, in your mind always. “Each song was a time capsule of that feeling,” Robin concludes. “Maybe in the future, I’ll look back on it and think, I don’t relate to this anymore. I worked through it. It’s easy to forget the progress you can make, and it can be nice to look back and acknowledge that you’ve improved and worked through that.” ■

Taken from the November 2022 edition of Dork. Cavetown’s album ‘worm food’ is out 4th November.

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