Generosity Characterizes Cavetown’s Music and Artistic Mission
Cavetown discusses their writing methods, vulnerability and learning from their writingPhotos via Kane Layland Music Features cavetown
To start with, Robbie Skinner, the musician behind well-loved bedroom pop outfit Cavetown, is proud of their latest album. It’s a statement that might seem obvious—of course they’re proud, their music is a part of them! But after his prior album felt like it had rushed out of him from songs written in the hectic rush of being on tour, he was ready to take his time in finding the songs for his latest release, worm food.
worm food is an album that, like many of Cavetown’s, finds its sweet spot in the heart where sadness and kindness begin to overlap. It gives the listener the comfort and warmth they’re seeking, without overwriting or shying away from the grief and anxiety of the everyday. Perhaps the track that most encapsulates this is “a kind thing to do (feat. Vic Fuentes).” Skinner explained that they had begun the track by recording part of it with Fuentes, the vocalist for Pierce The Veil, but that it had sat unfinished in a corner after he had trouble finding further inspiration for it. “But then,” Skinner goes on, “I was kind of having a bad day, months and months after that, that I wanted to do something. I wanted to kind of put myself in my girlfriend’s shoes and do something nice for myself that she would do. And I was sitting in [a] cafe going, ‘It feels wrong to be nice to myself right now but this feels like a kind thing that she would do for me.’”
The idea stuck around, and later, during a facetime with their girlfriend, produced the flash of inspiration out of which Skinner writes most of his songs. “I feel like sometimes if I want to write a song, it doesn’t matter if I want to—it’s about whether my brain wants to make it,” they shared. “It feels very out of my control. So sometimes I could go days or weeks on end with absolutely nothing in my head. And then one night, I’ll just stay up all night.” The burst of creativity is the way of writing most natural to them, exactly why this album felt like a truer extension of themselves than previous writing done on the move. Skinner affirmed, “The [songs] that I’m most proud of happen when they just fall out so naturally like that.” And of course, the process of waiting for songs to shake out of your fingers, heart and mind does not come without stress, requiring patience in the face of impatience and pressure from fans and industry.
The artist is well acquainted with this process, having put out music for nearly 10 years—and they’re only 23. One of their top songs on Spotify, “This Is Home,” put out when they were 16, clocks in at close to 245 million streams. It can be hard to grapple with a career this long, that documented some of the most tumultuous and change-driven years in one’s life. The artist expressed surprise thinking about their long career, commenting that “I feel like I’ve barely been alive for 10 years.” He’s also surprised to be still so enamored by what he does, but his gratefulness for music’s presence in his life is palpable. And although Skinner still keeps some of their older songs with them, performing them live or recording alternate versions that better the production, most of them serve as a sweet (and public) diary of sorts. They’re a lens through which to view their past selves and struggles, preserving and honoring that strength of feeling, but looking at it without that same hurt still present.
“I was constantly writing about my struggles with gender dysphoria and stuff,” they reflect, the exact subject of “This Is Home.” But they went on, “That’s not really something that I struggle with right now. It’s easy to forget that you can overcome things, I guess. Back then, it just felt like ‘I’m going to be struggling with this forever and I’m never gonna be happy.’ And there’s things right now that I write about that I feel the same way about. Looking back at old songs and being like, actually, no, I don’t relate to this anymore. I remember what it felt like. But right now, I’m not in that same place.” This revisiting of their past can be intensely hopeful, a kindness to themselves: “That kind of reminds me that I have made progress and maybe the stuff I struggle with now, I’ll look back on in another 10 years or something and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s not a problem for me anymore.’” Now, they’re even in a place to help others with struggles of theirs in the past—they recently founded the This Is Home Project, which aims to fund LGBTQ+ youths in need of safe housing, physical and mental healthcare and more.
There’s a generosity to this willingness to be vulnerable, to have your diary read by not just your parents, but a world of listeners. But sometimes, for Skinner, it’s exactly the intimacy that makes vulnerability tough—what is painful to admit to their closest loved ones comes out much easier in a song, as a way of learning about themselves. His family is just now starting to figure out how to approach it when he shows them a new song—instead of jumping straight into what he could have done better, or asking him worried questions, they provide a welcoming space where he can show them anything and they’ll respond kindly. It’s a feeling that many artists know well, and so conversely, one can see the draw in being vulnerable to a wide audience—there’s an element of anonymity to this not found when showing your art to those you most want to be proud of you. To him, although he can’t quite understand it, this degree of vulnerability feels good. When people listen to his music, he simply feels heard. And, they add, “I hope that people might listen to my music and feel like I can hear them as well.” The generosity with their music and openness continues as they say, “I want people to kind of take something from it that they need … I feel like listening to music is a very personal thing, it’s kind of none of my business how someone else wants to take it.”
Indeed, revisiting the things closest and perhaps most painful or intimate to them through song often serves to balance them. Writing about one’s life provides a certain lens of distance, perhaps, giving the option to write oneself into understanding, to approach one event or emotion from every angle, not just one’s own. “I always use music as a way to process things that I’m finding it hard to think about or talk about or understand, and being able to make a song out of it kind of helps me either make peace with stuff that I’m having a hard time with internally or make sense of it some more. Putting it out into the world kind of feels like a weight off my chest. That’s how I know that I’m happy with the outcome process, is when I have that feeling of relief.” It’s an opportunity to use their words and art to craft their own comprehension of their narrative, taking something that hurt them or made them sad, as they put it, and reforming it into something they are proud of. Through his process of creation, he gets to rewrite his emotions.
More specifically, the writing can directly affect the process of healing, and kindness toward themselves. Learning and healing requires patience in figuring out your direction. “In the process of writing one song, I can go between being super self critical, and do a really sad verse that was kind of bringing myself down, and then the next time I visited [the song], or even the next minute, I’ll be like, actually, no, I’m going to be compassionate,” Skinner elaborates, “And I’m talking back to the previous verse, being nice to myself again. It kind of feels like communicating with myself in that way, my critical side versus my compassionate side, which isn’t something that I can really access in any other way.”
But all of this—the learning, the audience outreach, the writing—has to come about naturally. “I feel like I don’t have [the] urge to grow a lot. Like it just happens,” he said. “It’s not that I’m against growing or reaching new people, but I feel like if I was focused on that it would kind of taint the music making process for me.” As for this album, his goals were simple but heartfelt: “I just kind of was hoping that I would feel proud of it and that my friends would feel proud of me for it. It’s definitely my favorite album that I’ve made so far.” Sounds like a goal achieved.
This album as a whole feels more deeply entwined with compassion, using perspectives from different points in Skinner’s life to understand him as a fuller artist and person. For instance, in his song “1994,” he observes his childhood through the mature place he is in now, looking at how his relationship to himself, and his parents’ (who are now divorced) relationships to each other have changed. “I’m tryna love the person I was when I was born / Hating on a kid doesn’t serve me anymore,” his voice thrums lightly next to a building guitar, “Sylvanians making stories on the floor / Mum and dad in love like it’s 1994.” It’s a moment of honesty about how he treats himself, which he further addresses, describing his work on this album as, “trying to be compassionate to myself as the same person I was when I was a kid, trying to pitch myself in front of my childhood self and asking, ‘How would I treat this person?’ I obviously would not treat them the way that I do in my brain, I guess.”
worm food in some ways grew out of Skinner’s live performances, which they described as recently developing to be “as magical as I’d hoped [they] would be.” This LP, with more rocked out tracks like “1994,” “grey space” and “heart attack,” seems to be designed to thrive in front of an audience more than any of its predecessors, with the artist specifically pointing out the latter two as tracks he wrote thinking about performing them live.
Of course, the intense openness of his music can invite that reciprocity of emotion from fans, especially in these in-person settings. Skinner called back to their Meet and Greet days, in which they would, on occasion, receive deep confessions from someone who felt heard by their music. Sometimes, they admitted, it could be overwhelming. But over time, they’ve learned “to internalize that it’s not about me in that moment. It’s about them and about what they need to get off their chest and I just have to kind of try and give them what they need in that moment.” This makes clear the responsibilities thrust onto an artist who takes themselves on with such honesty in their lyrics, but Skinner handles them with grace. In their writing process, they often parse through their own emotions as material, staying largely within their own mind. But a funny thing happens when those emotions get released into the world: “When I release a song, sometimes it can be a surprise to be like, ‘Oh, I thought that I was the only one who felt this,’ but this person is saying that they thought they were the only one that felt this, and we both get the same thing from it in that way, which is really nice. It kind of helps me to hear that it helps them, I guess.”
The way Skinner talks about his music instantly lines up with what he gives through his music. There isn’t a harsh decisiveness—everything is phrased curiously and open-endedly, leaving space for learning and change. It makes clear the way he finds himself as an individual in the community formed around his music; although writing seems to be a mostly solitary process for him, and sometimes about the aloneness felt due to his anxiety, there is a cast of characters that come up in our discussion and in his songs—his girlfriend, fans, band mates, team members, parents, frogs, and of course his cat. The creative process brings him joy, but so much of his joy turns outward, brought to him by other people in his life as he asks to be a part of theirs. Cavetown’s music remains a balancing act, always finding room for kindness even in the toughest, smallest spots.