Cavetown Wakes Up on “Sleepyhead”
Robin Skinner talks self-isolation, self-realization, and his lighthearted major-label debut.
Robin Skinner has his face covered. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, he already had several surgical face masks stashed away—previously given to him by a very “health-conscious” friend. All covered up, and back home in his London flat, Skinner, a.k.a. Cavetown, is nowhere near stir crazy from this current self-imposed isolation. In fact, he embraced the unexpected time off, even if it meant that half of his tour was cut short.
After making his way through the first part of a world tour, he had no idea that his Brussels show would be his last for the unforeseeable future. Pre-coronavirus, everything was in place for the release of Cavetown’s first studio album, Sleepyhead, which is out now via Sire Records. Art gallery pop-ups featuring his own paintings, U.S. press visits, and fan events were all locked in.
Despite this sudden halt, the singer is making the most of his down time since Sleepyhead was released on March 27. “I’ve been looking forward to having some time off,” says Skinner. “It just kind of came earlier than I expected. I’m looking at it as an early break, even though it’s obviously terrible for so many people. But you gotta look for the good things in it—so at the moment, I’m relaxing and just being a person for a second.”
Robbie Skinner, now twenty-one, has connected with more than a million devout YouTube subscribers by performing from his bedroom since forming the experimental musical project Cavetown at the age of fourteen. Learning to play guitar from his father, director of music at Cambridge University, at the age of eight, and having a mother who was a professional flautist, Skinner was born into music. After releasing his self-titled debut in 2015, its follow-up 16/04/16 in 2016, and his 2018 breakthrough Lemon Boy—along with covers, digital mixtapes, and other reworked material—Cavetown’s fourth album is a new chapter in Skinner’s DIY art.
Recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered by Skinner in (where else) his bedroom, Sleepyhead was the result of constantly writing. There’s no structure to his lyrical madness—he just tends to write until there are enough tracks for another album. It’s another chapter in Skinner’s own book of life, something he’s already uncovered in Lemon Boys’ lo-fi tales of social anxieties, unrequited love, and other misanthrope adventures.
Sleepyhead is a continuation of Cavetown’s revelations in sexuality, awkwardness, and self-confidence drawn in by drifty vocals moving along a digi-melodic landscape only Skinner could manufacture, from its Weezer riff and swell on opener “Sweet Tooth” through the more delicate, acoustic-and-pop-steered reminiscences of “Things That Make It Warm” and “Wishing Well.” Sleepyhead reveals less naiveté and more self-assurance gained through life’s perplexities.
“I just write what’s in my head. I don’t tend to write with an overarching theme, because I’ll lose interest too quickly.”
According to Skinner, he has no clear songwriting process. He first penned “Feb 14,” a tale of a special Valentine’s Day that he still thinks about, and the remainder of Sleepyhead unraveled from there. “I just write what’s in my head,” he says. “I don’t tend to write with an overarching theme, because I’ll lose interest too quickly. So the album’s kind of all over the place.”
He says that the songs that just fall out of him tend to be the better ones. “There’s an idea, and you just sit down, and before you know it, it’s 2:00 a.m., and I finished a song I’m really stoked about,” he shares. “Sometimes I have so many ideas that I will half start songs and just walk away from it. I get stuck with it and then come back to it later when I forgot how it goes, and then take a fresh stab at it again.”
An ode to his boyfriend, “Sweet Tooth” was written on a tour bus, and felt like an appropriate number to open Sleepyhead with. “Starting with a big song is a bold intro I thought worked,” he says. Sounds of a tape reel opens the more nostalgic closer “Empty Bed,” sending the record off on a more comforting, analog note with abstract beats around a childhood tale of parting ways with his stuffed animal at the age of eight, taking meds at thirteen, and a selfless love refrain of “take care of you for me” before the tape reel ends. “It just sounded like a closing track with some good comforting vibes,” says Skinner.
Sleepyhead is clearly set in place where Cavetown is now. Recently signed to Sire Records, he still retains control of his production and says the enhanced sound quality and added equipment gave Sleepyhead more depth. “I’ve definitely learned a lot,” he says. “I’ve tried to keep my process and my involvement with all of the songs pretty much the same. I’ve always produced and written everything myself and still do that.”
When choosing a label, Skinner wanted a company that would accept his music as is and not push him to do anything differently. “When I met with Sire, they basically just said ‘What you’re doing is working—it’s you,’” says Skinner. “‘You’re doing something right, so why should we change anything about your process?’” Over the years, Skinner has learned to stand up for himself more and has realized he’s lucky that he’s surrounded by people who care for him and continue to encourage him. “I know when to say, ‘This is the way I want to do it,’” he says. “‘You can tell me whatever you think is better, but I want to do it this way.’”
Collaborating with other artists is something he couldn’t tap into before, and when he does, he prefers working with friends. He mentions a friend who’s a filmmaker, who never watches films, and says he’s not much different when it comes to music. “He knows nothing about films,” says Skinner. “I feel like I’m like that with music. I’ll listen to my friends’ music, but I don’t really know anything about any other music, which I think surprises people sometimes.”
Skinner recently co-wrote and produced mxmtoon’s 2019 album The Masquerade, and has been working closely with Chloe Moriondo, who also duets with Skinner on Sleepyhead’s “Snail,” on her upcoming debut. Skinner recently held a recording session with Chicago-based video blogger and singer-songwriter Tessa Violet, who isn’t far behind Cavetown in the bedroom pop popularity realm with 1.5 million followers.
“When I met with Sire, they basically just said ‘What you’re doing is working—it’s you. You’re doing something right, so why should we change anything about your process?’”
“I’m slowly opening up to working with more acquaintances, or people that I don’t know so well, just to see how that feels,” says Skinner. “As long as I like the music, I really don’t have any goals or specific people I want to work with.”
At the moment, he’s decompressing, self-isolating, and looking forward to finishing up his European dates when the time comes. Now that Sleepyhead is out, he wants to make more videos, have more listening parties and other virtual events on YouTube, and, perhaps most of all, perform the songs.
“I think because they are all such new tracks, I still love them all so much” he says. “I think after a bit of time, I will start to get sick of them. I’m actually starting to get sick of ‘Sweet Tooth,’ unfortunately, because I worked on that one the longest. But I’m going to try not to listen to it so I can forget how it sounds.”
Being confined has also given him time to think about his career and the oft-tumultuous trajectory of the music business. Right now, he’s living and creating in the moment, and not trying to visualize the next few years of Cavetown. “It’s not about an amount of time, because things have been changing so much for me in just a year recently,” says Skinner. “Either I’ll skyrocket, or I’ll just become a nobody again, which is fine. It seems like at this point those are the two paths. It’s good to not dwell on that too much and let it be, so I’m just going with the flow, and I’m fine with it.” FL