Growing Up On GarageBand, Coming Of Age On The Global Stage: A Conversation With Cavetown

Robin Skinner—better known under his artist name, Cavetown—was born at a really interesting point in history: 1998, the dawn of the internet age. 

Videos by American Songwriter

Growing up amidst the dynamic changes spurred by new technologies meant that, in a lot of ways, Skinner and his peers were navigating uncharted waters. Whereas a kid in the ‘60s could only dream of some day having access to a recording studio, kids born in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s grew up alongside DAWs like GarageBand and Audacity, getting acquainted with recording at an unprecedentedly early age. Skinner, for example, first started producing his own music when he was 11. 

And listening to the work he puts out now, you can certainly tell that he has a lot of experience under his belt. First hitting the scene with Lemon Boy (2018), Skinner dropped his major label debut, Sleepyhead, last March… right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Having to cancel everything and head back home to the U.K. with nothing but an uncertain future to think about, he quickly fell into a funk.

But nevertheless, Skinner is a determined and introspective songwriter. Rather than letting the disappointment of his lackluster debut eat him up, he sat with it and eventually channeled into his craft. The result is his new EP, Man’s Best Friend, which dropped June 4 via Warner. 

Almost reminiscent of New Sincerity, the songs on Man’s Best Friend—including an intimate cover of Big Thief’s “Paul”—are bare and forthright, yet hazy and heartfelt. Hopping on a call last week with American Songwriter, Skinner recounted the journey to this EP and the meaningful message it carries. Figuratively sucker-punched by the soiled unrolling of Sleepyhead and still new to navigating the bizarre phenomenon of fame (especially in the social media era), Skinner is candid in conversation, speaking openly about his experiences and allowing his true emotions to reveal themselves. Read our conversation below:

American Songwriter: When did you first start doing music? When did you start considering yourself a songwriter?

Robin Skinner: I’ve been doing music for a long time—both my parents are musicians. So, it’s always been a kinda nurtured thing to be involved in music. I’ve always done it. I started writing my own stuff around 11. I would write songs, and that’s when I started posting stuff online. I was just excited to show people. So, I’d post it on Bandcamp and stuff.

AS: Wow, so you started recording and producing your own music when you were 11?

RS: Yeah, I started with just, like, GarageBand, which I used for a while. I just recorded stuff in there. I’ve always produced my own stuff. I find it fun to just put it together. And I slowly improved at it, which is good.

AS: Do you feel like that gave you a more holistic relationship with producing music? As in, whereas a songwriter 30 years ago would maybe think about a song from the starting point of guitar because that was their principal instrument, you’d think of it from the starting point of producing in the DAW?

RS: Yeah, I actually love that aspect of it. I’m very protective over my songs and my sounds and everything like that. At times when I felt very out of control, that kinda gives me control to create this baby out of nothing. I’m able to change everything and make it exactly how I imagined it in my head. I think that’s really great, because it’s such an easy thing for young people to do nowadays. They don’t need anyone to help them. You can become your own producer, your own team—people can be really independent. So yeah, I definitely appreciate a lot more of the aspects of what goes into producing a song, holistically, because of producing it that way.

AS: That’s so fascinating too that you started releasing music at such a young age. Do you feel like that gave you ample time to kinda grow into the headspace of being a recording artist and knowing what that feels like?

RS: Yeah, I was kinda just showing my friends at first. Like, I had some friends who had Bandcamp accounts—I followed a bunch of artists and I just wanted to be involved in that. And that was fun. You could make your own artist page, like, website-type thing while sharing music and allowing people to buy it and stuff. Actually, one of my favorite artists that I used to listen to when I was, like, 13 is now in my band, which is pretty sick.

AS: Oh, really?

RS: Yeah. spookyghostboy, Austin Thomas—he’s one of my closest friends. It all came about because I was a massive fan of his and we started talking on Twitter. Then, I just needed a band member, so I was like “Hey, do you wanna play?” and he was like “Hell yeah.”

AS: What was it like when things started taking off for you in the late 2010s? Was it surreal when all of the streams started coming in?

RS: It was really exciting. I think I’m very fortunate that it kinda grew really, really gradually. I’m the kind of person who gets overwhelmed pretty easily, so I think it would’ve been off-putting to have, like, a sudden viral hit. By the time I put out Lemon Boy, I already had a good, big group of friends who watched my YouTube videos. And I was able to talk to a lot of people, individually—it wasn’t, like, too much. It just felt really exciting to work on, and at that point in my life, that was the biggest album I had worked on. I had, like, slaved away to the last thing. But, I got really stressed about it… that’s the first album that I got really stressed about, because I felt like “This needs to be better than anything I’ve ever done.”

That’s when I started really taking my music career seriously, like “This is my job. I have to do this.” But, it was very rewarding to be able to post it and know that I already had a bunch of really sweet people who are gonna listen to it. I’ve always felt very fortunate and very supported by everyone.

AS: That’s an interesting testament to the times—you’ve been able to have such a direct and meaningful connection with your fanbase from the very beginning thanks to social media. In a way, does that feel kind of uncharted? Is it surreal?

RS: It’s really cool. And, I’m still growing, obviously. So, as the audience gets bigger, it becomes harder to really maintain that kind of connection. I think I’ve definitely had to let go of some of those things, like keeping fan letters in my cabinet or when I had a P.O. box for a very short amount of time. It was short because it quickly became way too much for me to have. For a little bit, though, I was able to read everyone’s letters and I would do opening videos and show every single letter on screen. I even kept them in a binder and arranged them all nicely. It felt really, really nice and personal.

There are definitely still some aspects of that around today—I’ve met a few people at shows who’ve become really good friends. I’m working with some artists who have done fanart of my songs and stuff. That’s a really important thing to me, maintaining those connections. But yeah, over time, it has kinda started to feel like less, more indirect, I guess, which is just inevitable. You can’t really have a direct relationship with everyone at the same time. But, still, whenever I meet them in person, it feels very natural. It feels like we know each other already. And I think we all have the same kind of vibe, just friendly and nice, and that’s pretty nice.

AS: Well, I’d imagine the pandemic occurring when it did must’ve been strange too so far as your connection with your audience goes. Lemon Boy came out in 2018—by the time 2020 had rolled around, you were ramping up to put out your second LP, Sleepyhead. What was it like when the pandemic hit? 

RS: It was really rubbish. I think it sucked for everybody, really. I was literally on a flight to the U.S. when I got the news that all of my release stuff for Sleepyhead had been canceled… and I was on my way to do it all. So, I landed and I was just like, “What the hell am I doing here?” It was a bummer. I was really looking forward to it—I had painted the artwork for all of the Sleepyhead stuff and I was going to do a gallery in New York and another in L.A, I think one in London too. It was going to be really cool. It was my first major label album that I put out, so it was a bit of a big deal and I really stressed over it a lot because I wanted to make it perfect.

But, it ended up where I think people enjoyed the music, but it didn’t get its time in the spotlight that we hoped it would, which was a shame. So, I was in L.A. and I did some writing, then I flew back home and it was… yeah, it was pretty difficult. I kind of struggled a lot with my mental health and had a pretty hard time with that for a few months, which I’m kinda still just climbing out of. I’m definitely a lot better than I was a few months ago, starting to see the light a bit more now.

But I did manage to write some songs during that time, which are on Man’s Best Friend. A lot of the EP is kinda inspired by the stuff I went through over lockdown. I called it Man’s Best Friend just because I accidentally had a running theme of dogs. There’s a song called “I Want To Meet Ur Dog,” in the music video for “Ur Gonna Wish U Believed Me,” I’m rescuing a dog. Stuff like that. Over quarantine, I guess I just found myself looking at people’s dogs a lot, like when they’re walking in the street, and being so jealous that the dog doesn’t have anything to worry about and doesn’t even know there’s a pandemic going on. It would be cool to have that kind of life experience. 

AS: How does it feel, then, to turn around and share all of these feelings on such a public stage? Even down to the music itself—Man’s Best Friend is so intimate and candid. Does sharing that feel cathartic? Does it add to the pressure in a way? 

RS: I’m not sure. I don’t think it really computes in my head that that’s really what’s happening. I guess everyone’s been online for so long lately, it kinda feels like it’s just for me. I think it won’t really click that I’m sharing this with people until I’m, like, actually on stage singing in front of some sort of crowd.

But yeah, in the moment, I’ll definitely write songs just for me to create some clarity in a difficult time. I can, like, gain control of something that feels out of control. I can just make something to feel proud of, like it’s my purpose. I don’t really feel like I’m in control of how vulnerable the song ends up being because it’s just whatever I need it to be. For me, that makes sense. Everyone goes through stuff—most people go through mental health struggles. So, it’s really cool to be able to express stuff like that and have someone listen and be relating to it, bringing them a bit of comfort for a second. I think that’s a real privilege.

AS: One of the most poignant moments on Man’s Best Friend is a cover of Big Thief’s “Paul.” How did that cover come about?

RS: Whenever I have a song stuck in my head for weeks on end, I just have to cover it. With that song, it started with my housemate playing it, I think. I remember hearing it and I got deja vu—it’s just one of those songs. You hear it and it’s like you’ve heard it before. 

I became obsessed with it for a little bit. I learned how to play it. That’s just my way of appreciating a song, making my own rendition of it. If it’s stuck in my head, I’ll end up hearing my own rendition, so I need to get it out into a real song. So yeah, I just wanted to sing it because I liked the song. It was really catchy. And I thought that it fit. 

AS: How does it feel now to finally have Man’s Best Friend coming out? With touring on the horizon again too, I’m sure it must feel good to make this step forward again.

RS: I feel like it’s a fresh start. The lead up to Sleepyhead was quite stressful for me, even though I was really happy with the album. It just wasn’t an ideal… it wasn’t how I would’ve wanted my first big release to go. So, I feel like quarantine is the marker in between then and now. It feels like I’m in a new space. I feel like I’ve made this album really authentically. I basically feel like how I felt when I released Lemon Boy and stuff. Like, when I was just at home and doing my thing. I wasn’t distracted by tours and stuff. As much as I love that, it’s really nice to get back to my roots. I definitely feel like I authentically made this happen. And I feel really proud of it. I’m really excited to put it out and for people to hear it. I’m excited. I feel good.

Cavetown’s new EP Man’s Best Friend is out now and available everywhere. Watch the music video for “Ur Gonna Wish U Believed Me” below:

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