Toward the end of an interview where he’s been nothing but open and honest, Wake Owl singer-songwriter Colyn Cameron makes a particularly bold confession: his first full-length, The Private World of Paradise, wasn’t exactly an easy sell.
The problem? Let’s start with the fact that the modern music industry is often terrified by the idea of change, especially when something has proven successful in the past. Consider Wake Owl’s debut EP, Wild Country, an underground hit with the same modern-folk scenesters who’ve made stars out of Fleet Foxes and Iron & Wine. If you fell hard for shimmering, acoustic wonders like “Grow” and “Gold” you had plenty of company.
The smart thing, commercially speaking, would have been to give the people more of what they wanted, that line of thinking bolstered recently by Wild Country landing Wake Owl a Juno nomination for breakthrough artist.
Instead, The Private World of Paradise is an entirely different record, the singer challenging himself and his newfound fans with songs that favour retro synths, pneumatic percussion, and Prince-tastic crooning.
Cameron realizes he took a risk with the material, that being driven home when he began playing it for those who work behind the scenes for him. Speaking from Portland, where the sometime Vancouverite is currently stationed, he acknowledges that no one would have been disappointed if he’d produced Wild Country II. Except, that is, for the main man behind Wake Owl.
“Not that I consider the EP to be incredibly successful, but it did have its own sort of successes, with certain [television] licences and radio people playing it,” Cameron says on the line during a break in practising for his upcoming tour. “That builds up expectations, I think, within the music community.”
His challenge was to pay no attention to what was expected of him.
“Pretty much everything to do with writing,” he contends, “is blocking expectations out and doing everything that you can do to make art—something that is speaking for itself and not really trying to answer to these expectations. Once I was accessing the streams of creativity that I feel that much of the record comes from, I would say that the record was met with a lot of, um… Well, it’s much different than the EP. So people took some time to get used to the direction that things were heading. I had to wait patiently and hope that the music and the songs and the energy of the album would speak for themselves enough that people would remain supportive.”
The Private World of Paradise sprang out of a period of major indecision, Cameron evidently deciding early on that he wasn’t going to be happy filed in the modern-folk genre.
“I went through a phase, five or six months after the release of Wild Country, where I was really struggling with writing,” he reveals. “I didn’t really know what was next. There was something in me where I was like ‘I don’t want to just rewrite that batch of songs again.’ But also I hadn’t put my finger on anything that was leading me in any sort of clear direction.”
Determined to push himself, the songwriter began buying what he laughingly calls “toys”, his new instruments helping explain the heavy use of synths and digitalized percussion on The Private World of Paradise.
“I wanted to find out what kind of musician that I could be outside the context of an acoustic guitar,” Cameron says simply.
The answer to that is a man who isn’t afraid to embrace his inner iconoclast, the singer now working closely on the production side of things with a band that includes multi-instrumentalist Aiden Briscall, who helped him flesh out the songwriting. Hence you’ll get “Candy” mixing ’70s soft-rock radio with Prince Roger Nelson flourishes and Four Tet–approved drum fuckery. “Oh Baby” works a bourbon-scented boho vibe that Tom Waits would appreciate, while “Letters” is a 1950s slow-dance jam bum-rushed by waves of analogue synths and depth-charge percussion. Even when Cameron keeps things stripped-down, as on the sombre acoustic number “Kid”, he can’t resist throwing flamenco handclaps into the background.
The most admirable thing about The Private World of Paradise might be the fact that the songwriter chose to go down a road so radically different from what his fans no doubt wanted. He admits to being pleasantly surprised by the reaction to Wild Country, songs from which ended up on shows like Grey’s Anatomy. But he’s more interested in what people will make of the direction he’s chosen this time out. “I’m very curious what people will make of the new record,” he says. “I feel more grounded in why I’m making music and what my goals are with this record. In some ways it’s an achievement for us just to have it coming out. There was a lot of processes to get to where we could put it out because of the way it sounds.”
Not willing to watch your favourite artists evolve? You’ve been warned, then, that The Private World of Paradise is challenging in the best of ways. As for those with an open mind, a lot of folks have decided to roll the dice on the new incarnation of Wake Owl. No matter how much you wanted another Wild Country, embrace your inner adventurist and become one of them.