For most musicians, being nominated for a prestigious award is a sign that things are headed in the right direction. For the folk-rock band Wake Owl, a 2014 JUNO nomination for Breakthrough Artist of the Year preceded a total revamp of the band’s sound.
Colyn Cameron, the main creative force behind Wake Owl, was born in Southern California, attended high school in Vancouver, and majored in organic agriculture at England’s Emerson University. Cameron spent the first few years after graduation working on farms throughout the U.K., Germany, Chile, and Canada, all while penning the stuck-in-your-head songs that would become the Vancouver- and Portland-based band’s debut five-song EP, Wild Country. The EP eventually garnered some commercial success—the song “Gold” was featured on an episode of the ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy—as well as the JUNO nomination, one of the Canadian music industry’s top honors.
“At the time, it was a huge surprise,” says Cameron, who released Wild Country as a pay-what-you-want offering at the tail end of 2012 before it was reissued by Vagrant Records in January 2013. “I put the work into [the record] in my own way with writing and stuff, but as far as the tangible, getting-your-hands-dirty things like touring, I hadn’t really done much of it in Canada.”
Another unexpected outcome of the nomination? The guts to release a new album just a few weeks later that overhauled the band’s signature strummy arrangements. Where Wild Country is a deliciously catchy nugget of folk pop—complete with glossy harmonies, hand claps, and lots of acoustic guitar—the new The Private World of Paradise is a more adventurous offering. Produced by singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift, who’s worked with indie heavy-hitters like the Shins and Foxygen, Wake Owl’s first full-length album experiments with a variety of instruments and textures to achieve an atmospheric vibe that’s more chamber pop than clap ’n’ stomp. But while the album is a noticeable departure from Wild Country, Cameron says the transition was a natural one.
“It was pretty organic,” he says. “I mean, I was definitely aware that it was heading in a different direction, but it was written little by little during our time on the road. Really, I was finding the musicality of performing the EP every night sort of limiting. I know people love the songs, but I just couldn’t write songs like that again. This record needed to challenge us to explore something new.”
That new direction isn’t fixed; Cameron says he is open to exploring a variety of creative avenues. “I’ve taken so much from very different sorts of genres,” he says. “I don’t know if people really hear direct influences in the music. It’s not something that I necessarily think about. It’s more I want to use this instrument in this song and I just go with it.”
While Wake Owl is largely Cameron’s project, his former high-school classmate, multi-instrumentalist Aiden Briscall, also plays a large role in the creative process, both in the studio and on the road.
“Aiden played some violin on the EP,” Cameron says. “Eventually we started doing shows together and it became the two of us at the core of the band.” And although the bulk of The Private World of Paradise was written while touring, that creative process is at its best when Cameron has time to reflect.
“I find it hard to write when there are just little breaks here and there,” he says. “I sort of need a lot of time to really get into it. There’s times when it all comes together at once in a very complete way. And then there’s times when it’s just bit by bit for months at a time. It happens mostly when I’m really able to focus.”
Wake Owl didn’t win the JUNO Award, but the band isn’t slowing down anytime soon. The group recently embarked on a U.S. tour, with stops including Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival, and plans to continue working on new, more challenging material. As far as the long-term success of Wake Owl goes, Cameron is cautiously optimistic.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do on your own until people are really getting into it, you know? If there’s the support there to make another record and go on another tour, it’s definitely very worthwhile and exciting. But you never know, and right now we’re seeing how this record does in different parts of the world and sort of reacting as it happens.”