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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Wake Owl: Songs of the Soil

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Traveling the world, working on farms: This is a great roots-music backstory. It is also the backstory of Colyn Cameron, who writes and sings sweeping folk songs for his band, Wake Owl. But it isn’t the backstory of Cameron’s music. Actually, he’s a Southern California native whose first foray into music was rapping on the schoolyard, albeit briefly. “It was that age when you get into high school and start trying out different things,” said Cameron. “It was an early artistic outlet.”

Wake Owl’s debut EP, Wild Country, shows little trace of that past. Where hip-hop is rhythmic, the album is melody-driven. Listen and it’s clear the album’s Americana should have been written on a dusty stoop outside a cornfield. Wild Country, with its strums and vast expanses, wide-eyed storytelling and down-to-earth heartland simplicity should have come straight off of farmland. It didn’t. Cameron swears it didn’t. This has become the source of some confusion. Even his official publicity seems to think so; it says “Colyn found his journeys to be a catalyst for writing songs” right on the press release. “I don’t know where that story started,” he says, apparently never having listened to his own music.

Cameron didn’t find roots music through some kind of poetically masterful personal history. He abruptly gave up rap for guitar at 16 and has been playing in the same style—Wake Owl’s Americana—ever since. Then, slowly but surely the perfect backstory found him.

“When I graduated high school, I was looking for something different from the life I had here. Most of my friends were either going into school or involved in certain social circles I wasn’t interested in. I had a lot of inspiration to pave my own way,” he said.  

He’d work on a farm and follow the friendships he made to the next agricultural experience, first to Emerson College in England, then to the United Kingdom and German farms. He followed friends from Emerson College to a farm in Chile.  

Through all of this, he only occasionally had a guitar. If the farming helped Cameron’s music, it was only by showing him what life would be like without songwriting.

“It was a life experience that I needed, the time away from music,” he said. “That’s why I stopped working on farms: I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t do 10 hours of physical labor a day on a farm and also have the creative energy to make music.”

He traded agriculture for Vancouver and plows for busking licenses. Though the romance of writing an album might be a touch greater for a globetrotting farmhand than for some guy in British Columbia, street performing was a far more functional experience. He got to practice in front of crowds and shed any trepidation about his musicianship.

“By the time I started Wake Owl, it was no longer about how I sounded,” Cameron said. “It was more about how to bring people into the story that I'm telling and what Wake Owl is.”

Now 23, Cameron has lived in more parts of the world since high school than most people will visit over the course of their lifetimes. And, though his folksiness predates his farm work, the vagabond spirit that brought him to the farms permeates the music. It’s kinetic folk, full of possibility, the kind you can play on a Canuck street corner or while taking off for Chile on a moment’s notice. It’s a sturdy soil for a young musician to grow a budding career. It’s songs about hope and it’s the spirit of making something—the spirit of the farm.

It just wasn’t written there.

Wake Owl headlines the Pabst Theater’s Pabst Pub on Tuesday, June 18 with openers Blessed Feathers. Doors open at 7 p.m.