Cape Wrath is a band based in Philadelphia and Edinburgh, Scotland. Inspired by the landscapes and legends of Scotland, band members John, Jamie, and William create a haunting and beautiful sound in their music. Chatting about their 2017 album, Soul to Keep, and most recent EP ØYA, Unheard Gems take a deep dive into Cape Wrath’s creative process, music style, and sources of inspiration.
Unheard Gems: Jamie, John, and William, tell us your origin story. How did Cape Wrath come to be?
Jamie: I’ve worked under the name “Cape Wrath” since 2009, but our current crew started to come together in 2014. The running joke is that I asked each of the guys individually if they’d be a part of the band, telling them the others had already signed on (even though they hadn’t!) I basically recruited the best musicians in our circles and knew that if I could get them onboard, we could make something really special together.
John: Jamie came up to me after a show I played with some friends, and basically told me I was going to record some songs for her.
William: We were all friends first, living in the same neighborhood; we also liked each other's music and hanging out together, so it made sense to give it a shot when Jamie asked each of us to work on some of her songs.
Unheard Gems: I am so curious about your name. What is the meaning of the name Cape Wrath?
Jamie: “Cape Wrath” is the most northeasterly part of mainland Scotland and comes from the Old Norse words for “turning point”. On my former band’s final tour, I saw the name painted on the side of a ship in the Baltimore Harbor and something about it slotted into my brain immediately. It wasn’t until years later, after I had traveled alone to Cape Wrath in 2014, that I found out my Norwegian grandfather had built a sailboat and sailed around the cape the year I was born. He talked about how treacherous the waters were there. My first album as Cape Wrath was about his tumultuous relationship with my grandmother and their inevitable divorce, and breaking generational patterns has remained a significant theme in my songwriting.
Unheard Gems: Your music has an enchanting and haunting feel; it has lots of reverberation that carries emotion. Tell me, what inspires your unique sound?
Jamie: I like to lean into a fairly dark interior world in my songwriting, and the tones and themes that emerge from that usually reflect an emotional landscape that interacts with loss and sorrow pretty heavily. I’m inspired by an Eastern Orthodox view of the spiritual journey as a “bright sadness” and I think that ethos sums up well the sound I tend to emulate.
John: Jamie typically sticks to minor keys and somber chord progressions, which naturally matches the tones I like to get out of guitar and synth. Modulated delays and reverbs were a huge part of the guitar tone for Soul to Keep.
Unheard Gems: Following that, what is your music creation process? How does one of Cape Wrath’s songs come together?
Jamie: I almost always write a song first with lyrics and melody and then hand it off to the guys to see what they can do with it. John will let me know what needs restructuring, or if a song isn’t really worth working on, and I (usually) listen to him. Then Will comes through with bass, further suggestions, and artwork. He was recently nominated for a Grammy for art direction with his other band, Soporus, so we’re happy we get to have him around for bragging rights.
John: When we write live, I mostly improvise along and have a part written after a few takes. For Øya, Jamie sent me demos which I stripped down to just vocals, and mostly reimagined the songs from scratch.
Unheard Gems: Your album from 2017, Soul to Keep, has such a great grainy and cozy sound. What were some of the inspirations for this album?
William: Soul to Keep developed from a lot of rehearsal-space work followed by a series of intensive studio sessions at Spice House Sound in Philly. The sound developed from collaboration and the combination of all of our influences melding, rather than a singular vision.
Unheard Gems: I want to talk about your most recent E.P. ØYA. What can you tell us about the writing and creation process of this?
John: I was playing around with electronic sounds more and more in my free time, and decided to have a go at remixing one of Jamie's demos just for its own sake. It came together better than I thought it would, and with our former drummer moving and us not having that instrumentation any longer, we decided to pursue that method for an EP.
William: The process of making ØYA was still collaborative, but the workflow felt much different; we worked on parts separately, and sent them to each other for feedback. Most of it went Jamie's demo and then John's complete reworking, with me as referee.
Unheard Gems: I love your song ØYA, what inspired this song?
Jamie: “ØYA” means “the island” in Norwegian. I’ve spent most of my summers in Norway visiting my grandparents who live on the southern coast. Each year, I bike up to an isolated lake several miles inland and see if I can still swim to the island in the middle of it. The island began to serve as a visual cue for some ego issues that were coming to the fore in my life and I realized that, if I wasn’t careful, I could turn into an island myself. The song is a sort of prayer where I acknowledge the truth that life will always take, but understand that this process of loss is a blessing because “heaven was an island in my mind” to begin with.
Unheard Gems: How has your sound evolved over the years that Cape Wrath has existed?
Jamie: I’ve found that regularly working on music most days has made me more confident in what I’m good at and more eager to ask others to do what I can’t. I’ve also learned to write and produce more simply, which hasn’t always come naturally to me. Usually the best songs are the ones that do a few things really well rather than a whole mess of things adequately.
John: I think our sound has reshaped itself around the talents and interests of the members of the band at the given time. We are a very different group with our former drummer than we are without him. The necessity of having to fill the huge hole he left created space for a different type of sound.
Unheard Gems: Jamie, you live in Edinburgh, Scotland. John and William, you are both based in Philly. How does this long distance affect making music?
Jamie: It feels like songs still shape up the way they’re meant to, it just takes longer! It also means that when we do get together, we use the time more efficiently. We’ve been best friends for a decade so it feels like a good version of a family reunion when we do get the chance to meet up.
John: It’s much more of a process of individually creating parts and sharing them online. There isn't as much space for improvisation, but you have the time to really consider everything and try to get it right. Or overthink it. I really miss the undercurrent of energy and communication through your instruments that you only get in person, but you work with what you have.
Unheard Gems: After listening to just some of your stuff, I am eager to hear more. Are there any upcoming projects to look forward to?
Jamie: I have a solo album coming out this year called “High Lands” but have been wanting to get the band back together after working on music without them. Like John said, there’s really nothing like playing live as a group, and despite the distance it’s worth the intense planning it takes. I’ve carved out some time in my schedule between writing my PhD dissertation and have plans to be in Philly a couple of times this year to make it happen. Plus, it’s more fun to drink whisky together than apart.
John: I have so many new guitar pedals, I have to justify their cost with something.
Unheard Gems: For all of our readers, what is the best way to keep up with Cape Wrath - any socials, websites or upcoming tours?
Jamie: Cape-wrath.com is the central hub for everything that we get up to, from songs, to videos, to screen-printing and letter-pressing. Capewrath.bandcamp.com also a great place to check out our discography and to purchase our work.
Unheard Gems: We love to know who our bands are listening to themselves. Can you recommend another artist that deserves more recognition in the music industry?
Jamie: I’m obsessed with the Norwegian artist Ary. She makes the most heartbreaking, beautiful electro-pop music and synthesizes devastation into something deeply transcendent.
William: Bosque Brown, who are good friends, have been making some Texas-tinged dream pop that deserves more attention. I have also recently been into the French musician Malibu; she writes lush ambient music with the emotion of dramatic pop songs.
Interview by Brigid McCormack