Caleb Nichols spoke with Cambria Goodwin about the unique struggles of the music and restaurant industries, the surreal experience of having a brush with fame, her journey as a modern-day frontierswoman and the properties of a dark Alaskan winter.
A part of me was ecstatic that we had such a rare opportunity and the other side of me had already begun grieving the loss of what we had before.
You were the co-founder and one of the chief songwriters of Port O’Brien — a band that was Almost Famous in the 2000s. Please describe that experience for me. What was it like going from playing bars in the Bay Area to touring Europe with Modest Mouse in the span of a year? What has it been like on the other side of that since the group split in 2010?
That phase of life was a blur. When it all started, I don’t think any of us were necessarily playing shows with the thought that we may be touring the world, signing to labels or playing festivals with bands that we idolized. At least I wasn’t. Those Bay Area dive bar shows and Oakland house shows were so much fun. Still some of my favorite times, musically speaking. It felt so innocent and sincere. The music was being created organically and playing shows was a form of therapy. It was just so much fun.
When things started taking off for us, I remember feeling like I had a sort of torn-in-half existence, like I really had to pick between two lives. I remember being in Larsen Bay, Alaska, with you and getting a phone call in the cannery office. It was Van calling to tell us all the exciting news about touring with Modest Mouse in Europe and playing our first couple festivals in England. A part of me was ecstatic that we had such a rare opportunity and the other side of me had already begun grieving the loss of what we had before and the life I had grown very attached to in Alaska. I knew I couldn’t really have both. It might sound dramatic, but that phone call was a real turning point in the band and in my personal life/dynamic with Van. We already wanted different things, or rather, prioritized different things.
That year was such a whirlwind. I still feel like that was someone else’s life. Being on the other side of the split has been a battle in itself. At times, I’ve definitely fallen victim to the “grass is greener syndrome” by romanticizing touring and recording while feeling resentment for the life I had on the other side of music. But the truth is, my experience with music was hard. The end of Port O’Brien was not a clean or easy split. It was really just a big trainwreck at the end of a long bumpy ride.
It came after the sudden death of my younger brother and me not getting any real time to grieve. We were playing the Laneway Festival in Australia within the week of the funeral. I was made to feel like by not staying on the same schedule we had been on — nonstop touring, recording, touring — would be a weak move. Basically, “Buck up kid, that’s life.” The weeks and months after the accident, I was in such a zombie state of shock and grief, and after nobody heard my plea for a break, I just went along with it. If I didn’t, I’d basically be shoved out, which I learned the hard way later that same year.
Somehow, I found the strength to finagle a month break to go back to work in the cannery in Larsen Bay. I think that trip really saved my life. It was a quick reset and grounding experience that gave me my confidence back. Not too long after my return from that trip, Van and I split up. Pretty classic couple band breakup scenario. That obviously added to the interband drama. By the very end of Port O’Brien, I was kicked off of the last several tours because of various lies I was told, which I don’t necessarily need to divulge here. I remember sitting in my Portland apartment reading interviews with the band while they were on tour in Europe without me, playing songs I wrote about the loss of my brother. When asked where I was, they’d get a response that I “needed time to grieve the loss of my brother.” Nothing was more frustrating to me than that! When I really needed the time to sob hysterically, process the most tragic side of life, and be with my family I was told I couldn’t, but when it was “better” for other members that I was not around, they used my brother’s death as an excuse. That is still hard for me to fathom at times.
It seems like every day there is a new story about some dude in indie rock, or a film mogul, or the President of the USA being a sexual predator, or at least operating in a manner that subjugates women in some way. I was just reading about Bjork’s experience with an unnamed Danish filmmaker. What was your experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry? Do you feel like gender played a significant role in how you were treated or what your experience in the music world was?
100% yes. I mean, Port O’Brien was specifically publicizing traditional gender roles; myself being a baker and Van being a fisherman. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that. It’s what we were doing in that phase of life, but I think in turn, it exaggerated all stereotypes associated with them. We weren’t advertising anything progressive. I wasn’t ever shown in fishing gear, on a boat. Does that make sense? I think that because I was portrayed as a female baking bread on a dock, I was treated like I had no mind of my own at times, dusted off like my opinions didn’t matter. It was especially bad towards the end of the band. I have countless stories about being used in ways that I would no longer tolerate. I don’t need to hash out specifics or name names, but I definitely fell victim to a lot of the themes that are prevalent in today’s headlines.
You baked professionally in canneries in Alaska while you were in Port O’Brien. Since your involvement in the band ended, you have relocated to Alaska and started your own restaurant. You were also featured on the reality TV show Cupcake Wars. Tell me about being a boss-ass woman who owns her own business in a rural state like Alaska. What has been your experience in that often male-dominated world of canneries, fishermen and frontier life?
Haha! Oh man, Cupcake Wars has to be one of the most embarrassing things I’ve done! Who comes up with these shows!? Anyway, Alaska and baking have always been a huge part of my identity and where I have felt the most content. I’m sure you remember those crazy blissful yet equally miserable days in the cannery where, for some reason, 18 hours of baking bread felt easy. Looking out the bakery window on the fishing boats coming and going, drinking wine on skiffs, taking naps on bags of flour, falling asleep to the sound of waves under the dock. My time at the Larsen Bay cannery was so formative. The simple life with no cell phones, no computers and no cars really got under my skin. It was a welcome contrast to touring life.
After the breakup of Port O’Brien, I briefly toyed with the idea of my own solo musical project. But in the end, my love for Alaska won out. I ended up moving to the small town of Haines, Alaska. It is in the northern part of the Alaska Panhandle near Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. It’s easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. After working some rather miserable grunt jobs, I managed to save up a bit of money, write a business plan and talk the bank into taking a chance on my restaurant. It’s been such a gratifying experience to start something from the ground up and watch it grow. I’m actually in the process of opening a second restaurant right now. It’s a wood fire pizza place inspired by my recent trip to the Amalfi Coast of Italy. The startup and building of a new space has to be my favorite part of the owning a restaurant.
It’s funny you ask about how the male-dominated industries in Alaska might affect me, and my life up here. To be honest, I haven’t been met with as much sexism in Alaska as I did when involved in the music industry. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist up here — unfortunately, it seems to exist everywhere and I’ve definitely had run-ins with it. But in my specific experience, I’ve been treated much more fairly in Alaska as a woman business owner than I was as a musical artist.
I think a lot of it had to do with specific people that were involved in Port O’Brien, and that point in time between 2006-2010. It was sort of a big head-game. I remember feeling confused at times because you’re made to feel like you have equal rights — you can vote, be in the same workplace and you’re surrounded by an arts community, but there was never a level playing field. I’m grateful that women seem to be experiencing a new era of empowerment. I know that my experience with Port O’Brien would be a completely different one if it were to happen now, rather than a decade ago.
I wasn’t able to keep friends very long because we were always relocating. Some of the only stable connections in my life were with the animals that we adopted.
When we toured together, you famously bought a sugar-glider at a KFC parking lot in Denver, Colorado. We named him Django, I think? Since then, you’ve adopted a number of animals. Tell me about your relationship with rescue animals. What do animals mean to you and why do you keep adopting them?
Django! I miss that little guy! Well, I didn’t have an easy childhood. At one point I counted that I had lived in over 40 houses by the time I moved out on my own when I was 17. I wasn’t able to keep friends very long because we were always relocating. Some of the only stable connections in my life, besides with my sister and brother, were with the animals that we adopted. They became my best friends. My mom was involved in wildlife rescue groups, too. I remember pulling over on the side of the road whenever she saw dead opossums so she could check their pouches for living babies.
I’ve always felt an intense bond with animals. I think one of the hardest things about touring was not being anywhere long enough to have a pet. Remember going to petting zoos and stopping at roadside farms on tour? I’d always feel more grounded after a little time with animals. Someday I want to live on a big farm and have an animal sanctuary. Probably in Italy. Rescue animals, pizza, pasta, wine, and the Mediterranean. Daydreams from a dark Alaska winter, ha!
Let’s talk about fame. Do you think Internet fame ruined Port O’Brien? I sometimes think so, but I also recognize that the internet gave us incredible opportunities that we never would have otherwise had, like touring the world, meeting some really good people and recording music at a professional level. Thoughts on this?
I agree that it both created us and contributed to our demise. Everything took off after M. Ward’s Pitchfork interview where he named us his “new favorite band.” We were contacted by labels, management, booking agents, etc. I’m not sure anyone would have ever known who we were otherwise. It was that “lucky break” that so many artists dream of. Everything happened so fast that I think we took it for granted. There wasn’t a moment to slow down and fully absorb how lucky we really were. I also think the rise of social media towards the tail-end of Port O’Brien added to the gap between Van and I as friends and songwriters. He really embraced that new aspect of the industry, while it sort of made me sick. Our ideas were pretty opposite as far as how we thought the band should use those venues.
When the sun is always up, you take advantage of it, because you know winter is coming and there will be hibernation time soon.
A few years back, you recorded and released a solo record with Jason Quever as producer. This record barely saw the light of day in the US. I wonder: will it ever get a proper release? Those songs are gorgeous and extremely personal and fans of the last Port O’Brien record would definitely find it of musical interest. Where do you see yourself in the future with music?
Thanks, Caleb. That means a lot to me. The album ended up being more of a therapeutic process than anything. After Port O’Brien ended I never thought I’d record another album again. I was left with such a bad taste in my mouth, and felt like I was pretty worthless musically speaking. The way I was treated definitely didn’t help my confidence level. After a couple years of playing music by myself and recording demos at home, I decided to put a collection of recordings together with Jason. I’m such a fan of his production style, and I was comfortable sending him my very personal, sloppy demos.
I didn’t have a plan for the album that we ended up recording. Looking back, I think I wanted to make it to prove to myself that I could record something on my own, without Port O’Brien attachments. Soon after the album was finished, I moved north to Alaska and sort of dropped the ball on trying to find it a label, or give it a proper release.
As far as my involvement with music going forward, I’ll continue to write music, but I’m not the most motivated musician as far as playing shows and proper releases. I’m okay with that now.
Let’s get back to your life in Alaska. I am sometimes at a loss for words at how brave you are for heading up there on your own, opening your own place, wintering there, and basically being a modern frontierswoman. Give us a slice of that life: describe a typical day in Haines, AK during the off-season, and maybe one during the peak season.
Life in Haines in the off-season between October-April is pretty simple. Tourism dies down and seasonal residents leave to their winter homes. There is a small spike of heli-skiing tourism, but other than that, it’s sort of a ghost town. I have to admit, I have a hard time with the darkness sometimes. Have you heard of the Scandinavian word hygge? There is no direct English translation, but it basically means togetherness and coziness. The town of Haines relies on this sentiment in the winter. There are lots of small dinner parties where we cook food that we caught or foraged in the summer months. There is extra time for book and writing clubs, lots of organized indoor exercise groups, and when the conditions are nice, there are ski days with picnics. I know a lot of people (myself included) look forward to the winter because it’s the complete opposite of summer here.
Summer days are long — the sun barely tucks behind the mountains at the summer solstice. It can trick you into a no-sleep state. I’m sure you remember that from the Larsen Bay days. When the sun is always up, you take advantage of it, because you know winter is coming and there will be hibernation time soon. We sort of live like the bears here. You fall into sync with the sun.
My summer days have changed a bit since I opened The Pilotlight a few years back, Most of my time goes towards daily functions of the restaurant, but I do try to get out for a trail run most days. When berries, fiddleheads and mushrooms come in, I make it a point to go foraging for both the restaurant and wintertime. In the fall, once tourism dies down, there’s more time for fly fishing, canoeing and longer runs. I think the absolute best way to get an idea of life in Haines is to watch an episode of Northern Exposure. The show was based on Haines. I regularly find myself living episodes of that show.
You made my wedding cake. It was beautiful and delicious. What is your current favorite thing to make for yourself? Any food trends that you are completely over?
Hmmm. I’m currently on a pizza kick. I’ve been experimenting with sourdough pizza recipes for the new restaurant. I fell in love with the Neapolitan pizzas in Naples. As far as food trends, I’m pretty over the word “foodie.” It sounds super creepy to me! Like you’re a food pedophile or something.
Last question, and it’s a doozy: You have one do-over, good for any one decision you have ever made in your entire life. What do you decide to do over and why, if you’re comfortable talking about it? I’ll break the ice: I would do-over not touring Europe with you and the rest of the Port O’ crew in summer 2008. I could have had a good time and tackled a big fear, but I let it get the better of me. C’est la vie! OK, now you:
I wish you were there with us too! Touring wasn’t the same without you. That question is a doozy! The first thing that pops in my mind is: I wish I could go back and somehow stop my brother’s car accident from happening. That’s something that comes up and torments me from time to time. How could it have been stopped? What minute changes would have prevented that tragic outcome? It was such freak timing. Those thoughts are hard to stop, especially this time of year in December.
I guess that’s not really a decision I’d change though. If it were a decision, mine would sort of be a broad change, I guess. I wish that I would have followed my heart and intuition more during the Port O’Brien phase of my life. I remember making decisions based on what I thought the band wanted or needed, rather than what I needed. In the end, all the sacrifices I made in order to make Port O’Brien function totally backfired. I did things to protect people that didn’t return loyalty in the end, and in turn I lost someone who was very important to me. In a nutshell, I wish I had taken a chance on love, not been scared to be truly vulnerable and less afraid of not living up to people’s expectations of me.
Curated by: Caleb Nichols
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: January 12, 2018
Total questions: 9
Word count: 3113
Reading time: Ten minutes
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