Cate Le Bon isn’t looking to repeat herself. Or anyone else for that matter. Originally hailing from rural Wales, Le Bon is now a fully sworn in member of fertile Los Angelino psych, folk and psychy-folk scenes. Over the course of four albums Le Bon has stretched to breaking point the assumed constraints of the singer-songwriter model. Her’s is work thronged with left turns, skewed phrasing and, somehow, a pop sensibility that puts innumerable bigger room acts to shame.
Cate’s last LP, 2013’s Mug Museum, was a coming out party of sorts. It was a stop-you-in-your-tracks decree that this is an artist doing the seemingly impossible by routinely taking musical ideas that simply shouldn’t work and twisting them into punchy earworms and immaculately arranged slow-burners alike. Her latest, Crab Day – recorded in the wake of her debut release with DRINKS, a more experimental project with White Fence’s Tim Presley – pushes her sound in even wonkier and more satisfying directions. Naïveté and absurdity coalesce to something almost resembling profundity over the course of the record, no mean feat considering most the lyrics were decided on only hours before taking to the vocal booth. Ahead of her gig later this month in the Workman’s Club, we were lucky enough to pin down Le Bon in her Carmarthenshire homestead to talk beginnings, furniture and the pitfalls of being an artist in an age of regurgitation.
I’m calling you while you’re visiting your folks before heading out on tour. A lot of publications would say you’re from Cardiff and that’s obviously where you were based when you started playing music more seriously, but that’s not where you are actually from is it?
No, I’m from a little village called Penboyr in the middle of, well, nowhere really.
So, pretty rural then. Was it a creative environment when you were growing up?
Well, yeah. It was just a very free environment, conducive to creativity. Me and my sister both did piano and violin in school but it was always about my parents saying, “Do it as long as you’re enjoying it”. There was never any pressure or anything like that. As far as being a young kid, me and my sister had a pet goat each and we’d just go walking on the weekend, making dams over streams. I think it was a time when people were a lot less antsy about kids just going off for the day. I think maybe within that it creates a kind of freedom for creativity, not having that feeling that somebody is watching you.
I guess I’m fixated on your beginnings because listening to Crab Day there is a certain childlike approach in its absurdity, a palpable sense of play about it. Do you think early experiences are still reflected in your work?
I mean, probably. You know when you’re young and you’re writing and it’s not really for performing, you’re doing it for yourself, for your own enjoyment. I think a lot of that is missing in current music. There is an expectation of audience at the very genesis of making something. For me, getting away from that was really important. Before Crab Day I’d just made a record with my friend Tim Presley and that was really all about the joyfulness of making music with somebody you really admire. There was no expectation, it was just enthusiasm and, yeah, playfulness, which is such an important aspect of music and it’s often disregarded. I enjoyed that experience so much, making something I could stand by knowing that there would be lots of people who would absolutely hate it. I felt like that experience readjusted my attitude to my own work. I thought, “Why is that missing from my work as a solo artist?” It was a simple to readdress it and go, “Oh yeah, there doesn’t need to be any expectation”.
You already brought up the DRINKS record, Hermits on Holiday, that you made with Tim and the effect it had on your outlook making Crab Day. Do you think the records are in conversation with each other, or did the experience of making Hermits make you feel like you had free reign to do anything you wanted without getting too hung up on an audience’s reaction?
I mean, yeah. I don’t think it’s in a disrespectful way in relation to the audience. If you try and fulfil every worry of “will so-and-so like it?”, you’re just going to dampen any chance at being authentic. The DRINKS record definitely informed Crab Day in the way you’d expect any work you do to inform the next one, be it positively or negatively.
I was surprised to read that you leave a lot of the lyric writing to quite late, the night before recording, is that usual for you?
Yeah and it’s something I always kicked against, but with Crab Day I knew because of the kind of playfulness and abandon of the music that instead of cursing myself for it, I kind of embraced it this time around. I think it’s kind of a last chance saloon approach. It used to be something I wasn’t happy about but I can’t change it for whatever reason, it’s just how I work. So I’ve learned to kind of give myself to it. I think the record is a delirious reaction to the absolutely nonsensical world we’re living in, the language of discontent almost. It seemed appropriate to be writing [the lyrics] in the middle of the night when you feel a bit insane.
I was wondering about the short film that accompanied the work. How did that come about?
Phil Collins, the director, is one of my absolute favourite artists. I think everything he does is so well considered. His art is something that looks like now, he’s not retrospective, it’s very much a commentary on what’s going on now and that’s something I’ve always been very interested in since so often it feels like we’re living in a time of regurgitation. I’d worked with him on a couple of projects; namely his film Tomorrow Is Always Too Long. He took the songs from Mug Museum and had the Royal Scottish Orchestra play them and had members of the community in Glasgow sing them. It was absolutely incredible and a career and personal highlight for me.
Crab Day was very much a record where I worked with really close friends on the music so when it came to interpreting it visually I could only think of wanting to do it with Phil and Casey [Raymond], who has done a lot of my videos, to create this kind of absurd but really beautiful world. It’s like an alternate dimension. Visually I think it really suits the record. We made it in this amazing building called the Funkhaus in East Berlin so I’m absolutely over-joyed to have worked with Phil on something like that.
It seems like collaboration is a big part of what you do. Between your enthusiasm about working with Phil and hearing you talk about your tight-knit band, I get the impression there is a lot of conversation in the writing process. I am loath to lump you into the “singer-songwriter” mould but for somebody recording under a name, if not your given name, it seems you really value collaboration as part of your process.
Well, you know, you have to have mirrors. These are musicians I’ve forged relationships with over ten years so I’d never be so stupid as to think I could make a record without their input. They are hugely important to me personally, just to have around, to give sound advice. Musically, on the record, Huw [Evans] played some of my absolute favourite guitar lines and Steve [Black] is an incredibly talented bass player and saxophone player. Stella [Mozgawa] who plays drums, I’d never worked with her previously, we just became very close friends when I moved to Los Angeles, but she is one of the most incredible musicians you can work with. The relationships you have with people in the studio are so important to the output.
One thing that did strike me when I was watching the short film is that the press often talk about you sounding similar to Nico. For somebody that is so regularly discussed in relation to what their voice sounds like, there is something brave about releasing the first taste of the album without a vocal. Is that kicking against being characterised in the same way as other singer-songwriters?
Well, I don’t know, I don’t think it was a conscious rebellion against that. I never read press. Once you do you start reacting to what people write, that’s when you start to lose it a bit, you shouldn’t ever let that stuff influence you. While the Nico thing is annoying, it’s not the worst thing in the world. You know, I love Nico, she’s incredible. I personally don’t think I sound like her, I think it’s just because I have an accent. When you put something out there people are free to say what they want, unless it’s a commentary on their intention of course. For me, the music is as important as my voice and that was the thing that worked best with the visuals, to have them narrating what was going on. It wasn’t a rebellious thing.
I suppose it didn’t strike me as rebellious as such, more so a lack of concern with fitting into certain boxes. There are obviously issues relating to gender at play too. It seems when discussing music made by women there can be this very narrow understanding of the type of artist a woman can be…
Well, when the DRINKS record was being reviewed, Tim would always be referred to as a “musician” and I would be a “singer-songwriter”. We both do the exact same thing and our input to the record was exactly the same. It’s just that really slow-burn inequality that can be even more hazardous than the stuff that’s more overt.
As an artist who is often associated with psychedelia, do you buy into the idea of a psychedelic pop tradition, or is the word, for you, more of a temporal marker for associating music with it’s place in time?
I think everything like that is just the past regurgitated. People bandy around words like “psychedelic” or “punk” or “krautrock” these days, and they are so far removed from the reactionary genesis of those movements. You get called a punk band if you’re a bit shouty and have ripped tights these days. It’s just like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. Krautrock doesn’t mean what it used to, now it’s just a particular beat on a song.
It’s tricky, that quagmire of terms. You wear one paisley shirt and you’re marked as psychedelic *[laughs]*. It’s hard living in an age where everything has to have an anchor in the past in order for it be seen as valuable. Originality is a very different word to authenticity and I think you can only really strive to be authentic these days.
I heard that you’re planning on dabbling in some furniture making soon..
Yeah, when this tour comes to an end, so I guess when I’m writing the next record. Instead of pretending to write a record I’m going to go to the Lake District and do a five day-a-week course for a year to learn furniture design and making. I’ve wanted to for years and now seems like a good time to do it.
You obviously enjoy that kind of tactile stuff. I know you sent out homemade mugs to folks who pre-ordered Mug Museum.
I think it’s just an important age to remove yourself from things that don’t really exist and to me there is something appealing about the permanence of furniture and making something that is physically real. I was reading that JG Ballard book Crash and there is a bit in the intro that is absolutely incredible. He talks about how there was a time when you were told that the world is reality and what’s in your brain is fabricated, now the script has kind of flipped in that everything in the world is fabricated nonsense and the only reality you have is in your brain and it’s so terrifyingly true. I guess I just want to counter that with something really structural.
Tim and I recently went to an old mill in the south of France to make a new DRINKS record. We were there for a month, it was very basic, no internet, no TV, our phones didn’t work in the house. It takes very little time actually for all your senses to become heightened because you’re not constantly being pulled away from where you actually are. It was magical, we’d swim in the river everyday and we’d be really creative, wake up in the morning and instead of being on our phones doing absolutely nothing, we’d sit and paint together. Then it’s awful how quickly you slip back into the way you were before. I just think it’ll be really nice to tap out for a year, play piano, make furniture… go mental!
Words: Danny Wilson
Photos: Ivana Kličković