CATE LE BON makes furniture. In a school. In Cumbria. As building for the future goes, this is to be taken literally. It’s a far cry from otherworldly rock ‘n’ roll pursuits and doing mad things to relax while one conjures up their next bout of creativity. Walking in the Lake District, or mountain climbing in your native South Wales. Nah, let’s knock up a chair. That’ll chill everyone out! However, one listen to her new album Reward and the idea that making furniture helped in the process of this woozy, psychedelic and anti-folk recording seems entirely plausible. She handmade mugs for the release of her third album, Mug Museum. There’s that plausibility again.
Cate Le Bon (not her real second name) is of Carmarthenshire decent. She is bilingual and she is brilliant. Breaking out of a small South Wales hamlet isn’t easy, but her creative flow has seen her work life start off with Super Furry Animals and Gruff Rhys’ side-projects (her contribution to the Neon Neon album is arguably the high point), moving through the Manics and onto Deerhunter et al. Le Bon hasn’t so much created a persona as acted out her own creationism under an assumed name. She produces as much as she performs and she creates as much as she makes music. On the eve of her fifth album she’s in London doing the promo chore (or should that be ‘chair’?) for us UK types.
“I’ve been here since 11am doing this.” Ouch. It’s around 6pm now. “Oh, I don’t mind. I’ve just been fed!”
Which is a relief. We love Ms Le Bon here at Bido HQ. Her work never fails to enthrall and beguile. Mug Museum is an extraordinary piece of work, her first proper flag in the ground, as it were. So we hope you’ll join us in the delight of Reward, because it’s even better. Even if she did lock herself away to make it.
“You try and create a vacuum of sorts. When you have exterior influences around you trying to create a false atmosphere, you can have the integrity of the record compromised and that is unfair on the listener or me. I anticipate who my audience will be so I try to provide for them. You can bounce stuff off people in your immediacy which is why I’ve always worked with musicians and producers who I’ve forged a relationship with. Therefore they can’t really disrupt or challenge the flow of what I’m trying to do because they are innately involved with the processes.”
As a producer do you find it easy to step away from helping the creative process along, is it easier to be the artist and in full ‘control’?
“No, because that’s compromising and then you’d end up with a different record. You want to be creative and critical at the same time so you’ll want to lean on someone occasionally. I certainly do and I find it empowering to have that. My team have been with me a while and we have that understanding that comes from trust and that’s paramount to having a fluid and honest working environment.”
When you sit and take in what Le Bon’s music is about, the layers of abstraction that build and morph into the finished product, the above statement doesn’t seem so obvious. I guess the next question has to take in the approach to such an off-kilter set of recordings. Was there a difference in how this all converged? There’s a pause and the line crackles. East London seems so far away in this moment.
“It transpired I changed the architecture of my life dramatically. I took time off to readdress my view of music as you have to re-evaluate my relationship with why I was doing things. Were they for the right reasons or just doing things out of habit, or ease?”
Another weighty pause. This is slightly troubling the artist.
“These songs were written over a longer period and so there was intimacy there as I was spending more time with them. Honing and stuff. Previously we [the band] have experimented with the songs in the rehearsal room and they’ve evolved out of that. This time we didn’t do it that way. There was experimentation, yes, but the door was opened incrementally to musicians one by one so there was that intimacy and focus that sometimes you can lose if you overthink. It helped that the songs demanded that.”
There’s a real ‘instrument’ feel to the record. As it ambles along there’s a real strength in the way the music soars and swoops. It is also, undeniably, Welsh. This writer thought the sax was yesterday’s instrument though. Apparently not. Le Bon squeals defiantly.
“No! I love it. It’s the coolest instrument! Bowie used sax so it’s fine by me. I’m hopeless at it though. My friend who plays it took one look at my lips and said the trumpet was the instrument for me! I prefer the use of synthesizers to recall records like Bowie’s Low. Those sounds belong to him and that time, but it’s nice to digress and find your own version of that, you know?”
Are you happy with the fact that your music screams Welsh? Sometimes an artist can distance themselves from what is a strength and undeniable.
“Of course! Gruff and Euros [Childs, the power behind Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci] flew their own Welsh flags and we should all be very grateful for that. They make the music that they want to make regardless of any stylistic scene. You should do what you want to do, musically, as it’s all about you when you create it. They’ve done that and I’m aiming for that as well. With varying degrees of success.” She laughs, heartily and proudly.
Reward is, err, a rewarding voyage that manages to strut confidently around the hills of Nico-period Velvet Underground, Laurie Anderson and there’s even a nod to The Raincoats, early Cranes and a soupçon of Pavement. The track Magnificent Gestures is sublime in its batshit mentality, veering between the high-pitched poetry of Le Bon as she wrestles with a music box and a guitar riff that your music teacher would wrongly clip you around the ear for. Also, the brilliant single Daylight Matters gets the nod of approval as it’s mournful use of synths on the chorus bring to mind a depressed Gary Numan fighting with the aforementioned music teacher.
“I know of Numan, obviously but there’s being authentic and having time to find a certain originality in your work and that’s what I want to achieve. I think I did that with that track. You’ll always find things that have been done before everywhere, it’s doing it in such a way that you are doing it for the right reasons and not just a one dimensional reboot. It’s nice that you raise that parallel.”
So, following that, is it a ‘you’ record? There’s another long pause then I’m reminded she’s been doing this for seven hours. Hence the short, sharp retort.
“It’s the sum of its parts. No man is an island. At least not on Reward.”
There’s a relieved laugh as Le Bon shuffles in her chair and the line crackles again. Where did you base yourself during the processes that became Reward?
“I can’t really answer that fully. Errr… The Lake District and home in Wales. Then there was the 18 months in furniture school. I was learning a new discipline during this time and it coupling with my love of architecture. I found the whole experience meditative and grounding.”
In what way?
“You design something based on what you’ve seen. You hand select the timber and make a piece of wood into something. I got so much joy and excitement from it. Music is more enjoyable to me when I’m not preoccupied with music. You are more free as your eggs aren’t in one basket, so to speak. It was liberating in some ways. It was so wonderful to do.”
So, based on that experience is there a link between architecture and music? Or buildings and music? She answers sharply. “Architecture should be a collaboration between nature and humans and society.” Yet you grew up in a small village surrounded by space. Then when you tour these cities become a part of your everyday life only to disappear when you go to a place like Cumbria or return home. There’s more space and calm, away from the urban sprawl. Surely that impinges on creative flow and personality? She sighs. “Possibly. Although it’s hard to pinpoint influence and what the alchemy of life is. Things have a genuine effect but that doesn’t mean that they are influential. On me that is. Things can be porous when it comes to that. It can be luck or a decision you’ve made.”
And with that she disappears down the line. Cate le Bon is a unique artist. She has no pretensions or front. She is simply a one-off, a product of her upbringing and her attempts at just being who she is. Be that through music or furniture.
Cate Le Bon headlines Focus Wales on 18th May, playing at Undegun. Reward is released on 24th May via Mexican Summer.