For over ten years, Cate Le Bon has taken her fans on perhaps some of the most fascinating journeys of any modern musician. Caragh Medlicott recounts those journeys, that span the globe with an array of unusual stop-offs while listening to the latest album, Reward.
My journey into the immersive world of Cate Le Bon began the summer after I graduated; I was at the 2016 Greenman festival with a group of close friends. It was our third afternoon on-site, a Saturday; we wandered without direction, minds clouded and tipsy. On the recommendation of a friend of a friend, we found ourselves at the Mountain Stage awaiting Le Bon. We weren’t familiar with her music and lazily deduced she must be French – a theory only furthered when we saw her setting up on-stage, chic black bob bent over the knobs of her guitar. The set began and Le Bon’s rich Welsh accent radiated through the speakers – we rolled our eyes at our own naivety as the music started, devoid of pomp or exuberant introductory monologue. We were all there for one thing, after all.
The crowd fell into the inevitable nodding of the head, bending of the knees; it was different to the archetypal festival crowd, this was no sweaty wave of humans sporadically crashing together – it was an electricity that set everyone moving in unison. Heads turned upwards to the stage as the last of the afternoon sunlight settled into the edges of the encompassing Brecon hills. ‘It doesn’t pay to sing your songs,’ Le Bon lamented – a lyric so cutting, so integral to what she was doing on stage, it was as if she was offering the audience a gift while simultaneously exposing the worst aspects of being an artist. The music was effervescent, ethereal, transcendently moving from clean twanging guitar to punching sax. After the better portion of an hour, the music finished and the crowd dispersed – but something remained: I’d been bitten.
Arriving home with muddy clothes and a bad cold, I surrendered to a Cate Le Bon-shaped sinkhole; I read interviews, watched music videos, studied album reviews. All the while, of course, ploughing my way through Le Bon’s discography. It was fascinating. To celebrate the release of her 2013 album Mug Museum she hand-produced 100 pottery mugs. It’s hard not to hover around those words ‘hand-produced’; it seems such a significant commitment, a dedicated product of a pure craft. It correlates the more tangible skill of pottery with the elusively defined process of making music as an artistic act. All evidence suggests this is something Le Bon makes a priority in her personal writing, something integral to her solo work. After all, she’s a busy woman. Previous to the May release of her new album Reward, she’d spent time producing for Deerhunter and Tim Presley (who is also her bandmate in indie duo DRINKS). But for the creation of her own record, she defected to the isolated mountains of the Lake District. Here, she spent more than one solitary year studying the art of furniture-making and playing the piano into the wee hours. Sentimentally lovely though the image may be, for me, the real interest lies in the implications this holds for the album’s construction; both in terms of the finished product, and the connection it makes contextually between art, craft and place.
With five albums to date, Le Bon’s musical development has been expansive yet unmarked by the jaggedness which frequently accompanies blossoming artists. Her incline into prominence, while steep, has maintained a gradual enough slope to prevent the pressure from becoming too much; or at least, she has avoided collapsing under the commercial weight of the indie music scene. She has been able to skip over the dreaded second album syndrome which frequently leaves previously unknown artists with nothing to write about when thrust into the world of sold-out tour dates. In many ways, Le Bon’s continued lyrical depth gives weight to the old saying that ‘only boring people get bored’. She has talked extensively about her move to the Lake District as a means of both understanding her music, and motivation for making it; this was no artist’s retreat, no exploration of isolation for isolation’s sake. It has an organic nature. The songs on Reward began as seeds of reassurance that making music was, for Le Bon, still a genuine emotional outlet; a task was not solely undertaken to achieve the goal of a polished album, but something has begun as an authentic form of self-expression. Purity of intention matters to Le Bon, that for her the music must come before money or ego.
Many a literary critic and first-year humanities student may be quick to aim, Barthes essay in hand, at projected ideas of art and the artist; yet, ultimately, no amount of critical theory can diminish the intrigue and slipperiness surrounding the creative process. While discussions involving art and its creation can become fraught with tortured-soul stereotypes and snobby sensibilities relating to the proper way to do things, there’s no denying that Reward sounds different when set to its context. Its value is not lessened without background, yet with it, songs take on new meaning. On the album’s lead single, ‘Daylight Matters’, Le Bon sings the chorus at a heavenly pitch: ‘Love you, I love you, I love you, I love you’. Striking in sound and full of emotional feeling, it’s hard not to imagine Le Bon writing this alone, encased in a coldly beautiful landscape, hands sore and dry from a day of wood-work. Steeped in this image, the possibilities of meaning pivot in new directions – it sends electric currents coursing through the refrain’s sighing surrender ‘but you’re not here’.
Music shaped by elements external to its creation is already a deep-rooted cultural concept. It’s seen in everything from artist to genre; countless musical legends are known for their drug-induced writing, while country music defines itself through an emotive relationship between sound and place. Originally from Penboyr in Carmarthenshire, Le Bon has moved about over the years. Before releasing Mug Museum, she relocated to LA. Then, as we know, she made the move mountainside to Cumbria. Yet, despite this geographical restlessness, Le Bon’s Welshness has clung to her identity as a songwriter. From a public perspective, the reasons are plentiful; with her connection to Gruff Rhys and a long list of other Welsh indie names, the link is musically well-established. In one interview, Le Bon recalls speaking Welsh with guitarist Huw Evans in LA; finding a small pocket of familiarity in a sprawling sunshine-drenched backdrop – this inner self is key to Le Bon’s work. While in LA her Welshness may have been reduced to tokenistic interest where strangers told Le Bon how they had ancestors from such-and-such and that they were, in fact, one-sixteenth Welsh. For her, it is a pillar of identity – much like her position as an artist, producer and creator – these elements are all wrapped up together.
Home is a transient notion both literally and conceptually to Le Bon. On Reward’s ‘Home to You’ the lyrics take a dreamy turn: ‘a neighbourhood in the night kitchen/ home to you/ is an atrocity in the town’ – definable meaning becomes inscrutable, hard to penetrate. These are words drawn unfiltered from the subconscious, the antithesis of the daily, physical work undertaken by Le Bon at the time of writing. This marrying of the dreamy and the material exists throughout Reward. Though lyrics are sparsely surrealist, the musical arrangements are substantial and alive, they provide texture and depth where the words remain ineffable. Opening track ‘Miami’ both exudes and establishes Reward’s remoteness with a chiming intro and insistent horns cloaking Le Bon’s repetition of ‘Miami/ Miami/ Miami’. ‘Sad Nudes’ is a vaguely melancholy piano piece reflecting on the “pity baths” Le Bon would take at the peak of feelings of alienation; the song’s title somehow conjures both contemporary culture and renaissance paintings at once. Coincidentally, past, present and future areas unstable as the notion of home on this record; the rules of reality melt away into a kind of hallucination. A theory that’s given more weight by Le Bon’s own admission that after a month alone she “found all these songs that I had absolutely no recollection of writing”.
Le Bon’s musical progression has resisted any jolting changes in direction, despite being sonically varied. Her 2013 breakout album Mug Museum is – in many ways – an opposite piece to Reward. It concerned itself with details, small moments; the way sentimentality can swell and connect itself to otherwise meaningless objects. In this case, the hoarding of mugs which over time become impossible to throw out, no matter how old or used, they collect to become a mini-museum of an emotional past. Written after the passing of her grandmother, Mug Museum tapped into the attachment to material things that are so often heightened during periods of grief. It’s a concept which found satisfying resolution in Le Bon’s creation of the 100 new mugs; like finding a fresh start or generating new emotional capacity. Lyrically, Mug Museum dealt with more worldly moments than Reward. It seems the opaqueness of her writing comes not just from the source material but the perspective she takes; if Mug Museum focuses so closely on the details it obscures the full picture, Reward hovers around the sun-bleached images, never fully revealing what was there before. After making the move stateside, Le Bon released 2016’s Crab Day, a 70s inspired exploration of a more playful space, the eponymous lead single apparently about a made-up holiday. As an LP, it is one of Le Bon’s most sprightly, full of tightly wound energy; feeling like a move from sepia into colour. Reward marks an entirely different transition – sideways rather than forward, an internal journey rather than a conceptual one.
Le Bon’s genius lies in her ability to mingle poetry and authenticity. She resists stripping back personal numbers with acoustic blandness, and dresses them up to greater effect, instead. Reward is an album moulded by the remoteness of her writing location; the importance of place exists primarily in the quietness of exile, the topography of Le Bon’s mental landscape. The strenuous, physical work of crafting furniture makes for an impassioned introspection, a deep delve into the self. As an artistic tale, the album’s construction is a resonant one. It is untainted by the demand to produce, produce, produce that frequently accompanies an entertainment industry that prizes quantity over quality, speed over precision. Despite serious scope for self-righteousness, Reward – and indeed Le Bon herself – are notably unpretentious. While this kin’s artistic projects can feel equivalent to the gap-yah“finding myself” trips taken by a certain class of rich 20-somethings, Reward has all the marks and feeling of a genuine inner journey. One took not to impress or pursue pseudo-self-development, but because of a genuine drive to know oneself and one’s art.
Reward by Cate Le Bon is available now on Mexican Summer.
Caragh Medlicott is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.