CATE LE BON: WHAT IS IT THAT I LOVE?
illustration by bijou karman
Cate Le Bon needed a break. After a decade of making music and four albums to her name—including two with Tim Presley as Drinks—the Welsh musician had come to a moment of reckoning. What was she doing and was she happy doing it? She wasn’t even sure if she loved making music anymore. She signed up for woodworking school in the English countryside and took a year and a half off to learn about building furniture. During that mostly isolated time, she eventually found herself drawn to a piano and started writing songs for catharsis after school. Suddenly she had a new album without actually necessarily intending to write one. Reward is out now on Mexican Summer. She performs on Fri., July 5, at Pappy and Harriet’s—get tickets here—and for free on Sat., July 6, at the Getty Center—more info here. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
What kind of people were in your woodworking course? Was it mostly disgruntled mid-life crisis people? Is that what took you there?
Cate Le Bon: It wasn’t all disgruntled midlife crisis people. There was a young girl from California who had a really clear trajectory of what she wanted to do with the school experience. There were lots of people who just wanted to change careers. Some were disgruntled, and some people who were retiring. It was a mixed bag, really. For me it was a break from something that I’d been doing for a long time without really looking at it from a different angle.
Did you go into it thinking you would make music while you were there?
Cate Le Bon: I did, but I didn’t. I’d signed with Mexican Summer and they knew that I needed some time off … but I knew that I probably needed to spend my spare time making a record. But it happened in a very different way from how I foresaw it happening. I had this plan to do a bunch of recording on an 8-track but the songs that I wrote that ended up being the record were written almost without the awareness that I was writing a record. They were kind of like an outlet from work. The school was so intense and consuming that I would go to the piano to relax. When you change your whole life in one fell swoop and you spend a lot of time alone, there’s quite a lot of personal reckoning that happens. The piano and writing songs was my cathartic tool for that. I was writing everything without really knowing that I was writing a record.
Do you find the piano to be more cathartic than guitar?
Cate Le Bon: I think that it’s just a little bit more involved maybe. There’s something about having the presence of a piano. It’s kind of hard to walk by a piano without playing it. It felt more like company than a guitar would. You play it with your whole body. It’s pretty loud. You can’t do anything about that. It’s pretty dramatic as well, you know, the piano, so it kind of suited the setting and the solitude.
What was the setting like?
Cate Le Bon: It was a small cottage in the middle of the mountains by a weir. Beautiful river. Beautiful tiny little village in the Lake District in Northern England. It was pretty wonderful really, very dramatic, and changed dramatically with the seasons.
Seems like you make a habit of finding some kind of isolated enchanted cottage setting whenever you set about working on a record—you did with the two Drinks albums as well.
Cate Le Bon: I guess it’s important to me to be able to shut yourself off as much as you can from any kind of notion of perceived audience, or searching for approval from someone, so you can just be. Maybe that’s the only way to find authenticity, I don’t know, but it’s where you’re just trying to write and create without an awareness. Almost like you do when you’re a child.
It’s hard to hold on to that.
Cate Le Bon: Yeah—I mean, even if you go to the ends of the earth, as long as you’ve got a mobile phone you’re constantly disrupted and interrupted and it’s always going to just open the window a little bit. It’s a mix of self-discipline and also removing yourself physically from something.
In so many ways that sort of solitude is wonderful and beautiful and exactly what you need, but isolation can also turn on you and bring in some dark clouds.
Cate Le Bon: Absolutely. I made these decisions that changed the architecture of my whole life but I didn’t fully comprehend the significance of that change until it was too late and I found myself living in this self-imposed isolation. I was going to school everyday and not really seeing anybody outside of that. And when you’ve been moving and going for so long and pretty much always surrounded by people and your self-identity is very fixed to that thing you’ve been doing for so long … then it’s pretty strange to suddenly cut yourself off. It felt like I’d been transplanted into someone else’s life. It gives you time to catch up with yourself but it also gives things time to catch up with you that you’ve been maybe slowly putting off or distracting yourself from thinking about. So, yeah—there were a few personal reckonings that caught up with me.
Was there a moment you could tell you were finding answers to the questions that brought you out there? Or was it more in retrospect, as you’ve had to sum up your experience?
Cate Le Bon: A lot of it has been retrospective. I was so caught up in school and there wasn’t really time to dissect what was going on really, aside from being in the moment. Only when I returned to music did I feel like I really readdressed my relationship to it and that it was healthier and on my terms and that I truly loved it, which is what I was hoping for. I was telling myself, ‘Oh, you can just give it up.’ And once you’ve drawn that exit door in your mind it gives you a little bit of freedom to really explore what it is you want. Because that was really the worst case scenario. Just to recalibrate your relationship and redefine what you want from music and what your motives are is far better than just throwing the towel in.
Scary! If you take away something that you’ve spent so much time on and invested your identity into, what’s left? What do you do?
Cate Le Bon: Yeah but, you know—it’s that I didn’t find it that scary. You can live many different lives. I didn’t want to fall into this trap of thinking or getting stuck in this idea of growth that always diminishes what you have in your hand—to think that you have to reach this phony point on the horizon or you’re not a success. It’s to redefine the economy of success and what time is. I didn’t find giving it up that frightening but I’m glad that I reconnected with my love of music.
There’s the saying that if you do something you love as a job, you’ll never work a day in your life but I don’t think that’s true. You risk losing your love for that thing.
Cate Le Bon: There was a Robert Fripp quote that I read whilst I was in furniture school and it was, ‘If you love music become a plumber.’ That totally makes sense to me now. I had to ask myself, ‘What is it that I love?’ I have to be careful of defining the parameters of my relationship with it.
Since you ended up playing with a piano instead of guitar, do you think that changed or revealed another layer of the songwriting process?
Cate Le Bon: Absolutely. If you’ve explored the worst-case scenario, it doesn’t really matter what you might think people expect of you. Whether they expect a certain kind of song or not or what instrument you are supposed to play. You’ve really just taken full control of whatever you’re going to do next musically.
There’s more synths on this album compared to others but also lots of saxophones …
Cate Le Bon: I’ve always loved saxophones. They truly bring me a lot of joy when I hear saxophone on a song. Coupled with synths and pianos, it’s a really exciting mix to me. I think I’ve always had that in the back of my mind but you have to allow yourself room to get there. You don’t want to chain yourself to something. As the sessions became longer and longer, I went back again to work on more saxophone parts for more of the songs because it felt like it set the right mood for me and how I felt about the record. It all unfurled from what the songs needed really.
How was the recording process for Reward different from past albums?
Cate Le Bon: The songs were solid structures when I took them into the studio. Whereas in the past I’ve always had a live band that I was a part of and we’ve performed the bones of a song live and captured that, this was more like opening the door in increments to people, one by one and one on one. It was a lengthier process. The songs dictated what was right and what wasn’t right. There was no need to be obtuse and try to do something that wasn’t serving the song. It just demanded a different approach. Some parts were more labored and crafted.
I suppose it goes along with having spent a year crafting and being structured.
Cate Le Bon: I think so. It wasn’t intentional that the process of making the record almost mirrored the process of making a piece of furniture, but it did. The material you’re working with dictates what you can and can’t do.
How about the process of writing lyrics?
Cate Le Bon: That part was not so different. I’m always scrambling at the end to fill in blanks. To an extent I had a lot of the choruses and a map of what was going to go where but the final drafts don’t really exist until the last minute. I’m a procrastinator. The meaning might be there but the words come later.
Tell me about the title Reward.
Cate Le Bon: It was during a time I was feeling a bit loopy and a little bit removed from everything and I saw a TV program where a woman had trained a horse to walk around a kitchen she built in a stable and the horse would go in and it would walk around closing the cupboard doors with its rear end and then she’d say, ‘And now he gets his reward.’ And it just made me really frikkin mad because she’s humiliated this beautiful animal and then she’s telling this animal what its reward is. You’d think that not being interfered with by humans would be reward enough for that horse. And then it got me on a trip thinking about how we’re all manipulated in that way, being told what our reward is. You think of it as a positive word in a way but really it has negative connotations when its being used to manipulate and in propaganda. The only way that it’s a good word is that if you dictate your own reward and that brings you back to what you’re defining your own economy of success and of time and focusing on what you have in your hand.
It’s hard to do that in a world built on rules and pre-determined obligations. As in—what is success if you’re not getting rewarded?
Cate Le Bon: I agree. Capitalism is built on this idea that everything constantly has to be on the up or else everything is shit.
Could there be a version of civilization that isn’t that way?
Cate Le Bon: I don’t know. The only hope is that if there’s real collaboration between people. The politics of division are so rife at the moment. Life on planet Earth seems less and less collaborative between multispecies, between different countries, and just on a people level. It’s crazy, isn’t it? It’s really regressive and really sad. I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Oh darn, we can’t end the interview on such a bleak moment. Tell me something purely fun about making the songs on Reward.
Cate Le Bon: Pure fun? They all were at different times. When you make anything your relationship with it is pretty tempestuous. Working out saxophone parts is probably one of my favorite things to do. Maybe ‘Miami’ was one of the most rewarding songs to put together and record.
Did something happen in Miami?
Cate Le Bon: A change happened, but it’s more about the change than it is what the change was.
I do love the word ‘Miami.’
Cate Le Bon: It’s a great word.
CATE LE BON ON FRI., JULY 5, AT PAPPY AND HARRIET’S, 53688 PIONEERTOWN RD., PIONEERTOWN. 9 PM / $18 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! AND WITH SK KAKRABA PLUS DJS STELLA MOZGAWA (WARPAINT) AND BOOM BIP AT SATURDAYS OFF THE 405 AT THE GETTY CENTER, N SEPULVEDA BLVD. AND GETTY CENTER DR., LOS ANGELES. 6 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. MORE INFO HERE! CATE LE BON’S REWARD IS OUT NOW ON MEXICAN SUMMER. VISIT CATE LE BON AT CATELEBON.COM.