Cate Le Bon’s Strange Journey Home

The music of Cate Le Bon, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, has a rigorous, art-school weirdness that may be each entrancing and estranging. She is going to write a beautiful melody, then thread it by way of patches of dissonance. She typically repeats a phrase or phrase till it sounds uncanny. Le Bon was born in Wales in 1983, and lived there till 2013, when she moved first to Los Angeles, after which, in 2021, to Joshua Tree, within the Mojave Desert. She sings in a barely indifferent voice, punctuated by occasional, inscrutable sighs. Within the movies for her charming new album, “Pompeii,” she strikes theatrical poses, unsmiling, in a shade wheel of eccentric costumes, a few of which encase her like carapaces. After which there are her lyrics—enigmatic, aphoristic, full of oddly juxtaposed concrete photographs, like a Dadaist collage. “What you mentioned was good, while you mentioned my face turned a reminiscence,” she sings on “Harbour,” from the brand new album. “What you mentioned was good, while you mentioned my coronary heart broke a century.” A lot of the time, I do not know what Le Bon is singing about, however discover myself moved anyway.

“Pompeii” is certainly one of a wave of albums made by artists in numerous iterations of isolation. Le Bon’s was principally recorded on a residential avenue in Cardiff, Wales, in a terrace home lent to her by her good friend Gruff Rhys, of the Welsh rock band Tremendous Furry Animals. Le Bon had hung out there in her twenties, and she or he was joined by her romantic companion, the musician Tim Presley of White Fence, and her co-producer Samur Khouja. (The drummer Stella Mozgawa joined through Zoom from Australia, including her tracks to Le Bon’s guitar, bass, piano, and vocals.) From the upstairs home windows, Le Bon may see seagulls wheeling by way of the grey winter sky. Within the mornings, the three housemates cheered themselves up, Le Bon mentioned, by “commuting”—leaving, making a giant loop, and coming house with espresso to start out the workday.

The consequence, Le Bon’s sixth solo album, wades into bleak themes—loss, reminiscence, legacy, the destruction of the planet. However the music usually has an up-tempo eighties vibe, with whining, Eno-esque guitars in “Remembering Me,” lashings of synthesizer and saxophone, and a head-nodding danceability all through. Heba Kadry, the Brooklyn-based mastering engineer who labored on the album, informed me that she’d been delighted when she first listened to the recordings—“all these superb, New Wave-y sorts of sounds, far more synth-heavy than Cate’s earlier albums, but in addition nonetheless minimal, sharp, architectural.” Kadry mentioned the tracks had been so totally realized that she felt a “lovely form of strain to not fuck them up.”

Le Bon informed me that she often considered an album’s title lengthy earlier than recording it. I requested what the misplaced metropolis of Pompeii meant to her. “I keep in mind first listening to about it in major faculty,” she mentioned. “I used to be at all times struck by the thought of somebody’s remaining gestures—one thing so personal—become one thing so public and everlasting. Individuals captured of their remaining moments.” Extra lately, it had dropped at thoughts different environmental catastrophes, “and the best way we attempt to palm off tragedies or qualify them in ways in which imply we’re protected. However now we’re residing at a time when every part is catching up with us.” One music on the album, “Moderation,” had been partly impressed by “The Moon,” a 1958 essay by the modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi, which explores, Le Bon mentioned, the “chasm between human wants and technological progress.” The music was about “the guilt or existential dread” that we really feel about habits we will’t appear to change, even to save lots of the planet.

“That stunning remoteness is form of what I crave,” Le Bon mentioned, of residing in Joshua Tree.

Le Bon spent a lot of her youth in exhilarating communion with nature. Her mother and father had met at college, in Newcastle, England, after which moved to Penboyr, a hamlet within the west of Wales. They purchased a dilapidated farmhouse, labored for the native authorities, and raised their daughters within the rustic model. “My mother and father would kick my older sister and I out on the weekends, and we’d roam the countryside,” Le Bon informed me. “It was, ‘We’ll see you when it will get darkish.’ We every had a goat we’d stroll.” The ladies bought into horseback driving, too—“two muddy children on two muddy ponies.” Le Bon’s sister turned a veterinarian, married a horse surgeon, and now lives along with her husband and kids in Penboyr.

The household was casually musical. Le Bon’s dad performed the guitar and made combine tapes. Le Bon took piano classes. All people sang. Additionally they relished the Welsh language, which Le Bon grew up talking, and which continues to inflect her sound. (Her first recording was the Welsh EP “Edrych yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg,” or “Wanting within the Eyes of a Borrowed Horse”—the Welsh equal of “wanting a present horse within the mouth.”) “It’s a powerful a part of my id,” she mentioned. “And musically a few of my very favourite musicians are Welsh—John Cale, Gruff Rhys.”

Le Bon didn’t take pleasure in music at college; it was a aggressive surroundings, and she or he by no means bought to sing the selection components within the choir. However, at eighteen, she left house for Cardiff, fell in with a supportive crowd of musicians, and finally began performing. “My companion on the time was form of sick of me simply taking part in in the home, so he put a gig on for me with out actually asking,” she mentioned. “He booked the venue, made posters. It was a type of actually sort issues that’s additionally form of horrifying.” She paused. “Typically, while you’re not going to present your self permission to take that subsequent step, somebody who loves you has to.”

In 2009, she launched her first full-length album, “Me Oh My.” However “Mug Museum,” from 2013, was her breakthrough, a critically acclaimed assortment that includes at the least one earworm (“Are You with Me Now?”) and a duet with Fragrance Genius. Pitchfork’s evaluation deemed her “a grasp curator and consummate immortalizer.” When the publication interviewed Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, final 12 months, he known as Le Bon “the most effective on the market making music now.”

Lately, I spoke with Le Bon by Zoom; she was in Joshua Tree, in the home that she shares with Presley. I had anticipated an austere determine, however in dialog she was pleasant and sort. She wore an indigo beanie and a color-block hoodie; at one level she lay down amongst a drift of pillows, like a teen-ager on the cellphone, allotting expressive solutions and hand gestures. When she’d first began visiting Joshua Tree, she’d been struck by “how alien the panorama was,” she informed me. “It appeared like such a hostile surroundings for folks to dwell in.” However she quickly took to “the sunshine, the quiet, and the way it modifications the economic system of time.”

She additionally appreciated the karaoke night time on the native saloon, and the camaraderie of the world’s musicians. Mozgawa had already moved close by, they usually usually bought collectively to play music and drink orange wine. (Mozgawa mentioned that she significantly beloved watching Le Bon play the bass guitar: “I name it Welsh funk—filled with feeling and abandon.”) The desert was about so far as one may get from moist, rural Wales, but it surely began to remind Le Bon of her childhood—that feeling of strolling out the again door and having the ability to amuse oneself for hours. “That stunning remoteness is form of what I crave,” she mentioned.

Le Bon could be eloquent with regards to house. In her music, although, she confronts the theme by way of abstraction, which permits her to transcend the private and deepen her reflections. Le Bon believes that absurdity and surrealism can “ignite and seize folks in surprising methods,” producing artwork that’s extra profound than when “every part is literal and spelled out.” “There’s a gravitas or weight that may’t be defined,” she mentioned. “And there must be an actual emotion and sincerity behind it; in any other case it’s simply nonsense.” Nonsense had its place, she added—but it surely wasn’t what she was striving for. Within the attractive “House to You,” from her 2019 album, “Reward,” Le Bon opens with these peculiar strains:

House to you

Is a neighborhood within the night time kitchen

House to you

Is atrocity within the city

House to you

Is an deadlock underneath hallway ceilings

The lyrics made her good friend and frequent collaborator Phil Collins—not the musician, an experimental filmmaker—take into consideration displaced folks. Particularly, he was reminded of a Roma neighborhood he’d bought to know whereas engaged on a undertaking in Košice, Slovakia.

“Cate and I spoke concerning the lyrics, what they meant to every of us,” Collins informed me. “And it appeared apparent {that a} music crafted as a fragile but forceful evocation of craving, absence, and loss” also needs to “honor these topic to discrimination.” Once I requested Le Bon whether or not that interpretation had resonated along with her, she mentioned, “After all.” She and Collins have a snug, improvisational model—she as soon as in contrast it to creating “a coat that we will each put on.” Collins created a video for “House to You,” a doc of every day life in and across the housing undertaking the place a lot of the Roma neighborhood in Košice dwell. It’s a exceptional piece—“the music video as a social-realist portrait,” as Collins put it—that escapes objectification partly by giving Le Bon’s music over, at first and the tip, to an area Roma orchestra and choir. Throughout what Collins described as “a joyous, hour-long psychedelic jam,” they made it their very own.

I requested Le Bon whether or not it had been an emotional expertise listening to her music carried out that method. “God, sure,” she mentioned. “It made me cry.” In Le Bon’s music, house is typically distant, however it’s by no means unreachable.

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