After scoring high with critics on her solo debut Me Oh My in 2009, Cate Le Bon made a welcome return earlier this year with album CYRK and even more recently CYRK II, out 20 August through fellow Welsh compatriot and collaborator Gruff Rhys’ label, Ovni.
Inspired by her experiences from a trip she took to the Isle of Eigg, we caught up with Le Bon as she recounted her time by the sea through a mix of eccentric piano melodies and layers of guitar fuzz.
“It was just really a fantastic experience of being on this small, wild, beautiful island with incredible people,” Le Bon says. “And as opposed to making you feel like there was nowhere to go, it kind of ignited this weird sense of freedom in everyone that was on the island. And it was something that I hadn’t experience since I was a child, kind of exploring, and it being enough to go out to the woods and explore. It was nice to feel excited in that way again, and it was such an inspiring trip that it kept cropping up in lyrics in one way or another, whether it was blatantly talking about the Isle of Egg or just alluding to the feeling that I had when I was there. So it was just really, really exciting being there in a way that I haven’t felt since I was quite young.”
Reconnecting with her younger self, she admits that none of the songs written for CYRK were done on that trip and instead, the inspiration was recaptured through memories. “I don’t think I would have been able to put pen to paper,” she reveals. “I was so much consumed by everyone. It was on my mind afterwards. So when I was writing songs, it was still very present in my thoughts. And I did initially want to go there to record the record. But logistically with musicians coming and going, it was just too far away and too remote for the time scale that we had.”
So when she finally got down to putting lyrics to paper, she didn’t try to recreate herself as a songwriter. Instead she went with her gut – dark lyrics amidst the fluffy lightness of the melodies. This doesn’t mean that Le Bon is tapping into a dreary place, and she admits to sometimes feeling as though her lyrics are interpreted to be something completely different from what her writing initially intended. “Sometimes the lyrics are misconstrued when there is the dark to juxtapose and illuminate the happy things in the song,” she explains. “I think it’s just the style of my writing. It’s just the style I tend to lean towards naturally.”
Inspired by the sea, one would think that the album’s title would reflect that. However, she had other things in mind when thinking of what to call her sophomore effort. “The title came after I finished recording, and there was this period of not knowing what was going to happen with the record,” she expresses. “It happens with records and the excitement of recording it, there’s a harsh other side to the record industry. At the time I was getting these posters from Poland, a Polish art movement in the 1950s. These artists were commissioned to make these really vibrant, beautiful, psychedelic posters that were simply to advertise the entity that is the circus, not a specific one. It was purely about advertising how much the fun the circus was. And I thought it was a really good idea, and it fell into how I was feeling about music at the time. And it kind of made me realise, ‘well, you should just do it for the joy of it, and that should be enough’. It reminded me of that so CYRK is a homage to that.”
Letting her lyrical muses lead her, Le Bon believes that her approach to CYRK was similar to how she went about Me Oh My. One difference was that she was quite pleased about was the variety of instruments and equipment that were available to her during the recording of the second album. “When I was writing the songs for Me Oh My, it was just guitar and piano and using what instruments could help me write and perform a song,” she says. “And after recording that album with quite reserved instrumentation, I toured with a band of incredible musicians that allowed me to be more confident as a live musician and as a touring musician. And then it just developed into being able to facilitate wilder, more ambitious instrumentation on the next record, which is where I wanted to go. I think it went there quite naturally, so I think the approach was quite similar, but the execution was different.”
Le Bon made sure she was involved in every aspect of creating CYRK and even tackled instruments that she would hardly say she was an expert in like the drums, which would become one of her favourite moments of the recording process. “My favourite day was when we did percussion for the day,” she explains. “Me and my friend Steve did the percussion, and neither one of us was a percussionist. But we had access to all this professional equipment. There were a lot of nice and maybe off kilter additions on the record, which I like because it reminds me of that day and we had a lot of fun doing it. It may not be correct, which would wind up any percussionist that would listen to it and would probably drive them insane.”
Her attention to detail and perhaps even stubbornness to get everything done exactly to her liking made for an interesting experience, especially while recording ‘Falcon Eyed.’ “ Sion Glyn created this incredible guitar riff, but we had forgotten to record it,” she states. “But it was so incredible that we’d definitely remember it. And it was happening late at night, and we were up in north Wales and we were tired and frazzled from recording that maybe it hadn’t been as incredible as I remembered. But I wanted to replicate what I thought it sound like in my mind, which it turned out, was absolutely impossible. And we tried and tried and tried for hours and then decided that maybe it was just best to leave it as was and allow the kind of weird instruments to be the crescendo of the song.”
Her meticulousness on CYRK continued when she enlisted the help for Rhys to finalise the album’s track listing, which included 15 songs. “I was blinded and determined to get them all in, but that would have resulted in a two-hour record,” she explains. “Then he came up with the track listing as it was, and he spent a lot of time and I’m eternally grateful for what it is.”
Aside from working on and releasing CYRK, Le Bon had the opportunity of supporting St. Vincent on tour in the US at the tail end of last year, which she found to be a great learning experience. “She was extremely kind and very welcoming and had me singing back up vocals for her every night throughout half the tour,” she says. “She took me to New York with her and has been really supportive and generous. It was incredible to watch her play every night – to kind of soak in her musicianship and how dedicated she is towards her craft. It was a real eye-opener being in the midst of such professionalism from her and her band members.”
With CYRK completed and released to the world, what does Le Bon plan to do next? Get back in the studio. Le Bon has been working with Yoke on a “synthy” collaboration, which she hopes will release when both parties aren’t so busy, and also recently announced that there will be follow-up to CYRK, naturally called CYRK II, due to be released on 20 August. Will it live up to the standard set by big sister album CYRK? We’ll soon find out.
CYRK II is released through Ovni on 20 August.