The Artist in Residence
A true artist never stops evolving. Cate Le Bon - singer, songwriter, guitar heroine, producer and collaborator extraordinaire - can now add the talent of furniture maker to her CV, a skill she somehow managed to incorporate into Reward, her fifth and most intimate record to date.
Le Bon has always taken the road less travelled, but after her fourth record Crab Day she decided to literally step off the beaten track and enrolled as a full-time student at a furniture school in The Lake District. It was a period she describes with a line that could have come from one of her songs: “It was a strange and wonderful year and a half.”
When we meet in London, I put my notebook on the table and she jokingly asks “How many passes do I have?” As it turns out we don’t need any, It's third time we've spoken; firstly with Tim Presley about their 2015 collaboration DRINKS, and then a year later, when she returned to her solo work with Crab Day. A conversation with Le Bon can move from candid to abstract in the space of a sentence. As a writer she doesn’t spell out her songs’ inherent meanings but Reward, like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, is the work of an artist putting their cards on the table.
“It turned out the way it did because of the nature of the songs I’d written, which were far more piano-based," she tells me. "They were a lot more considered and crafted.” Not for the last time in our conversation, her point of reference for Reward mirrors the craft she learned making furniture: "Patience, precision and the time to let things ruminate. And to think.”
The clues of what was to come with Reward could be seen at her show in London earlier this year, where rather than playing a guitar, she sat behind a Steinway, accompanied by her long-time collaborator and friend Steve Black - better known as Sweet Baboo - on brass and woodwind. “I was insanely nervous. It’s nice to come back and dip your toes, but the piano is unforgiving. It’s good to scare yourself sometimes, but I took Steve with me and he’s a wonder.”
I joke that the big question of our conversation is why the version of Paul McCartney’s “Waterfalls” - one of many highlights that night - didn’t make the cut on Reward? Le Bon bursts into laughter: “I love how unbelievably beautiful that song is, but it’s a totally naff song as well. It was never going to be on the record.” I tell her I’m sure the ex-Beatle will be gutted, and she bats back with “I’m sure he’s devastated! It was his big moment to make it.”
Perhaps McCartney, no stranger to collaboration himself, has missed a trick. Le Bon has worked with artists as illustrious as they are diverse - including Perfume Genius, Gruff Rhys, The Chemical Brothers and John Grant - as well the players who’ve provided her with an incredible backing band on Crab Day and Reward in Black, Huw Evans - aka H.Hawkline - and Warpaint’s phenomenal drummer Stella Mozgawa. Her list of collaborators increased this year, when Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox asked her to produce Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
I talked to Cox and Mozgawa to find out more about Le Bon's creative process and the first question was 'What makes Cate such a unique artist?' Cox’s response is unequivocal: “She has a certain quality that I don’t see in any of my other peers. It’s something I recognise from the classic records that I love, made in a time when people where not formulaic in their approach to making records. There was a respect for certain creative and folk traditions in music, but also a willingness to deconstruct those traditions and push them to their limits.”
“I wouldn’t say she actively runs from convention, but she fearlessly pursues what she hears in her head," Mozgawa tells me. "You can’t fake ‘weird’, you know? She’s perfectly synthesised all of her avant-garde inspirations into something that sounds unmistakably new. Cate is so skilled at walking an abstract path to the truth and it’s a deep pleasure to walk it with her - as a listener and as a collaborator.”
The path to Reward hasn’t been a straight one by any means, but the creative in Le Bon saw the chance to study furniture making at the Waters and Acland school in Staveley as an opportunity to broaden her artistic horizons. “It was to learn another discipline and I think that becomes invaluable to any other creative outlet you have," she explains. "You’re always waiting for someone to give you permission, and then you realise you have to give yourself the pass to go and do something like that. It was scary, because I’d been in a cycle of recording, touring and writing, but sometimes it’s good to get off the train, check that your priorities are right and that you’re doing everything for the right reason.”
Instead of a routine built around music, life as a student was an intense learning curve, with lessons starting at 8am and finishing in the early evening. “It was almost completely opposite to music. It was very tangible, tactile and really grounding - in a lovely way - but there were lots of moments of disassociation and ‘Is this really my life?’ It was as though I’d been implanted there. Looking back now, it seems like a bit of a dream.”
Le Bon uprooted herself from L.A., where she’d lived for four years, rented a cottage in Staveley and made a dear friend in her landlord. “He must be around 70 and he became my buddy. We’d go out for beers; it was one of those friendships you’d never usually find and I still phone him, he’s a wonderful man.” Adapting to a new environment took some getting used to however: “There were a few bumps to begin with, because I’d managed to change the whole architecture of my life. It was self-imposed alienation, which can be good, but all of a sudden, I’m living in the Lakes. Whilst you have these romantic ideas of moving to the country, living by yourself and going to furniture school, you’re only really concentrating on the montage of the good bits. You forget that it’s going to be psychologically strange when you find yourself in a life that you barely recognise.”
To help her acclimatise, as she picked up new creative tools at the school, she didn’t lay down her musical ones, and started writing songs on the piano in the evenings. “It felt like the right place to have a piano. There’s something quite indulgent and dramatic about sitting in your shed and singing into the night. It was singing for company, enjoying singing and the theatre of singing, even if it’s just to yourself.”
It was a case of writing and singing for pleasure, rather than planning her next musical steps. “It was never with the projection of ‘This is going to be my album’, it was always for the joy of writing. Sometimes it was cathartic, sometimes it was just fun, but it was always letting those things be what they were, without trying to impose a grand plan on them.”
She found herself recording songs and having “absolutely no memory of them at all. I’d find them on my phone six months later and be ‘OK, that’s quite weird, but that’s me so I can rip that song off, because I’m pretty sure it’s one of mine.’ Her friend, Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer sent her an eight-track recorder and Reward started to take shape. “I had this idea I’d record them all myself in a bubble, but if I sat down with the idea of recording something, it would just interrupt and deviate me from the enjoyment of just sitting and singing.” Rather than a writing schedule, her routine was built around coming home from school, going for a run and then sitting down to play piano. “And watch Coronation Street sometimes! I had very limited Wi-Fi, but in a wonderful way. It would often disappear and that was a blessing in disguise, because I could actually do something, even if it was homework.”
After the course finished, Le Bon returned to Staveley to build a chair, a passing out ceremony of sorts. “It looks like the record sounds, and then I made the record.” I tell her it’d be remiss not to ask about how a chair can look like a record sounds, and Le Bon explains “It’s such a precise process, and it’s amazing how quickly your eye becomes trained, where a millimetre becomes a canyon. To remove yourself from what is a very much day-to-day life was really nourishing, grounding and fulfilling. I knew it wasn’t going to last forever, so I wanted to try and stretch time as much I could. I can’t even begin to tell you the skills that I’ve learnt. For the first time in my life I’m useful, I can use tools, build stuff and I can problem solve.”
Her love of furniture making may have to take a back seat as she gears up to tour Reward: “I’m trying to tidy up my life a little bit and then I’ll figure out what that will be”, she says - but she’s returning to Marfa, Texas - where she produced the Deerhunter record - to build a chair: “I asked if I could do something furniture based and they said yes.” Marfa has featured heavily in cinema, most famously Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but was put on the artistic map by Donald Judd, the artist, sculptor and furniture maker who like Le Bon, moved from a bustling metropolis - in his case New York - to a place that fired his creativity. “I’m a huge fan of his," says Le Bon. "As an artistic destination, Donald Judd underlined Marfa. It’s nice to just dedicate time, there’s two weeks dedicated to building a piece of furniture and I’m really looking forward to it.”
The word ‘dedicated’ brings us back to Reward. It’s an incredible record that doesn’t shy away from melancholy: “I spent a lot of my time on my own, going deep inside of my soul, but that’s fine. If it’s real, I think it’s OK.”
"There are artists that you turn to, to reinforce one specific feeling but Cate doesn’t have that kind of mono-emotional quality - her records are filled with all aspects of being" - Bradford Cox
Cox feels that Reward “changes according to the mindset of the listener and this is the most difficult type of work you can do as an artist. If you listen to it in a state of melancholy it reinforces those melancholy elements present, if you listen to it driving around in the sunlight it seems to amplify the weather and landscape” he explains. “It is a singular work of a singular artist, yet it can speak to anyone on the level they are at when they approach it, it has an incredibly broad spectrum. There are artists that you turn to, to reinforce one specific feeling [but] Cate doesn’t have that kind of mono-emotional quality - her records are filled with all aspects of being.”
Reward required a new methodology to create such aspects of being. In comparison with Crab Day, where Evans, Black, Mozgawa and Le Bon played together live, Reward was recorded piecemeal, where the lessons she learnt in Staveley came into play. “Being able to problem-solve was invaluable when it came to taking these songs into the studio. I wanted to flip how I usually approach the process of making a record and apply it to the designing and making a chair, to try and make the chair look like the record felt to me.” She pauses and adds “that probably make no sense and if you saw the chair you’d say ‘It doesn’t make any sense’ but to me it does. It felt like a full process circle.”
The recording was a process of, “opening the door in increments. It was Steve on bass first, then Stella on drums and I’d intermittently put down parts that were occurring to me whilst I was listening to them playing.” It also meant Le Bon has to take on a directorial, but not a dictatorial, role. “That was important to me, because the songs were born from a different place. It was a bit more precious than I’ve been before.”
Mozgawa describes Reward as having a “compelling minimalist approach with maximalist ideas. Lyrically, it’s more direct, but still very characteristic, like recounting a dream. 'Meet the Man' is the most heart-achingly powerful song Cate has ever written, it’s unnervingly confident. Cate really stepped out of her comfort zone in constructing these songs, you can hear the reverence for the 'song” - it’s truly beautiful.”
Reward has less of a live band feel to the playing, but to Mozgawa’s point, it continues the theme of playing music, regardless of the method? “That seems to be what I’m searching for. It’s not necessarily the location. Sometimes you want to be somewhere you can shut out the exterior influences and be able to create in a vacuum, where there’s no eye on something that might mean you deviate and not do something authentic. I think all you can strive for now is authenticity. It’s something I think that’s really valuable - if you can just try and find the right way to allow yourself to do that.”
Reward was built on the piano, but embraces Le Bon’s creative curiosity, where the instruments and voice dovetail to give each song what they need. “The piano has been completely omitted on some of the songs, but there’s an absence, where you know it’s been written on the piano and where it was, even if the piano has been taken away.” Her love of the piano has prompted mixed feelings about whether she wants to write another guitar record. “A year before I even started thinking about putting Reward together, it was very much on my terms and purely for my own enjoyment and creative outlet, without thinking ‘People are going to expect a guitar or are going to be disappointed if I don’t play a solo.’ That stuff is so ridiculous isn’t it?”
The reality was that Le Bon played more guitar on Reward than on her other records, but this time the playing was more intricate, and took a supporting role rather than the burst of guitars of songs like “Duke” from Mug Museum or “What’s Not Mine” from Crab Day. She tried to incorporate “the angular guitar parts, but it just didn’t fly with these songs, because of the way they were written It felt opposing. It was the more laboured over, crafted and properly sat down and composed guitar parts that actually worked” she explains. “That’s what you roll with - whatever serves the song. The angular guitars are still on there, you just can’t hear them. By the next record I might be dying to play the guitar maybe, who knows? But it would be wrong to make a guitar record just because I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Le Bon has spoken about going to the wire when it comes to writing lyrics, but there was another change in her approach to Reward, namely retaining a sense of spontaneity but mixing it with the precision and planning she learned in Staveley. “I look at it in terms of the landscape of the language and narrative of the songs. That was all down, but there was still some last minute, off the cuff stuff, that I’m a big a fan of and I’ve learnt to embrace. It’s a good mixture of the two, but for the first time it was not shying away from being more direct at times and singing “I love you” in a song as opposed to…” A lyric like ‘Love is Not Love”?
“Exactly, where I was trying to make it more ambiguous than it necessarily needed to be sometimes.” I mention that Reward’s penultimate song is called “You Don’t Love Me” and Le Bon replies: “and it's direct, there you have it.”
"Cate’s favourite maxim was 'Play like a drunk three-year-old!'" - Stella Mozgawa
It’s an interesting thing with collaboration and writing such open songs, I say, where the players have to be bonded by an innate trust. “It’s funny with collaboration," Le Bon replies. "When you’re playing with a band it’s a collaboration, even though technically they’re your backing band, there’s still give and take from both sides.”
Mozgawa explains were friends before they’d played together, but her experience of playing on Crab Day, “truly reshaped my idea of the requisite demands of a drummer. Cate’s favourite maxim was 'Play like a drunk three-year-old!' Not the usual request and it took me a moment to reconfigure, but it opened up a new vocabulary. Creativity was king and falling down the proverbial stairs was not a concern as long as the result was captivating. Listening back, it was clear she saw it all in her mind’s eye, retaining her vision for this concept album throughout. She’s warm, focused, inspired and inspiring.”
There’s lots of artists she likes the idea of working with, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it would be a fruitful collaboration. “It takes a certain magic to truly collaborate and that’s why finding Tim was wonderful, there’s no push and pull and no compromise.” She compares their work as DRINKS as “like holding hands and running through the forest - ‘Look at this!’ ‘Let’s try this!’, which to me is how it should be. I’m sure there are collaborations that come from graft, arguments and friction that have produced amazing rewards, but the process is so important to me. I really want to enjoy it.”
Her work with Mozgawa, Hawkline, Black and Klinghoffer is built on trust in their respective abilities and what they all bring to the songs as collective. “We all understand and love each other. It’s a loving group of musicians, so it’s always going to be collaborative, because that’s the base of it. Initially Huw wasn’t going to be on the record and that made me feel really sad, He’s been such a big part of everything and I was missing his presence, but I took it to Cardiff and did some stuff with him. It was building it and figuring out what it needed.” As with a master craftsman, looking at their work in progress, she realised something was missing. “There was a point when Josiah (Steinbrick, co-producer of Mug Museum, Crab Day and Reward) and I both came to the same conclusion. We needed Josh to do some stuff on it.”
Le Bon marvels at Klinghoffer’s skill as a rhythm guitarist. “He’s got the whole Talking Heads-y stuff down and that was a really huge contribution to the record; no one else could have done that, he’s an absolute joy to play music with.” Like her work with Presley in DRINKS, Le Bon and Klinghoffer would just sit and play guitar together and in the process they produced, “one of my all-time favourite musical moments that happened in a studio.”
Klinghoffer started playing the opening chords to Crowded House’s “Don't Dream It's Over” and she found herself torn about joining in. “I was kind of laughing and then thought ‘Oh, fuck. I’m a huge Crowded House fan, he’s going to think I’m so uncool if start singing, but I just looked at him and sang ‘There is freedom within’ and he sang ‘There is freedom without.’ We sat and sang it at each other, it was pure joy. And then we got on with work, because not everyone loves Crowded House.”
Le Bon has her own fans too. When I spoke to John Grant last year he got his phone out and all of her albums were on there. She recalls the time Grant asked her to sing “Torn Between Two Lovers” with him at The Royal Albert Hall, when she took her mother along and asked her, “I wonder who else he’s singing with?” Grant’s other co-vocalist turned out to be Kylie Minogue. “It was really funny, he said 'Please welcome Cate Le Bon' and everyone was ‘Huh?’. Later he said, 'Please welcome Kylie Minogue' and everyone was ‘Oh my God!’
"It was lovely singing with him, he’s intense when he’s singing, he looks right into your soul, but it’s exciting. He’s a wonderful man.”
Another wonderful man she can’t speak highly enough about is Cox. They struck up a friendship when he heard Mug Museum and named it his album of the year. “He’d phone out of the blue and we’d have four or five-hour conversations where it was impossible to keep up, but it was incredible,” she tells me.
They never managed to work together until Cox called her last year with an idea of recoding in the same way that Faust and Slapp Happy did in the '70s, where albums where recorded in the same session: “The idea of was where things would kind of spill into each other.” Initially the plan was that Le Bon would produce Deerhunter’s album and work on her record at the same time “with the sleep in your eyes of the previous session, which was an incredible idea. It was amazing really, that on this album that means so much, it’s their big comeback, he would ask me to be the producer.” Her response to the offer was “Alright then! Let’s give it a go!”
"Production is about facilitating what the band need to make the thing they really want to make and can stand by; it’s not about me, it should never be about the producer" - Cate Le Bon
Finding herself in the producer’s chair for the Deerhunter record, she says her working method remained the same, where the objective was to help the band get what they want from the songs, rather imposing a sound, as is many producers wont: “It’s about facilitating what the band need to make the thing they really want to make and can stand by. It’s not about me, it should never be about the producer. It should be about helping the band to sound like their most authentic.”
Instead of the strict drills some producers are renowned for, Le Bon’s routine as a producer changes day to day. “Especially with Bradford, on different days he wants something different and some days he doesn’t necessarily really want or need anything from you. It was taxing, of course it was - you’re making an album with a band who are all amazing people and musicians - it should be hard work. When a band have been away for so long, the pressures on a little bit, but amongst the chaos there were moments of absolute pure joy. I learned so much from it.”
Cox explains he expected great things from her as a producer but “got better than I could have ever wished for. On every level, from performance to technical things like equalisation or panning, she has an incredible instinct.” Most importantly for Cox, working with Le Bon encouraged them to follow their instinct. “Cate challenged me on every level to do what was right for the song, not what would take the least time, or seem most familiar on first listen. She’s not very interested in repeating things from the past, unless you are revealing some new detail of your own. Usually with producers you say things like “Let’s get a Conny Plank drum sound”, you end up talking in these references. Cate wants to push things forward and not look back, which is exceptional.”
Le Bon was asked to contribute articles about the record and the joy with which she speaks about her time in Marfa notably dissipates: “They sent me questions they’d probably never send to a male producer and always led with the same question - ‘Is Bradford difficult to work with?’” It made me really mad, because it’s such a small slither of the cake. He’s just uncompromising and it just goes to show how rare that is. It’s easier to just go, ‘He’s difficult’, than it is to engage with it” she explains.
“The most wonderful thing about Bradford is whilst he’s willing to call bullshit on bullshit, he’ll also go to the ends of the earth to fight for something he believes in. He’s all about artistry and creativity, he supports you and would do anything he could for you.”
A case in point happened when the press release for Reward looked like it might be delayed, and she asked Cox if he had time to write it. Within ten minutes Cox produced a press release that’s so engagingly written, if he ever tires of Deerhunter, a career in PR is a shoo-in. After the opening section, where he nails a review of Reward in one line with “This is visual music and decoration and craftsmanship are integral to its structure”, he adds a rather amazing glossary.
“AN INDEX OF SOME CONTENTS:
I_PLASTIC BASS (geometric and stable, providing foundation without loss of variation)
II_CERAMIC GUITARS (notably somewhat de-emphasized, pushed to the left or right channel sometimes virtually out of frame)
III_CELLOPHANE PERCUSSION (electronic and acoustic, central and flat)
IV_ VOICE LIQUID BRASS
V_ AIR (SPACE AROUND INSTRUMENTS) sometimes aquatic, sometimes ozone and attic.”
I tell Le Bon that the ‘ceramic guitars’ is particularly excellent. “If someone said ‘angular guitars’ you’d just read on, but when someone says something like that it makes you stop and think. It’s because he means it and that’s what’s amazing about him. Can you imagine Steve, who’s this shy, Welsh musician, and Bradford in the same room? Steve was playing bass clarinet and Bradford was directing him and saying “Yes! Yes! It sounds like liquid cheese oozing from the moon!” Cox’s pièce de résistance comes with his last line, ‘ABSTRACT: CLB is not classifiable in the current circuit. Pray for her.’ Le Bon smiles at her friends’ wit. “‘Pray for her,’ I love it, it made me laugh so much when I read that.”
As well as offering his services as a go-to PR, he also sends Le Bon pictures of chairs that he likes: “He finds the most beautiful chairs and then he sends an email saying ‘Don’t think that I’m just looking at chairs to send them to you, I’m actually looking for different types of font. For some reason people who are obsessed with font are also obsessed with chairs, so I just keep coming across them.’ He’s the most extraordinary person, he’s a gift. You could sit with him for an hour and it’s just amazing, in ways that I couldn’t fully describe.”
They also found time to write songs together, due for release later this year, that she says, “sound very much like a weeks’ collaboration.” Le Bon went to visit Cox in Atlanta before Christmas to tie up some musical loose ends and they went to see The Man Who Fell To Earth, which “I’d seen bits of it, but never in its entirety and I loved it. It’s a bit of his (Bowie’s) soul isn’t it? It’s this exploration of alienation and very Vonnegut as well - it’s not really a sci-fi film at all.” When I point out that the idea of solitude links to Reward's themes, Le Bon laughs and says “Yes.”
As we wrap up, Le Bon asks “Would you like to see a photo of my chair?” She scrolls through her phone and shows me her creation, and I tell her that looking at it makes me feel guilty about buying IKEA furniture. “You should! I could make you four of those, but I’d need some time off, so give me… three months? I used to scoff at the price of furniture, but when you know how many hours are put into it, you’re like ‘Of course it’s that much money.’”
Looking the chair, and how it combines simplicity with ornateness I recall the comparison she makes earlier in our conversation. I tell her that yes, it looks exactly like how Reward sounds. Le Bon deadpans “Thank you, I was hoping you’d say that. It took me two weeks to make.
"It has to be really simple and sometimes it’s harder when you make something really minimal; it has to be perfect.”