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Interview: Cate Le Bon Talks Creativity, Language and Furniture

Interview: Cate Le Bon Talks Creativity, Language and Furniture

Interview by Matthew Plunkett / Tuesday 12th February, 2019 4:02PM

Matthew Plunkett of Oamaru's The Trendees spoke with Cate Le Bon in anticipation of her nationwide tour of Aotearoa kicking off next week, for more info and tickets head along here.

To say Welsh musician Cate Le Bon has been busy these last few years feels like an understatement. Soon she will release her fifth album after spending time last year producing a collection for Deerhunter, playing shows with her other band Drinks and also finishing off a furniture making course. She can play multiple instruments, has worked with the Manic Street Preachers, Perfume GeniusGruff Rhys and hand made 100 pottery mugs for the release of her third album Mug Museum.

Starting in 2009 she has made four increasingly inspired records. Cate Le Bon’s songs have the knack of being inventive and unpredictable but also addictively memorable. Her music is usually adorned with sweet, wonky and occasionally fried guitar – often there is piano or keyboard and now and then background horns or marimba. The lyrics spin with a combination of startling surreal imagery and more personal allusions which might sound ambiguous but never feel meaningless.

The last two records are especially compelling. Both are a little bit psychedelic, off kilter and pulse with bursts of beautiful harmony – like Nico fronting The Kinks. Crab Day is a spiky, sharp and occasionally alien sounding record whereas Mug Museum is more grounded but equally strong front to back. At the start of 2017 an EP called Rock Pool was released on Drag City, including a volcanic video for the lead track all smudged pink and dazed with some sort of weird medieval haze. The upcoming record will more than likely be sublime.

I was nervous before talking to Cate. This was my very first interview. The publicist said I only had 15 minutes. Surely my questions were all lame. What is a Skype? Should I drink tea or lemonade? Is my voice going to sound like normal human? Would I make it back to swimming sports on time afterwards? I got through to Cate sitting on a brown couch. We talked for 23 minutes. I drank strong chamomile and swimming sports was sweltering.

Hi Cate. Are you in Los Angeles at the moment or in Europe somewhere?

I’m in Wales actually. It's raining and it's cold so I’m looking forward to some summertime.

Well I can't give any guarantees – our weather here can be just as it bad as it sounds there now. I’ve heard you say that home is like an abstract concept for you, is that still how you feel?

I guess so. I had a year and a half living in the Lake District whilst I was attending a furniture school and that was really lovely, taking time off travelling so much and having a really lovely routine. It always felt kind temporary and was far away from everyone and was pretty much there on my own, so it was a very strange version of home for a while.

The furniture school, is that an 8 hours a day five days a week full on type of furniture school – what exactly was that?

It was pretty intense really. Eight until six most days, just working as much as you can to get projects built in the year.

I guess that the people that you were hanging out with are not necessarily music type people, or were they aware that you have this other thing that you do?

Some of them did but most people don’t care which is really nice. I suppose it was strange when you’re doing something creative and you are travelling and you constantly surround yourself with like minded people its really interesting to all of a sudden be thrown into a pool of people from all walks of life... the election was going on the first month I was there. I guess it was one of the first times in a long time since I was doing temp work as a teenager where you all of a sudden have this spectrum of different political opinions. It was pretty interesting really.

I’d imagine that could be quite nourishing and reenergising in terms of your creative process?

It is - it's also really shocking sometimes when you hear someone who you’ve been mostly talking furniture to come out with some Tory rhetoric. It's like Jesus Christ – I really like you, but it's also indicative of the times we are living in and tolerance and what not you know?


I guess we should talk about the tour a little bit. It was initially described as a piano / synths and sampler thing when it was first announced in the media – I just saw a video of a recent show in London looks like two or three weeks ago and it appears that you have a clarinet or a sax in behind you?

Yes. So it's not going to be that. Its going to be somebody else joining me who's going to be playing synth and stuff.

Cool. I love your guitar playing too – does this mean that you are sick of playing guitar at the moment?

Just having a little break. It's nice to take a break from things and I guess readdress. You become comfortable playing certain things and its nice to push the boundaries of performance by trying different things and removing the guitar, just singing or adding a piano which is not second nature to me like a guitar is you know. It's just an exploration I suppose of different ways to perform songs.

It kind of seems almost like that's an overall philosophy with the kind of amazing amount of variety that you’ve got in your body of work with your own music, working in other bands, producing other bands, etc.

You shouldn’t really make the same record over and over again and even if you think that's what people want from you. You have to satisfy curiosity and exploration and the like within yourself otherwise I think it can become stale. There's an understanding in doing that that not everybody is going to like everything you do, but I’d rather be nourished and satisfied as a musician than popular. I play for me ha.


It seems like you’re in a really lucky position – you’re really secure in your own practice. I read that there was a song on the last record Crab Day which was maybe one of your friends favourite songs but you were pretty comfortable leaving it off because it didn’t fit (it came out I think on a later EP) so it sounds like your decision making process is sound – like you are pretty clear on what you want and how things go?

At times. It's a rollercoaster sometimes… I try not to be too obtuse for the sake of being obtuse. You got to trust your gut I suppose.


The set up for this tour, does it reflect the new music that you’ve got ready to go, in terms of what's on the new record?

I guess it's versions of songs that are on the new record. They are mostly written on piano. When I was in the Lakes I bought myself a piano which is the first time I’d owned a piano. I suppose because I had pared my life back quite a bit it was like a monumental thing that had happened to me whilst I was living there and it quickly became a companion and company to me sitting and playing music. I think the essence of the songs is all the solitude and the writing on the piano but then when you take them outside of that environment in which they were written they become the width of the songs expands and so you know they will sound different in the studio.

But yea I’ll be playing the songs that were written on the piano – so similar – ‘similarish’ haha.

That sounds intriguing. When you have a new release do you feel excited or do you go through a range of emotions just before its ready to come out?

It's an absolute rollercoaster and likely hell for anyone who’s in my company. Today my album's currently being mastered and I’ve been very happy with the tracklisting right up until the moment where its been committed to... you know written in ink and thats always a moment of "oh my god" have I done the right thing? But the truth is also I couldn’t even tell you the track listing of any of my records, so it feels like a huge deal but I’ll be over it tomorrow morning haha.

I guess you can go through a million different versions but once the decision's been made it becomes what it is, you know?

Exactly yea.


Now your lyrics. They’re amazing. It comes across like you really love playing round with language.

Yes.


They are frequently described as having an absurdist kind of a bent but it also seems to me that they are kind of personal and unafraid of using more universal and earthy kinds of ideas as well – words like the sea / night. So did you write poetry before you wrote lyrics when you were growing up?

It was something that I did a lot of I school. I had an amazing English teacher who would really try and push me to write poetry and actually it's something that I have been really compelled to do lately for some reason? But I suppose maybe writing lyrics kinda quashes that need to write poetry maybe. But it can be frustrating and also really fun writing lyrics.

Do you feel like it's quite a different thing – poetry and lyrics – kind of a different vibe you get into or do you just turn a poem into a lyric?

I write lyrics to music so you’re always restricted you know to the meter of the song or what not. But I would like to flip that at some point but its kinda hard to...

Make a lyric fit the song rather than the other way round?

Yea. But maybe writing poems is enough - you don’t have to put them to music. I dunno haha.

Are you the kind of person that picks up an old receipt or an envelope and sort of scrawls stuff out on that, or do you have like a big kind of a book where you put everything all at once.

I carry a notebook round with me, but often... everything kinda comes together during studio time. Again I think it's that idea that it could be anything until you have committed it to tape, or until you’ve tracked it. I really love that wild period of thinking and enjoying the fact that it could be anything, cos often when you have committed something to tape then the excitement dispels a little bit.

It becomes concrete I suppose.

You kind of start thinking about other new things that you could be doing.

Obviously you write, you play music, you do all these things – do you get into other sorts of art forms like longer form writing and visual art and all that kind of stuff?

Writing is something that I love doing but purely for my own pleasure. I like to look at competitions that are going on - like short story competitions or plays or whatever and kind of just use that as a task thats been set for me, you know – never enter them – just it's a nice task to have in hand you know? But often I’ll start and I won’t finish. Drawing was something that I used to do. I don’t really do it anymore. I’m surrounded by exceptional painters and artists and it kind of inhibits you a little bit doesn’t it.

Haha well if you let it.

Yea. I mean I like doing, I did like doing pottery and that's something I’d really like to find the time to do more of. Ideally I just need to settle somewhere and have a studio space where I can do furniture building and pottery and stuff.

And a little bit of music on the side.

Yea.

In your mind is there like a hierarchy of things you like to do? Clearly music is how you’ve come to make your name I mean – seems like you’re pretty good at a lot of things.

Oh I don’t know if I’m necessarily good at a lot of things. I try a lot of things... I give myself permission to do a lot of things. I think what was really nice about taking a year out where furniture became the thing that was occupying most of my time, was that music became the respite from being at school and doing homework. It was really rewarding to readdress that relationship with music where it’d become my bread and butter and I become weary of certain elements of it. So I think it's really important to do lots of different things and not to put the focus on one of them more than the others


Your first EP was in the Welsh language... here in New Zealand we are trying to grow the Māori language and theres always a strong debate about whether it should be compulsory in schools and sometimes it can get a bit fraught and kind of ugly and stuff. How important is the Welsh language to you?

Neither of my parents spoke Welsh, my father was from a Welsh family... his father spoke Welsh and his mother... it was at the time when it was almost the language of the underclass, she didn’t really want it spoken at home. So my Dad sent me and my sisters to the Welsh language school in the village and then to a Welsh secondary school where we were taught through the medium of Welsh. For me personally it's opened up, it's what got me into music really... Being from a country like the United Kingdom, to have to be proud of a culture that is so different to the perspective that I would have had if I hadn’t of gone to the Welsh language school, or had have been born in England. It's an amazing thing to just understand that other cultures and other languages and all these things exist and should be respected and are there for everyone to enjoy and be proud of. Also on a very basic level I don’t know how it could ever be a disadvantage to learn two languages you know?

To have that connection to your country I mean - its a really special thing you know and I’m absolutely so grateful that its something that I have and I own and am proud of.


And I guess once its gone, its gone you know? I mean if people don’t make an effort to keep it alive then you’ve lost it.

Yea, yea.


Is it sort of well established now in Wales, it's just kind of accepted that everyone's going to learn it or is there still a sort of...?

Not everyone you know, there's still the idiots who think that its a useless language cos it be only used in Wales and its such a regressive way of thinking...


I’ve heard that before. Haha.

It's ridiculous. If you live in Wales what's so ridiculous about speaking Welsh? It's a language I use every day and lots of people do, lots of young people do. There's lots amazing Welsh language music, I think its actually Welsh language music day tomorrow? So I think it celebrates you know music thats sung in Welsh and its important.

Yes. Okay. I think I’ve got time for maybe one more question. I noticed on this tour you have done a cover by Stevie R. Moore and also one by Paul McCartney I believe?

Yea!


I was thinking about that I mean – they are kind of in a weird way broadly similar artists but in another way obviously one of them is slightly more popular than the other. And also I read that you listened to a bunch of 7” records before Crab Day as well. Do you kind of I mean – are you into records? Do you have records or do you just kind of listen to music any old way?

Yea. I have records. I love the ceremony of putting a record on but I don’t collect records or I am not anal about records you know.

I am happy to listen to music any way too. Christ theres so much music out there I mean – it's amazing to have access to it through YouTube or whatever, all the obscure stuff. But yea I have a collection ... when I left Los Angeles I gave up a lot of records, but theres a core of about maybe twenty that I wont let go of – that I’ll just carry around with me. That's a lovely thing to be selective.


I guess it's a big part of my life having a wee little library that I can dip into. Must be tricky having to move around, living out of suitcases and what not.

Yea, but it's also really lovely as well in many ways.


Cate Le Bon is performing in Dunedin, Oamaru, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland this month – see below for more info and ticket links.

Links
catelebon.com/

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Tue 19th Feb
Fifty Gorillas, Dunedin
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Wed 20th Feb
Grainstore Gallery, Oamaru
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Thu 21st Feb
Blue Smoke, Christchurch
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Meow, Wellington
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Sat 23rd Feb
Whammy Bar, Auckland





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