Now with a trio of critically acclaimed albums under her belt, Penboyr-born songstress Cate Le Bon, despite her dalliances with the mainstream, remains a cult artist.
In 2008, Le Bon’s first major introduction to the world came via a guest appearance on Neon Neon single ‘I Lust You’, but rather than following it up with a slice of authentic pop as you’d expect, she instead swerved off in a completely different direction, ushering out folksome Welsh language EP ‘Edrych Yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg’ followed by 2009 debut album ‘Me Oh My’ – a record of haunting vocals and psych-folk that drew plenty of comparisons to the work of Nico and Vashti Bunyan.
2013 has been a year that saw her temporarily return to Gruff Rhys’ Neon Neon family for a series of shows, followed by a tour alongside the Manic Street Preachers, not that either experience bothered what’s become her highest water mark yet – her third and best album to date, ‘Mug Museum’, released just last month.
Having gained the description of an “Alien with extraordinary abilities” (that’s what appeared on her US work Visa), Le Bon set to work alongside Noah Georgeson in Los Angeles for her latest record, a man who has worked with both Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsome in the past, and who on this occasion shared the load with neo-psychedelia musician Josiah Steinbrick, best known for his work with White Fence and Adam Green. ‘Mug Museum’ sounds like a cross between Le Bon’s two worlds – her pastoral, naïve home of the Welsh dales, and the dirty, hippy, modern-historic California where she’s currently based. I met her before she presented that new amalgamation to a sold-out Bush Hall for the first time, where Cate Le Bon did all the talking.
Cate Le Bon on… a day at the office
“I’ve reached a point where I’d like to think that I’d be able to train myself to work a standard 9 to 5, or something like that, but I don’t know if it would work; I like to snooze in the afternoon, so you know…
“There’s no routine [in what I do], which is sometimes wonderful and sometimes when you are your own master there are down moments. I struggle; I feel guilty if I’m idle. It’s about taking time to have a break when you need to and also finding a balance between that and pushing yourself to get things done.”
“I think it’s a tricky one, because people are so keen to pigeonhole everybody these days or attach them to as many of the bands that they have similarities too, so sometimes that can kind of muddle your identity. The only thing that is important to me is making music that comes from an honest place and that doesn’t come from trying to conform to any of these labels or whatever, you know – not letting that stuff influence anything that I do.
“I think you start to hone your craft a bit better [after a couple of albums]; you start to understand how you work best and also how to balance it out, whilst still enjoying what you are doing; not making it arduous for yourself and turning the thing you love into the thing you dread – it’s the balance between doing that and creating something that is good.”
… Los Angeles
“I think I’ve had this romantic notion of making a record in Los Angeles ever since I started going there with Neon Neon to rehearse. There was an excitement about the place that seemed conducive to making music. Last year when I was touring the States, we played a show with White Fence and their bassist at the time was Josiah [Steinbrick]. I was talking to him about going to America to make this record and he said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ He was the bridge between me and Noah [Georgeson] and I asked Nick Murray from White Fence to play drums, as he is one of the best drummers I’ve seen. It all kind of fell together quite organically.
“I think the perfect thing about LA for me is that it’s not just a metropolis full of concrete – it sits either side of so much extraordinary nature. It’s a really special place and it has probably kind of seeped into the record somehow; I think it’s going to be one of those things that I see retrospectively in maybe five or ten years.
“I guess the purposefulness when you go somewhere is that it becomes all about the record and making the record – it’s all about that rather than slotting it into everyday life. But it is still the same sort of process – staying up until 7am to write lyrics the night before going into the studio, and all the stupid things I do. I think I approached the instrumentation differently and spent more time thinking about the form of the songs and the dynamics and everything else. I think when you travel somewhere to make a record, you are there for that sole purpose, so you end up completely devoting your entire time to that thing, without distractions.”
… the Welsh music scene
“I get asked about the music scene in Wales quite a lot and it’s something that I’ve also thought about a lot. My take on it is that people of my generation, people of my age would have been exposed to bands like the Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and the Super Furry Animals at a much earlier age than maybe they normally would have done, because the whole Brit-pop scene was going on. We had these two incredible and beautifully bonkers bands who were just ploughing their own path and who were on the edge of the Brit-pop explosion but were also doing something that was completely different. I think when you have bands that you can look to like that, bands who are really inspiring but who are also politely disregarding any sort of scene, they’re just being themselves and I think that is probably the biggest influence. When you look at all the bands currently emerging from Wales, there’s so much brilliantly weird music, I think it’s just that thing about it being alright to make the music that you actually want to make. They’re cool, so it’s fine.”
… making mugs for fans
“Pottery was something that I had always really wanted to do. After I had made the record in Los Angeles and we had also moved there, we’d moved apartment, were trying to buy a car and I was trying to mix the record. Everything kind of got a little on top of me, so I just wanted to go and have a hobby that was nothing to do with music, something that was completely separate. This little pottery studio had just opened in our neighbourhood so I signed up for the course with the view that if I could make something that resembled a mug, then I would tell the record company that I wanted to make 100 mugs for special pre-release orders of the album. So I just went in there for hours and hours every day, just practising and it was such a wonderful time to be doing something like that and to be listening to music without thinking about the other side of things; it was great, I just set to it and got them all done.
“I made the hundred in the end, but there was plenty more that just didn’t make the cut. The ones at the beginning were a bit fucked and then I started to improve. The middle ones were really good, then I got a bit bored and the last ten were shocking.”
… singing in Welsh
“It’s my first language, I suppose in many ways, but for me it’s slightly harder to compose in Welsh and style isn’t something that translates from language to language. I would love to and fully intend to [sing in Welsh more regularly], it’s just that I tend to leave writing lyrics to the night before entering the studio, so time is always very limited. I technically learnt Welsh when I was four years old and it’s such a complex and difficult language. I still get quite shy about the standard of my Welsh speaking – I worry that it’s not good enough, so that also kind of makes me revert to singing in English, I suppose.”
… Gruff Rhys, the mentor
“The Neon Neon stuff was an incredible learning curve and experience. I view it as a different category in my head; it is something completely different. It is something that I am so lucky to have been a part of, playing a Keytar in an Eighties type band was good fun. Gruff – I can’t speak more highly of him as a person who can guide you through. Both Neon Neon and taking me on tour to support him, he’s such a great person to have be your sort of portal into this world that can be a bit fucked up at times. It’s important to get that from the get-go – that it’s just music and you should enjoy it and be generous with it; it’s not something to be overly precious about. He’s extraordinarily kind and extraordinary musically, and he leads by example rather than preaching. He’ll never tell people what to do or how not to be.”
… the road
“I think it’s imperative that you have great musicians around you, but also really great people and I’ve always been really lucky with that. I think people go through tour highs and tour lows at different times. After soundcheck and before the doors open is always the most surreal part of it – the moment when I start to become really nervous is always around that point. The only moment that I relax is when I know a set list has been written and then I can chill out.”
… knowing your place in life
“It’s not a theme as such, and ‘Mug Museum’ is not about bereavement and it’s not morbid, but the death of my grandmother was the trigger to me going, ‘Oh my god, everything’s shifted up one now’, and I really felt it, I really felt like there was a shift and it made me think about my relationships with my family members and to try and resolve my responsibility within these relationships, etc. I suppose when you start thinking about family relationships, other ones will also fall into the mix. It’s an album where each song kind of deals with a different relationship, I suppose.
“It was the first time I ever came close to feeling like there’s a real purpose in life, a real place that was comfortable.”