Cate Le Bon has been a successful and acclaimed artist for a decade now, racking up four studio albums of diverse and idiosyncratic songwriting as well as a number of side projects and collaborations. There comes the point though for any musician when they need to step off the treadmill and reflect, re-evaluate and refresh. For Cate, this period of tranquillity away from the daily grind resulted in ‘Reward’, her fifth and most compelling album yet.
Following the touring cycle for her last album, 2016’s ‘Crab Day’, the Welsh singer took herself off for a retreat into a secluded Lake District cabin. It was there that the roots for ‘Reward’ were planted and Cate was able to regain her love for what she does. “It was really nice taking some time off and prioritising,” she begins. “It’s always good to check in on your reasons for doing something, whether it’s become a habit and you’re just caught on a train. It was nice to take some time off for music to become a hobby again. It’s been a bit of a revelation doing other stuff than music and finding it’s a lot more freeing and enjoyable.”
The other stuff she talks about is a furniture making course she enrolled in that became almost all-encompassing and provided a different kind of creative stimulus to complement her songwriting. “It’s something I’ve been looking to do for years,” she explains. “You feel like you’re waiting for someone to grant you permission to do it. I realised that I could grant myself permission to do it. It seemed like the perfect time to book it and prioritise everything around that. It’s a lovely thing. It’s the opposite of touring and making music. All of a sudden you have this routine in your life and you’re working on something that’s tangible.”
The feeling of discipline required to learn a new skill fed into her music-making process at the same time giving her a new perspective. “It’s quite grounding,” she says. “Patience is something that I’ve learned that it turns out I didn’t have much of. It’s an absolute necessity. You can spend a week making a Jig just to make one cut. I ended up with all these new skills that I can transfer into making an album. I wanted to make a chair inspired by music and the record. Just to kind of flip things around. It’s been a revelation. I’m totally preoccupied with furniture, architecture and design. It’s nice to have a balance where it’s not all music and gives you a bit of freedom.”
While it was always her intention to not just retire to the hills but to continue with her music career, Cate’s new found passion with furniture forced her to work in a different way that resulted in ‘Reward’s’ unique sound. Almost entirely written and composed on the piano it is an album that goes deeper into Cate’s psyche and is full of the warm and intimate pleasures of its environment.
“It was always my intention to record an album by myself, but the furniture school was pretty intense,” she recalls. “I’d come home from a long day and get in the bath, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit and dick around with an 8-track or a computer. I would go to the piano though and just play for the joy of it and the company. There was a record to be written, and I was almost distracting myself while doing it by making the record.”
“I was consuming music differently,” she adds. “It was lovely not to be preoccupied with the other side of being a musician. I enjoy making music for myself. I enjoy listening to music that makes me feel something. Sometimes you get caught up in other things and end up denying yourself those simple pleasures. It was a lovely lesson in focusing on the important things and living a pared back and simple existence.”
“You write a different type of song on the piano,” says Cate of the album’s primary instrument. “There were lots of nights when I’d allow myself to be quite grandiose and self-pitying on the piano. It lends itself to more personal songwriting for me. There’s no hiding with the piano.”
While the record was born in the Cumbrian hills, it blossomed during recording in California with a group of previous collaborators including Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint, Josh Klinghoffer and H.Hawkline where they managed to retain the intimacy of the songs while adding some alluring musical flourishes. “I was working with people I had a lot of trust in and had fostered a close relationship,” says Cate.
The resulting collection is an album full of playful humour, evocative imagery and heartbreaking tenderness. It’s a real emotional experience. “It deals with alienation,” explains Cate. “When you spend that much time by yourself in a secluded landscape, you have a bit of a reckoning with yourself. It’s about utter bewilderment with life.”
That feeling of bewilderment and isolation permeates throughout the songs, from the tender elegy of ‘Sad Nudes’ to the febrile escapism of ‘Magnificent Gestures’. Ultimately though, it’s an album about a moment and a distinct period of awakening in Cate Le Bon’s career. “It was a strange album to make,” reflects Cate on her year in the wilderness. “There are lots of twists and turns, and I think I’m still digesting it.”
Taken from the June issue of Dork. Cate Le Bon’s album ‘Reward’ is out 24th May.
Words: Martyn Young