From folk singer/songwriter to the electronic music top table, Cate Le Bon has been on quite the journey. With a new album, ‘Pompeii’, ready to roll, we find her at the peak of her powers

When Cate Le Bon pops up on screen, she apologises for not being fully awake. It’s 9am and she’s in Topanga Canyon, the Los Angeles neighbourhood whose residents in the 1960s and 70s included Joni, Jim and Neil. More specifically, Le Bon is holed up in Neil Young’s old house, where producer/engineer Samur Khouja, her long-term collaborator, has built a studio in the lounge so the pair can work with Devendra Banhart on his new record. She picks up her laptop and walks over to a window to show me the view – big skies and woodland-covered mountains stretching far into the distance.

“It’s been very dreamy,” she says of the residential sessions. “I feel spoiled.”
Place is important to the Welsh artist. LA has been her home for years now but when it comes to making her own albums, she prefers “going somewhere totally alien and isolated”. She wrote 2019’s ‘Reward’ while living alone in a cottage in Cumbria, playing piano and singing late into the nights, but for ‘Pompeii’, her sixth and latest work, she and Khouja had considered the rather more exotic winter locales of Chile and Norway. Le Bon explains that during the three months they spent in Iceland in 2020, producing John Grant’s ‘Boy From Michigan’, they’d fallen for “that kind of biting cold and how when you’re in the studio, it feels like a womb”.

However, the pandemic nixed any plans for South America or Scandinavia – and, since the US had just closed its borders, for Le Bon’s return there, too. With travel options fast disappearing, she admits “fear and panic were telling me to fly home to my family”. In the end, she did just that, later renting a house in Cardiff she’d lived in 15 years previously. It was there, during the lockdown of early 2021, that she and Khouja started work on her new record. Familiarity instead of novelty, then, and isolation of a very different kind.

“It was perfect,” she recalls. “We just worked and worked and worked because there was really nothing else to do. And I guess when you feel helpless and can’t change all these things that you want to, at least you can change what you’re working on. It’s like total escapism, which is great. It’s what music should be.”

Cate Le Bon has been defining music’s purpose in her own terms since 2012’s ‘Cyrk’. It was her second album and a considerable departure from the mix of folk-ish pop and wonky 60s psych of her debut, ‘Me Oh My’, three years earlier. That was a path she’d found herself being directed onto as a female singer/songwriter and it wasn’t a natural fit. She found a truer expression with ‘Cyrk’.

“I’d just discovered krautrock,” she reveals. “Listening to Faust was like everything I needed to hear. I liked some of this folk scene and psychedelic music but it didn’t resonate with me. Yet it seemed to be the only thing people wanted to listen to or had any time for. I hadn’t found anything that had inspired me to the point of, ‘Break through the ceiling of folk!’. And then I heard ‘Faust IV’ and thought, ‘Oh, my god!’. It’s still my favourite record ever.”

Since then, Le Bon has released three more albums and bagged a Mercury Prize nomination for ‘Reward’ along the way. She’s now recognised as an artist with a singular, left-field pop voice and though she visibly cringes at the “auteur” tag (“I reject all terms”), her music is identifiable by its lightness of touch, mutability, playfulness and slightly melancholic joy.

‘Pompeii’ is an elegant distillation of those elements, led by bass and with a vintage DX7 synth and saxophones doing much of the emotional work. It’s also an exploration of weighty themes – “existence, resignation and faith” – brought into sharp focus by Covid-19, with its attendant uncertainty and enforced isolation seeing Le Bon ditching most of the lyrics she’d already written and starting anew.

“I think it’s what everyone struggled with,” she reflects. “The things you distract yourself with are completely removed and you’ve been gifted the greatest currency, which is time – and yet there’s this associated guilt. You don’t feel like you’re using time properly because you’re locked down. So it was a huge glut of all these things – feeling guilty about stuff and culpable for the fact we’re in a global crisis because you’re connected to everything and everything is passed on.

“You start thinking about all the tiny incremental decisions man has made that have turned into this huge mess. That’s the ‘existence’ part of it, and within that you’re trying to find out what your touchstones are. I’m not religious, but what are my touchstones of faith? Where do my morals sit? How do I want to live? The pandemic challenged all those things – at least it did for me and a lot of people I’m close to.”

Another of Le Bon’s anxieties at the time was the possibility her sixth album might never see the light of day – or might even be her last. The thought was as exhilarating as it was daunting.

“All of a sudden, the future was dark,” she says. “At times, it was wholly exciting to think you could be making something no one’s ever going to listen to. But it was also terrifying – this duality of hope and despair existing alongside each other in huge spikes, maybe six or seven times a day. I think that very much affected the fuck-it-ness of the record – we can do whatever we want and it doesn’t matter, as long as we’re having the best time and it’s making us feel something. It’s like the extreme version of what I’ve always tried to manifest when I’m making an album.”

Musical independence has been won gradually for Le Bon and was fully realised in the making of ‘Reward’. At the stage when pressure was building and sessions were becoming strained, they were abandoned. Le Bon and Khouja decamped to a house in Joshua Tree, California, where Khouja set up a studio and they began again.

“It was this process of just living together and working on the songs, kind of deconstructing and reconstructing. I felt totally involved in a way I hadn’t before, which made me think, ‘This is how I want to work from now on’. I want to touch everything, you know? So when it came to making ‘Pompeii’, I wanted to record in that way, where it’s just me and Samur for the most part, and I’m playing everything.”

‘Pompeii’ also started to take shape in Joshua Tree. Before she went to Iceland, Le Bon had stayed there for a month with her friend Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint’s drummer, who contributed to the album remotely). They jammed some of Le Bon’s more solid ideas, resulting in ‘Harbour’ – a dreamy, synthpop song with a prowling bassline – and ‘Wheel’ – a sweetly seesawing number featuring piano, where Le Bon’s voice swims up through reverb and drifts into the ether.

Although Le Bon says she knew then how she wanted ‘Pompeii’ to sound, she didn’t know what its make-up would be. ‘Reward’ had been written on piano, which involved the problem of translating for guitar, but she approached her new record differently.

“It seemed like the bass was maybe the most important element – where the playfulness and the joy were,” she explains. “After coming back from working with John [Grant], I was playing a lot of bass and thinking, ‘God, this is the thing. This should be the centre point of the instrumentation’. Then the grief would be in the saxophones, the synths would bind everything and the guitar would be the playful voice but also where the tension was at times.”

Le Bon plays all instruments on ‘Pompeii’ aside from the drums (“Why would I even bother, when Stella is just like…” she trails off, admiringly) and the saxophone.

“I was told I had trumpet lips,” she laughs. “So no saxophones for me – and I don’t like trumpets.”

Photo: H. Hawkline

Two albums had an inspirational role in the genesis of ‘Pompeii’. In the run-up, Le Bon had been listening to a lot of Japanese city pop – it was popular in the late 70s and 80s and became a benchmark for vaporwave – and she fell for one particular LP, ‘Kakashi’ by Yasuaki Shimizu, due to its meditative basslines and their centrality to his songs’ construction. The other was by LA-based artists Sam Gendel & Sam Wilkes.

“It’s called ‘Music For Saxofone & Bass Guitar’,” reveals Le Bon. “And I was like, ‘Ah, right up my street!’. I just couldn’t stop listening to it. I liked the idea that the scene – or the vibe – didn’t change from start to finish.I particularly wanted to have a record that sounded like one era, so the feel throughout was never disrupted, and when I heard this I thought, ‘God, it can be achieved – and it can be really satisfying’. It plays with your perception of time, which also ties into the themes of ‘Pompeii’. That was an important album for me when I was piecing it all together in my mind.”

Also significant for Le Bon, especially on the track ‘Moderation’, was the life and work of trailblazing Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi. A strong advocate of social housing and an early repurposer of old buildings, Bo Bardi practised recycling and designed furniture, as well as stage sets and costumes. Le Bon was struck by an essay Bo Bardi had published in 1958, entitled ‘The Moon’, which addressed what she saw as the folly of space travel.

“It sums up the stupidity of man,” surmises Le Bon. “That there’s this idea of development and, in doing so, you’re trashing the very place you live in because you’re just looking to conquer. It’s the massive downfall of humanity obviously, and that’s what we’re living in right now. And still, no one changes anything.

“I guess that’s what ‘Moderation’ is about – knowing all of this, being tethered to the mess of these decisions man has made, and still wanting to go to the Moon, wanting to do the things you know are not good. I was also reading an amazing interview with [late American ethnobotanist and psychedelic guru] Terence McKenna where he was saying much the same thing – about men being moved either by habit or novel things.”
Of course, Le Bon herself is a great cheerleader for things that are novel or, more accurately, for the newly imagined and the different, because repetition means dullness and disengagement. Switching writing instruments and seeking out unfamiliar recording locations are two ways to force change but, fundamentally, Le Bon’s sound is the result of her open mindset. It’s one Samur Khouja shares, which is what makes their partnership so fruitful.

“Samur has never once tried to obstruct any ideas I’ve had or ever made me feel stupid because maybe I don’t know the right terminology – that’s a small part of it,” Le Bon explains. “And he’s a facilitator. He’s excited, he’s curious, so there’s no saying, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or ‘That’s a stupid idea’. It’s always, ‘Yes, give it a go’.

“It’s like we’re holding hands and going through this forest together. It feels like a voyage of discovery. It’s exciting. I’ve worked with people where it’s exhausting. It’s this series of sandbags and I’m like, ‘Why can’t I do that?’. Sam’s got no preconceptions of what cool is, and I’m the same – it’s just whatever feels good and feels right.”

‘Pompeii’ certainly sounds (very) good and is entirely on point in termsof Le Bon’s particularity. It plays like an artistic peak towards which she’s been steadily advancing for years, but that implies finality, when in fact fresh terrain is everywhere and hers for the exploring.

“This is why I like to look forward,” she concurs. “I hope with everyrecord I make I’m getting closer to that and so, as it stands, it’s probably the most definitive album I’ve ever made. And the next one will be even more so. You just want to get better at distilling everything you’ve learned and everything you do and everything you want. Also, working with other artists is so informative. You take something from every session and, whether it’s a negative or a positive, you learn from it and you hope the next time you step into a studio, you’ll be better at your job or better at expressing yourself.

“I think that’s what I strive for. I don’t see the point of making the same record over and over, just because that’s what people expect of you – ‘We liked “Mug Museum” [her third album, from 2013]… so why can’t you make another “Mug Museum”?’.”
Cate Le Bon laughs at the madness of such an idea.
“It’s like, ‘I don’t want to. I’ve already made it’.”

‘Pompeii’ is out on Mexican Summer

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