“You don’t necessarily always have to understand it. It’s about allowing yourself to wonder, and trusting yourself to wonder, and often in doing that after the fact I’ll be singing a song somewhere and I’ll all of a sudden understand it, and it’s almost like a letter that I’ve written to myself from the past. I’ve trusted myself to stand by it even though I maybe don’t necessarily fully understand it in the moment.”
Changes the economy of time
Beholds you to the behavior of the material
Allows you to forget about music
To dream of escape is to dream of being separate from the day-to-day of your own life, to leave behind but the daily desperation and insecurity that can result from your environment. We all know the cliche that insists on the impossibility of fulfilling this desire: no matter where you go, there you are. At its peaks, Cate Le Bon’s fourth record Reward takes an almost optimistic view of this truth—running away only to end up feeling closer to oneself doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Reward is the product of Le Bon’s solitude when she was making furniture in a workshop in an English village, away from Los Angeles which was her home at the time, reconnecting to what attracted her to music by playing piano after long days of concentrating on a more material form of creativity by creating furniture of all kinds. The throng of instruments Le Bon employs on the album provides an experience that feels something like an escape. The array includes the clarinet, synth, and saxophone, among others, each of which she stretches to unexpected ends. The sounds the instruments omit swirl around her voice then theatrically clash into each other, mimicking the unusual drama that can occur in one’s own mind as a result of self-induced loneliness. This feeling of loneliness is a space of invention, a place to toss and turn, ruminating sometimes to the point of mania, but more often to a feeling of contentedness.
Le Bon and I talked about trusting your instincts, discovering the meaning of her songs after releasing them, and collaboration.
THE BELIEVER: I wanted to talk to you about when you were taking the furniture course. When you had decided to go to this course, were you intending to be making music as well?
CATE LE BON: I guess so, but the way that I thought I would make music and write ended up being completely different. I suppose in taking time away to try and readjust my relationship with music and reidentify my motives with making music I kind of threw myself completely into this designing and making furniture course that was all day, everyday. It allowed music to breathe a little bit by itself and not have the all the onus on it. In forgetting about music, I slowly started to remember the joy in going to play piano for the sake of it, without any intention. Just to play piano without always this thought that I had to write an album. In the space where that awareness was gone, that’s where the record was written. It was almost written without me knowing I was writing a record which was really a wonderful thing to be able to do.
BLVR: Do you think that writing and using the piano a lot is part of what made you able to enjoy it more since a lot of your other albums are more with the guitar?
CLB: I think it’s more that it’s always lovely for a change to happen, it’s almost as good as a rest. The presence of a piano, you have to go to the piano, you walk by the piano. It’s quite hard to walk past a piano without sitting down and playing it, even if it’s just for five minutes. It has a certain gravitas that a guitar in a room doesn’t necessarily have. I think there’s something more intimate about sitting and playing the piano. I feel less encumbered by sitting down at a piano than I do by picking up a guitar. It’s a more comfortable place to be, sat by a piano.
BLVR: Are you playing the piano on tour?
CLB: No, I’m just singing on tour for the most part, which is joyous. I love it.
BLVR: After spending so much time making furniture, do you feel like any of the practices or the habits of that medium ended up seeping into your process with music?
CLB: Yeah, it wasn’t by intention, but the songs I’ve written for Reward have been around for so long, longer than the songs on any of the other records, that they became almost solid structures. I’ve never taken songs that have been cemented in that way into a studio before. It was a lot like working with wood, where you’re beholden to the behavior of your material, there are certain things that just won’t fly. I suppose the kind of patience I learned in furniture school really assisted in realizing that this was going to be a completely different process in the studio than the rest of the records. Allowing yourself to be unencumbered by time, in furniture making the whole economy of time changes and you just sit down and you craft parts. That had to be utilized in biting guitar lines and synth lines for this record. It was nice to already have that sense of an order of process.
BLVR: Do you feel that working by yourself comes naturally to you?
CLB: I love working with other people and I’ve learned so much from working with people, like Tim Presley. I worked for a long time just me and Samur Khouja on this record, but we have a vocabulary and we’ve worked together on so many projects that it feels like we’re alone together. In terms of writing, I think it’s really good to put yourself in a place where you can annihilate your own identity if that makes sense. You don’t become penned in by a fall sense of audience, expectation, or seeking somebody’s approval. You just allow yourself to exist and embrace any digressions or places of ambiguity or chaos. You can just be completely lost and I think that’s maybe where authenticity lies.
BLVR: I’ve read interviews where you say that the songs on Reward are the most intimate to you, do you think that the authenticity you were able to accomplish through writing alone is what allowed you to access that?
CLB: Yeah, I think it was a series of things. I changed the architecture of my whole life quite suddenly and I don’t think I fully comprehended that I was doing that until I was living it. That kind of solitude turned on me at times and when it did I would play piano and write because it felt like company. When you’re doing that without this notion that you’re writing for other people, or for the ears of other people, you become uninhibited in the subject matter. It becomes a lot more personal. Obviously if it’s coming from a real place, then that’s okay.
BLVR: I know that you collaborated with different musicians in the recording of the album, and some musicians, when they have other people on their records, they want to be sure to be in total control of everything, but then some people are more open to the collaboration. Since you produce, as well as work in bands, I’m wondering what your process was like with this album in working with others?
CLB: It was different from previous records, I think because I had such an involvement with the songs that I was a bit more precious with them than [with the songs on previous records.] I only ever work with people who I trust and can allow myself to be vulnerable in front of, people who you possess a vocabulary with where you can be straight and honest and everyone understands that you’re there to serve the record. It’s not about individuals, it’s about the sum of our parts. This record, whereas before I’ve written a set of songs and rehearsed them with a band who I feel very comfortable with and I’ve had people on the outside of that producing and suggesting things, I wasn’t comfortable with when you’re being creative and you’re part of the band it’s hard to be critical at the same time, and I wanted to be wholly involved on this record. We opened the door incrementally to musicians, so we worked one on one with them as opposed to everyone at the same time. It was kind of a different process and in doing that everybody put a lot more of themselves into the record as well.
BLVR: Were most of the people who worked on it with you friends in your day-to-day life or people you know only through music?
CLB: They’re actually all friends in my day-to-day life. Steve I’ve known since I was 19, Stella became one of my best friends when I moved to Los Angeles, Josiah similarly, and Samur. All of them are people who I really truly love and trust. You know, some people thrive on friction in a studio, and I know sometimes good things can come from that, but I love things to be open and I want things to be joyous. I want to enjoy making a record. The reward to me is in the making. Once it’s finished, there’s that let go where you really no longer possess it anymore. I want to enjoy and cherish as much of the making as I possibly can. Working with people who you love and trust, who you can be completely honest with without a second thought, is paramount to me.
BLVR: Do you think that that perspective of just enjoying it, not as a means to an end, but enjoying the production of it, was that something that you found through taking a step back?
CLB: Yeah, I guess so. Also, I think kind of when I was making furniture I really understood that because you spend so long making a piece. If you become fixated on wanting it to be done so that you can possess the thing that you’re making, it’s kind of futile. For me it was almost sad when it was over and I’d always give the pieces of furniture away so that I could kind of rid myself of the end product and start again and think about the order of the process of building something new. It’s grounding to take things day by day and appreciate things as they’re happening, instead of having an eye on a fixed point at a phony horizon ‘cause you’re just throwing away what’s in your hand when you do that.
BLVR: Do you see releasing an album as giving it away?
CLB: I think it’s almost like the endpoint for me, when you sign off a record it’s done, it’s almost over. What’s lovely is you kind of reclaim ownership by playing it live. I love that.
BLVR: Can you tell me about working as a producer and how you came to that?
CLB: It happened kind of naturally where an artist called H. Hawkline asked me to produce his first record. My first real experience of working with someone in the role of producer was Mud Museum and I learned so much from watching Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbrick work and really start thinking about the importance of that role when somebody does it well. It’s not to interrupt, and it’s never about you, it’s about trust, about trust on both sides, and it’s about collaboration, and facilitating as best you can something that somebody else might want. There should never be a hierarchy. Everyone’s trying to reach the same point and everyone’s opinions are valid. It’s just working out what serves the big picture best I suppose.
BLVR: Do you think that working as a producer changes your perspective on your own work at all?
CLB: I guess just working with different people you have to be open to digression. Instead of having this notion that, “This is how we do things, this is going to be the process for making this record,” you kind of have to be porous to going off [in another direction]. That’s when you really learn and pick up new ways of doing things. There’s no point in stagnating and to think that good is going to come from that. Everyone is in a studio, whether it’s watching other people work, or visiting friends who are working, you want to take something home and think about it, and think about how you can apply a bit of that into your own work. It’s continuity—everything you do feeds into the next thing you do, whether that’s producing or making your own record.
BLVR: Did you study music?
CLB: No! I grew up in a house where music was a joyous thing. On the weekends, the telly would go off, absolutely, and mom and dad would play music and we’d all have a lovely sing. I did piano lessons for a little while, I don’t know how it came to be that he lived in a small village in west Wales, but with an incredible man called Del Newman who it transpired had worked with Cat Stevens and Paul McCartney. He was incredible but he was always about putting your own flair into something. I can’t quite believe that we had him as the local piano teacher just by chance. He was really inspiring. Music never felt like a chore, it was always a mean of expression, which I’m really grateful for.
BLVR: Was it always obvious to you that you wanted to be a musician professionally?
CLB: I don’t really know when I knew. When I was seventeen, what I thought was a professional musician and what I wanted from being a professional musician is not what I now want from being a professional musician. I strangely feel, having taken time off, that it’s all new to me, and all on my own terms with having the kind of advantage of the memory of making all the other records and the memories of what my motives were for all of those. Now, I don’t know, there’s just this sense of freedom that I hadn’t had before that is wholly joyous. That comes from even letting myself off the hook for certain things and allowing myself to be honest about what it is that I want from something and not being coy about certain things.
BLVR: Do you feel more inclined toward the piano or the guitar, or do you first turn to writing lyrics?
CLB: I think lyrics are always the very last piece of the puzzle, even though I’ll know how I want the words to sound, and how I want the intonation of the words. I’ll always write the music first 99% of the time. Maybe I’ll have a phrase, or a feeling that I want to try and express, but it’s always music first.
BLVR: Something I was struck by with this album—you know, it obviously still sounds like your music, but because of all the different sounds and the different ways they’re colliding with each other, it sounds so fresh to me. What attracted you to bringing all of these parts in?
CLB: I always did what was right for the song. It wasn’t just to fulfill an intention that I had or a vision that I had. It was really just spending the time finding the thing that served the song and didn’t obscure or interrupt or crowbar anything obtuse in just for the sake of it. Just letting things reveal themselves.
BLVR: So you’re self-taught on everything but the piano, is that right?
CLB: I mean, the way I play piano is pretty self taught. I’m not very accomplished on the piano.
BLVR: So it’s mostly just instinctual when you’re writing.
CLB: Yeah, I guess so.
BLVR: Your lyrics can often read like poetry. Do you see yourself as being influenced by poetry?
CLB: Sometimes, you know. I think more than anything it’s a similar thing to making the music where you trust yourself and allow yourself the space to just write. John Keats calls it “negative capability” where you allow yourself to be in uncertainties and existing mysteries, doubts, and ambiguity without feeling the need to rationalize or reason anything as long as it feels like it’s coming from the right place and you feel like you’re emitting something. You don’t necessarily always have to understand it. It’s about allowing yourself to wonder, trusting yourself to wonder, and often in doing that after the fact I’ll be singing a song somewhere and I’ll all of a sudden understand it, and it’s almost like a letter that I’ve written to myself from the past. I’ve trusted myself to stand by it even though I maybe don’t necessarily fully understand it in the moment.
BLVR: You mentioned earlier that when you release an album it’s like giving it away, but in performing you get it back and get to experience it again. What has your experience been like touring this album that was born out of solitude?
CLB: It’s been absolutely joyous. I’ve never been so happy playing music live. I got rid of the guitar, I’m just singing, so it’s that allowing yourself to not be coy. It’s strange there’s been periods where I’ve wanted to be onstage playing songs but you feel like you have to be coy about it, so there’s a bit of a dichotomy when you’re on a stage but you maybe don’t want to accept the fact that you’re performing. In removing the guitar, which I’ve always used as a barrier, again it’s that kind of annihilation of identity. It’s allowed me to just sing, and in singing I’ve felt the intimacy of the songs. You can transpose that then onto the audience. So it’s felt real and there’s been such a joy to that.
BLVR: Do you think that that joy is linked to what you were saying about letting yourself just explore your ideas without knowing exactly what the intention is?
CLB: Yeah, absolutely. The language of absolution is quite an easy thing to manufacture and imitate. There is also a possessiveness to it that kind of traps you in an [amber] of sorts. In resigning yourself, and allowing yourself to exist within ambiguity, in chaos, in doubt or mystery, it is really liberating and allows you to break free from the trappings of identity and expectation.