Cate Le Bon :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

When I meet Cate Le Bon in the lobby of her Downtown Los Angeles hotel, she starts by kindly offering me some help: “If you can’t understand anything after the fact, please just email me.” She says this because her Welsh accent has a tendency to confuse—there was a time in France when she asked for a cup of water and received a pint glass of milk—but after a number of years living in LA herself, she’s truthfully not difficult to understand. On the contrary, she speaks very clearly.

We’re in a hotel because Le Bon doesn’t formally have a home just right now—she gave up her place in LA to spend a year in North West England’s rural Lake District, where she attended furniture school full-time and lived in a cottage by herself. It was there that she wrote her new LP, Reward, and since then she’s been floating around: some time with Deerhunter, during which she worked as the lead producer on their new album; some time with Tim Presley (a.k.a. White Fence), who she makes music with as Drinks.

But now she’s here, sitting on a barstool, trying to reconcile all of the people and places that played into her most glamorous (and best) work to-date—a musical product that was informed and fueled by what she learned in school, working with her hands, becoming comfortable with just focusing on the physical product in front of her. Not unrelated from that process, Reward was also informed by her efforts to forget what music feels like when it’s viewed as work. That process took time, and was aided by the help of David Bowie.

“I’d listen to him every morning before going to school,” she says, “’cause I could, and no one would tell me, ‘Not Bowie again!’ I’d go off to school so happy. I’d almost kind of forgotten that music can instantly tap into those real basic emotions.”

Admittedly, the way she pronounces “Bowie” (more like “Baow-ee”) does throw me off at first. But listening to the tape back later, I decide there’s nothing wrong about it.

Aquarium Drunkard: First of all, I want to preface this by saying that the new album is fantastic. But because you had mentioned elsewhere that you felt like you were starting to lose it a couple times during your stay in the cottage, I’m wondering if you at any point had to deal with the worry of becoming your own version of the Onion article “Man Just Going to Take Guitar to Cabin in the Woods and Make the Shittest Album Anyone’s Ever Heard…”

Cate Le Bon: [Laughs] No, I think it’s everyone’s right to make shit music as well, isn’t it? It’s your right to make good or bad music, and sometimes it’s just exploration, you know. I think authenticity really is all we can strive for now. And for me it’s kind of removing yourself so you remove the awareness that you’re even making something, whether it’s good or bad. It’s just to have that feeling that it’s authentically you.

AD: Did you consider this period of time in your life to be more for the music or more for yourself?

Cate Le Bon: It was both, really. It was to readdress my relationship with music because I’d been in just a cycle for a long time of making a record, touring a record, writing a record, and so on and so forth—and then doing Drinks records in between solo records. So I think my relationship had just become quite fractious, where everything felt like a chore. And if you’re making music, and you’re asking people to invest in it, then you have to really be sure you’re invested in it for the right reasons yourself, and that it’s not just habit. I just needed to take some time away to recalibrate that kind of relationship. And if I hadn’t completely thrown myself at something else, I don’t think I would’ve had the space to allow music to become my hobby again and to become something that was a cathartic process.

AD: Did you intend to come out of there with an album finished?

Cate Le Bon: Yeah, it was kind of always in the back of my mind. I had just signed a deal with Mexican Summer, so it was always there, but the furniture course was so intense—it was physically exhausting. I’d come home from school and I’d crawl into a bath, and then I’d have to do homework. But then I’d go and I’d sit at the piano and it was just like switching off from all of that. So it kind of just flipped the relationship. And it was also a relief that, “Oh, I do love making music,” and “I do love music.” It’s not just something I ended up doing, you know.

AD: Was this something of a digital detox as well? Like, were you waking up and checking your phone or were you trying to stay away from that as well?

Cate Le Bon: I’d like to say… It was less. I didn’t have WiFi all the time. I didn’t have a TV, and listened to a lot of music. Listened to the radio a lot. And I read more books than I’ve probably read in the last five years. But you’re still aware of the imposter that is the iPhone, and for periods I left it downstairs when I was sleeping, and that was glorious. But it didn’t last forever like it should.

AD: There’s all these books coming out right now about digital detoxing and getting away from your phone, and it just seems like there’s such a dissonance between what would be best and what people can practically do. The first step is wanting, but the second step is much harder.

Cate Le Bon: ’Cause I think everybody wants to, don’t they? But there’s that kind of duality of doing something and knowing that it is really disruptive and destructive. And thinking that because you’re aware of that, that’s enough—and yet you’re still doing it. You’re still letting it interrupt and steal your time. It’s really unfortunate. It’s like a really shit J. G. Ballard book. It’s like, “Oh man, this is how humanity ends? That’s crap.”

AD: And god help us if this turns into a Philip K. Dick book. I guess the underlying question here is not a question at all, and I’m just really jealous that you got to live in a cottage for a year.

Cate Le Bon: Yeah, I mean it sounds really romantic, and when I was looking forward to it, I think I just saw the montage that makes the film: I’m getting healthier and I’m running every day and I’m reading all these books and I’m learning skills. But the other bits I didn’t really think about—about being on your own for such a long time, not really having any friends up there. But it happened and it was character-building and I carried on and saw it through, and then got to the good bits.

AD: And you have something to show for it, too.

Cate Le Bon: Yeah, and lots of weird furniture. [Laughs] Not as easy to hide as weird songs, but.

AD: The story of this album made me start to think about other artists that went through a period of seclusion, and it brought me to the saga of Leonard Cohen becoming a monk. There’s this documentary—I think it was a public access production—that’s just following him around as he, like, drives his minivan to the monastery, and when he’s explaining what he likes about the monk lifestyle, he cites a “voluptuous sense of economy that you can’t find anywhere else” and praises finding the value in having a “clean table.” Was it an an economy of thought that you were trying to get to?

Cate Le Bon: Yeah, I think there’s a beauty in not constantly thinking of being hampered by this idea of growth. I guess the economy of time is the most important one. And to kind of really understand the value of that, just by having this really simple routine that ended up being really rewarding that stretched out the days. It was a real lesson in learning to just be, and learning to enjoy what you have instead of desiring things that ruin the now.

AD: Do you have any commercial interests with what you learned in furniture school?

Cate Le Bon: I mean, it’s like anything, isn’t it, that you do for the love and joy of it? You don’t want to acknowledge the commercial side. But it’s not a very good business model. [Laughs] I’ve been giving away a lot of furniture that I’ve been making, and whilst I love that letting go—and there’s that idea that the reward is in the making—financially it’s rough. And I guess with music I’ve just got this expectation that I’ll never make money from it. And that’s a choice I’ve made and that’s on me. I don’t feel entitled just because people used to make a shit ton of money from music. I don’t feel that that’s an entitlement.

AD: It is an interesting time, because to me you’re a model of significant success in the music industry—you’re world-known and you make music that people care about deeply. But it’s difficult to consider the ways in which the financial aspect isn’t there anymore.

Cate Le Bon: But I’m not complaining. I get by and I have a lovely, rewarding life, and I think that’s the choice then, isn’t it?

AD: Can I ask a somewhat odd question?

Cate Le Bon: Yeah, sure, of course.

AD: What language do you dream in?

Cate Le Bon: I don’t know, actually. I don’t feel like I dream in any language, but I remember when I have dreams specifically in Welsh. But I don’t know if it is really Welsh or if it’s just… I mean, do you dream in a language, or do you just dream?

AD: I guess there is kind of a dream language that’s not really even English that shows up. Not to be all “I lived in France one time,” but when I lived in France, I do remember having dreams where I heard French. It kind of seeped into my subconscious.

Cate Le Bon: But is that just an acknowledgment of the French language or is that you dreaming in French?

AD: Good question.

Cate Le Bon: ’Cause that’s how I feel when I wake up and go, “Oh god, I just dreamt entirely in Welsh.” But I think it might just be my brain acknowledging Welsh, as opposed to…

AD: I was trying to figure this out—in Wales, is it sort of split if your first language is Welsh or English?

Cate Le Bon: It’s not really split—I think it’s something like 19 percent of people speak Welsh, and so you get pockets of that Welsh language. You know, I have friends whose first language is Welsh, and they learned English when they were four or five, and some still don’t feel very comfortable conversing in English. I was brought up English at home by my parents. My father was Welsh—his father was Welsh language, but his mother thought it was the language of the underclass, so it wasn’t spoken at home. My mom is from England, but dad was hellbent on me and my sisters going to a Welsh-language school and doing all of our education through the medium of Welsh. So to me it’s English, because I speak English with my family. But Welsh is also one of my first languages as well.

AD: I know you recorded an EP in Welsh early on. Do you have to fight the temptation to write songs these days in Welsh?

Cate Le Bon: You know, I just find that it’s really hard to write kind of off-the-cuff in Welsh. Style doesn’t translate through language, and I feel like the way I write lyrics and the way that I write, I couldn’t do it in Welsh. It would feel forced and it wouldn’t feel like it was me, I don’t think. But I should really put the effort into doing it more.

AD: Going back to the album, and looking at the whole process start to finish, do you feel that there was any difficulty in taking something that you made in isolation and having to then make it in collaboration with others?

Cate Le Bon: That’s why I work with people that I love and trust. These songs were a lot more intimate because they were made in isolation, and because that was a strange year, I wanted to work with people who were gentle and that I could wholly trust. I [also] opened the door in increments as opposed to just letting everyone in at the same time, and I think that helped. But certainly it was hard to process because they were written in such solitude. So it was a little bit bumpier. But then, fortunately, I learned the art of patience in furniture school, and so it kind of really helped. The process of making the record mirrored the process of making a piece of furniture. And not by design—just accidentally. So it really helped being able to transpose skills from one discipline to another.

AD: Like you were thinking of making the record as a complication of engineering?

Cate Le Bon: Yeah, or where the songs have become so solid in their structure that they were almost like pieces of wood in that they dictated the process, as opposed to you being able to manipulate them with a guitar line. It was the longest I’ve ever spent making a record, and there’s always a danger in that because you’re moving further and further…But it had to be that way. words / n rogers

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