The rain can force us into unexpected places. Sometimes, it’s for the better. Such is the case when I meet Welsh musician and novice furniture maker Cate Le Bon in New York City during a torrential downpour. We take refuge in the Guggenheim, as our expected coffee shop has been overtaken by others also finding a dry escape from the rain.
Getting into the museum is a little stressful; security guards are patting down visitors in a jagged clump that’s supposedly a line. But once we enter, the white walls and gaping open space brings renewed clarity — a haven from stress and wetness. Immediately, Le Bon mentions how she’s been reading up on Frank Lloyd Wright, the building architect. In recent years she’s taken up learning furniture design and construction and tells me that a lot of her favorite furniture designers were architects.
Although we’re here to discuss Stereogum’s Album Of The Week, Reward, it’s perfect that our meeting takes place in one of New York’s greatest architectural achievements. It’s a setting fit for Le Bon, who engaged in her passion for design and furniture-making while she took a year off from music. The Hilma af Klint exhibition is mounted, and as we walk up the Guggenheim spiral, we’re treated to the 18th century Swedish painter’s stunning visual world. Her work was ahead of its time, and she delighted in a delicate use of color and surreal, whimsical shapes, and spiritualism.
Reward is Cate Le Bon’s fifth album and it is her most abstract and ambitious to date. On Reward, she displays a mastery of negative space, ushering our attention between her surreal lyricism, percussive obscurities, and brassy horns. Every listen reveals a new layer or structural detail, like an MC Escher drawing. The illusory effects of Reward are never answered, her lyrics never completely straightforward, and her voice not always hitting the note you expect. But just like an Escher sketch, we’re drawn to the curiosity and the somewhat familiarity of her vision.
Le Bon doesn’t give specifics, but tells me that a big life change was integral to her new album. “You know, there’s a feeling of absurdity that comes after a big change,” she says. “I was in Miami touring when this shift happened. And it just kind of the absurdity of being in Miami when it happened was kind of, you know, being from it’s the opposite from where I’m from. A lot of the record is change, alienation, and dissociation.”
Read our Q&A and stream Reward below.
STEREOGUM: How and when did the writing/recording process happen for this album?
CATE LE BON: In the Lake District [Cumbria, England] when I moved there in April 2017. I was going there to build furniture. It was something I wanted to do for a long time so I just ended up giving myself permission to go. I went to school. The whole purpose was to check in and address my priorities. You need to figure out sometimes if you’re doing something out of habit or if you still enjoy it. And you can’t really expect people to invest anything into it, if it’s not coming from a joyous place, but it was great. Music kind of became my hobby again. So the writing kind of happened, did it with a different, and a less purposeful way than maybe the previous records.
STEREOGUM: What was school like?
LE BON: It was amazing to kind of have that routine, and it was really quite physically hard to begin with. I’d crawl home and just lie in the bath for hours — it is quite manual. But I loved the routine of having, you know, waking up at the same time and living in the same place for a year and a half. It was a really nourishing time.
STEREOGUM: Was furniture making something you’ve always been curious about?
LE BON: Yeah I think so. I’ve always been interested in design and architecture. I’d previously done a course in ceramics and I loved how it was the total opposite to making music. In a way, you’re really grounded and you’re touching something with your hands.
STEREOGUM: It’s still building something though. It’s still a structure.
LE BON: It’s less hidden I suppose. you know, music once it’s out there it gets thrown into the ether and lost in the saturation. There’s something concrete or reassuring about a piece of furniture.
STEREOGUM: What did you create? What was your first thing that you made?
LE BON: You go through set projects to learn all your hand tool skills and then you start designing and building your own pieces. It’s much like music where you’re pulling from all these influences that maybe aren’t congruous with one another. I built a quite strange piece of furniture. I’m not even quite sure what it is, but it has drawers and you can sit on it if you want. It’s kind of quite nice not having learnt, making music you have to learn the hard way to forget what people think about what you’re doing. It’s kind of nice to have that going into making furniture, that you were doing it for yourself and not having any acceptance or applause, but well, furniture. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Is it all in your home?
LE BON: What I loved about making furniture is someone would always say, “Can I have that?” and I go, “Yeah, Go on then,” and then you spend months making a piece of furniture. It’s quite nice letting go and I guess the making is the Reward isn’t it? I logistically don’t have all the room for the furniture. Songs are much easier to hide.
STEREOGUM: So this album wasn’t as planned out as the previous records?
LE BON: I guess it was just more on the back burner. Going to school was my priority. The songs were written over a long period of time and they existed for a long time. Because of that they were more solid structures than I’d ever taken into the studio before. It was kind of quite a labored process recording them. The songs dictated as opposed to the instrumentation being able to interrupt the structure of song. It was just impossible. Fortunately I had learned the art of patience in making furniture. So that served me really well because there were some quite frustrating times.
STEREOGUM: Are you happy with the outcome?
LE BON: It’s impossible to say. I don’t know. I have a really strange relationship with the record when I finished it and I’m just thinking about making another one and learning from what happened during that record.
STEREOGUM: Why is it a strange relationship?
LE BON: It’s when people say, “Can you describe it?” And I honestly, can’t. I only know those songs that exist together. And I’m completely blind and deaf to it.
STEREOGUM: Is that for all your albums or specifically this one?
LE BON: This one particularly because I’ve lived with it for a long time in the writing process and a long time in the recording process. My relationship with it has been quite tempestuous at times. As it should be I guess. I’ll listen to it in a few years and write you a postcard. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Was there a specific order to how you wrote the songs?
LE BON: Whenever I’m writing, I never fully finish lyrics until the last minute but I’ve got the sounds and the rhythms and cadences. I’ll know what the song is about and I’ll know the landscape I want it to live in. Then it’s the case of frantically foraging for the words right till the end, which I think is a frightful process for me and anyone who is around at that time. I think it’s quite horrible for them. I’m just tearing my hair.
I used to get mad at myself for having a shit process and then I realized I couldn’t really do it any other way. And so you have to learn to embrace it. And I guess what’s nice is when it’s so last minute, you kind of end up being awake, in the middle of the night or through the night. And there’s a really lovely delirium of things. I guess there’s always that moment where you have to let go because of time. You have to or you never would.
STEREOGUM: You get sick of it and have to let it go. You mentioned that making furniture improved your patience. Did that inspire or affect how you approached music-making?
LE BON: The process of making a record mirrored the process of making a piece of furniture. I hadn’t intended it to, but it was just nice to have the tools for learning a new discipline and apply it to making a record. To learn to let something sit and to wait. I guess patience is often a word used for the moments when nobody knows what to do. So you’re just like, “Let’s be patient.” The songs become more solid almost like structures than previously. You start to become aware of the poetry of space within a song.
I was listening to walk to an album by Mary Jane Leach, the Pipe Dreams record that I think was made in the ‘80s. There’s just beautiful, beautiful drones that just seemed to change depending on where, you know, they almost seemed to react to space and light.The two just merged in my mind, in a way that was was really refreshing and think about something you’ve been doing for a long time in other settings.
STEREOGUM: When you’re working on music are you open to other influences? Or is it more like you’re just focused on your own project?
LE BON: I think it was Robert Fripp who said, “If you love music, you should become a plumber.” There was an element of when you start going to school every day and that becomes your identity. I started to consume music differently as well. I would wake up every morning and listen to Bowie and it just filled me up for the day. Then listen to the radio all day at school. Then come home and listen to Pharoah Sanders, Prince, or Kate Bush, really go for the heavy hitters. Music that is instantaneous and joyful. It’s always difficult to know what influences you on a record or anything you’re doing.
STEREOGUM: Something I noticed on the album was a maternal theme or motifs of the mother. Could you speak to that?
LE BON: It was unconscious. But looking back, it was a real time of solitude. Solitude … I love it, but at times it can turn on you. It was maybe subconsciously one of those comfort calls. But I’ve also been noticing how disgruntled a lot of female members of my family are and have become over the years and really noticed it in myself during that time. It’s more about women maybe.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a lot of siblings?
LE BON: I have an older and a younger sister. I’m close to mum and then her sister and my dad’s sister. So there’s a lot of women.
[I was] seeing my mom being so fired up politically and kind of finding a voice that she didn’t think she had when she was working in the government. Women have always been the second sex and qualified by your relationship to men. And I think she just was fired up and really joyous that she found this kind of outlet. She went to the women’s marches and, but also really angry that she put up with that for so long, in a society that dictated how it was.
STEREOGUM: Where did the title “Reward” come from?
LE BON: Just the world we live in and the things that are happening. There’s so much sloganism and words used to manipulate and marginalize. The term “reward” seems like a positive word on face value and then you think about the relationship. It’s a transaction. One person dictates what the reward is. Strange times. Language is just losing its meaning.
Reward is out now via Mexican Summer.