Cate Le Bon is the kind of preternaturally wise and funny artist, whose abstract, hypnotic avant-pop is as complex or as simple as you want it to be. You can simply drift around in the liquid, bright, jangly songs, or dive into them archaeologically, investigating every layer, disorienting lyric and digressive emotion. Her new album Reward, out today, is her richest for digging, but the least elusive: her most personal and rewarding ever.
To honor her relationships to both crafts, which have become deeply intertwined for her, she spent two weeks in Marfa, Texas, creating a chair inspired by Reward, as the "woodworker-in-residence" of Marfa Myths music festival. The Bauhaus-inspired throne is stark and undecorated, minimalist and elegant, with the same clarity, solidness and fine skill of Reward.
Reward was inspired by 2017, the year the Welsh musician and producer spent enrolled in an intensive furniture making course at the Waters & Acland furniture school. Worn out from the endless record-and-release cycle of her first four critically acclaimed albums, as well as producing Deerhunter's latest, she needed distance from music. While practicing the patience and intimacy with materials that furniture-making required, she transformed her relationship to music and music-making. Playing piano alone late into the night, listening to David Bowie in the wood shop, she turned it back into her hobby: a joyful pursuit and safe refuge, instead labor.
PAPER caught up with Le Bon out in Marfa, to talk about Reward, woodworking, and her new understanding of the quote "If you love music, become a plumber."
How did you become interested in woodworking?
I don't know if I've always been interested in design and architecture, I suppose. I've been almost interested in it for a long time without being aware that I was interested into it. I would notice where angles were, and how different surfaces meet each other. And I guess I really needed a break from music and touring. I knew that the only way I would be able to afford myself a genuine break from it, was to fill my time with something else.
You didn't feel like you could just go on vacation or take a break?
No, I like doing stuff. And I always agree to stuff when I should've... I would always agree to stuff. When I was in furniture school that means I could actually say "No, sorry, I can't." I had been looking at the school, Waters & Acland, because they run year-long intensive courses and I couldn't really afford to take three years out.
So you spent a year in England. Tell me about that year.
It accidentally changed me, my whole life. It was quite strange. Sometimes, it felt like I had been implanted in someone else's life. Which you know, is mostly great and then at times it was a little bit unnerving. I spent a lot of time alone, which is also wonderful. I like being alone but at times it can turn on you, that kind of solitude. I think sometimes I was a bit too proud to call it loneliness.
Right. You're like I'm not lonely, this feeling is art.
Yeah! When you plan for something like that, you don't think about the bits in between, you know. You concentrate on the montage of all the good bits. But it's good to kind of readjust and calibrate.
Yeah, to de-familiarize yourself with your own life.
Certainly, and you know there's going to be the side effects of that dissociation and all of that weird stuff.
"I like being alone but at times it can turn on you, that kind of solitude. I think sometimes I was a bit too proud to call it loneliness."
So that disassociation and loneliness was a part of the year as well? Do you feel those moments were fruitful in the end?
I think they were so necessary. When you stop doing something you've been doing for years, you find yourself alone and you have this routine and this time to think, things inevitably catch up with you. I guess it was a good time as any for those things to catch up with me.
What led up to that year, and you needing this big break?
Just being in this in the cycle of making a record, touring, you know, and then doing another record in between solo records. I had a very fractious relationship with music, where I kind of lost sight of why I was doing it. Which is, you know, if you're making something and you're in a way asking people to invest in it, then you have to be invested yourself, don't you? And I wasn't. So I wanted to check in and make sure that making music wasn't just from habit. It felt great to music became my hobby again. I was unaware that I was writing the record, which was really lovely. I was just writing my own feelings. It became a cathartic outlet and just joyful. You know, to just play piano in the evenings.
It had ceased to be joyful?
It became, it was imbued with joy again, as opposed to being a chore or my job.
Were you thinking "this is an album" while you were writing these songs?
Well, I knew that I had to make a record. I just signed to Mexican Summer. But I also had a long, long time to do it. So I was just writing songs, you know? Which is nice. It was almost like writing my very first first record, you know, when you've got a lot more time to do it
How long have you spent on past records?
It depends. Really. Crab Day was done really, really quickly and recorded really quickly. That was the way I wanted it to be. That's where it had to be and I really enjoyed embracing of spontaneity of that. This record took longer to write and far longer to record. The songs are so solid in the structure, that they kind of dictated the sessions. Like it had to labored over.
The songs were stubborn.
Yeah, I think so.
How would you characterize the relationship between the chair and the album?
That year was quite strange and a really important year for me personally. Music and furniture were the two things guiding me. They kind of informed one another. You learn something in one discipline, and it's really great when you can apply it to another.
How did you apply your musical creativity to the chair, or vice versa?
The music helps, because you've learned how to let go. I don't feel inhibited when I'm doing something creative because I've learned from years of music, to let that go in. How to really stop seeking anyone's approval except except your own. As far as what woodworking has taught me... The patience I learned creating furniture was so instrumental to finishing it. I wanted to bring them both together, and reinterpret the album as a piece of furniture. I don't know if I have. But obviously, I have a very different relationship with the album than anyone else will. For me, it was a nice thing to just bring the two together, you know?
Obviously the chair is abstract. So is your music. Could you tell me a bit more about how the chair represents the record?
I think what it actually represents is my relationship with record, maybe that's more accurate. It's started with a feeling that I have.
What is your relationship with the record?
I don't really know at the moment. I don't think I will for a long time. It was hard in a way that it had never been before, which is probably why, musically, it's a little bit brutal.
Making Reward was harder than the previous records?
Why would you say that?
A lot of different things. The songs, like I said before, they've been around for so long that they were almost like solid, solid structures and... They are a lot more intimate and a lot more direct than previous albums.
"I had a very fractious relationship with music."
Was that a conscious decision in your songwriting?
Not exactly. You have to be honest... I've started to think it's wrong to kind of be obtuse, and to some try and control something that in its essence, just very direct. So, with certain things that I would normally do automatically in the studio, like I'd go and play a guitar solo and it was just not working... Playing the songs were almost expelling something. They were dictating what needed to happen, which I think is a good thing. Everything just took longer and everything was labored over more. In doing that, you have a dangerous relationship where you've spent so much time, you kind of lose perspective. That's why you need to have good people around, you know?
I have to say, the chair feels more stark and severe to me than the album feels. How did it end up being black?
So we stained this one black, the original was red oak, which didn't look nice. So I couldn't live with it. Nope, it's just meant to be minimal, you know? And it's got Macintosh feel to it. I is a quite austere looking chair. It's very angular and the record is softened, you know, with all the time spent on it. But I think it's more about its relationship to the process.
Yeah, that intimate relationship that you have with the material, I suppose. Yeah, but you know, you spend so long turning these individual pieces into this. Making them exact thickness. Precision is everything really. The pieces become really familiar to you, in a way they won't be to anyone else. That's kind of how it is when you make an album.
What has your time in Marfa been like?
Wonderful. Glorious. We've been in the workshop most days. And then on days when we glue up in the morning and have to wait, we cycle around on our bikes. It's been dreamy. There's a pace that I love about woodworking. I was here last year, doing the musical residency with Bradford (from Deerhunter), making their record and it was so much fun. But it was also, very busy. You just wanted to enjoy being in Martha, but there are sessions at different times of day. This has been really lovely because I can set out my day and finish at five and you know, it's been really civilized.
So it's going to be auctioned off. Are you ready to let it go?
It's nice to make something and enjoy the process. And then let it go. Maybe that's something that's come from making music you know, where it's not for you anymore. It's completely out of your control.
So many aspects of music making and furniture seem to intertwine.
Yeah, it's like anything isn't it? You learn pick up different skills and you can apply them to different situations. And so I guess it's... I think yeah, I think it's transferable.
Marfa is this mythical place, with Judd and the Marfa Lights. After spending time here as an artist, do you believe in the magic?
I do think it's one of those special places. It feels like nowhere else exists when you're here. There's a really important room to be here. A little bubble where you're creating... To kind of lose that awareness and find the creativity of when you were a child. When you think about painting and drawing as a kid, you're completely unaware. There's no idea of audience. You're not looking for approval. If you can remove yourself from that, that's the only way to really try and be authentic in your work. You know, whether it's good or bad, at least it would be authentic. You can do that in Marfa because it's the middle of nowhere.
Are you excited to tour, now that you feel like a healthier relationship to music again?
Yeah, absolutely. I feel so excited about music again. It's nice to have, when you have two things that you're preoccupied with, you don't feel like everything's hanging in the balance on one or the other. It's very freeing.
"It's like Robert Fripp said, "If you love music, become a plumber." I understood what he was saying when I was going to furniture school."
You said this is feels like your most personal record you'd say. What have you been chewing on over the past year?
I guess change. And alienation, whether it's self imposed or inflicted by others. Bewilderment because of the strange times we're living in. Internal change, you know, and whether that's from love or other things.
What were you listening to while you were making the record (and the chair)?
I listened to so much David Bowie. It was amazing, the way you consume music. It changed for me as well. You know, I just listened to all the big, big hitters, you know?
How do you feel the way you consume music changed?
It's like Robert Fripp (from King Crimson) said, "If you love music, become a plumber." I understood what he was saying when I was going to furniture school. Music becomes a refuge, that's mood enhancing or mood changing. When you're preoccupied with it all the time, you dismantle it and yourself, and it can't be a refuge anymore. It's just different. Now, waking up and putting a Bowie record on just set me up to have really great morning.
Photos courtesy of Alex Marks