Cate Le Bon
Photo: Ivana Klickovic
Cate Le Bon's New Beginning
After recording four studio albums, making a space for herself in the industry and gaining famous fans like Jeff Tweedy and St. Vincent, Welsh singer/songwriter Cate Le Bon was prepared to leave music behind. "I'm not doing this anymore," she thought at the time. "I'm going to quit. I don't feel the joy that I once felt." Her new start? Furniture school.
Enrolling in a "really intense" furniture school, Le Bon developed a new routine. But, after the indie-folk singer/songwriter found herself alone fitting together wood tables, chairs and stools, her plans unexpectedly shifted back to music. "I got myself a piano, and I just took refuge and played the piano and without realizing was writing the records really without that awareness of writing records, which probably hasn't happened since I was in my teens."
"Pouring her heart out" to her piano, Le Bon began the genesis of what would become her fifth and most personal album to date, Reward. "Music became my friend again," she told the Recording Academy over the phone. "It became my company." Released earlier this year, the album has now made it to Rolling Stone's "50 Best Albums Of 2019 So Far List."
Without knowing it or trying to, recording Reward reawakened Le Bon's love of music-making. As she prepped for the last days of her current U.S. tour, the Recording Academy spoke with the singer/songwriter about writing Reward, starting over, working with Phil Collins and more.
Reward is your fifth album. Where did you write the songs for it?
I took some time off music. I went to the Lake District in the North of England and knew that I needed a break from music to check in on my motives to making music, because I've been doing it for so long that I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just a habitual practice, that I was still invested. Because I suppose when you're making an album, or when you're making music you're asking people to invest in it and that's a wrong thing to do if you're not sure that you yourself are invested.
I took a year off and I enrolled in this really intense furniture school, because I mean I'd had to do something else in order to really give myself the time. I guess when you've been moving for so long and there hasn't really been a solid structure to all of a sudden find yourself alone in a pretty secluded part of the world, with this really strict and rigorous routine. It took it's toll mentally a little bit. So I took refuge, I got myself a piano, and I just took refuge and played the piano and without realizing was writing the records really without that awareness of writing records, which probably hasn't happened since I was in my teens.
Do you feel like that lack of awareness helped you find yourself wanting to do music again?
Yeah, absolutely. Music became my friend again. It became my company. It was cathartic, it became my hobby again. And especially, I don't know the presence of a piano in the spaces—it's hard to be in a room with a piano and not sit down for even 30 seconds and tinkle. Yeah. It was a really important year, I think for me.
I want to go back to that moment when you were like, "I'm going to enroll in school." Because I feel like sometimes people, when we've been doing things for so long and then start to realize "This is not for me." It can be a scary thing.
Yeah, but I was for a long time going, "I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going to quit. I don't feel the joy that I once felt," and felt like I was just going through the motions a little bit ... once you paint the exit door in your mind, that's always going to be there then. That's worse-case scenario. So it's worth then spending the time to figure out what the other possibilities are. And to take the time to reconfigure your relationship with music. And so I'm glad that that happened because I have never felt so happy making music as I am now. I was able to check in on my motives, check in on how they'd slid over the years, and just tidy everything up. And I guess doing that with 10 years of experience as well. It's a really great place to be in.
After you began writing again, do you feel you evolved into another part of yourself?
Yeah. It genuinely feels like... I don't know how to fully explain it but it feels like. It's like you've got nothing to loose, nothing to prove, nothing to... I just want to do things on my own accords, and do things to please myself. And I feel like the times when I've been most disappointed in myself, or apathetic about stuff is when I've tried to please other people, or I've imagined an audience. What you're doing is what you're doing. If you open the window to everyone then you compromise authenticity.
Sounds like you found a new sense of freedom?
Yeah. No, absolutely. And also having a joy for something else: furniture design which has led to a joy of architecture. It's really nice not to just have the onus, just be all on music. It gives you a freedom and a dual identity in a way that everything isn't just hanging in the balance of one.
My favorite song on the album is hands down is "Home To You. " I find the video very touching. How did the concept come out for it?
Well, I suppose I've worked very closely with Phil Collins who is just and exceptional visual artist, and artist. He's just an incredible human. It deals with feelings of alienation and strife to visible, and I guess this idea of what home is. I wanted him to make a video about it and for it. And he suggested going to Slovakia and working with a Roma community who have been subjected to routine discrimination for years. Yeah, I suppose it's just really important at the moment when there's such a divide. The politics of division are so rife at the moment that it's really important to stand in solidarity and to not pretend that we comprehend what these people go through but to make it visible and to care is what we can do. I just thought it was a really important time to making a video like that.
Right. I feel like we're more connected than ever in this world because of the internet and-
Yeah. But I feel like there's constant... I feel like we've become numb to it. And it's just important to keep looking, keep connecting, and not to fool ourselves that we understand. Because how can we understand? We can't.
But to care is something different, and I think that's what we have to strive to do, and to stand in solidarity.
And what I love most about the video is that with the song, I hear it and I think of my own home, I think of my own world, I think of my own bubble, but the video really opened me to someone else's home. It almost becomes a statement that challenges us to get out of our worlds.
Yeah. But there's such dignity and joy in that film. It's a real beautiful piece of work.
Going back to the album, it's gotten a lot of great reviews from music journalists here in the U.S. It's been on some of the "Best Albums In 2019 So Far" lists, including Rolling Stone. What do you think of the praise?
I don't know. I think you always hope that whatever you're doing at the moment is your best yet. It's a continuation isn't it of your body of work and so you hope that you get better, but at the same time I'm always weary about taking reviews and criticism, be it good or bad, you know we'll always have to be able to stand by something yourself before you can put it out into the world.
You're on your last dates of your U.S. tour. How has that been?
Oh, it's been, honestly one of the most joyful and fun tours that I have ever done. The band is incredible. I'm not playing the guitar as much, so that I can really concentrate singing and trying to I guess transfer the songs with as much emotion as I can to the audience. It's just been a really rewarding tour, I think. I just feel... I know it sounds really trite, but I just feel really grateful to still be doing this and do it with such wonderful people. I go into these incredible places, meeting and working with these wonderful people so it's been a great.
Do you find any particular about the U.S. audiences when you're playing here?
I guess it varies from city to city. Same in Europe. It's a strange alchemy, what makes a good show. It's just been wonderful and different and every city really.
What makes a good show?
I don't know what I like. I like it to be kind of dark.
Yeah. And just... I'm not sure really. It's hard to pinpoint what it is that makes a perfect show, but we've been having, it's probably a 90% success rate, with a few shows where we've gone, "Oh, that didn't feel right." It's been great.
How do you take care of yourself on tour? How do you make sure that you're able to perform at your best?
I mean it's something that you plan for. I take wellness tablets, and the mushroom complex, and you drink lots of water, but it's... inevitably you don't ever get enough sleep and just moving as much as you do takes its tolls, but... I've traveled with a group of favorite friends, and we all look after one another and if someone's exhausted and not feeling it then everybody else piles in and takes the weight for them. I mean, it's like any job you do. There's moments where you feel really exhausted by it, moments when you feel... you manage to get on top and you feel great.