Cate Le Bon: ‘I’d play piano to stop thinking about chairs’

Published in the i May 23, 2019

Cate Le Bon has spent just over a decade carving her own musical niche, via surreal lyrics sung in a deep, deadpan voice, angular guitar parts and wonky, ear-snagging melodies. I’m meeting her ostensibly to talk about her fifth album, Reward. Instead, we’re chatting about furniture.

After being gripped by doubts about why she was really making music, Le Bon spent a year carving a new niche – literally. She moved from LA to a remote corner of the Lake District, alone, and enrolled in furniture school, learning to make pieces from wood.

“Starting with a breadboard. Which my friend said: ‘Well, that’s just a piece of wood,’” laughs Le Bon. She pauses. “It’s a very nice piece of wood. Some lovely… edges.” Her measured, pause-dappled way of speaking is as dry as the delivery in her songs.

She learnt how to make tables, a record cabinet and an asymmetrical bench of her own design. “And then I made chairs, really. I think chairs are my real love,” she says, slightly dreamily. But the course was serious graft, 8am till 6pm every day. “It physically really got me, I was crawling home the first two weeks. I guess that sitting in a van or being in a studio is the opposite of being on your feet and lugging big pieces of wood around.”

And Le Bon (whose stage name began as a joke; her real surname is Timothy) had very much been seeking a change from that life on the road and in the studio. “I needed to re-address my relationship with music – whether I was doing it out of habit or whether I still loved it,” she says with a quiet candour. She knew she’d need something to keep her occupied while she figured it out – hence the furniture. “The school was amazing. And it was so intense that music became my hobby. I’d go and sit in the shed and play piano, just to stop thinking about chairs, and how terrible my dovetail joints were,” she deadpans.

Moving from the sunny sociability of Los Angeles – where she’d lived for four years – to the isolation of a small Cumbrian village was similarly intense. “I didn’t really see anyone outside of school, unless people came to visit – which didn’t happen as much as people said it would.”
It turned out to be fruitful, however. Le Bon didn’t just make chairs: she experienced a “personal reckoning” – and out of that came the new album.

“When you’ve been on the move for so long and then you stop, things tend to catch up with you,” she says. “I don’t really know how to explain it: I just felt this looming of everything, past, present and future.” The solitude took her to some strange internal places. “It was almost like a self-imposed alienation. And for the first couple of months, that was… weird.”

When writing songs in her shed, with just a piano for company, she would record herself on her iPhone. “About a month later I found all these songs that I had absolutely no recollection of writing. Which was great. But also a bit spooky. There were moments where I thought, ‘Oh my god, this woman sounds like she’s losing it.’ I wrote a lot of the songs not realising I was writing songs, just as catharsis.”

The result, Reward is her most personal album yet. It’s not exactly Ariana Grande – Le Bon’s lyrics are still pretty opaque to the outsider, and can be arrestingly odd, whether singing about putting her head in a car park, or a woman born without lips (“drip drip drip”). But there is a greater emotional tug and undertow; Le Bon sings of absent love, of “midnight pity-baths”, and of “holding the door to my own tragedy”.

This more intimate quality changed the way Le Bon recorded the album, which took longer than she expected. “I spent more of my time writing guitar parts as opposed to doing wild solos – the songs really begged for more crafted, considered parts.” She recorded with her band one-on-one rather than all together, and it felt even more important than usual to work with people she trusts.

“You’re always going to have to open the door at some point,” she says. “I made sure that it was with people who I could be vulnerable around.” Those people were Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, Stephen Black (aka Sweet Baboo) on bass and saxophone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’
Josh Klinghoffer on guitar, plus Le Bon’s former partner, Huw Evans, who releases his own music as H. Hawkline. They broke up four years ago, but remain close; Le Bon produces his records, and she took Reward to Cardiff specifically to record Evans’ guitar parts. “I wouldn’t want to make a record that he wasn’t on. He did all the artwork as well,” she says.

Do you have a different level of trust? “God, yeah. And things are always evolving, aren’t they? [But] he’s one of the one people who I will seek approval from.” As well as producing H. Hawkline’s records, Le Bon was recently at the helm of the new Deerhunter album. “It was wild!” she says. “They’re such a great band and Bradford [Cox, their frontman] is a genius.”

Producing was never something she intended to do. “It’s quite a nebulous job. It changes with every person. Really, what I what I want from a producer is not the technical side, but someone being there to make you think of going to places you maybe wouldn’t have thought of yourself. I’d love to do more.”

We still don’t hear much about female producers – and female artists who produce their own and other people’s work frequently complain of having their contributions diminished. Le Bon is familiar with the problem.

“There was a blog post about [the Deerhunter album], and it was as if they couldn’t bring themselves to give me the credit for producing. They called me a singer-songwriter. It’s just really disappointing, isn’t it, in 2019?”

I hadn’t planned to ask her about #MeToo, but the subject comes up naturally, when discussing the way female voices can be positioned within rooms, within hierarchies, within industries. “It’s strange, isn’t it? There’s certain behavioural patterns between men and women that are so concrete. And I’ve done it myself, kind of back off because it’s a room full of men.”

Le Bon also describes having a really “rough time” after objecting to the behaviour of a man within the record industry. “It consumed me for a long time, how unjust it was: you tell someone that what they’ve said or done is wrong and then they tell everyone you’re crazy. You get punished for it.”

She laughs, because what else can you do. Because that is still what it’s like to be a woman in this industry in 2019. But as imperfect as the music business may be, it’s lucky to have Le Bon back – or, at least, to be able to share her with furniture.

Where next?