Cate Le Bon
The track, Miami, is available via:
The album, Reward, is available via:
24th May, 2019
I have a bit to cover when thinking about...
Cate Le Bon so, in that regard, I shall get to my points. With her new album, Reward, out now, it is an aptly-titled work that has been celebrated and commended by critics. I have chosen a track from it to review but, before I get to Miami, I wanted to discuss inspiration for albums and why Reward came from a very difficult period for Le Bon. I will also talk about warmth (in records) and alums that invite you in; strange inspirations and focuses that artists have and want to fulfill; how artists like Le Bon can inspire others; why this year is particular strong regarding sounds and competition – a hint to where Le Bon might go and where she will head next. Before getting down to reviewing the song I have chosen from Reward, I wanted to look at Le Bon as someone who has created something genuinely warm and inviting. That might sound simplistic but many reviewers are noting how tender and open Le Bon’s new album is. I do think there is a lack of real warmth and colour in music right now and we have entered a new period where a certain anger and darkness is taking over. Maybe there is an understandable reason why this is happening: if things are tense in the country, that is going to be reflected in what is being put out. I know that there is light to be found in the modern scene but there is too much darkness and oppression. This can create a very heavy and bleak landscape that is hard to embrace and get behind. Cate Le Bon’s latest album does have some moments of spike and darkness but, for the most part, it is a very nourishing and wonderful thing. I will talk more about why this is and how it can inspire other artists. Cate Le Bon composed material for Reward on the piano whereas she usually composes on guitar. That working practice, perhaps, has led to this slightly different sound. Le Bon sounds at her most composed and fascinating on Reward.
There are personal songs and, to be honest, this is possibly Le Bon’s most personal record to date. A lot of other artists have produced very personal albums this year but Le Bon has this sense of ambiguity that means you do not get hit by a darkness and weight that other artists throw around. Does this mean that the lyrics fail to penetrate and people misinterpret? I do think that there is a hard balance to strike. On the one hand, you do have to guess and interpret some of the impressions yourself but there is never this feeling that things are too obvious. I like to listen to music and have my own impression when it comes to the music. Le Bon, I feel, has written in this very stream-of-consciousness way that means her words might have one take on the first listen and then, when you get more into it, there are other revelations and threads that come into the light. I must complete my take on warmth in albums and the fact that one gets a distinct feeling of sunshine and embrace in many moments. I do think there is this thing in music where artists are being very gloomy and there is a tendency to avoid the nourishing. I did mention how Le Bon has put some deeper and more challenging sounds into Reward but there is this pervading sense of overcoming the darkness and finding a sense of hope. Maybe that is me misinterpreting things but I listened (to the album) and was instantly transported and uplifted. It is a gorgeous and interesting work that does put personal matters at the fore but does not leave you feeling isolated and overwhelmed. Maybe it was the recording process and how the album came together that means one gets that feeling of embrace and the horizon opening up. How does one spend time away from music and, indeed, if there is a moment of burn-out, is it possible to come back and make music?
For Cate Le Bon, she was feeling a bit lost and exhausted by the early part of 2017. She was caught in a wave of touring and commitments and it seemed like the demands of the road were taking a toll. She was playing shows for her fourth solo L.P., Crab Day, and there was this feeling that a recharge was in order. It does happen with a lot of artists when they get into this cycle that is hard to break from. In terms of recovery and getting back on track, there was a rather strange muse that Le Bon embraced: furniture. Not just furniture itself but constructing furniture and actually making a finished product from scratch. Apart from Jack White, I cannot think of another artist who has been involved with upholstery and furniture-making. Many musicians do gardening or yoga but, for Le Bon, she was caught by this article that was written by someone who attended a three-year furniture school in London. That person was already interested in furniture and decided that this was a logical step. Le Bon herself was interested in design, and so, she wanted to do something similar. Already captivated by modernists such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Lina Bo Bardi, Le Bon knew she couldn’t take three years away from music and make furniture. Instead, she enrolled in a smaller woodworking programme in the Lake District. This sounds pretty ideal and it seemed like it was a perfect thing for Le Bon. Many might think that something like a woodwork course would distract from music and would not lead to a creative resurgence. Rather than isolate herself from creative pursuits, Le Bon had this sense of focus and discipline that sort of rebooted her or, at the very least, was a welcomed counteraction to the sense of fatigue and depression she felt. I do wonder whether other artists who are in a similar position might be motivated to pursue something like woodworking or furniture-making in order to regain a sense of clarity and energy.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Evans
In any case, there was this need to sort of get away and re-examine things. When speaking with Huck, Le Bon explained why she took up furniture-making and whether it was a challenge being solitary for so long:
“Before you recorded this album you took a year out to live alone in the Lake District, specifically to enrol in a furniture-making school. Why did you feel the need to get away?
I’d been fantasising about a chance to learn how to build furniture for a long time. Often with those things, you’re waiting for someone else to grant you some kind of permission to do it.
I guess I’ve been in a cycle of recording, touring, making records as DRINKS with Tim Presley. It’s been four or five years in that cycle and I think it’s good to stop and re-prioritise; to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and not because you’re just going through the motions.
But a year in solitary? That’s a lot.
People came and went but when I was there alone, I was really alone. I felt like I may have lost my mind a little bit at times – genuinely. I was living in an old cottage by a river and it couldn’t have been more idyllic, but there were times when I really felt the presence of the house.
I made a lot of decisions that completely changed the architecture of life. With a year of making furniture in the Lake District, you can concentrate on the montage of all the good bits and the romantic parts. It lets you do a lot of soul-searching. It was the perfect place for a reckoning of things.
You realise a lot of things; you dissect a lot of things when you spend an extended period by yourself. Self-pity can be quite delicious when you’re by yourself. You can allow yourself that self-pity because you’re not really burdening anybody else with it”.
That impression sounds like Bon Iver recording an album in a log cabin and being detached from the modern world. Whilst there would have been moments where Le Bon was etching close to breakdown, for the most part her time furniture-making was a rewarding one that allowed her to get some perspective.
The fact that the country is sort of falling apart means that a time in isolation was a good thing. Le Bon knows that things are pretty bad and there is a lack of direction. Emerging back into the world after time in isolation was hard but I think it means what we hear on Reward is less impacted by the political strains and fall-out and more focused on Le Bon and her mind. One might think that Le Bon’s quest and new adventure might have reflected in the album. By that, whilst she was off creating furniture and putting together something wonderful, the album would be quite sparse and acoustic. Is there a connection between physical pursuits such as furniture-making and an artist’s sonic outlook? If one was expected an acoustic guitar-led record that was quite humble and predictable then they need to think again. Instead, Reward has strings, saxophone and all sorts of sounds melting together. I will come to Miami in a minute and why it kick-starts the album in such brilliant fashion but, if you listen to the whole record, you will find so many different textures and avenues. I believe, when recording in L.A., things did not start too well. There was a lot of interruption in the studio and it seemed like things would not get done. Le Bon and producer Samur Khouja decamped to Joshua Tree in California and it seemed like things were on a better footing. Other artists have been inspired by Joshua Tree and it seemed like the time in the desert stopped time and calmed Le Bon. You can hear a sense of calm in her album but, when recording, there was that vista and the beautiful sunsets. I think Le Bon’s tale and progress will inspire other artists and add something new to their work. It might sound a bit excessive going to California and taking up furniture-making but I did say how much darkness and tension there is in music.
I do think that artists need to take a different approach as there is a lot of strain right now. I do feel like the state of the nation is impacting music and we are provided little escape and sunlight in all of this. I can only imagine how much stress is in the bones of modern artists and what their creative processes are like. Maybe Le Bon’s furniture pursuit – where, as you can see here, she came up with something beautiful - is a metaphor for what she was feeling before she took this course. Life was a bit rough and uncertain but, with patience and discipline, she managed to turn out something very striking and wonderful. The same can be said for Reward and how it sounds very different to what she has produced. Not only is the piano the guiding light this time around – creating a different anchor and meaning the songs have a different tone – but Le Bon seems to be in a different headspace. Life has moved and changed and I think she sounds a lot more comfortable in her own skin than she did a couple of years back. Maybe I am wrong but it does appear Le Bon has been refreshed and re-inspired by her decisions and recording process. I do love what is being produced this year but, as I keep mentioning, there is a feeling that darkness and personal revelation is taking more of a stand. I understand why artists want to be personal and lay everything out but, inside all of this exposure and honesty, there is not a huge amount of relief and light. Cate Le Bon has produced an album that transports you somewhere warm and safe. There are these extraordinary musical interjections and moments that catch you by surprise and, the more you listen to Reward, the more layers reveal themselves. This year has been a very exciting and bold one for music. It has been led by incredible female artists.
I do think this year, more than any others, has been defined by female artists. I am not sure what has turned the tide but I do feel like there is this determination (from women) not to be overlooked. It is still the case there is imbalance and inequality and, with that being the case, female artists are coming through strong and, we hope, this will lead to greater opportunities for them. Le Bon’s music fits nicely into 2019 and the other sterling work put out by women. I am not dismissing the men at all but, when thinking of the best albums of this year, women do dominate. Le Bon’s experience and sound is a lot different to other artists around. I have mentioned how there is a lot of light in her work but there are moments of isolation and melancholy that sort of reflect something different. Away from all the adventure and warmth, you do get a sense of someone who is looking for answers and struggling with something. Composed on a second-hand piano, you do get an impression of Le Bon and what she was feeling during Reward’s creation. Given that view, one cannot fail to detect a sense of loneliness and sparseness but, in many songs, there is something lush and expansive. Her native Welsh brogue remains but, unlike her other work, there are few angular riffs and characteristics that made her name. Instead, after such a time of transition, there is a sense of new beginnings and her shedding her old skin. Le Bon is excited to be back. It is good to have her back because, when you look back at her previous work, you can tell this is an artist that will be an icon one day. She has this ambition and talent that is stronger than anything else out there and recalls some of the most innovative musicians ever. That declaration might sound vague but it is hard to put into words the skill and sound Cate Le Bon has.
Miami is a great way to start Reward. You might expect something quite subtle and obvious but, instead, there is a nice burble from the electronics and this sort of spacey sound that reminds one of David Bowie. The introduction has so much going on but it never sounds too packed and physical. Instead, you have this lovely sense of soothe and soulfulness where darting electronic bubbles pop alongside horns and other instruments. There is this stride and step that makes the song instantly connective and appealing. I love how horns sort of naturally mix alongside acoustic strings and hypnotic electronics. One is helpless to resist the sense of wonder and intrigue that you get from these opening moments. With Le Bon’s voice, I have always picked up aspects of singers like Nico and Joni Mitchell and, whereas those artists have slightly rough edges (that might sound insulting: there is a definite edge that other singers do not possess), Le Bon is a lot more soothing and accessible. She has a very special sound to her voice but it is one easy to love and understand. Le Bon talks about decorating your own discord and never being the same again. The city of Miami is name-checked in the first line and I wonder whether she is literally referencing Miami or it is more of a symbol for something or someone else. Like a lot of Le Bon’s best moments, there are lyrics that one needs to untangle and investigate. “Falling skies that people uphold, move with me” is a thought that takes some guessing and exploring. I love how she can paint these pictures with slightly abstract expressions but, the more you listen, you definitely get an impression of what she is trying to say. There are very few words on Miami itself: instead, it is more about mood and this song that takes you into Le Bon’s world. The gentle and determined chant of ‘Miami’ is more like a coda or prayer than it is a declaration.
One does wonder whether Le Bon has been inspired by the city or whether that place represents a particular escape and fantasy. Whereas artists would cram words into a song and it would make things too busy and confusing, Le Bon sprinkles in a few choice words and then uses the song to explore her voice and the composition. Opening Reward, you get this song that is beautifully lush and rich with life. There seems to be little stress and haunt in its soul. Indeed, you have all these sun-kissed horns and little notes that bring a smile and make you feel lighter. I went back time and time again trying to get to the bottom of the lyrics and, sparse as they are, everyone will have their own interpretation of what is being said. I love the track and it definitely takes away pressures and stress. The composition provokes images of expanses and a sense of freedom. The horns are never too intrusive and bold but they definitely have a vim and vigour that gets into the blood. Le Bon’s voice is always soothing and delightful but there are so many different sides that arrest and captivate. She is one of the most nuanced and skillful artists when it comes to baring her emotions and opening the imagination. There are many wonderful moments on Reward but I particularly love Miami because it has all these different sides and moods. Most of the time is spent allowing the vocals – many of them wordless – unfold and this incredible composition…it just does magical things! It is a triumphant song from Le Bon and one that you will return to over and over again. What is it about? It is hard to say where the inspiration came from but I do think there is personal biography. Le Bon experienced some stress and unhappiness before taking some time out and taking up furniture-making. Maybe it is about her sense of revival and how she had to beat a retreat. Perhaps it is more about fantasy and disconnection but I can hear something deeply personal in the vocals. Cate Le Bon is an artist that provides these unique and interesting words and it is down to the listeners to come to their own conclusion. I like this as too many songs are obvious and give everything away. Miami could mean something different to someone else but I think it is this moment where Le Bon returns to the world and is starting again. Maybe I am wrong but, in any case, the song is majestic and the perfect way to start a remarkable album. Make sure you go and buy Reward and spend some time with it. It is great having a new record from Le Bon: one of music’s most interesting and spellbinding artists. I do hope we get a lot more from her in the future because she provides something other artists do not. It is hard to pinpoint but, when listening to a song like Miami, you realise you are in the presence of someone truly special.
I have spoken a lot about Cate Le Bon and her song, Miami. I could not review the whole album – as it would be somewhat brief and not do justice to each song – but I hope people investigate Reward and get everything they can from it. Le Bon has been touring recently but, with a new album out, most of her focus has been on that and getting it into the world. Look at her social media feeds and you can tell how excited she is and how proud of the record she is. That is understandable because, on the first listen, you are hit by all these different sounds and stories. There are shifts in moods and lovely little musical asides and angles that take you somewhere sublime. The more you listen, the more layers come through and the more songs start to focus. I have loved reviewing Le Bon and will follow her closely. I am a fan of her previous work but I think she has created something unique and unexpected with Reward. It is her most personal record and, debatably, it is her very finest. That might be a big claim but one need only look at reviews flooding in to see that sentiment reflected by other journalists. I shall leave things in a second but make sure you keep an eye out for Le Bon and where she is heading. I am not sure what her diary is looking like but she has a new album out and people will want to see it performed live. There will be U.S. demands and people around the world are eager to see this wonderful new album exposed and explored on the stage. It is amazing to imagine these songs being performed to thousands considering Le Bon spent a large chunk of time (more-or-less) on her own and making furniture.
PHOTO CREDIT: Fabienne Cresens
Now, with this terrific album out, she will be in front of the adoring masses. It is quite a radical shift but I do think Le Bon’s career will go to a whole new level. What does the future holds for her, then? I do feel like there will be more albums but, with such turmoil and political division around, will her material start to reflect that more? I do hope that we get something like Reward – rather than the more tense and unsettled albums being put out now – because it is an album that provides soothe and gentleness when you need it. There is not a lot of that around now and that is why Cate Le Bon should be taken to heart and followed. She is a fantastic artists and someone who gets stronger as time passes. I am not sure where she is heading in the next few months but I know there will be demands and her life is going to be very busy. I do wonder, thinking about that, whether there is this vicious cycle. Le Bon needed to take time off following burn-out in 2017 and, with a new album out, does the same possibility await her? So many big artists are put under pressure and it gets to the point where they struggle to cope with what is expected. I do hope that the experience this time around is more pleasant and Le Bon gets time to chill and have time for herself. That can be hard for any musicians but I do feel Le Bon is in a good place right now and it would be a shame if things changed. Make sure you get Reward and experience this stunning album! I shall leave things there but, if you want to follow an artist who does things differently to anyone else yet has that accessibility, you need to get Cate Le Bon into your life. She is a fascinating artist and one who (I hope) will be around for many years to come. I have loved examining Miami (and Reward) and, as the notes and images bounce around my mind, I feel like they will be with me…
FOR a very long time to come.
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