Bleeding the Radiators: Cate Le Bon on Reward

Following the release of her fifth album Reward, Welsh musician Cate Le Bon reflects on solitude, furniture-making and the necessity of catching up with yourself

Feature by Dafydd Jenkins | 07 Aug 2019
  • Cate Le Bon

The recent career of Cate Le Bon has been occupied by a series of escapes. The Welsh musician relocated across the North Atlantic, to Los Angeles; she accompanied fellow musician Tim Presley to Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort in southern France to make Hippo Lite, their second album together as post-punk partnership DRINKS. All the while, she plugged away at her own off-kilter form of indie rock, coursing further forward into uncharted sonic territories.

But her most recent escape was to be away from music altogether. "I needed some time out to assess my relationship with music and check in on my motives," she tells The Skinny as she tours the US, currently driving along Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Portland. "I needed to fully occupy myself with something, to truly take the onus off music and allow it to be my friend again."

Le Bon sequestered herself to Cumbria in the Lake District – sustained on a diet of David Bowie, Kate Bush and Pharoah Sanders – and joined a nearby furniture-making course. "I love how grounding it is, working with a tangible material. It’s the antidote to most ailments," she tells us. Yet somehow the urge to compose never went away. "I wasn’t really aware I was writing an album. I wrote as a cathartic outlet," she says, noting the need to let off steam after a hard day’s graft in the workshop.

Fans may recall her previous tour in which she frequently appeared alone with no accompaniment save for a piano. "Truthfully, I’m a little tired of playing guitar at the moment," she says. It was on a piano that the bare bones of her fifth album Reward started to take shape. Le Bon’s spindly guitar work still slants the album towards the avant-pop of previous releases Crab Day (2016) and Mug Museum (2013), but this time, tender introspection in the form of Hunky Dory-like chamber pop neatly bolsters her oddball sensitivities. Even the album’s sleeve suggests a gear-shift: Le Bon descends from a stony peak dusted with light snow, her brilliant red outfit and dyed blond hair popping against the canvas grey sky. The incline is steep, but she keeps her footing.

"I made a series of decisions that led to a very solitary life in the Lake District, almost by accident," she tells us, reflecting on the unexpected necessity of her departure to a small holding in the hills. "It allowed me to catch up with myself, but also allowed things to catch up with me. I found myself needing to bleed the radiators often," she says. "There must have been a subconscious need for it. The album was written in that solitude and felt intrinsic to its existence."

Le Bon insists that Reward is of a piece with the rest of her work: "It's a continuation, but I feel more connected to this album than any other I’ve made," she says. "It was a more involved and intimate process than before, and in turn far more taxing – but also rewarding when the dust settled."

Many a critic has noted the personal nature of Reward. "Sometimes I wonder if that’s said because it was in the press release," she says before copping to some element of truth. "But I feel like it is. I put more into it than anything else I’ve done – not that it always comes to the surface. I’m probably not the most reliable person to have an opinion on it though."

Perhaps she doesn’t need to express her opinion; Reward speaks for itself, often making displacement and loss keenly felt throughout its duration. Lead single Daylight Matters flaunts one of Le Bon’s most direct choruses to date: 'I love you', she repeats, like Robert Smith channelled through Neil Young’s reedy falsetto, before deploying the kicker: 'but you’ve gone'. Where love’s labours lost resounds across the history of pop music, Le Bon’s earnestness is tinged with an irony that allows the same feeling of absence to be directed to places, as well as people.

Album opener Miami, a steady march to the parping of Bowie-esque horns, meditates on the strangeness of pursuing a future far from home. "For a long time, I found that things that have felt out of reach remain that way, even when you’re in the thick of them," she says, reflecting on the improbability of her position and the often onerous task of living in the present. "The door opens in increments, and so it’s not often you’re aware that you’re doing the things you’ve always dreamt of. This – mixed with the fact that the [act of] ‘doing’ becomes more about visibility these days than the personal experience – wraps another film around it."

It seems Le Bon’s relationship to home, as far as her work is concerned, is existentially explored – "way too often" she says – much as any other artist who finds themselves constantly distanced from the motherland. But fortunately for her, the hamlet of Penboyr in rural Carmarthenshire, a town with a few smallholdings and a church, is still a solid base to ease a state of constant flux. "It’s where I grew up and where all my immediate family live," she says. "It feels familiar and safe. The economy of time changes when I’m there."

It’s a reminder of where Le Bon first got her start in music. She released her debut EP Edrych Yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg (which translates as: Looking Into the Eyes of a Borrowed Horse) in 2008, and even then, she was profoundly marked as much more than a singer-songwriter. To anyone paying attention, Le Bon became a key individual of a new wave of young Welsh musicians, primarily concerned with writing and singing in Welsh, playing gigs in numerous Cardiff haunts, as well as any country tavern that would have them outside of the vital festival season.

But Le Bon resists the snare of nostalgia; she wasn’t part of an isolated scene, so much as a longer lineage of Welsh musical innovators. "There has always been an incredible and important Welsh language music scene happening, and it’s always been exciting to me whether I’m a taking part as musician or fan," she says. "I grew up going to Welsh language gigs and festivals. Seeing Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci when I was 14 was insanely special and led me to other Welsh-language bands like Datblygu – one of my all time favourites."

It’s no surprise that Le Bon is only content in facing forward, especially now it appears the writing and release of Reward has rekindled her urge to create without pressure or boundaries. What’s more, she’s even rediscovered her love for the road. "It all feels new to me. It feels good to be touring, and in doing so reclaiming it after the let-go. I’m excited to make a new album, I’m putting the wheels in motion for that – out of joy and not routine." If the distance of self-imposed exile can do this much good, we can only imagine what she’s capable of when she sticks around.

Reward is out now via Mexican Summer
Cate Le Bon plays Jupiter Rising, Jupiter Artland, West Lothian, 24 Aug; Summerhall, Edinburgh, 25 Aug