(Photo by H. Hawkline)
CATE LE BON, WRITER, SINGER, PRODUCER, ceramicist and furniture maker, is nowhere to be seen, though I can hear her well enough and hear the Welsh lilt that tags her, though you might not always hear it in her evocative art rock.
“I’m in the country so I don’t think the Wi-Fi will suffer a video,” she says apologetically, as I shut down my camera in sympathy (or self-defence).
The “country” is in the west of Wales, where she is visiting family on the way back home from a European tour and on the way to the release of her sixth album, Pompeii, a record which takes the ash-buried ancient city as a symbol of fear and insecurity, and at the same time as a sense of freedom, if not exactly hope. “Every fear that I have/I sent it to Pompeii.”
Home these days is in the tiny – population under 3000 – town of Landers, north of the Yucca Valley, in the deserts of Southern California near the Joshua Tree National Park.
“It’s very remote and very beautiful,” Le Bon says wistfully. “The days feel a little bit longer there.”
Obviously very much like the west of Wales. She chuckles, but that wasn’t quite as stupid as I sounded.
“There are similarities in one sense: the way it makes me feel, the way the economy of time changes. You can leave the house and get lost for a couple of hours, which is significantly more dangerous in the desert, but, you know, yeah.”
Prior to moving to the desert, Le Bon had lived in Los Angeles. Did she feel comfortable and able to create there? Or was it a place for function, while creativity happened elsewhere?
“I think it was always the feeling that it was where I lived, the base for going off on tour and coming home. When it was a period of writing and recording, I’d always look to go somewhere rural, somewhere where you can feel invisible and be free of the debris that living in a city like Los Angeles [brings],” she explains. “It’s quite interrupting to me. I know lots of people can tune into that and really use it, but I like to be somewhere where you can really switch off and allow yourself to tap into that quiet.”
One of the things that is interesting about living in the city for an artist can be the way it unbalances them, when it puts their thinking out of its groove. That can be good, it can revive and challenge; but sometimes it displaces the core. And that can apply on both sides of the stereo speaker.
A defining feature of Le Bon’s albums that is seen quite starkly in Pompeii, is how it is just off-kilter enough to keep us off balance but not enough to deter more steps. Even more so than 2019’s Mercury Prize-nominee, Reward, it’s like a pop album, but nothing like one at all. I feel like I understand it but then realise I can’t explain it, or exactly why I like it.
“We are always asked to put something that we’ve made it into words, or to explain something when maybe all the explaining has been done in the piece of work you’ve made,” says Le Bon. “I guess I can say is I don’t have a repeatable process but I know what conditions I like to be in to make a record. I feel like I can get to a place where you are making without a sense of an audience, and you’re making without the sense of an agenda: you’re leaning into curiosity, to give yourself the conditions to make something that’s as authentically you as possible.
“And so you end up making something that will resonate with people because it comes from an authentic place, and you can also be making something that completely misses. You should always feel like a risk when you’re making something, and I really get off on that.”
She is prepared to traffic in that sense of making us feel unbalanced, maybe even taking a risk we don’t know, or know we want. Which may be well and good for esoteric conversations but not knowing what something is doing or where it’s going can be a deterrent to some people, not just in music and art generally, but in life. Take a look at how a federal election in Australia is being contested by one party promising no change, as if that’s tenable, and the other promising safe change, as if that’s possible.
Yet that’s where Le Bon operates. As she sings, “I get by, one eye on the sky, but I can’t put my finger on it”. It’s not a steady place but it is where revelation can come. She appears to be most comfortable where she is not comfortably sure.
“Yes, I think so. It’s like some negative capability, where you kind of surrender yourself to not knowing. And I think that was something that was really rammed home during the pandemic, trying to make a record where your plans are totally incompatible with reality,” she says. “You can try and manufacture reality, and try to manufacture what you think might happen, and I think there’s a lot of resistance and friction that comes from that; or you can lean into curiosity and hope and allow yourself to travel without any preconceptions. That’s when interesting stuff happens in the studio.”
This is fascinating territory to inhabit for someone who has being quite open in the past about anxiety and panic attacks, which on the surface would appear to be exactly the reasons to control every last thing and know what is to come. Yet the conundrum with this is that trying to control everything is itself anxiety-inducing, and not really conducive to creating. Or living.
“I think both things can be true. I control a lot of my day-to-day life and anxieties are a funny beast: it’s not often the thing that people who don’t suffer from it think it is. It’s often without rhyme or reason, and I’m not necessarily anxious about specific things; it’s more of an overwhelming feeling at times, like a migraine coming on or something,” Le Bon says. “Music to me is total escapism, it’s meditative in a sense to really let yourself fall into something and go wherever it takes you. There is always going to be that sense of general fear just from the thing that you’ve made in private, becoming public. But that’s separate from any anxiety disorder, and separate from … it’s complicated isn’t it?
“It’s hard to unpick and it doesn’t often look how you think it’s going to look, it doesn’t often manifest in the way you think it’s going to manifest. I think at times you realise fighting it is almost more exhausting than just leaning into the unknown.”
Pompeii is out now. Cate Le Bon will play Carriageworks, Redfern, as part of Vivid, June 9.