Cate Le Bon: A Natural Folk Paragon
In folk music, the place where captivating, charming, enduring and resonant overlap is pin thin. The indie variety, while striking at first, is often too contrived, too pretentious. It’s certainly not timeless. Oppositely, there’s the stripped-down singer-songwriters, but they can be emotionally overwhelming. Their earnestness makes others uncomfortable.
Much of folk deals with the human condition, and it’s when artists push an understanding of it that things go terribly awry. Welsh singer Cate Le Bon, however, exists quite comfortably in that hard-to-find genre ideal. The root of her success is this: She doesn’t insist on a concrete comprehension of life. Instead, she seems at ease with a never-ending investigation.
Le Bon’s deep, rich vocal tone is immediately arresting, and backed by sensible yet singular pop melodies. Her aesthetic is totally lush, but nonchalant; she is not at all pretentious. Lyrically, she can be intensely hyper-personal. But she writes in such a way that even the most specific of stories feels universal. It’s easy to apply her ruminations, even those based on what’s uniquely hers, to what is explicitly one’s own. Be it a secret longing, a feeling of futility, an episode of escapism or some other self-specific emotion, Le Bon’s music encourages its evocation.
Mug Museum, her third and latest full-length, was shaped in the wake of her grandmother’s passing. It’s an utterly symbolic album, but not in the stereotypical sense. It is not a melancholy collection. Instead, there’s an uplifting quality to the way that Le Bon reflects. Her words, the mood of the music – all of it promotes progression.
“The intention wasn’t to be a morbid record,” Le Bon points out. “It’s more about…the relationships that are left behind and how everyone makes up for a loss, you know. And a shift in people’s roles. It’s not about grieving, it’s not about bereavement. It’s more about the people who are left behind, and feeling that continuous [cycle], almost like a relay race, you know. I think it was one of the first times I’ve been close to feeling or understanding that I’m in a role that is kind of meaningful.”
The roles she’s referring to are familial – Le Bon is an aunt to two young nieces and a nephew. Though a vast majority of the tracks refer directly to theme, they’re presented with a unique duality. That’s not to say the intention of the album is up for interpretation, though. Le Bon is forthcoming about its inspiration, and there is a difference between misconstruing lines and making them applicable to one’s own situation.
“It’s completely out of my control when the record is put out there, and people are open to say whatever they want,” she says. “Unless it’s about, maybe, the intention of the record.”
One particularly commonplace remark about Le Bon is that she sounds like Nico. As hackneyed as the comparison has become, Le Bon doesn’t seem perturbed.
“It’s become a joke whenever I’m with my band…It’s nice, in a way. There’s far worse people to be compared to. I guess when you make music and you put it out there you can’t really…,” she trails off. “It’s not up to me to say what people should and shouldn’t hear in it. It’s not for me to say they’re wrong, you know? I guess I’ve been compared to far less favorable people. I choose to just not engage either way, I suppose.”
Le Bon spent her adolescence in adoration of the Welsh side of the ’90s Britpop boom. Experimental alternative acts like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Super Furry Animals were highly influential for her during those formative years.
“They were making bonkers music that didn’t really fit into any genre. It was just brilliant and bonkers,” she says. “I think when you’re 13 and you have bands like that who are kind of politely disregarding a scene or this idea of a genre, then that itself – as well as the music – is kind of really inspiring. I don’t think, had they not lived in Wales, I would have been as familiar with their music at such a young age. Those two bands have really influenced the generation of music that’s come out of Wales now.”
Ahead of her 2008 Welsh-language EP debut, Edrych yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg, Le Bon was actually handpicked to tour with SFA by frontman Gruff Rhys.
“Having always been a big fan of Gruff, it was incredible when he saw me sing and asked me to open up for the Super Furry Animals. It was one of those moments that you can’t quite believe it’s happening,” she laughs.
Early idolization of those bands taught Le Bon the crucial lesson that in songwriting, being true to oneself is paramount.
“It’s just been instilled in me from loving bands like that to just try to be as honest and sincere as you can when you’re making music,” she notes. “So that’s what I try and do. And I don’t try and be anything other than that. I just write.”
Even Le Bon’s earliest material is utterly visceral. Her first full-length, 2009’s Oh Me Oh My, is resounding. On the minimalist “Shoeing the Bones,” she croons, “These are hard times to fall in love.” It’s on Mug Museum¸ however, where her inclusive writing is best accompanied. Not only is the LP lyrically profound, but also it’s musically sublime. The barer arrangements of her previous works do well to showcase the words, but a more complex support system of horns, keys and multiple guitars elevate the emotions to an inarguably compelling height.
The subject matter helped in that regard too. She moved to LA to record Mug Museum with producers Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart) and Josiah Steinbrick, and while she’s enjoying riding out her visa, Le Bon hasn’t allowed for any sort of strain on staying close to her family.
“I feel like I’m in a fortunate position…I’ve been back [to Wales] even in the year that I’ve lived in Los Angeles. I’ve been home three times touring,” she says.
When she played in Venice, Le Bon adds, she was able to meet up with her sister and mother again. They planned the family vacation around Cate’s schedule.
One of the most targeted explorations of her familial relationships is found on “Sisters,” a winding, almost dizzying pop number in which she assures, “I won’t die/ I’m a sister.”
“It’s about my Auntie Rita and me and my nieces. There’s lots of parallels to be drawn. It’s kind of, almost…everything’s repeating itself, over and over and over. There’s a sense of knowing from both sides as a small child how much I adored my Auntie Rita, and all of the sudden realizing that I’m now in her position, and I have all these small nieces and a little nephew who I’m very close to. It’s just kind of peculiar [to see]. I’m fortunate to see it from both sides. It’s just a sense of, just everything continues to flow, and we’re all kind of passing the torch on to one another. It’s continuous. You’re all part of the same chain, I suppose,” she explains.
The obvious centerpiece of Mug Museum, though, is “Are You With Me Now.” It’s something of a tribute: The video features Le Bon’s nieces, sister and mother. Shot in black and white, Le Bon is shown molding clay with a potter’s wheel, and another set of hands – her mother’s – appear and help guide the shaping. It is a lovely, warm concept, but in actuality the idea for the clip came out of necessity.
After wrapping up recording, Le Bon wanted to take ceramics classes in LA.
“It was kind of the perfect tonic to having just made a record and just being completely harangued by thinking of the songs and mixes all the time,” she says.
Le Bon decided to include handmade mugs with all preorders of the album, “as opposed to making something and then reproducing it 100 times.” Personal touches take time, of course, and demand turned out to be greater than she expected.
“I was up against the clock having to make all these mugs for the preorders of the album. I’d made 50 in Los Angeles, then I flew home to do some touring, and I had I think four days to make another 50 mugs. Not in like a ceramic studio where they’ve got everything, and I had never taken into account that the climate’s so completely different that, you know, nothing was drying in Wales because everything’s really wet,” she laughs. “And so in that time I also had to film a video, and there was just no way that I could stop making mugs. So the video had to circulate around me making muds. There was no time to do both.”
The album is named as such, Le Bon says, because her family gatherings are often centered on drinking “copious amounts of tea.” Her initial idea expanded a bit as the album began to materialize, though.
“I guess the Mug Museum became kind of an imaginary place where you go and resolve all these relationships and think about them, and a lot of them are familial relationships,” she says.
For anyone who’s experienced loss, seeing the way Le Bon has dealt with hers can be cathartic. She accepts her grandmother’s passing (“I have no reason to run”) without forcing herself to forget: “It’s not unusual, baby/ To feel the shadow and cry,” she sings.
Photo by Piper Ferguson.