If I were to distill Cate Le Bon’s music into one word…I’d feel foolish for trying, but being that it’s the first sentence in the story, I suppose I’ll give it a whirl: Cate Le Bon’s music is radical.
Before you leap to conclusions, I don’t mean radical like a pouty child throwing a tantrum in a Whole Foods begging for Jenni’s Ice Cream. Rather, her sound is expressive, accurately distilling and conveying ideas through sonic waves that at first listen can frankly sound odd together.
Also, her music is unpredictable. If one of her songs harkens back to synthy rhythms reminiscent of The Cure, the next one you hear will take inspiration from the droning alternative rock sounds of the Cocteau Twins. Her latest record “Pompeii,” released this past February, is a culmination of sounds, cadences, percussions and inner monologues.
Similar to a score of other artists, the Wales-born musician’s latest work represents a collection of songs written and recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic. On the record, you’ll hear saxophone, piano, clarinet, bass, synths and a ton of different percussion, but each song represents a through line to the duality of hopelessness and hopefulness most people shared during the lockdown.
Before her upcoming October 9 show at Black Cat, District Fray became pen pals with Le Bon, fielding questions about playing a “pandemic record” for a crowd, the lost city of “Pompeii” and how it compares to prior releases.
District Fray: I think it’s best to start with an easy one: How have the first few shows for your tour been?
Cate Le Bon: They have been really great and rewarding. This is the best live band I have ever toured with and we’re enjoying playing together so much. Having Andrew Savage [of Parquet Courts] open every night has been a real treat for us and for the audience.
“Pompeii” and a lot of other music coming out over the last few years have been dubbed pandemic records. With that being said, I’m wondering if you found it strange playing this music for crowds since it so intimately deals with introspection and isolation.
I find the whole process of letting go that which is crafted in private—which is usually an intimate and introspective experience for me regardless of what’s happening outside—into the ether where it no longer belongs to me anymore a jolting experience that I deal with by detaching from the whole album as soon as it’s mastered. So, when it becomes time to perform the songs live it feels more like I’m reclaiming something. It’s not strange at all.
To specifically talk about the album for a moment, I think the first attribute that sticks out when hearing or learning about a work of art is investigating its title. And I read that you kind of start with the title, so what does the tragically lost city of Pompeii have to do with this collection of music, and even deeper how do you relate to the tragedy as a person and an artist?
The title, “Pompeii,” encapsulated a lot of complicated feelings and fears I was having whilst lockdown was happening, and everything was all of a sudden very unfamiliar and unknown. There’s the feeling magnified that we’re all always living on the precipice of natural disaster be it local, political or personal…but mostly, time took on a new weight and currency, and I kept thinking about the final moments in Pompeii captured for eternity. [I also thought about] how the privacy of that moment has been robbed for years and then, during a global lockdown, how peaceful and still it must be there. I became quite fixated on that image and couldn’t shake the feeling we are all forever connected to everything.
What was the first song you wrote for the record? And did it play a part in focusing the feeling you wanted to capture with the rest of the songs on the album?
They emerged together and I worked on them all simultaneously allowing them to inform one another. I wanted them to feel like they were carved from the same piece of rock. I wanted a mood unbroken from start to finish.
A word I’ve seen used a lot to describe your music is “Curator?” Do you think that’s an accurate interpretation of how you approach crafting music?
I don’t have a repeatable process when it comes to making an album but I have a set of conditions I need to satisfy, which mostly involves being removed from anything familiar and comfortable so that I am as uninhibited as I can possibly be. That’s when curiosity leads and things you didn’t even imagine can happen. I work with like-minded people so that it’s all forward motion and exploration. I would say there is intention, more so than a definitive plan.
How do you feel about the sonic elements of “Pompeii” and what sets it apart from your other albums, aside from the fact that it was completed during the pandemic?
It’s different because you hope everything you work on is better than the last thing you did and you try and push yourself and hopefully have learned from previous sessions, be it your own or ones with other musicians. I nearly never listen to anything old of mine or get nostalgic or restrospective…I like forward motion, allowing myself to explore what makes me excited in the moment, and looking over the shoulder too much jeopardizes that.
I know a good amount of the music on this record takes a sober and honest look at how humanity interacts with the environment and how we treat it overall, and I know you have an intimate relationship with Joshua Tree in California, where you live, so it’s obvious being near nature is important to you. Do you find it challenging to connect with the outdoors while you’re on tour?
It is important but I also love cities and buildings, and the friction and chaos of them. I love being immersed in that on tour. It’s a nice balance that allows me to appreciate both.
Lastly, what can people who’ve never seen you live expect from your show?
I haven’t seen it, so best come and see for yourself.
You can see Le Bon at Black Cat on October 9. Advance tickets are $22, day of show tickets are $25. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. For more information about Le Bon, visit www.catelebon.com, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.