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Welsh Musician Cate Le Bon Finds Solace in the Desert

The singer/songwriter discusses her home in Joshua Tree and why the promise of creating something new is better than rest
Credit: Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon, hero

Cate Le Bon, hero

Credit: Cate Le Bon

Cate Le Bon is back home again. The singer/songwriter has spent the better part of a year on tour behind Pompeii, her sixth album, released in February via Mexican Summer. Le Bon last year moved to Joshua Tree, California with her partner, Tim Presley, who’s also a musician in the band White Fence, and it’s a far cry from where she grew up in Wales or, for that matter, her more recent residence in Los Angeles. For nearly a decade she’s found herself enchanted by the area and so mesmerized by its landscape that she eventually committed to making it a permanent sanctuary.“I’ve always loved being here, ever since I came about nine years ago for the first time,” she says via Zoom. “It’s so alien to where I grew up. It really feels like you’re at the bottom of the ocean or something. Yesterday I just got back, and I’ve been driving around all morning and it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. You’re desperate to kind of hold on to it because it’s so unimaginably beautiful for me. It’s a place I really long for when I’m not here. And when I’m here I just want to drink it all up.”Le Bon’s move to the desert came about after the recording of Pompeii, which took place in the early stages of Covid lockdown in a house and Wales, where she, Presley and co-producer Samur Khouja had holed up, mainly because there was nowhere else to go. Unable to return to the U.S. and with no better outlet to turn to, she threw herself into the creation of something new, an act of escapism by her own design.Pompeii isn’t a typical pop record by any measure. At turns reminiscent of early ‘80s post-punk and the Berlin-era experiments of David Bowie and Brian Eno, the album finds Le Bon and her collaborators putting relatively simple melodies through strange effects, ever-present saxophones, serpentine structures and arrangements that satisfy while feeling ever so slightly off. All the while, she embraces a lyrical surrealism that crops up in lines such as “I caught a plastic bouquet down the aisle/With a sad sashay” and “In the remake of my life/I moved in straight lines.”In moments of darkness and uncertainty, she says, sometimes it’s best to look to the absurd.

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“I think there’s a real freedom to absurdity. There’s a reason why people lean into it when things are quite bleak, like with Cabaret Voltaire and Dadaism,” she says. “But there’s a real need to explore human emotion. You can try things on and take things off, but you can also allow something to be malleable and allow for its interpretation to change. It was a way of exploring what was going on, and to change and breathe and attach itself to different meanings.”Pompeii is the latest in what’s been a long and voluminous series of projects for Le Bon, which also includes production work for recently released albums by singer/songwriters John Grant and Kurt Vile. She also produced a 2019 album by Deerhunter and released a collaborative record with that band’s frontman Bradford Cox, as well as playing in Drinks with her partner, Tim Presley. And earlier this month, she released a brand new single, “Typical Love.” She’s become increasingly more prolific in collaboration with others and behind the boards as she is as a featured artist, and while she might be ready to give herself a break at some point, the promise of a new creative project is even more invigorating to her than free time.“I keep saying that I would benefit from some space, but you know, often you feel fatigue from one session and then the thought of starting something new, to me, is as good as a rest in a way,” she says. “All the possibilities exist at the start of something, so that’s really refreshing and exciting. So as much as I try and take a break, I often find myself agreeing, for the right reasons, to start something new.”With Pompeii, Le Bon created a stunning set of music born of a specific place, and from a unique set of circumstances. She says that, in ideal circumstances, the place where she finds herself doesn’t imprint itself too heavily, in order to maintain a kind of blank slate when it comes to her own creativity. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t seek inspiration from her surroundings. And where she finds herself now, in Joshua Tree, inspiration is abundant.“Geographically, being in a place where you feel like you can’t be influenced by anything, that vacuum is something I look for,” she says. “But somewhere where you can get lost, and be curious, those are things I crave.”Cate Le Bon plays at Belly Up Tavern on Tuesday, September 27

By Jeff Terich

Jeff Terich is the music critic behind the blog The Setlist. His writing has been published in Stereogum, Bandcamp Daily, American Songwriter, Fodor's and Vinyl Me Please.

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