Cate Le Bon is something of an enigma — so much so that occasionally even she doesn’t know what to do with herself.
That is part of the reason she dove into designing and making furniture. (More on that later.) But first, not knowing what to do with herself — or rather, knowing what she didn’t want to do with herself — made her swing for the fences and become a full-time musician in the first place.
Raised in rural Wales by parents employed by the local town council, Le Bon grew up influenced by her family’s musical tendencies and her country’s contributions to Britpop: Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, and (her personal favorite) Datblygu. Her father played guitar; her uncle played her pop songs on the piano as a little girl. To say it resonated would be an understatement.
“It was like watching a magician do magic. It totally blew my mind,” Le Bon says. “Music was always something joyful. It never turned into a chore.”
By the time Le Bon finished high school, she had decided that whatever she was going to do, it wasn’t going to happen at a university. She tossed her pending applications, “knowing that I could always reapply,” and moved to Cardiff. She fell in with a music scene. She didn’t reapply.
But she did release a string of albums under her own name, each one increasingly conceptual and left-of-center. Within a matter of years, she had found her signature: guitar-forward songs in which every layer, guitar or otherwise, sounds meticulous and takes up its own distinct sonic space. Her songs are cohesive yet fragmented, spacious yet often minimalist. Above it all is her bravado-free voice, delicate and unobtrusive but far from unsteady. Her refined Welsh accent slices thinly through syllables, skittering across the surface of her lyrics. It’s art rock, emphasis on art. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is a fan.
Le Bon wrote most recent addition to her output, Reward, in the Lake District, a gorgeous coastal park plucked out of a fairytale some 70 miles north of Manchester (and a favorite locale of William Wordsworth). Her reasons for moving had little to do with music — or rather, had everything to do with not wanting to focus on writing songs. She enrolled in a furniture-making course, toiling away for hours each day in the classroom.
“It was really just getting out of music for a little bit, which took the onus off it and it became my hobby again,” she recalls. The best laid plans, no?
She found herself drawn back into songwriting, helped along by the presence of the first piano she ever owned: a second-hand Meers.
A trickle, then a gush, then an album, and a shockingly personal one compared to the rest of her discography.
“It had been a long time since making a record and touring a record. It’s always good to check in and check that you’re doing something like that for the right reasons,” she says. Once the course was over, she joined co-producer Samur Khouja in a Joshua Tree studio, breaking up and reassembling all the pieces an ocean and a continent away from the source.
“[The songs] had almost solid structures that were pretty stubborn and they had to be approached completely different to any of the records I’d made,” says Le Bon. “It was really frustrating at times. Thank God I learned a lot of patience from furniture school.”
Reward opens with “Miami,” an unusually cosmopolitan and humid subject for Le Bon. And while the title implies neon-lit synthpop and the delirious excess of silk Versace shirts, the reality is far different: five-plus minutes of mournful sax and a restrained synth riff, with Le Bon intoning each syllable of “Miami” as though leading a funeral procession down Ocean Drive.
The rest of the album follows suit. In the album artwork and the video for lead single “Daylight Matters,” she cuts a solitary figure in a crimson coat, juxtaposed against a barren landscape as though caught inside an apocalyptic reimagining of The Snowy Day. She pleads with a lover on “Daylight Matters,” repeating “I love you” until it turns from a declaration into a plea. She turns into a detached observer of her own devotion on “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” observing “dead flowers stinking up the corridors” in between realistic appraisals of her new loveless reality.
“It’s probably the most difficult record from start to finish that I’ve ever made. And that’s totally OK. Sometimes, the things that you value the most are inherently difficult,” she says.
Not that furniture design is being replaced by her renewed focus on songwriting. Following the bulk of the recording process, she returned to the Lake District. Once again, she didn’t go there to write songs.
Instead, she designed and built a black, hyper-angular chair to accompany the album. Because that, apparently, is what you do with yourself when you’re Cate Le Bon.
Cate Le Bon, with Conscious Summary, Tuesday, July 9, 8 p.m., at the Chapel, 777 Valencia St., $16-$18, thechapelsf.com
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