Two years ago, Cate Le Bon spent the summer surrounded by ghosts. The Welsh-born, US-based singer had been visiting friends and family in the UK (having come via Iceland where she was due to produce John Grant's new record) and was scheduled to travel back to her adopted home of Joshua Tree, California, when Covid struck and borders across the world were sealed.
Shut out of the US, she gratefully accepted the offer of temporary lodgings at a Victorian terrace close to the river Taff in central Cardiff. As chance would have it, it was an address at which she'd resided 15 years previously. With the world pivoting from panic to confusion, a trip back to her own past brought an extra layer of uncanniness.
“It’s such a strange time anyway. You’re just ruminating on yourself and on existence,” Le Bon (38) says over Zoom from Joshua Tree (having finally made it home). “You’re already confronting part of your past and all of that [during lockdown]. But to be in a house [in Wales] that embodies all that. I was in my early twenties [living there in the 2000s]. It’s quite a pivotal age. You have all these memories of the things you want to accomplish. And to be in your thirties, thinking about those things…”
The house belonged to Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals. An old friend and collaborator of Le Bon, he’d taken her in as a lodger right at the start of her career. Now he was away and generously offered the use of the property. There, as a furious silence raged outside, Le Bon, her partner, the musician and visual artist Tim Presley, and producer Samur Khouja tried to make sense of the pandemic. From this chaos and calm emerged her extraordinary sixth LP, Pompeii.
“It was like a strange sort of time travel, a lot like a Kurt Vonnegut book”, is how she remembers those months. “You turn the page and it’s 10 years ago. It was lovely to be somewhere familiar. It was the first place that felt like a home to me after I left my actual home. But lots of memories, lot of ruminating. Things I hadn’t thought of in years.”
Lockdown albums are no longer a novelty. They are, dare we say, even slightly passe. Pompeii is different. It’s the spiritual and philosophical opposite of Taylor Swift’s Folklore, which sought to emphasise the positives of the great retreat indoors (and was rightly acclaimed for so doing). Le Bon, by contrast, grapples head on with the dread and the magical thinking we were all going through in 2020.
“I want to cry, I’m out of my mind trying to figure it out”, she menacingly intones on the single, Moderation. Here and elsewhere she sounds like Kate Bush singing from a place of darkness and solitude, accompanied by quietly whirring indietronica and by choruses that crash in like waves against a mournful shore. There is defiance. But also fear and confusion.
“There were so many people who thought they knew what was going to happen. You’d be saturated with all these opposing ideas. ‘Well, I think we’re going to go into lockdown this week’. Or, ‘I think this, or I think that’…I was flipping between despair and optimism.”
Pompeii came from her reflections on how human suffering is often commodified and trivialised. The ruins from which the record takes its title are a monument to a natural disaster that wiped out an entire city. However, Pompeii today has gift shops and tourists wielding selfie sticks.
“You can be somewhere of tremendous suffering and horror. And you can buy a keyring,” says Le Bon. “It’s so indicative of how ridiculous life is. These things live alongside each other. Extreme horror and total frivolousness.”
Le Bon was born Cate Timothy in 1983. “Le Bon” is her tribute to Simon Le Bon, though her music does not have an especially blatant debt to Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf or A View to a Kill. She grew up in Penboyr, a south Wales townland about 130km from Cardiff and attended the local Welsh-language school. A teenager in the 1990s, her formative years as a music fan coincided with the “Cool Cymru” movement. This was a Celtic-hued pushback against Britpop’s fish and chips nationalism, spearheaded by artisanal indie rockers the Super Furries and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.
“People were putting on Welsh language gigs. It was the Super Furry Animals and the Gorkys that were the most exciting thing to me. That I felt like I owned, because I was Welsh and had these opportunities to see them play in strange little venues across Wales. And because of how totally, authentically disregarding they were of the Britpop scene. They just did whatever the f*** they wanted. It was so inspiring. To be 13 and be exposed to that.”
Completely at ease in their Welshness, these artists would perform in their native language as readily as in English. “They were singing in their mother tongue. I remember reading a review of Mwng [the Super Furries Welsh language record from 2000]. And [the journalist] was like, ‘they think they’re being so clever releasing a record in Welsh’. And you just think, ‘no, they’re just singing in their language. What’s clever about that?’. There’s a lack of understanding.”
She was soon more than an observer. Le Bon toured with Rhys in 2007 and the following year sang on Neon Neon, his concept project about the doomed DeLorean car factory in Belfast. Four Le Bon solo LPs followed. Alas, by 2017 she was feeling burnt out and so took a break from music to learn to be a furniture maker in scenic Cumbria.
“I went up to the Lake District to take a year off music. Because music is something I loved so much. When you do something you love for a job, you run the risk of it becoming habit over heart. I was in the cycle of making the record and touring the record. It becomes this habit. I love music so much I wanted to let it be and have a little rest. I’d toured so much I couldn’t figure out what my relationship with it was any more.”
She returned a qualified furniture maker – and with an album, Reward, that became the biggest hit of her career. It was praised by Rolling Stone magazine for its “sonically diverse tracks… delicately layered in texture, accompanied by Le Bon’s swelling vocals that deliver short, surreal lyrics”. Pitchfork swooned over the “breezy synths” and “patient, crystalline momentum”.
Reward also earned Le Bon her first Mercury Music Prize nomination, in 2019. She didn’t win. She was, though, witness to one of the most memorable recent Mercury ceremonies, at which rapper Slowthai held up a dummy of Boris Johnson’s decapitated head and yelled “F*** Boris”.
“It was a very strange experience for us all,” she said. “But you can’t oversubscribe to those things. Because they start to dictate more than they should.”
Le Bon left Wales for the United States eight years ago. Being Welsh in the US brings with it a novelty factor. Hardly a day goes by, she says, without someone impersonating her accent, though she tries to take these parodies in the spirit in which they are intended. She obviously misses home, but has found a new place to belong in her adopted HQ of Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert.
California’s sun-bleached interior is certainly a change from south Wales. For instance, a few kilometres from her house stands a twinkling, flying saucer-shaped structure which, or so insisted its designer, George Van Tassel, was engineered with the help of aliens.
“It’s called the Integraton. You should look it up,” says Le Bon. “It’s a long story. Too long to go into here. There’s all these ley lines and all these strange things which have happened around here.”
The Integraton was built in 1957 by Van Tassel, a former aircraft mechanic who said extraterrestrials had shared with him the secrets of human rejuvenation and time travel. It isn’t the only strange artefact to manifest out in the deep desert. The Mojave inspired U2 to name their most successful album The Joshua Tree.
And now there is Le Bon, a Carmarthenshire native whose new LP winkles with the sort of gorgeous eccentricity of which Van Tassel and his fellow ley lines worshippers would approve
“It sounds so weird but living here, you get the sense you’re passing through,” she says. “You don’t own anything. You are simply passing through. And that’s a really beautiful thing to wake up to everyday.”
Pompeii is released February 4th. Cate Le Bon plays the National Concert Hall, Dublin, Saturday, March 19th.