Brightening the Corners of Folk Rock
Cate Le Bon on Dead Animals, Pavement, and Not Being Nico
Cate Le Bon's childhood sounds both idyllic and horrific. She grew up in the rural Wales town of Penboyr, about 90 minutes from the country's capital, Cardiff. On her family farm, Le Bon witnessed the death of many animals. (What they don't tell you is that one of the most abundant by-products of a farm is grief.) While the cumulative bummer of so much loss provided fodder for later songwriting, Le Bon reached a threshold with that grim situation and headed to Cardiff to try to realize her musical dreams.
On the idyllic side, though, Le Bon's early years were enlivened by her father, a music fanatic who taught Le Bon how to play guitar when she was a wee lass. They would jam together on weekends instead of watching television, a tradition more folks should embrace. Pops also made what Le Bon calls "killer mixtapes" for her and exposed his daughter to his excellent record collection, where she first heard Neil Young, the Velvet Underground, and Pavement. It was the latter's 1997 LP Brighten the Corners that really triggered Le Bon's lust to make her own music.
"Hearing Pavement for the first time when I was 13 was a big changing moment in my relationship with music," Le Bon says over the phone from Brooklyn, where she's preparing for her upcoming US tour in support of her new album, Cyrk (on former Seattleite Nabil Ayers's label, the Control Group).
"Around that time, I was in school and trying to find my own identity, which unfortunately was going along the Red Hot Chili Peppers/Rage Against the Machine path," says Le Bon, who is not related to Duran Duran's Simon; her real last name is Timothy. "My father could see me going that way. He sat me down and said, 'You really need to listen to this record.' I had no idea what [Pavement] looked like, if [the album] was current or old, I just knew that I loved it. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before. [Stephen Malkmus's] song structure and guitar playing, his lyrics... it was a brilliant thing for my dad to turn me on to."
Le Bon also cites hearing the Welsh groups Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Super Furry Animals during the '90s Britpop explosion as being motivational for her own creative aspirations. "They were doing amazingly unique, psychedelic, beautiful, mysterious music," she gushes. "Being exposed to them at a young age was the most beneficial thing about living in Wales at that time."
Around 2007, SFA frontman Gruff Rhys discovered Le Bon performing at a Welsh club and asked her to open for his band on an upcoming tour. He also enlisted her to sing in his electronic side project with American hiphop producer Boom Bip, Neon Neon. But being a diva for a beats-oriented band eventually gave way to working on her debut full-length, Me Oh My, during a two-week break on Neon Neon's 2008 tour. It's a startlingly assured record, full of gripping gravitas, folk-rock (sometimes verging on pastoral prog) melodies built to last, and Le Bon's courtly, stoic voice. The latter element has drawn many comparisons to the Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, due to Le Bon's stern inflections and deep timbre. But Le Bon seems to be singing with an arched brow as opposed to Nico's eternally furrowed one. Le Bon's music is dark, yes, but it doesn't plumb Nico's dismal depths—not yet, anyway.
"I'm not mental," Le Bon says with a laugh. "When I started writing songs, I realized they had to be about something. The only experiences I'd had at that point were all these deaths happening to animals. It was never intended to be morbid, although there were songs on Me Oh My that were about that, but not in a morbid fashion. 'It's Not the End' is actually about me taking revenge on the boy who shot my cat."
The new Cyrk rocks slightly harder and more psychedelically than its predecessor, especially the leadoff track, "Falcon Eyed," which rampages and idles with bracing vigor, like a cross between the Fall and the Velvet Underground at their uptempo best. The rest of Cyrk downshifts to more regal tempos, but the tunesmithing remains lofty throughout. One listen to the album and you can understand why St. Vincent's Annie Clark wanted Le Bon to open for her band on its latest North American jaunt. Le Bon's songs exude poise, but when they bust out of their classically contoured forms, the freak-out shocks you out of your loafers. A lot of smart music fans are going to be wonderstruck by this woman's songs, redolent as they are of the Welsh countryside's bucolic and brutal bounty. Get harvesting.