While it could be said that Cate Le Bon's rich voice and unconventional phrasing recalls the Velvet Underground's Nico, the Welsh singer's pastoral folk-rock, which tilts precipitously into a punk-psychedelic realm, is unique and feral.
As its title indicates, Le Bon's sophomore album, CYRK, the followup to her 2009 debut, Me Oh My, is a gentle sort of circus with sonic high-wire feats and adventurous arrangements. Aided by Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys and producer Krissie Jenkins, Le Bon has shaped songs which unwind restlessly with fragile discord, punctuated with blasts of fuzzed-out guitar, and somersault through CYRK like slightly anarchic acrobats.
Her UK tour officially launches tonight, April 23, in London and she'll be touring Europe this May with Perfume Genius.
Cate and her bandmates — keyboardist Huw Evans, drummer Daniel Ward (of the band Lawrence Arabia) and bassist Robin Edwards, recently visited The Alternate Side and played a set of songs from CYRK, including "Falcon Eyed" and "Fold The Cloth." Listen to that session on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, April 27, at 11 a.m. EDT or streaming on The Alternate Side:
Kara Manning: Didn’t you run amuck with Super Furry Animals’ instruments and effects for this album?
Cate Le Bon: Oh yeah, we were really lucky to have access to some amazing guitars and pedals, alot of keys and synths which were just fantastic. It was so much fun.
Kara: So you tried to use as much as you could on this record?
Cate: Not intentionally. We just had access to some great stuff. And I think we mostly played around with more stuff than we actually recorded. We had a ginormous box of percussion as well. That was probably my favorite day recording was using a ratchet on “Through the Mill.”
Kara: It’s interesting that you titled a song “Julia” on [CYRK] because there so many reference points to the famous song “Julia” by the Beatles. There was no connection, was there?
Cate: It’s a song about the song. It’s about that song looping around and around because there was a time I became obsessed. I rediscovered the Beatles which is fantastic. I’m not saying I discovered the Beatles! I personally rediscovered! (laughs). But yes, I became obsessed with the song “Julia.”
Kara: That rediscovery of the Beatles; did that inform much of the record? You seem to dive headlong into a lot of the psychedelic sounds of the 60s and play around with those elements on this record.
Cate: Yeah, there’s a good chance. Maybe not intentionally but if you listen to the Beatles as intensely as we did, then it’s going to trickle in. A blueprint for all great music.
Kara: Was the "white album" [The Beatles] a personal favorite of yours?
Cate: Oh, it changes. I’m all about Let It Be, but they’re all my favorites actually.
Kara: I first got to know you via Neon, Neon, the project with Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip. You were on the song “I Lust You,” and people heard you in a more mainstream way, but you’d already had an EP ["Edrych yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg"] released at that point. Do you enjoy experimenting a lot with different elements of who you are?
Cate: When I write songs it’s quite a quick, natural process. There’s no grafting in that way to try to create something that I have in mind. I like it to happen quickly which is why I always choose not to go into the studio for short amount of time, to come up with spontaneous, organic stuff. I’m sure there’s so many different styles and artists that have influenced me. I probably am unaware of it, maybe.
Kara: The title track of CYRK, your new album, has a beautiful line of: “I’ve always loved the movement of trees, find me a place where I can watch the breeze.” So much of your music seems grounded in the outdoors, by the sea. Is that often the starting point for you?
Cate: Yeah, I think so. It always seems to creep in, you know? A longing for my love of the natural world. The sea. I think, especially when you’re writing lyrics, you’re always drawn to things that move you and are dear to you.
Kara: Walking into this album from this last record, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do or was it more happenstance?
Cate: I’m not one of these people who records songs, demos songs, before going into the studio because I want it to be imbued with a sense of fun as well when you’re recording. I think that kind of comes across. Things happen and you just allow them to!
Kara: You toured a lot with St. Vincent. Was opening for Annie [Clark] edifying some way?
Cate: It was incredible actually, being on tour with her. She’s a fantastic musician and a very generous person. Touring with her bandmates as well, who are incredible musicians and have toured for years and years. I think I learned a lot from then all, really. Watching someone like Annie who works so ridiculously hard and is such a fantastic composer and incredible performer; it makes you think, “Oh, I’d better step up my game!”
Kara: Do you have one really special memory of that tour?
Cate: Loads of great things happened. They were kind enough to take me on the tour bus with them and by the end had me singing backing vocals with them. I think it was Halloween and we had a night off in Washington D.C. — which I later found out was the murder capitol of America.
Kara: One of many.
Cate: And we had been out for some tequilas and on the way back to the hotel we saw this incredible graveyard so the three girls — myself, Annie and Toko [Yasuda] — and Alan went running around the graveyard. It was so beautiful and there was a full moon. Then we looked across and there were three deer just grazing in the graveyard and then we chased them. They ran off.
Kara: The video for “Fold the Cloth” has you running through fields with a little flaxen-haired girl. Is that a relative?
Cate: That my niece! And today, my sister had twins as well. I’ve become an auntie for the third and fourth time! “Fold the Cloth” is one of the first songs I wrote for the album but it’s about whether or not you should return to your roots or go and make new roots somewhere else.
Kara: Is that a dilemma you face? You live in Cardiff now but you’re from the country.
Cate: I often think that I’d like to move abroad, but I’m so close to my family and to where I grew up. I have no idea.
Kara: Your arrangements on CYRK are really unique. There’s one song, “Greta,” in which a trumpet literally stumbles in like a drunk, reels around and stumbles out. In conceiving these arrangements, was it a long process?
Cate: Again, it just comes from working quickly and working with friends and no one ever says, “No, that’s a stupid idea.”
Kara: You worked with Krissie Jenkins, as producer. What is it about working with him that you enjoy?
Cate: Firstly, he’s just awesome. He has no ego or designs to put his mark on other people’s music. He is able to get the most incredible live sound and more than anything, he’s just so much fun to work with because if I did say to him, “Listen, I want to do this and I know it sounds a bit like it won’t work” and he says, “No! Let’d do it! Sounds great!”
Kara: How did you meet him?
Cate: He used to play percussion for Super Furry Animals. He came to one of the shows when I opened for the Furrys in Cardiff and he asked me if I wanted to record with him.
Kara: You’re a terrific guitar player and your dad taught you when you were growing up?
Cate: Yes, he taught me how to play chords? He’s a wonderful father with girls, only girls, and I think he thought out of all the girls, I might be the best bet of trying to have a jamming partner. So he taught me to play guitar purely so he could riff over my chord progressions.
Kara: So when did he realize that the student had surpassed the teacher?
Cate: Oh, that’s still to come! He thinks he’s the greatest guitarist that ever was.
Kara: Does he critique your records?
Cate: Whoa! Does he (laughs). When he opens up a conversation about the album I just know it’s time to shut that one down as quickly as possible! But he’s great.
Kara: You’ve had a real champion in Gruff Rhys too. Do you bounce ideas off of him? Has he been a guide?
Cate: Oh yeah, he’s been very much like a mentor. I’ve been so fortunate. I have a holy trinity of people who, not that I don’t care about other peope’s opinion, but there’s three people whose opinions count the most to me and that’s Gruff, Huw [Evans] and a guy called Rick [Tomlinson] who under the name Voice of the Seven Thunders. They’re all phenomenal musicians. But Gruff, he should start up a music consultancy business. He helped out with the tracklisting to this record and came up with some great ideas. He did [the tracklisting].
Kara: You asked him to do the backing vocals on “Falcon Eyed”?
Cate: No, he said to me that he had an idea and thought that it needed some sort of wailing in the background so he set up a mike in my house in Cardiff. My housemate is Steve. He recorded us wailing in the dining room. [Gruff's] got a high voice! It’s incredible, his range.
Kara: Cate, you have such an unique voice and I know you’ve gotten plastered with a lot of Nico comparisons. What is your relationship with your own voice?
Cate: Well, I think I sound like a man.
Kara: You do? Why?
Cate: I don’t know. I never really sang in choirs in school or went down that road. We sang a lot as a household when I was growing up, we’d just break into song.
Kara: Does the fact that you’re bilingual — Welsh and English — play a part in your phrasing, your cadence, your lyric writing?
Cate: I struggle writing lyrics in Welsh for some reason. I often go to Huw and have him do it for me. I think it’s more to do with my songwriting than my bilingual-ness. It might just be the way songs flow, the lilt.
Kara: Do you like your voice?
Cate: I’m quite indifferent to it. When I was touring with St. Vincent, Huw showed me a tweet and it simply said, “Why is St. Vincent being supported by a Viking?” (laughs).
Kara: What [prompted] the decision to split [the song "Plouging Out"] in two?
Cate: There was pressure to maybe write another song for the album — and this is a terrible answer and it makes me feel like a bad person — because you can’t sell an album on iTunes if it’s only nine songs long. You have to sell it a lot cheaper; it doesn’t count as an album, I don’t think. Something like that. As opposed to mixing up this great tracklisting that Gruff had slaved over for me, it just seemed like the right thing to do. Instead of adding another track to the mix, maybe just call it “Part 1” and “Part 2.” Which I guess, in many ways, it’s “Part 1” and “Part 2.” It’s a song about adoration for someone.