Cate Le Bon Taps the Well of Absurdity

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“There are certain words I find myself foraging for late at night.”

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Sam Lefebvre | April 12, 2016

Cate le Bon

Photo by Ivana Kličković.

Welsh songwriter Cate Le Bon once said that she acquired her French surname from a “joke that went too far,” perhaps unwittingly foreshadowing the inventive use of language that distinguishes her consummate new album, Crab Day. Le Bon, 33, moved from Wales to Los Angeles in 2013 to record Mug Museum, which showcased her nimble arrangements and quietly devastating vocals like little in her catalog prior. Hermits on Holiday, a deconstructive collaboration with White Fence’s Tim Presley under the moniker Drinks, appeared last year. As Le Bon explains in the following interview, the side-project proved reinvigorating. Crab Day, due Friday on Drag City, is anchored by circuitous melodies and metaphors alike–the results of inhibitions shed, the mocking mouth of the sea, and the staggering power of nonsense.

Tell me about the title of your new record, Crab Day.

It’s obviously a made up holiday, which kind of sets the tone of the record. A lot of the lyrics come from ideas about nonsense and fabrication, and the fear and comfort that come from them. Crab Day could be a holiday that’s hugely important to one person and means absolutely nothing to somebody else.

It also struck me because the ocean and the sea are recurring images in your lyrics. Does the title connect to that? And why do you keep returning to those subjects?

Those are sort of subconscious topics for me, I think, but I’m certainly always drawn to the ocean. It’s such a great metaphor for so many different things. And the record was made overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Right. The press release says it was “lovingly formed in the mouth of the Pacific Ocean.”

It was recorded north of San Francisco in a place called Stinson. It made sense to me because we were involved with something that at the time we thought was hugely important, but then we had this ocean that’s been there and will be there for longer than anything we make. It seemed to be completely and in the most wonderful way mocking us, putting everything into perspective. The band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci have a song called “Only the Sea Makes Sense”, and I thought about that song every day while making this record.

People often connect your upbringing in Wales to your music and your outlook, so I’m wondering how the move has impacted your songwriting. In other words, is this a Los Angeles record, to your mind?

I’m not too sure. Without realizing it, probably. I’m sure in ten years later if I listen again that’ll make sense, like it sounds like it was written here. But I think getting older was the biggest influence. That had the most effect.

I see. Tell me more about how getting older that manifests on the record.

The older I get the more a sense of abandonment I feel, the less I worry about small things. Partly because of growing older, I feel like it’s the least inhibited record that I’ve made. … Also, after making Mug Museum I really started to suffer from this horrible jaded attitude.

Did something turn that around?

I made the Drinks record with Tim [Presley]. It was, you know, we were making it for ourselves and there were no expectations of it and we had no expectations about it. And since we didn’t care, we got so much joy and pleasure from it. It made me realize there’s no reason why records I make myself can’t be like that. It reignited my love of music again and made me change my attitude, to allow myself to love it.

You’re reminding me of the Crab Day song, “I Was Born On the Wrong Day”. In another interview you told a story about for years mistakenly believing your birthday was one day and then it turned out to be another. Did that inspire the track?

That was definitely the genesis of it. But it also ties into this idea of a calendar, of Crab Day being made up.

So maybe a big theme of Crab Day is about time being muddled, or looking at time in sort of a nonlinear way.

Yeah, and how it’s inescapable like the sea. Maybe Crab Day is about the absurdity of trying to anchor yourself to something as elusive as time.

One of my favorite tracks on the record is “Love is Not Love”. Can you talk about the lyrics?

It’s about this idea that love is a universal word that everyone recognizes and thinks has a very specific meaning—but it doesn’t. The spectrum of how this word is viewed is immense. It has lots and lots of different meanings depending on who’s using it.

You’ve mentioned isolation and abandonment a couple times and in other interviews you’ve mentioned the same things in relation to growing up in rural Wales. I’m wondering how you see isolation figuring into your experience more recently in Los Angeles?

I’m definitely a person who values my alone time. Last year I lost a dear friend and I started reading essays on solitude, which doesn’t mean loneliness; it means fostering meaningful relationships because you value your time spent alone so much that the time you spend with other people becomes special. In Los Angeles, I thought, ‘Oh now I’m in the city and I should be out and socializing all of the time.’ But it took me a while to realize that’s not the case, that wherever I am it’s important to tend to time with myself.

Your use absurdity and figurative language—does that come from literary interests? How did you arrive at that writing perspective?

Again it’s this realization that you can do what the hell you want when you make a record. There shouldn’t be any self-imposed projections of right and wrong. … There are certain words I find myself foraging for late at night, too. I recently bought a book of Dadaist poetry and you can sense that it’s a reaction to discontent. I love that the words only seem nonsensical—that you can sense their origins and feel their power of exclamation.

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