Cate Le Bon Is a Slippery Tour Guide Through Time and Space

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Topanga, a canyon community tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains, an hour’s drive west of downtown Los Angeles, is a place of contradiction. There is unadulterated beauty, accessible via 36 miles of hiking trails across protected land. And there is a simmering threat. Wildfires have ripped through the area periodically over the decades, with the most recent one, in 1993, claiming 18,000 acres and three lives. (Last year’s neighboring Palisades Fire was visible from certain Topanga hilltops.) The coexistence of risk and reward is a routine consideration for people who spend time there, even outside of peak fire season. The winding slip of road that makes for a slow, scenic entry is the same route out.

Cate Le Bon, the Welsh musician, is waiting on a bench outside Topanga’s Country Natural Foods on a crisp Sunday morning when I pull up. A roadside fender bender stalled my arrival by a few minutes—the glimpse of crumpled metal a reminder to play it safe in my rental Prius, a welcome-to-California upgrade that chirped with unidentifiable alerts. At the top of the steep hill behind her, Le Bon is at work producing Devendra Banhart’s forthcoming album while gearing up to release her own sixth full-length effort—the shimmering, synth-heavy Pompeii. (It arrived in February via the label Mexican Summer, with a summer tour that is now winding through Europe and parts of the U.S.) Le Bon has suggested coffee and a hike, as if doling out medicine to a penned-in New Yorker. Across the street, a folksy Smokey Bear sign issues a report in calming green: FIRE DANGER LOW TODAY! 

Le Bon, who owns a house in Joshua Tree with her partner, Tim Presley, along with a place in Wales, initially set down roots in L.A. while recording her third album, 2013’s Mug Museum; she ended up staying more than three years. “The last six months I spent waking up really early and leaving the city, to come to Topanga to go on hikes or to go to Malibu to swim in the ocean. Those, to me, were the places where you could shed and become invisible and get lost in daydreams,” Le Bon explains at a café down the road. It took her a while to recognize the link between those escapes and her output as a musician and writer. “I thought maybe there was something wrong with my work ethic because I didn’t have a repeatable process; I couldn’t sit behind a desk and draft and have any kind of successful results. That meandering and allowing yourself to disappear is something that I really lean into.” 

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For her last record, 2019’s acclaimed Reward, Le Bon embarked on a rather monastic retreat, studying furniture making in England’s Lake District by day and keeping company with a piano by night. Any hint of that solitude had flashed off by the time I saw Le Bon perform in Central Park that summer, with a shock of platinum blonde hair. Her stylized hand gestures and an air of coolly distant intelligence reverberated at the same frequency as a Tilda Swinton performance.  But to make something new, Le Bon needed to strip away familiar comforts: “what I think [Virginia] Woolf calls the ‘enormous eye,’ being somewhere where you are suddenly tapped into this level of creativity that’s unencumbered and uninhibited,” she tells me, drawing on a Rebecca Solnit essay. The full line, from Woolf’s 1930 “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” is worth repeating: “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central pearl of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.”

Le Bon, 39, is wearing an olive knit hat over her ash-brown hair, the ends peeking out in an unassuming shag. She describes her original hopes for a 2020 hibernation: maybe a studio in Chile or Norway, “a place that was really remote, where you could completely shed any preconceptions or any idea of an audience.” The pandemic upended all that. Instead, she found herself holed up at a friend’s Cardiff place—together with Presley and her co-producer, Samur Khouja—where she had lived in her mid-20s. “It was like a strange time travel,” Le Bon says of coming back to a house where she instinctively knew her way in the dark. (“Reaching without watching / the switches on the wall,” she sings on Pompeii’s “Dirt on the Bed,” painting a scene of muscle-memory intimacy.) “You think about, ‘What else am I storing inside of me that I’m unaware of, but is not really serving me?’” she recalls. At the time the musician was making her way through Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which “talks about the house as a metaphor for your soul and your memories and all that stuff. I had to stop reading it because it was getting spooky.” The act of superimposing present and past tense—revisiting that earlier self, back when she was still plotting out a career ahead—was “like catching up with memories of the future from the past,” Le Bon says. She manages to speak plainly and like a riddle in the same breath. 

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In those early days of lockdown, while I was listening to Reward and picking out prescient lyrics (“Sad nudes in my room” prefiguring the realities of lonely people in quarantine), Le Bon was methodically constructing the world of Pompeii—a synth-heavy dreamscape that similarly has a long tail into present life. Le Bon began to think of the ancient city, buried by Vesuvian ash, as “some playground of human fascination, someone’s final gesture captured in a way that is possibly misunderstood.” She’s referring to the plaster casts made by 19th-century archaeologists, which vividly depicted the negative space left behind by its last residents: curled into fetal position, clutching a child, head in hands. “You start projecting your own pain and your own feelings into someone’s very final private moment,” Le Bon cautions. In a way, the pandemic—with its empty storefronts and canceled plans and lives lost—has us all peering into the void. 

“Running Away,” the sixth track on Pompeii, gets off to a jaunty start, with a bass line that bounces along like rickrack trimming a hem. It’s a counterbalance to lyrics that portend a devastating loss, however much the narrator is steeled against it. “It’s my pillow and plate / to not care anymore,” Le Bon sings in the opening verse, methodical and spare. 

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“Bass, to me, is such a playful instrument,” Le Bon says, explaining how it guided her songwriting this time around, acting as the record’s spine and a spiritual tonic. “In choosing the bass to lead, I was maybe trying to pull things back from being totally drenched in despair.” The instrument flirts again in “French Boys,” this time with a louche propulsion. Over top, Le Bon’s voice pings between octaves: “Some noise / About / Some noise.” The line seems at once dismissive and disarming, as if lowering the stakes for art and interpretation, all the way to nil.