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‘It was hard for everybody involved’: Cate Le Bon on the making of Mercury Prize nominated Reward

The acclaimed artist tells PSNEurope about the challenges she faced in making her Mercury Prize nominated album

Photo by Ivana Kličković

Last year, Cate Le Bon relocated from her current base in LA to a cottage halfway up a mountain in the Lake District to start writing her new, self-produced album Reward. Here, she tells Daniel Gumble about working in isolation and the therapeutic effects of building furniture… 

There’s a beguiling ambiguity that flows through Cate Le Bon’s work that few, if any, of her contemporaries could lay claim to. At once disarmingly intimate and confoundingly abstract, her compositions and production techniques are possessed of an experimental edge that’s both complex and childlike; her combination of lilting, melancholy melodies with jagged, intricate instrumentation has become something of a signature.

It’s a sound she’s been perfecting for the past decade, with her 2009 debut Me Oh My turning 10 years old this year. Her peerless body of work is now five albums strong and liberally peppered with numerous critically- lauded side projects and extra curricular activities, from her other band Drinks and producing Deerhunter’s latest record Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? to guest appearances with the likes of Gruff Rhys and Manic Street Preachers. And her new record, Reward (out on May 24), arguably represents the purest distillation of her unique style to date.

After relocating to Los Angeles from her native Wales a few years ago, Le Bon decided that a drastic change of scenery was required in order for work to begin on her latest album. And drastic it was, as she waved goodbye to the sunny climes of California for an isolated cottage midway up a mountain in the Lake District, where she was holed up on her own for the best part of a year with a secondhand piano writing what would eventually become Reward. That, and learning how to build her own furniture. “The process of making a piece of furniture mirrored the art of making an album,” Le Bon explains, taking her seat with us in a bustling East London hotel restaurant. “You’re constantly battling with this material to turn it into the thing you imagine it to be. And fortunately I learned the skill of patience at furniture school, otherwise we’d have been dead in the water on this record! Writing the record and attending furniture school… there were a lot of disciplines I learned that helped me navigate the difficulties these songs were throwing up.”

The difficulties to which Le Bon refers arose largely after the album was written, when a trip back across the Atlantic for recording and mixing sessions at a studio in California’s Stinson Beach proved problematic.

“I had [producer and collaborator] Josiah Steinbrick come out to the Lake District to hear the songs in the setting they were written in so he could get a sense of where my head was at, and to try and maintain that sense of solitude that existed in the creation of the songs,” she recalls. “You can’t always be creative and critical at the same time, so for me he was the perfect person to bring onboard. Then we took it all the way to Stinson Beach. “We were hoping to get the record done in a period of two weeks but it became obvious it was going to be a longer process. The songs were just more formed and almost like solid structures, because I’d lived with them and worked on them for so long by myself.

“The studio is in the middle of downtown, and it was just the wrong place and time to work on this record; we managed to get some great guitar contributions from Josh Klinghoffer but aside from that it wasn’t a very successful session. There was a little bit of friction and it wasn’t in keeping with the feel of the record, so we spent some time ruminating and took the record to Joshua Tree to finish it. I’d been to Cardiff to record saxophone and guitar lines at some points, but it was really in Joshua Tree that everything started to make sense.”

As for why Stinson Beach didn’t yield the intended results, she explains: “Everywhere else we were able to create these little vacuums and bubbles where everyone is focused on the reason for being there, but as soon as you are in a studio where everyone’s leaving to go to different places, or are late to the studio, it takes a long time for you to all be on the same page… it was just too fractious. And that’s OK, it’s not always going to be an easy process, making a record.”

For the first time on one of her own records, Le Bon was credited as producer on Reward, a role she was more than prepared for given her production work with other artists, as well as the forensic attention to detail she applies to each and every aspect of her work.

“An artist is always going to be a co-producer of their record, whether their name is on the sleeve or not,” she asserts. “But this record was done in so many different parts and with different configurations… there were many times I was by myself so I guess it’s the first time someone told me I should put my name on there. That said, I’ve worked with the same people for a long time, so there is such a relationship of trust and a really clear vocabulary between us, which is so important in the studio. You’re never really by yourself, and it’s such a nebulous title, producer, so really everyone played a very different part under the umbrella of ‘producer’.”

Elaborating on what the producer title means to her, she continues: “All the jobs I’ve done as a producer have been wildly different. Even during the same record, the job can change daily. “For me, a producer should be someone you trust implicitly, you trust their taste and integrity and know that they are there to facilitate anything you want to do. To push you, help you deviate, but knowing they can bring you back to your starting point. To me, it’s not a techy job, it’s about having somebody you trust to be there with you. That’s what I want from a producer. It can be such a frantic time making a record that you just need that consistency from someone.”

The production process behind Reward differed vastly from that of its 2016 predecessor Crab Day. Where the songs that make up Reward were constructed from the rock solid blueprints drawn up by Le Bon during her stay in the Lake District, Crab Day was built on more fluid foundations.

“The songs [on Reward] were formed in a way that was uncompromising,” Le Bon picks up. “With Crab Day, there was a lot of spontaneous deviation that those songs could hold, but with this album there was a lot of head-scratching. I had to play guitar differently, I had to enlist someone like Josh to come in and play the parts the songs needed but that I stylistically wasn’t able to play myself.”

Ultimately, the trials and tribulations overcome during the making of Reward have played a significant part in shaping a towering record that stands out as Le Bon’s most definitive body of work to date.

“There is a definite identity to all the songs because they were written in a remote location at a time when everything in my life had changed,” she notes. “It was hard for everyone involved at times, but it probably should be, shouldn’t it, when you’re making a record?”

With results like this, who are we to argue?