“It looks like the bottom of the ocean, the light is completely different. And the perspective of time changes out here. The days are so long.” Down the line, Cate Le Bon is describing the beauty of desert living. “Everything is so still,” she says. “Sound travels differently out here. It feels like you’re in a vacuum, and you choose when you want to break the seal.”
She still speaks about the Mojave with the wonderment of a newcomer; the events of the past two years mean that she has spent perhaps just two months in the home she bought in Joshua Tree, California. Instead, she pinged around the globe from Wales to Topanga Canyon, anything to keep working; producing records for John Grant and Devendra Banhart and recording her own sixth album, the spectacular Pompeii, the follow-up to her Mercury-nominated 2019 album Reward.
Since 2008, Le Bon has been one of the most idiosyncratic musicians in the UK, sought out for collaborations by pop-adjacent peers such as Gruff Rhys, St Vincent, John Cale and Deerhunter. Her own music has depth, strangeness and wonder: ornate synths meet lugubrious brass, slivers of guitar, kaleidoscopic lyrics and a voice that can be sweet and dusky, elastic and chilling.
When the first murmurings of the pandemic began, Le Bon was due to head to Iceland to begin work on Grant’s album. This was some while before the restrictions of grounded flights and global lockdowns, and so she and her longtime collaborator and co-producer Samur Khouja chose to travel “hopefully” to Reykjavik, believing then that soon it might all pass.
It was only when Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa flew out to join the recording sessions that Le Bon began to wonder whether things might be more serious. Within a day, Mozgawa’s parents insisted she had to fly back to Sydney before the borders shut. “That was the moment where we all went: ‘Oh shit! This is real! And so on the Wednesday morning I was driving her through the most alien landscape at 5am to the airport. And we were just both wide-eyed going: what the hell is going on?”
From Iceland, Le Bon watched the world close down, saw live music halt, and friends across the arts suddenly having to seek new employment in supermarket warehouses. At the end of April she made it to the UK to stay at her family’s home in west Wales, a glorious spell of good weather and rare family time. She felt some guilt at her good fortune. “Everything felt so calm and you’re freed from the agenda of a plan.”
Le Bon, Khouja, and Le Bon’s partner, the musician and painter Tim Presley, ended up in a friend’s house in Cardiff where Le Bon had once lived in her 20s. She talks about the sense of strange familiarity, “remembering instinctively where all the light switches were, and I knew all the sounds of the house, and all those things you kind of store in your body, and you start thinking: what else am I storing that I’m not aware of?”
There was the added dichotomy of being “somewhere so familiar but so detached from it all. I’m in the city where my best friends are, but I’m still talking to them on FaceTime because it was during the lockdown.”
This was some distance from the original plan for this album, which they wanted to record in Chile or Norway, “somewhere where we could be completely removed from anywhere familiar, any comforts. Where we could really lean into shedding, and this idea of becoming invisible because you’re free of all those things.” Le Bon jokes that the work she, Khouja and Presley made in this time could be seen as “a product of three people losing their minds in a terrace house” but it is Le Bon’s finest work to date – inquisitive, beautiful, witty and wise. “I tried to lean into what John Keats calls ‘negative capability’,” she says, when asked how the times bled into the songs. “Where you stop striving for reason and you stop trying to solidify things and you lean into the chaos of them. And I guess you try to shelve fear, and you lean into hope and curiosity.”
She tried to embrace the absurdity of the situation – “I love dadaism, and the idea of Cabaret Voltaire and all these things that emerged in really bleak times” – and leaned into the absurd for Pompeii’s lyrics, too. “Absurdity doesn’t mean that something doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t mean that something doesn’t have emotion,” she says. “Absurdity isn’t nonsense to me. Often writing these things, I knew I didn’t fully understand them, but they felt right, and I knew that they were almost like letters to my future self that would become apparent. So I just trusted. You’ve got to trust your gut.”
She listened a great deal to Music for Saxofone and Bass Guitar by Sam Gendel and Sam Wilkes – “a record that felt like an extended moment, that you don’t really break, where the lighting almost stays the same throughout” – and endeavoured to make something similar. “Where you listen to it and it can feel a little claustrophobic, and then at different times of the day it feels quite freeing and it plays with the perspective of time.”
Freed from the usual restrictions of studio bookings, she and Khouja could spend time “deconstructing and reconstructing the songs” over and over. “For me this is the most enjoyable way to make something,” she says. “Where you can start something in the morning, and by the evening you’ve completely changed its character, you’ve rebuilt it, you’ve broken it down and found the stone that sings, and then you rebuild it around that.”
Le Bon has worked with Khouja since he engineered her 2013 breakthrough Mug Museum. “I’ve been in studios, would you believe, where men tell you that this isn’t possible and you’re doing something wrong – like, for fuck’s sake. And Samur was just completely devoid of all that bullshit,” she says. “We’ve worked together so much now that sometimes it’s just a look, and he knows exactly what I’m thinking. I think maybe in another life we could be a detective team.”
And for all the global restrictions, recording Pompeii was, Le Bon says, “probably the most free I’ve felt. In that strange time of thinking about all this existential dread and thinking about the future of music and what you want for yourself, there’s this idea that maybe it’s the last thing you’ll ever make, or there won’t be anyone to hear this. I could be dead by the end of this. And there’s something quite freeing about that, strangely.”
When it came time to record the saxophones, restrictions had lightened. They relocated to a converted chapel studio in west Wales, where they were joined by old friends Euan Hinshelwood and Stephen Black. “It was beautiful,” she says. “We spent four days doing saxophones, and then on the last night we drank about 10 bottles of wine and we danced for six hours. That joy of being around these people who you realise you need, and to celebrate, because you don’t have the words, you just dance.”
In the room next door, Presley was busy painting. One afternoon he came into the studio and showed Le Bon and Samur a painting “that just floored us both”, she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how it hadn’t existed that morning when we were having coffee, and now it exists and it’s having this profound effect on us all. I kept thinking about what Virginia Woolf calls ‘the enormous eye’ and that’s what he’d accomplished in a way. He’d just sat down, no preconceptions, no exterior influence, just leant into hope and curiosity and allowed himself to create this thing that was really kind of spooky and beautiful, beyond words.” The picture now graces the cover of Pompeii. It shows Le Bon, wide-eyed in a white habit, part-icon, part Joan of Arc: a moment when the seal was still unbroken.
Pompeii is released on 4 February.