Relaxing at her home in Joshua Tree, art pop singer and producer Cate Le Bon has her camera off on account of bad desert wi-fi. Her given name, Cate Timothy, appears instead, centred on the black screen as she speaks candidly. Sitting on the floor, she’s surrounded by suitcases from a recent trip to Topanga where she went to work on Devendra Banhart’s latest album. “I look much like a teenage boy,” Le Bon says in a thick Welsh accent, describing her current appearance. “I’m in an old sweatshirt that a vendor gave me and a pair of sweatpants.” Given that the enigmatic musician is known for her elaborate fashion displays, it’s disarming to picture her dressed down and out of costume. In the music video for one of her latest singles, “Moderation,” she dons turquoise-painted eyes, organza gloves, and a saintly outfit. “Someone asked me today if I see any similarities between myself and a nun,” she says. “Initially I went, ‘What, no what are you talking about?’ Then I started to think about it more, and actually…maybe.”
With nun-like devotion, there’s a deliberate thoughtfulness to Le Bon’s music-making, as if she carves each album out of herself with a scalpel. For 2016’s Crab Day, she invented a holiday called – you guessed it – Crab Day. For Mug Museum, her album with earworm single “Are You With Me Now,” she sculpted 100 mugs by hand to send out with the record. And for her last album, Reward, Le Bon retreated to a tiny English village, alone, to enroll in an intensive year of furniture-making school.
A few years back Le Bon took up woodworking in order to take a break from the constant cycle of churning out music, while deciding whether she even wanted to keep doing it. While she whittled away by day, she tinkered with the piano by night. Alone in an isolated cabin, she was able to rediscover the child-like playfulness of messing around with sounds. Out of this came Reward, and a rather austere-looking chair to accompany it. “I resolved a lot of sticky moments with myself and music through the making of Reward,” says Le Bon. “By the end of it, I had a clearer understanding of how I want to make music and why I make it.”
Le Bon wasn’t expecting her new album, Pompeii, to be born out of isolation as well. She had toyed with the idea of heading to Norway or Chile to record, but in 2020, it soon became clear that a destination album was off the table. She watched as the world holed up inside their houses, not unlike the self-imposed retreat she’d previously done at England’s Lake District just over a year prior. The isolation of her own making felt like a dry run.“All of the things that happened to me mentally when I had taken myself off to the Lake District, I think they would have happened during the pandemic if I hadn’t gone through them then,” says Le Bon.
A big theme in Pompeii is the weird way time warps and circles back to itself. Le Bon ended up recording the album back home in Wales, in a house she’d lived in 15 years prior. She says she felt like she was bumping into her younger self, like a time-bending character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. “You have all these memories of the future that you were kind of projecting,” says Le Bon. “Then to brush up against that, being that person who you imagined in your 20s, it’s like some kind of strange time travel.”
Le Bon found it cathartic, but she tried not to ground too much of the new album in her surroundings. Instead, she turned inwards. Pompeii marks the first time the multi-instrumentalist crafted an album largely by herself, playing every instrument except the drums and saxophones. As a natural and frequent collaborator, this was new. “Especially as a woman, there are plenty of people who will make decisions for you and impose them on you,” says Le Bon. “I think it’s mostly me in this record. Allowing it to be that is new for me, but something that I really enjoy.”
A painting by Tim Presley kept Le Bon company on the studio wall and had a massive influence on Pompeii. While it is not the image on the album cover, it is reminiscent of it. In both, a woman is pictured wearing some sort of head covering, appearing to hold a fist to her chest. On the front of Pompeii, Le Bon looks almost like a valiant nurse of yesteryear, even nun-like. “The painting took on so much meaning. It was so of the moment. We were marinating in all these kinds of fears and this existential tone,” says Le Bon. “You can’t really explain the attraction it holds to a mind that’s foreign to the process of its creation, and I think there’s a real beauty in that.”
Presley and Le Bon now live together in Joshua Tree. Its namesake – a hairy succulent with multiple limbs and spiny tufts on top – feels like a fated metaphor for Pompeii. The plant needs to endure a dormant period of cold weather before flowering. Then, the flower must be pollinated by a single, small insect. Before Le Bon signs off, she describes her surroundings for me. “Outside, it’s a beautiful day. A little bit chilly. Joshua trees everywhere.”
Pompeii is available February 4 via Mexican Summer Records