IN A NUTSHELL
Cate Le Bon was born Cate Timothy in Carmarthenshire, Wales in 1983. (Her stage surname is a reference to the lead singer of Duran Duran, a joke that went “too far”.) She grew up in a music loving family - her Dad gave her CDs by Pavement and Nirvana and her parents encouraged afternoons listening to the family stereo instead of watching TV. She had, by her own account, a fairly idyllic upbringing.
Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals was an early mentor; she toured with him as a support act, sang on Stainless Style, the first album by his Neon Neon project and he even wrote early press releases for her. (He memorably described an early single as: “Bobbie Gentry and Nico fight over a Casio keyboard. Melody wins!” The description was almost too good. While there is something undeniably Velvet-esque about her sound, the Nico comparison has become a path of least resistance; a journalistic descriptor, verbally sanding down all of her other idiosyncratically rough edges.)
She is bilingual and her first solo release, the Edrych yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg EP (2008) was sung in Welsh. This translates as Looking In The Eyes Of A Borrowed Horse, which means roughly the same thing as to look a gift horse in the mouth. Her debut album Me Oh My came out the following year on Irony Bored records. She fell in love with America after touring there with St Vincent in 2011. Not long after completing her first solo tour of the States in 2013 she moved to Los Angeles where she still lives.
Crab Day, released in 2016, was the game changing album for Cate, bringing her to international prominence. The temporal and spatial dissonance that fractures the record is a strength rather than a weakness. In lesser hands the collision of Downtown Manhattan, 1967; São Paulo, 1966; Cardiff, 1996; the Sussex Downs, 1959; the Appalachian Mountains, 1942; Munich 1970 etc. would constitute a madman’s breakfast, but here is the work of an assured hand with clear sight.
As well as her solo work, she releases idiosyncratic avant pop as one half of DRINKS with Tim Presley of White Fence and performs in an improvisational unit called BANANA. She is an in demand producer, having worked with Deerhunter on the recent Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? album. Her fifth LP Reward is out soon on Mexican Summer.
It’s worth noting that Gruff Rhys was an initial mentor to Cate as the pair can seem, to English eyes at least, to bookend a period of shifting perceptions regarding the Welsh language and popular culture.
When Gruff’s band Super Furry Animals released their first Welsh language album, Mwng in 2000, it seemed to many (although not all) monoglot English commentators of the day either an act of wilful obscurantism or incredibly exotic. Very few seemed to grasp the idea that it was simply an overdue act of natural progression. Rhys was just one of a very large number who spoke Welsh as their native tongue with English merely being a second language; perhaps useful more for practical than aesthetic reasons. And whilst it’s an interesting strategy for songwriters to compose lyrics in other languages - commendable even - perhaps it’s the earlier English language Super Furry Animals LPs that should be regarded as obscure or exotic. It was simply natural for him to write most of the tracks on Mwyng in his first tongue. (The song Dacw Hi was penned by the proto-SFA group Ffa Coffi Pawb and Y Teimlad is a cover version of an original track by Datblygu, the cult experimental band from Cardigan.)
SFA were not by any means the first rock or pop band to sing in Welsh and Datblygu and Ffa Coffi Pawb are only the tip of this particular iceberg. Y Blew (The Hairs) are considered by many to be the first Welsh language rock band and they released their first and only single Maes B in 1967.
The Alarm were an extraordinarily popular anthemic rock band in the mid-80s, so one could look at their act of releasing Newid in 1989 - a Welsh language version of their Change LP from the same year as a particularly bold and useful statement. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll also discover the joys of 80s noise rock types Fflaps; Y Cyrff who went on to become Catatonia (who also occasionally sang in Welsh) and 90s indie rockers Ectogram.
Those interested in exploring further could do worse than starting with a copy of the 1985 compilation album Cam O'r Tywyllwch. And there are some enjoyable and rare psychedelic nuggets gathered together on Finders Keepers’ Welsh Rare Beat series. Super Furry Animals (with notable help from Gorky's Zygotic Mynci among others) merely helped normalise to outsiders what should have appeared normal all along.
Mwng came out of an interesting period in the band’s development. SFA, who remain one of the greatest European rock bands to come to prominence in the 90s, hit a bit of a commercial stumbling block by the end of that decade, even though creatively they were still performing at full tilt. The band were near the top of their game in pop terms in 1999, releasing singles such as Northern Lites, Do Or Die and Fire In My Heart but they were commercially lacklustre. When none of them entered the top ten (probably due to lack of radio support rather than lack of quality), the band declared that they were going on ‘pop strike’. They’d been writing songs in Welsh but saw this as an opportunity to release a whole album, telling the NME in May of 2000 that if their songs weren’t going to get on the radio they might as well record a full set of songs in Welsh that wouldn’t get played on the radio.
The press, as always, were just suffering from a bit of a lag and in a just about pre-internet era. Perhaps not all London-based writers and English music fans in general had a full grasp on the extent of the history of Welsh language pop music. Interestingly enough, Mwyng didn’t do noticeably any worse than Guerilla; the former got to number 11 in the charts, the latter only to 10. And in some ways Mwyng was the actual victor as it was the first Welsh language LP to reach the top 20 of the album charts. It remains the largest selling Welsh album of all time, its impact starting a process of change which can still be felt today. To a certain degree it was the supposed novelty of the record that helped kickstart this process. It was discussed in the Houses Of Parliament later that year by Elfyn Llwyd and received lengthy reviews in The Telegraph and The Times - something that would previously have been unthinkable for Welsh language rock music.
Just a mere eight years later, by the time Cate Le Bon released the Edrych yn Llygaid Ceffyl Benthyg EP, the issue of singing in Welsh was essentially a non-issue in the English speaking press. And today, gratifyingly, it remains so with soul singers such as Merthyr Tydfil’s Kizzy Crawford and electronic producer, Ani Glass of Cardiff, Angharad Van Rijswijk of Carmarthenshire and psych musician R.Seiliog of Peniel remaining the norm. In fact, perhaps the most curious thing about Welsh musician Gwenno’s career isn’t the fact that she released a Welsh language album Y Dydd Olaf in 2014 but that she followed it up with an album sang entirely in Cornish (Le Kov) in 2018.
Who will follow in those particular footsteps? It remains to be seen.
FIVE EASY PIECES: WHERE TO START WITH CATE LE BON
I Lust U by Neon Neon (from Stainless Style, 2008)
Neon Neon was the amazing synth pop/electro clash group created by Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals and backpack hip hop producer, Boom Bip. In 2008, they released their debut album Stainless Style which, to date, is probably the only disco concept album released about the disgraced playboy sportscar entrepreneur, John Delorean. The album boasted plenty of great guest spots including Yo Majesty, Spank Rock and Fab Moretti of The Strokes but the most impressive of these was the appearance of the as then unknown Cate Le Bon on the bittersweet slick 80s Moroder disco of I Lust U.
Are You With Me Now (from Mug Museum, 2013)
The second single from 2013’s Mug Museum, like other songs on the album, Are You With Me Now, was influenced by Cate’s meditation on the life of her grandmother who died while she was writing the album. The Dylanesque slice of existential inquiry defuses any chance of the mood becoming too sombre, with the deployment of a knowing lyrical nod to Tom Jones. (“It's not impossible. It's not unfathomable. It's not unusual, baby.”)
Love Is Not Love (from Crab Day, 2016)
Those concerned that when Cate swapped the green valleys of Wales for the palm tree-lined avenues of Los Angeles she’d be in danger of losing something essential along the way needn’t have worried. Crab Day (an imaginary bank holiday dreamt up by Cate and her young niece as a replacement for April Fools Day) is every bit as inimitable and idiosyncratic as any of her other albums. Her unique arrangements are left, for the most part, skeletal and exposed, even though things are bolstered here and there by horns, wood and marimba, so it’s pretty much brilliant business as usual.
Blue From The Dark by DRINKS (from Hippo Lite, 2018)
Because she works in what could generally be called a pop idiom, casual listeners could be forgiven for missing some of Cate’s more avant garde or experimental leanings. She has a full-blown free improvisational group called BANANA and improvisation also forms the basis of the songwriting process for DRINKS, the duo she formed with American musician Tim Presley of White Fence. Blue From The Dark sounds like it was broadcast from centuries ago and thousands of miles away, despite its deep and glitchy production. Curious, beguiling and hypnotic kraut pop.
Home To You (from Reward, 2019)
An understated second single from the upcoming Reward album, Cate’s first for Mexican Summer. After the relatively mainstream and upbeat Daylight Matters, and preceding the sombre third single, The Light, Home To You really underscores her talent, not just as a songwriter but an arranger of light, space and shade. And for combining a jaunty pop hook with a slightly off kilter production and rueful lyrics (which came from “being around a lot of fed up women”).
CATE LE BON IN QUOTES:
“[The] lack of care [displayed by male journalists while writing about female musicians] continues to peddle the disparity between how women and men are written about and this ‘low burning’ inequality to me is hugely detrimental to people’s attitudes towards women since it’s not so offensive that it causes headlines but it is simply tolerated or often not even picked up on and is allowed to go by the wayside. When DRINKS were being written about the amount of times that Tim was referred to as a musician whilst I was the singer-songwriter in the duo were countless. Seemingly harmless, but when you consider the weight and depiction of those words it’s abhorrent to me. It would never be the other way around and in what is supposed to be a progressive age that bothers me deeply.”
To Hayley Scott, Clash, 2016
“I’d been fantasising about a chance to learn how to build furniture for a long time. Often with those things, you’re waiting for someone else to grant you some kind of permission to do it.
I guess I’ve been in a cycle of recording, touring, making records as DRINKS with Tim Presley. It’s been four or five years in that cycle and I think it’s good to stop and re-prioritise; to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and not because you’re just going through the motions.”
On her decision to combine songwriting with making solid wood furniture in the Lake District, to Ben Cook, Huck, 2019
John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus website. He published an acclaimed memoir about alcoholism, habitual drug use and mental illness, Jolly Lad for Strange Attractor in 2015 and recently wrote and presented a documentary on Aphex Twin for BBC Radio 4. John currently has a series called New Weird Britain, about underground DIY music in the UK, in production for the same station and due to air this year.