Strange Rewards: Cate Le Bon Dropped Out Of Music And Made A Mercury-Nominated Masterpiece - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Strange Rewards: Cate Le Bon Dropped Out Of Music And Made A Mercury-Nominated Masterpiece

Strange Rewards: Cate Le Bon Dropped Out Of Music And Made A Mercury-Nominated Masterpiece

Published August 30, 2019

Photos by
Ivana Kličković

At the start of the summer, talk of Cate Le Bon’s beautifully formed new LP ‘Reward’ spread like wildfire. Lauded for its careful production, earworm melodies that unfold at a languid pace, poetic and revealing lyrics and striking arrangements, it was a breakthrough hit. It would go on to receive a nomination for the UK’s high profile Mercury Music Prize, catapulting the record directly into the mainstream.

Cate is still processing the nomination. “People have been asking me: ‘what does it mean for you?’” she says, speaking on the phone from Cardiff. “And while it’s great, there’s also a lot to think about. It’s a complex answer. It’s surreal.”

Catharsis or joy

This isn’t all that’s surreal about ‘Reward’. It was written almost by accident, during a period when Cate decided to decamp to the Lake District to live in a cottage, enrolling in a course to study the craft of furniture making. “The songs were written without the awareness that I was writing a record,” she says. “I was so confused by school I turned to the piano for catharsis or joy. When I realised that I’d written a record—and not in the way that I’d intended to—some of the songs had been around for a long time, and had been company to me.”

“Light and darkness verify one another. It’s important for those two things to always be visible.”

The experience of transitioning from travelling, working, and constantly meeting people to study and solo living is explored lyrically on “Home To You,” one of the most immediate tracks on the album. “I’d changed the structure of my life almost entirely,” she says. “It felt at times very close to normality, but also completely alien. There are massive disparities in what home means to different people. The song is an exploration of all of that.”

A lineage of women

The album travels from the widescreen opener of “Miami”—about, says Cate, a moment in which a major life shift occurred on tour, with the city of Miami as its surreal backdrop—to a feminist reading of the domestic, such as on the track “Mother’s Magazines”.

“That song is about a lineage of women, and what you pass on,” says Cate. “I was thinking about how, even though there’s still horrendous inequality, at least now there’s movement, and a vocabulary exists that people feel comfortable using to talk about it.”

The song also features some insistent and slightly jarring brass arrangements. “There’s a bit of friction there,” says Cate. “Some of the sounds are a little bit harsh. I guess light and darkness verify one another. It’s important for those two things to always be visible.”

Public property

While the album was written in close, solo circumstances, it was recorded in Northern California, and finished in Joshua Tree. Now, Cate will take it on the road on a long tour, including some US dates with Deerhunter, and her first Iceland show at Keflavík’s Hljómahöll.

It promises to be a challenging process. “It’s absolutely terrifying,” she says. “What you craft in privacy becomes public property. You finish mastering and sign it all off, and it’s almost like a defense mechanism to numb yourself to the record and almost reject it. But that’s also when people are hearing it for the first time. To let go of it is pretty strange.”

Cate Le Bon plays at Hljómahöll in Keflavík on September 9th. Tickets are on sale now.

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