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The Best Of Times... Episode Six: Cate Le Bon
John Doran , May 13th, 2019 07:23

Subscribe to our Best Of Times... podcast series today. This week Róisín Cate Le Bon talks to John Doran about the highs and lows of her career

Download the Best Of Times... podcast with Cate Le Bon here

Welcome to The Best Of Times podcast brought you by Lush and The Quietus. For this series John Doran is talking to people about some of the best and worst times they have been through in order to find out how these experiences have made them who they are today. The podcast is produced and engineered by Andrew Paine and co-produced by Luise London. The theme music is by Oh The Gilt.

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 Neil Young 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 VU-esque about her sound, the Nico comparison has become a path of least resistance; a journalistic catch-all 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. She moved back to Wales recently.

Crab Day, released in 2016, was the game changing album for Le Bon, 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 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 more useful for some practical rather 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 singles weren’t going to get played the radio they might as well record a full set of songs in Welsh that wouldn’t get played on the radio.

The press, in that just about pre-internet era, were lagging behind; perhaps not all London-based writers and English music fans in general had a full grasp on the extent 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 MP 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.

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