Topanga, a canyon community nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains an hour’s drive west of downtown Los Angeles, is a place of contradiction. There is sheer beauty, accessible via 36 miles of hiking trails through protected land. And there is a threat simmering. Wildfires have periodically ravaged the area over the decades, the most recent in 1993 killing 18,000 acres and killing three lives. (Last year’s nearby Palisades Fire was visible from some Topanga peaks.) The co-existence of risk and reward is a routine consideration for people who spend time there, even outside of peak winter season. fires. The winding road slip that allows for a slow, scenic entry is the same route.
Cate LeBon, the Welsh musician, waits on a bench outside Topanga’s Country Natural Foods on a crisp Sunday morning when I stop by. A roadside fender bender blocked my arrival for minutes – the glimpse of crumpled metal a reminder to play it safe in my rental Prius, a welcome California upgrade that sounded with warnings no identifiable. At the top of the steep hill behind her, Le Bon is working on the production Devendra Banhartfrom his upcoming album while preparing to release his shimmering, synth-heavy sixth album Pompeii. (He arrived in February via the Mexican Summer label, with a summer tour now winding through Europe and parts of the US) Le Bon suggested a coffee and a hike, as if he was handing out medicine to a parked New Yorker. Across the street, a folkloric Smokey Bear sign posts a report in soothing green: FIRE HAZARD DOWN TODAY!
Le Bon, who owns a home in Joshua Tree with his partner, Tim Presley, with a location in Wales, initially put down roots in Los Angeles while recording her third album, 2013 Mug Museum; she ended up staying more than three years. “I’ve spent the last six months getting up really early and leaving town, coming to Topanga to hike or going to Malibu to swim in the ocean. Those were, for me, the places where the you could lose and become invisible and get lost in daydreams,” says Le Bon in a café down the street.It took her a while to recognize the connection between those escapes and her output as a musician and writer. “I thought maybe there was something wrong with my work ethic because I didn’t have a repeatable process; I couldn’t sit behind a desk and write and have successful results.Those meanderings and allowing myself to fade away is something I really lean into.
For his latest record, 2019’s acclaimed Reward, Le Bon embarked on a rather monastic retreat, studying furniture making in England’s Lake District by day and keeping company at a piano by night. Any hint of that loneliness had erupted the moment I saw Le Bon perform in Central Park that summer, with a mop of platinum blonde hair. His stylized hand gestures and an air of coolly distant intelligence rang with the same frequency as a Tilda Swinton performance. But to do something new, Le Bon needed to get rid of familiar comforts: “what I think [Virginia] Woolf calls ‘huge eye’, being somewhere where you’re suddenly plugged into that level of creativity that’s uncluttered and uninhibited,” she tells me, leaning on a Rebecca Solnit writing. The full line, taken from Woolf’s 1930 “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” bears repeating: What remains of all those wrinkles and roughnesses is a central pearl of insight, an enormous eye.
Le Bon, 39, wears an olive knit beanie over her ash brown hair, the ends sticking out in an unassuming shag. She describes her initial hopes for hibernation in 2020: maybe a studio in Chile or Norway, “somewhere really isolated, where you could completely get rid of any preconceptions or any idea of an audience”. The pandemic has changed all that. Instead, she found herself holed up at a friend’s house in Cardiff – with Presley and his co-producer, Samur Khouja— where she had lived in her mid-twenties. “It was like a strange journey back in time,” Le Bon says of returning to a home where she instinctively knew her way in the dark. (“Reaching without looking / The switches on the wall,” she sings on Pompeii“Dirt on the Bed,” painting a scene of muscle-memory intimacy.)” You think, “What else am I storing inside that I’m not aware of, but that doesn’t really serve me ?” recalls. At the time when the musician traveled through the music of Gaston Bachelard The poetics of space, which “talks about home as a metaphor for your soul and your memories and all that. I had to stop reading it because it was getting scary. The layering of present and past – revisiting that prior self, to the time when she was still planning a career – was “like catching up on memories of the future from the past,” says Le Bon.She manages to speak clearly and like an enigma in the same breath.
In those early days of confinement, as I listened Reward and unearthing premonitory lyrics (“Sad nudes in my room” prefiguring the realities of single people in quarantine), Le Bon methodically constructed the world of Pompeii– a synth-heavy dreamscape that also has a long tail in present life. Le Bon began to think of the ancient city, buried by the ashes of Vesuvius, as “a playground of human fascination, someone’s last gesture captured in a way that is perhaps misunderstood”. It references the plaster casts made by 19th-century archaeologists, which vividly depicted the negative space left by its last residents: curled up in a fetal position, holding a child with its head in its hands. “You start projecting your own pain and your own feelings into someone’s very last private moment,” warns Le Bon. In a way, the pandemic – with its empty storefronts, canceled plans and lost lives – has us all staring into the void.
“Running Away”, the sixth track of Pompeii, gets off to a playful start, with a bassline that bounces around like a rickrack cutting through a hem. It is a counterweight to lyrics that portend devastating loss, even if the narrator objects. “It’s my pillow and my plate / I don’t care anymore,” Le Bon sings in the opening verse, methodical and stripped down.
“The bass, to me, is such a playful instrument,” says Le Bon, explaining how it guided his songwriting this time around, acting as the backbone of the record and a spiritual tonic. “Choosing the bass to lead, maybe I was trying to take things away from being totally drenched in desperation.” The instrument flirts again in “French Boys”, this time with a suspicious propulsion. Above, the voice of Le Bon sounds between the octaves: “Some noise / About / Some noise”. The line seems both dismissive and disarming, as if reducing the stakes of art and interpretation to naught.