The key to Cate Le Bon’s dazzling new album, Reward, is a chair. Not just any chair — a strikingly minimalist piece in dark-stained oak, which she built herself after finishing a yearlong course on furniture design. “It’s not comfortable, and it’s not particularly beautiful,” says the Welsh musician, 36. “I built myself a strange little throne, really.”
Le Bon is sitting in the café of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum on New York’s Upper East Side, explaining why she put her career on hold to study woodworking. Since her debut a decade ago, she’s earned acclaim as a singularly inventive songwriter and guitarist, drawing comparison to such innovators as the Velvet Underground and Television without ever sounding like anyone but herself. Her admiring peers include some of the biggest names in art rock, from John Cale to St. Vincent to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. “Cate Le Bon is pretty much my favorite artist,” Tweedy tells Rolling Stone. “I’m mesmerized by her output over the last 10 years.”
Reward is Le Bon’s best work yet, a warm, inviting dream of an album. Highlights like the Bowie-ish ballad “Miami” and the late-night fantasia “Home to You” unfold slowly, with each piano chord and saxophone riff falling cleanly into place. These are wonderfully strange pop songs, with a sense of mystery and meaning behind every hand-crafted hook.
As inspired as she sounds on Reward, though, she began the album in a moment of creative burnout. By early 2017, Le Bon was tired of the repetitive lifestyle of the touring artist. She had just finished making a new album with DRINKS — her even more experimental side project with California noisemaker Tim Presley — and playing shows for her fourth solo LP, Crab Day, when she came across a newspaper article written by someone who’d attended a three-year furniture school in London. “They were gushing about how it had changed their whole view on life,” she recalls.
She was already interested in architecture and design, particularly the work of trailblazing 20th-century modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright, Craig Ellwood, Le Corbusier and Lina Bo Bardi (“the designer of my all-time favorite chair”). She couldn’t take three years off from music, but she needed a new challenge. So she enrolled in a small woodworking program situated in England’s hilly, verdant Lake District.
For the next 12 months, Le Bon and a dozen fellow students — “disgruntled accountants, retired dentists, a real pick-and-mix of people” — learned about dovetail joints and other artisanal techniques on a strict 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily schedule. It was the longest she’d spent living alone in one place in many years. “It was incredible, and at times quite challenging,” she says. “Solitude is something I crave, but it can turn on you. I sometimes felt like I’d been implanted into somebody else’s life.”
The work was hard in other ways, too. “I can remember coming back the first day, and I was in absolute pieces,” she says. “I was in a bath for a good two hours. I hadn’t even considered that it would be physically taxing. But it’s like anything: You end up getting stronger.”
At night, Le Bon made music on a secondhand piano she’d bought for her room — her first time composing without a guitar nearby. The songs she wrote there have an open, vulnerable quality, and a directness that reflects the form-follows-function philosophy she was absorbing during the day. “Piano is a more intimate instrument than guitar, and a lot more dramatic, which is great when you’re by yourself and soul-searching,” she says. “It feels like a dream now.”
Once the program ended last April, Le Bon resumed her music career at full speed. First, she traveled to Texas for the 2018 Marfa Myths festival, where she and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox began a collaborative EP that remains unreleased. Cox ended up asking her to stay in Texas to co-produce his band’s next record, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?; after a week with Deerhunter, she got back to her own work, regrouping with her collaborators in Stinson Beach, California, last May.
She had recorded Crab Day at the same remote seaside studio a few years earlier, but this time felt different. “Naively, I went into it thinking I’d book three weeks and it would be ample time to get everything done,” she says. “We’d barely scratched the surface by the end of it.”
So she booked more time in Los Angeles, where the sessions quickly unraveled. “Everything went to shit,” she says. “People coming and going, preoccupied and frantic. It was the wrong space for a record that had been written in solitude.” (The exception was a brief visit from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Josh Klinghoffer, a friend and frequent collaborator: “He did some really great guitar playing, so it wasn’t all a disaster.”)
In August, Le Bon and co-producer Samur Khouja decamped to Joshua Tree, California. They spent another month there carefully taking apart and reconstructing Reward, which also features contributions from Kurt Vile, Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa and longtime Le Bon associate H. Hawkline. “The days seem a lot longer in the desert,” she says. “The studio had these big windows, and beautiful pink light. You lose that grip of wanting to control something, and in turn you regain control of the situation by letting go.”
Last fall, with the album nearly complete, she returned to the Lake District for a final two-week visit to build the chair she’d been dreaming of. (Because Le Bon has no fixed address at the moment, the chair currently resides at her parents’ house in West Wales.)
“You know when you go to sleep and you’re so preoccupied by something it’s flashing in front of your eyes?” she says. “I got to build a piece of furniture that looked like the record sounded in my mind.”
She grows reverent when she remembers that last stretch of work with her hands — choosing the wood at the lumberyard, milling it down, fitting the pieces together. “It’s really lovely,” she says, “seeing something rough be transformed.”