When the world’s structures only get stiffer, don’t reach for a sledgehammer. Grab some building material, stir up some glue, and build your own structure. Change the skyline when you get sick of the view.
That’s what Cate Le Bon did when stuck in a creative rut. The Welsh singer-songwriter skipped off to a hilltop mansion on Stinson Beach, California to create Crab Day, her 2016 LP that’s full of guest contributors (Warpaint‘s Stella Mozgawa, Tim Presley, Stephen Black, and more) and selective overdubbing. It was an experience unlike any she’d undergone before, but, really, she has her niece to thank.
“She thought April Fool’s Day was a wholly ridiculous day, so instead she decided it was Crab Day,” Le Bon says with a laugh. “We spent the whole day drawing crustaceans with different hairdos. Crabs don’t get the applause they deserve and she picked up on that.”
Within that rebellion is a mockery of how ridiculous holidays (and other markers of time) actually are. As songwriters, musicians find themselves caught in a sphere of pressure, forced to write about music with a sharp enough angle, catchy enough melody, and witty enough lyrics. You can only push yourself as a musician in ways you want to be pushed. Cate Le Bon, it seemed, finally reached a point where only spontaneity could save her, both inside and outside of the studio.
“There’s this sense of abandonment and a sense of chance that comes from trying to channel a child’s creativity,” says Le Bon. “It’s completely uninhibited because they don’t try to moralize too much. It’s about the joy of creation. It’s easy to forget sometimes, to get wrapped up in why, what happens next, and expectations, especially when you’re stuck in a cycle of making records and touring them. But I also made records with just two people in a room that love to play music together being joyous and excited. That’s how I want to feel. Making that record and then being inspired by my nieces and the randomness of their creativity showed me there’s a fun way to make music.”
Fostering that attitude isn’t easy, though Cate Le Bon certainly makes it sounds as such. She pushed away the sense of abandonment that followed her on previous records. She came to terms with her mismanagement. She didn’t say she would fall into spontaneity; she chose to — as ironic, and consequently impossible, as that seems. “In terms of how I’ve approached music since, it was like opening a door and realizing, ‘Oh fuck, it can be like this. You don’t have to make music by holing yourself up,’” she explains. “It was such an amazing experience to realize this. Now I never want to work in any other way.”
It took heaps of trust. Le Bon wrote the lyrics to the entire record the evening before entering the studio. Usually, she leaves things to the last minute. Instead of lamenting over the fact that she put it off again, she decided to embrace it, allowing it to contribute to the haphazard feel of the record. Cue the brain blasts at 5 AM and gazes out at the ocean, the moon hanging up high, deliriousness floating in the air.
Future nights don’t see Cate Le Bon slowing down. If anything, she’s finding more reasons to fight for creativity, for our planet, and for every creature that combines the two. “I was talking to my friend Phil Collins, who did all the record’s visuals, and he said, ‘God, it’s awful how terribly we treat life, and how, if I could see the way these creatures do, we couldn’t understand it,’” she says. “We remove ourselves from them and it’s what allows us to pluck things from the ocean and treat them horribly. It’s terrible.”
Le Bon pauses to think about the rest of the crustaceans she and her niece could have gifted a day to and comes up with worthwhile ideas. They all speak to the values of her record: creativity, empathy, and fascination.
“If I had to choose another day, it would be Lobster Day, because Sea Life Day sounds too cute and lobsters are particularly hard to draw, as I found out.” She laughs. “When [my niece] was a lot younger, I bought her a book about weird creatures of the ocean. They seem made up but actually exist. There’s one called a sea pig that’s very cute, so we tried to draw those. Maybe that deserves it’s own day, too.”
CATE LE BON, TIM PRESLEY. TUE 1.31. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/ALL AGES/$15. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM