Topanga, a canyon community tucked in the Santa Monica Mountains an hour west of downtown Los Angeles, is a place of contradiction. There is unadulterated beauty, accessible via 36 miles of hiking trails across protected land. And there is a lurking threat. In recent decades, regular wildfires have ripped through the area, with the most recent, in 1993, claiming 18,000 acres and three lives. (Last year’s neighboring Palisades Fire was visible from certain Topanga hilltops.) The coexistence of risk and reward is a routine consideration for people spending time there, even outside of the peak fire season. The winding road that makes for a slow, scenic entry is the same route out.
Cate LeBon, the Welsh musician, waits on a bench outside Topanga’s Country Natural Foods on a crisp Sunday morning as I stop. A roadside fender bender blocked my arrival for a few minutes—the glimpse of crumpled metal a reminder to play it safe in my rental Prius, a welcome-to-California upgrade that beeped with unidentifiable warnings. At the top of the steep hill behind her, Le Bon is producing Devendra Banhartupcoming album as she prepares to release her own sixth full-length – the glittering, synth-heavy Pompeii† (It arrived in February via the Mexican Summer label, with a summer tour now winding through Europe and parts of the US) Le Bon has suggested coffee and a walk, as if dispensing medicine to a trapped New Yorker. Across the street, a folk Smokey Bear sign issues a report in soothing green: FIRE HAZARD LOW TODAY!
Le Bon, who owns a house in Joshua Tree with her partner, Tim Presley, along with a place in Wales, she initially settled in LA while recording her third album, 2013 Mugs Museum; she ended up staying for more than three years. “For the past six months, I’ve been waking up really early and leaving the city, going to Topanga to hike or to Malibu to swim in the ocean. Those were the places for me where you could get bored and become invisible and lost in daydreams’, explains Le Bon in a cafe down the road. 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 draw and get any kind of successful results. That squirming and letting yourself disappear is something I really dread.”
For her latest record, 2019’s acclaim reward, Le Bon embarked on a rather monastic retreat, studying cabinet making in England’s Lake District by day and playing piano in the evenings. Any hint of that loneliness had vanished by the time I saw Le Bon perform in Central Park that summer, with a head of platinum blond hair. Her stylized hand gestures and cool, distant intelligence reverberated with the same frequency as a… Tilda Swinton performance. But to create something new, Le Bon had to take away the familiar comfort: “what I think” [Virginia] Woolf calls it ‘huge eye’, being somewhere where you are suddenly tapped into this level of creativity that is unencumbered and uninhibited,” she tells me, drawing on a Rebecca Solnit essay. The full line, from Woolf’s 1930’s Street Haunting: A London Adventure, is worth repeating: “The shell-like covering which our souls have secreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a form different from others, is broken. , and there remains of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central pearl of mindfulness, a huge eye.”
Le Bon, 39, wears an olive knit cap over her ash brown hair, the tips of which peek out in a low-profile shag. She describes her original hopes of hibernation in 2020: maybe a studio in Chile or Norway, “a place that was really remote, where you could completely let go of any prejudice or any idea of an audience.” The pandemic turned that all upside down. Instead, she hid in a friend’s house in Cardiff – along with Presley and her co-producer, Samur Khouja– where she’d lived in her mid-twenties. “It was like a strange time travel,” Le Bon says of her return to a home where she instinctively knew her way in the dark. (“Reach without looking / the switches on the wall”, she continues singing Pompeii“Dirt on the Bed” paints a scene of intimacy with muscle memory.) “You think, ‘What else am I storing in me that I’m not aware of, but that doesn’t really serve me?'” She recalls. The moment the musician made his way through Gaston Bachelard’s The poetry of space, which “talks about the house as a metaphor for your soul and your memories and all that sort of thing. I had to stop reading because it was getting creepy.” The act of superimposing the present and the past — revisiting that past self, when she still had a career ahead of her — was “like catching up on memories of the future from the past,” Le says. Bon She manages to speak clearly and like a riddle in the same breath.
In those early days of the lockdown, while I was listening to Reward and choosing prescient lyrics (“Sad nudes in my room” that preface the reality of lonely people in quarantine), Le Bon methodically constructed the world of Pompeii— a synth-heavy dreamscape that is similarly long-tailed in current life. Le Bon came to see the ancient city, buried under Vesuvian ash, as “a playground of human fascination, one’s final gesture captured in a way that may be misunderstood.” She refers to the plaster casts made by 19th-century archaeologists, which vividly depicted the negative space left behind by the last inhabitants: curled up in a fetal position, a child clutched, head in hands. “You start projecting your own pain and your own feelings into someone’s very last private moment,” Le Bon warns. In a sense, the pandemic — with its empty storefronts and canceled plans and lives lost — leaves us all looking into the void.
“Running Away”, the sixth song on Pompeii, starts off cheerfully, with a bassline bouncing along like a rickrack trimming a hem. It counterbalances lyrics that predict a devastating loss, no matter how much the narrator can withstand it. “It’s my pillow and plate / To not care anymore,” Le Bon sings in the opening verse, methodically and sparingly.
“Bass is such a playful instrument to me,” says Le Bon, explaining how it guided her songwriting this time around, acting as the backbone of the record and a spiritual tonic. “In choosing the bass to lead, maybe I was trying to pull things back from completely drenched in despair.” The instrument flirts again in “French Boys”, this time with seedy propulsion. On top, Le Bon’s voice pings between octaves: “Some noise / About / Some noise.” The line seems contemptuous and disarming at the same time, as if the commitment to art and interpretation is reduced to zero.