When Cate Le Bon glides up the red carpet at the Mercury Prize ceremony next Thursday, few will remember the first time the Welsh singer-songwriter attended. In 2008, a year before she released her debut album, she was there as a guest singer with Neon Neon, the electronic side-project of American producer Boom Bip and Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals. Stainless Style, their eccentric tribute to car inventor John DeLorean, lost out to Elbow’s warmhearted The Seldom Seen Kid.
This time, finally, the 36-year-old born Cate Timothy in Carmarthenshire is nominated in her own right for Reward, which was released in May. While so many musicians are on an irreversible downward trajectory by album number five, Le Bon’s is a career high, trading the folky musings of her earliest work and the spiky electric guitar of her last album, Crab Day, for beautiful keyboard lines and a surprising amount of saxophone. Meanwhile her composed singing voice, often reminiscent of Nico’s deadpan delivery for The Velvet Underground, has never sounded lovelier.
When I catch up with her she’s under no illusions about her chances against the bookies’ favourites: rappers Slowthai and Dave and the punk band Idles, never mind the better known Foals and The 1975. She’s a dark horse at 16/1, and finds it strange to imagine that someone at William Hill might have been thinking hard about the potential of her sonic quirks and esoteric lyrics. “It’s weird to quantify it numerically, because anyone could win,” she says in slow, thoughtful tones. “But I guess, in a way, the nomination is enough. I kind of forget there’s a winner at the end of it all. It seems irrelevant.”
I don’t expect Reward to be rewarded next week either – there are bigger attention grabbers in play – but I do think it could be the album from the 12-strong shortlist that will stand up best in 10 years’ time, as well as the one that’s most worth turning to as this year’s autumn evenings draw in. And in the unlikely event she does win, Le Bon probably has the most unusual idea for what to do with the £25,000 cheque: “I’d probably buy myself some tools, actually – maybe a big saw.”
For this album might not exist at all had it not been for her considering abandoning music for another career, as a furniture maker. In 2017, after four years living in Los Angeles, she downshifted to move alone to a village in the Lake District and study for a year at the prestigious furniture school Waters & Acland. She was on the course full-time with 12 others, which meant songwriting was edged into the evenings, on a piano in the garden shed of the house she was renting. The new songs emerged slowly while she was busy with other things.
It sounds idyllic, but wasn’t entirely paradise, she clarifies. “I didn’t have any callers or friends in the village, aside from my landlord, who became a buddy of mine. There was lots and lots of time spent alone, which I love, but you don’t necessarily fully comprehend that the architecture of your entire life is going to change. So it was a little rocky at times, but it’s good to put yourself in those situations I think. I sorted out a lot of internal shit. It was a period of reckoning, in a way. It made me put things straight and get my motives in check.”
She had been a professional musician for over a decade, without much in the way of commercial success (Reward spent one week at number 86 in the UK album chart) but well enough admired by her peers to have sung on albums by Manic Street Preachers and The Chemical Brothers, performed on stage with John Cale and supported St Vincent on tour. She also had enough creative freedom to make weirder music as DRINKS and produce albums for acts including Deerhunter and H. Hawkline. Was she really considering giving all that up?
“I was so fried by touring and making album after album. I just needed a break. I needed to stop thinking about music,” she says. “It had occurred to me that maybe music would be more pleasurable to me as a hobby. Maybe it was time to do something else.”
However, even having those thoughts changed her perspective again. “When you’ve painted that worst case scenario – that you just stop – and that exit door exists, it gives you so much freedom and space. Going to furniture school meant I could readdress my relationship with music and find the joy in it again. It allowed me to truly reconnect with it and find where the enjoyment and nourishment of making music lies. It was a really important thing to do.”
It doesn’t sound like she had the right frame of mind for making a business out of her handiwork. Everything she made, she gave away. Earlier this year she was invited to be “wood worker in residence” at the Texas music festival Marfa Myths, where she spent two weeks making a chair. “I was all for burning it, because it’s the making that is rewarding to me – spending time on something and enjoying the process,” she says. “But we took it to a stone circle on the outskirts of Marfa to do some filming with it, then we had to drive off to go to the end party, and someone said, ‘We’ll just leave it here and pick it up later.’ I don’t think anyone’s picked it up, so it’s just sitting in the desert, which is quite nice.”
The obvious question is what making a chair has in common with making an album. The one she constructed in Texas, like her music, is minimal and angular and not particularly comfortable. “I learned patience in furniture school. Also the idea that you were bound to your material made sense when I was in the studio with the songs. The decisions that were made were all about serving the song, and the songs would reject certain things that I would normally do. They ended up with a similar feeling to the intimacy that you get working with wood.”
Now it’s been a while since she made something solid with her hands. You can’t really install a lathe on the tour bus. But the fresh perspective that she gained on her sawdust-strewn gap year should last like a Victorian wardrobe. “I’m having a lovely time, feeling really grateful and positive about stuff,” she tells me. “When you’ve been doing it for 10 years and the door’s been opening in increments, sometimes you don’t realise that you’re doing the thing you’ve always dreamed of. I play with a band of musicians who are just the most wonderful, generous, fun people to spend all this time with. I feel like a millionaire, you know?”
Reward is out now on Mexican Summer.
The Mercury Prize ceremony takes place on Sep 19 at the Eventim Apollo, W6 (mercuryprize.com)
Cate Le Bon supports Deerhunter on Nov 3 at the Roundhouse, NW1 (roundhouse.org.uk)