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“A beautiful community”: Cate Le Bon on Wilco

The Welsh singer-songwriter on producing Cousin

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You’ll have hopefully noticed that there’s a long interview with Jeff Tweedy in the new Uncut, hooked around Wilco’s excellent new album, Cousin.

For the piece, I also spoke to the album’s producer Cate Le Bon. Long-time Uncut readers will know that LeBon first officially entered Wilco’s orbit with her striking cover of “Company In My Back” for our Wilcovered CD back in 2019.

Anyway, I spoke to Cate for a good 30 minutes for my feature and what appeared in the magazine barely scraped the surface of our chat about her involvement with the band. With Cousin due in shops next week, I thought it would be a good moment to print the full transcript of our interview.

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Lots to dig into here.

UNCUT: When did you first meet Wilco?
LE BON: The first I met Jeff at the Solid Sound Festival would have been 2019, I think. We rehearsed a couple of songs with Jeff to sing live. My parents were huge Wilco fans growing up, so I was aware of Wilco and a fan of them. But that’s when I first crossed paths with Jeff and that whole Wilco world – which is a vast world.

What were your first impressions of Jeff?
That whole festival, he had an acoustic guitar on him constantly. During the recording of the record, he was never without a guitar or a banjo on him. It’s like an extension of his being, a way to express himself, as a way to communicate. He’s such a generous, such a generous musician. It was a really beautiful experience, having him being in a room with us all rehearsing. He was a little shy and very sweet. We all just loved him.

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How did your version of “Company In My Back” for our Wilcovered CD come about?
They’d always been so kind and communicating. I think when Mark from The Loft reached out and asked me to do that cover, we were playing Pitchfork festival in Chicago. So we were trying to cobble together how we were going to pull it all off. They kindly said we could stay at The Loft, which was very kind of them. Mark bought us all the bedding and everything we needed and made beds in different corners of The Loft. The next morning, we woke up at 7am. Jeff turned up to hang out with us. We recorded, I think, between 7am and noon, we recorded that cover.

So how did you come to work on Cousin?
It was very unexpected and sweet. It must have been two years after that, when we were playing Pitchfork in Chicago again, and I emailed Mark to say, do you think we could rehearse at The Loft? He’s hugely generous, you know, of course. We turned up and Jeff came to sit with us. He said, ‘I’ve something to ask you, Cate,’, which is a question I always dread. ‘Oh, God. What is it?’. Usually, you have some idea that those things are on the cards, someone has asked some kind of preliminary questions or whatever. And just in front of everyone, he said, ‘Would you produce the next Wilco record?’ I was so shocked, it made me a little bit emotional. Then we just carried on rehearsing. It was really sweet and gentle and very natural. Often you get asked to do things and you have to differentiate what is flattery, and if you actually really want to do something. But Jeff and I, whatever time we’ve spent together, there’s always been this lovely natural communication we have energies that match one another.

So what happened next?
We’d have phone conversations about exactly what it was he wanted from me and why he was bringing me in.

What did he want from you?
I think when you bring anybody in, you want to change things up. Often when people say that, when you try and change things they go, ‘What are you doing?’ But for someone who’s been making records for as long as he’s been making them, he still possesses beginner’s mind. He is so exciting and curious. Even being able to sit in discomfort, he sees the value in that.

What do you mean by that?
Jeff is at the helm of all the Wilco records. I think when you’ve got someone in to change things up, sometimes there’ll be an element of discomfort – which is great. It’s what I search for when I’m making records. The unknown, not really knowing what something’s going but trusting that in the chaos and in the tearing apart, you will rebuild it in a way that is going to be exciting and surprising. There is a discomfort in that you have to swim with. It’s not everyone who can do that, especially someone who has made hundreds of records. But Jeff is curious, he’s always searching, he wants to change things up.

So how did it how did it work?
I was sent folders of songs. I think Jeff hadn’t really found a record to put them on or maybe something wasn’t resolving in them, so they’d always been put to one side. There were maybe 30 or 40 songs and I picked ones that resonated with me that I felt there was something that he and I could work on within them.

They first started worked on Cousin before the pandemic, but parked it to work on Cruel Country…
I think there was songs dating back earlier than that. I think some of them are demos, versions or whatever from 10 years ago. I was sent stuff over the end of summer last year, then went to Chicago in December, and stayed there for a couple of month. I worked, me and Jeff solo to begin with just listening and talking about where we were going to take everything, then the band came in. It was a process of figuring out how we were going to do it, surrender to that process. I did a winter in Chicago, which felt like about three years – it’s -36! Then I went back in March and again in May to do the mixing. It all happened pretty quickly, from Pitchfork 2022 in July, then a month later he sent me a folder of songs that hadn’t found a home or were in various states of completion. Then I was in Chicago in December.

Were the songs he sent you demos – Jeff and an acoustic?
No, some of them were fully fleshed out. But we reimagined them all. It was listening but with me saying, “This is how I’d respond to this differently…’ or ‘We’d peel back whatever here…’ or ‘This is the part of the song that sings to me most.’ When we were listening back at the end, I think Mark from The Loft said it sounded like Wilco but with a different lighting director. Which is a fair sum up of it. You bring someone in to look at things in a different way and share that with you.

So when you say ‘reimagined’, you mean that the songs that are on Cousin were recorded from scratch?
On the most part. There was some that possessed a magic that I don’t think could have been recreated. The old session files were available. So a lot of them we completely stripped back and kept the special moments.

A small number of people have produced Wilco, it’s really just you and Jim O’Rourke.
I feel hugely honoured and lucky to have been allowed. It’s a beautiful community and world to be part of. Very generous, very nourishing.

Do you have a specific memory you can share about the sessions?
A lot of the time, it was me and Jeff on the sofa, exploring the songs and passing a bass guitar back and forth. It felt there was a beautiful synergy. I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone who is as like-minded as Jeff. There’s a sensibility, an approach to music, a curiosity and willingness to break things apart that we both enjoyed in one another. We’d often finish each other sentences. Working with Nels is magic and Glenn is an exceptional musician, but they all possess beginner’s mind, which is so exciting, to have these musicians who can play anything. Nels can just drone a note for three minutes, if you want and put everything into it and you’ll get the best sound out of that guitar. To have that curiosity after however many records that they’ve made together is, I was blown away by it.

Cousins is released on September 29 by dBpm Records

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