Interview: Steve Bateman
With her instantly recognisable voice, Cerys Matthews
is now rightly regarded as a Welsh National Treasure! Who as well as
being a successful solo singer, songwriter and musician, has also made
her mark on other areas of the entertainment world, including as a DJ
on BBC 6Music, Cerys On 6, as a TV presenter and as a contestant
on 2007s Im A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!
Cerys even runs her own TV and Radio Production Company and has made
documentaries for both the Welsh television channel S4C (The Music Of
The Mississippi River) and Radio 2 (The History Of The Maida Vale Studios)
all coupled with being a loving and devoted Mum of three! And,
wanting to show her children the traditions and ways of her homeland,
Matthews once again lives between Wales and London with her family,
admitting: Having children has made me fully understand how much
I love music and how much its part of what I am.
Born in Cardiff, then raised in Swansea and Pembrokeshire,
Cerys who is a multi-instrumentalist and dreamed of being a musician
from an early age first found fame with Catatonia in The 90s
as part of the Cool Cymru musical movement, with the band
coming to an abrupt end in late 2001, when Matthews physical
health began to deteriorate so much that she couldn't carry on.
After her recovery, and since 2003, she has released and helped produce
3 critically-acclaimed full-length solo albums + 1 Welsh language mini-album,
each with ever-changing musical styles. Telling one interviewer: If
you have belief in something, its a mind over matter thing. Its
just a metaphor for life really. Every time I make a new album, I like
to do something different and not do what is expected of me.
Which is a desire that extends from her country and
rustic-tinged debut, Cockahoop (inspired at the time by her move to
Nashville, Tennessee), to the folky Never Said Goodbye, to the more
experimental Awyren = Aeroplane, right through to the retro cinematic
soulfulness of her latest LP, Dont Look Down. A record that has
already sold well over 20,000 copies on Matthews' own Rainbow City label
and is available as a Welsh language version too! Over the course of
her career, Cerys has also recorded duets with the likes of Space, Tom
Jones, Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals and Aled Jones + sung
onstage with greats such as the Manic Street Preachers! Ahead of her
April UK Tour, I had the pleasure of speaking to Cerys by telephone
who was really lovely and friendly about music, songwriting
and her blossoming extracurricular activities
Lucy: Your band have been quite quiet for the last few months. Are you looking
forward to playing gigs again?
Katie Jane Garside: I think I give very obtuse ans
1.To begin with, I have long loved your voice and Morrissey believes
that something extraordinary happens to a person when they sing,
which doesnt occur anywhere else in life. Would you agree
with this and which singers do you most admire from the past and present?
Well, with singing, its the feeling that you get when youre
running down a hill as a child, thats what I think its
just one of the most natural things in the world and when you absolutely
love music, its very, very easy to just go with the flow and get
a thrill out of it! As for singers that I most admire from the past
and present, I really like people who are just obviously born with a
strange sounding voice. Judy Garland would be one, Betty Smith would
be another and Im a big fan of Sarah Vaughan as well, although
thats probably as smooth as I would go Im also a
big fan of Bob Dylan, but you know, sometimes people dont like
his voice. Theres what you get given, and then theres what
you do with your voice and the songs you write, thats what really
interests me or the songs a singer picks. I mean Elvis Presley
is massive, and a lot of that has to do with his interpretation of songs
and the songs he chose as well. So thats almost more important
to me, than having a perfect voice.
2.Do you have a romantic idea of what a songwriter is?
No, and I dont like to think about it too much. I listened
to George Michael doing a radio interview once and he explained about
a song hed just written, and I thought, You dont need
to know. A song should just tell its own story almost and its
the same with songwriting, I dont want to think too much about
it. You know what the great songs are and you know what songs particularly
appeal to you, and its different for every person. But, to look
for the magic behind it, I dont really want to spend time doing
that I just want to enjoy it! I love blues music, but it seems
that everybody is so fascinated about the definition of the blues, but
I dont see why you would want to define the blues we know
what the blues is. Its what makes you move and what moves you!
And so to try and pin it down and make it a mathematical equation or
something, is the opposite to the emotion that it inspires. So no, Im
not romantic about it, I just like to leave it very mysterious.
3.Was there a point in your life when you started to write more songs,
and what do you think is the most direct lyric that youve ever
I remember being 9-years-old I already played piano and
I was teaching myself guitar and definitely, if I wasnt
having a good day at school or was feeling like I was going to be in
an argument with somebody in the family or something (laughing), the
guitar or music to me, was always where Id go and hide. So in
that sense, Id love to make up songs and music and words, and
Ive done that from that age I remember specifically starting
to do that then. The most direct lyric that Ive ever written is
easy to answer, because the most direct and unadulterated lyrics that
Ive written are on my new album, Dont Look Down. I decided
that I just wanted to write it as it is, almost as a stream of consciousness,
so then you get so much honesty I just sat down and wrote it.
Im pleased with it for that reason, theres no hiding behind
anything and it just is what it is! At that point in time, thats
what my life was like. Hopefully, its got a little sense of humour
and you can enjoy it, its not too self-indulgent or inward-looking,
but it works because its so straightforward.
4.It has been said that some of the greatest songs have been written
on napkins! But when inspiration has struck you for a song idea, have
you ever written lyrics on any unusual items?
(laughing) Yeah, I have, and another popular one Id say,
would be cigarette packets (laughing)! I mean, I dont smoke now,
but I used to (pausing), even if you dont smoke, if youre
a writer, that would be the nearest piece of paper when youre
waiting at the bar and overhearing conversations, or had a thought that
you wanted to write down. So, cigarette packets is another big one,
*I ask Cerys if over the years, she has held onto any of the cigarette
packets with her lyrics on them*
No, I dont think so, because every few years I have to get
rid of bits and pieces like that, because otherwise, youd end
up with a fire hazard in your house youd have so many of
5.Of all your songs to date, which are you most proud of and why?
I love a song on Cockahoop called The Good In Goodbye. I like
it, because again, it didnt take long to write and it was something
that came to me when I was sleeping. I went to see Bob Dylan the night
before and then the following morning, I had written that song! So that
one, because I just love it and I love the title! Im also very
proud of the lyrics particularly on the new album I love a lot
of the songs on there and theres a song called Evelyn,
which I love the middle-section of.
6.With so much material to now choose from, how will you decide on
a Set List for your upcoming tour?
(laughing) Well, thankfully, Ive been doing this for 20
years now! So when we went on the last tour in October, I decided to
do it chronologically, from the songs that I learnt when I was 9-years-old,
to traditional songs, straight through to Catatonia and my solo work.
But with this tour, Im doing it a bit differently and I havent
yet pinned them down (laughing)! I know the selection of songs that
were rehearsing and I know which ones are probably going to turn
up, but I dont know in what order, and thats always quite
a headache. Because you know, most other shows, theyve got a script
and theyve got characters, the story-line etc., its already
set. So, its kind of cheeky for a musician to turn up in the theatre
and just have a collection of songs isnt it (laughing)? So its
quite important to get the right order I think. I love doing the tracklisting
on an album, because I think its quite important and I also love
doing a set list for a tour, because it really can take you on a journey
If you do it right.
7.I read that you just enjoy playing music and that its
even better in the company of other musicians. So, do you feel
lucky to have found the people that you have collaborated with over
the years, and do you think that you may have been on a different musical
Thats a really good question, and the best thing about it,
is that you never plan on these things. Ive worked with John Cale,
Ive worked with Larry Adler the mouth-harmonica player
Ive worked with David Honeyboy Edwards
one of the original delta blues musicians and then of course,
Ive done stuff with Space, Ive done stuff with The Pogues.
Ive sung with Tom Jones, the Manic Street Preachers and it all
kind of just happens, it all unfolds and I like that about it! I like
it to be a surprise, or spontaneous, or just another step in a journey.
I dont want to aim to do something like that, because Im
quite happy aiming with my own music its a lot more focused
when its my own music. But when it comes to collaborating, its
quite nice when somebody goes, Oh, so and so just phoned and they
want to do this with you, you know?
8.From experience, would you say that is has been easier to write
music with people who you have known personally, or when there has been
no history between you?
Um (long pause + thinking), well, I did some songwriting in Nashville,
which is a lot more like Tin Pan Alley, where you go in at 9am and you
finish a song by 5pm, a working-day kind of situation. And thats
writing songs with people who are essentially strangers to you, but
that was interesting! Ive also written songs with Gruff from the
Super Furry Animals and also my friend, Dawn Kinnard, whos one
of my best friends. So I dont know, its very, very different.
9.Who have been some of your favourite guests on Cerys On 6
and if you had the opportunity to interview any other artist
or band, who would it be and why?
Oh, OK, thats easy! The first session I think I had, was
The Kenyan Boys Choir. I turned up for work and there was about 20 Maasai
Warriors (laughing), standing outside of the BBC. It was a June day
and they had amazing red dreadlocks, these long red robes and bare feet
on the London street it was amazing and they came in and sang
3 songs. I just love music from all genres back-to-back, and I like
to surprise myself, as well as people listening. So having The Kenyan
Boys Choir, that was a brilliant guest for me, because its pushing
the boundaries. I also had the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, theyre
from New York and they play brass instruments, but they play really
groovy stuff they were brilliant, absolutely brilliant in the
studio! And then there was also a young man from Great Lake Swimmers
(Tony Dekker) and his voice was so beautiful, it was just him and a
guitar, and I didnt expect to love it, because there are a lot
of quieter bands like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver and The Morning Benders.
I mean, theres a lot of them, but this fella hes
from Canada his voice was just angelic, it was amazing! But every
session for me, the excitement of having live music and having it there
in the studio, its just the best! If I had the opportunity to
interview any other artist or band, it would be (thinking), well, T-Model
Ford came in to 6Music at the end of last year, but I wasnt around
I think I was on tour. So I was kicking myself, because hes
got a song called Chicken Head Man, thats always on my Top 10
list. I saw him at a blues festival in Greenville, Mississippi
hes a 70-year-old man whos lost none of his lust for life
(laughing)! Id liked to have been there for that one, yeah.
10.On a similar note, I know that you run your own TV and Radio Production
Company, so is there a subject that you would love to make a documentary
This is going to surprise people I think (laughing), Offshore
Fishing! I wouldnt mind going out and doing a documentary on that,
or maybe on the Bluefin Tuna and see whats going on there. But,
theyre two kind of contradictory things, because although I like
Offshore Fishing, I dont like to see the depletion of fish, especially
big fish like the Bluefin Tuna. So, it would be a bit of both really.
11.What have been some of your personal highlights / defining moments,
during your career so far?
Um, well a lot of the collaborations that I mentioned especially
the ones with John Cale, Larry Adler and David Honeyboy
Edwards because I think my favourite music is always roots music
and a lot of that is black folk music. So, to sing with a fella from
Robert Johnsons era (laughing), was remarkable for me! I sang
for Bill Clinton once, that was really interesting and then on top of
that, basically, what I always remember is when people enjoy your songs
and they sing the words back to you. Thats the most amazing feeling
in the world, that theyve enjoyed your songs so much, that they
know the words. You should never underestimate the joy that gives to
12.Of all your albums to date from Catatonia to your solo
output which one was the quickest to write and record, and which
one took the longest?
Well, International Velvet with Catatonia, was fairly straightforward.
We toured in 1995, 1996 and 1997, so consistently, and wed written
the songs, that we went in and just recorded it pretty quickly. The
recent album, Dont Look Down, I did it in the same way and like
I said, I didnt want to torture myself over changing words, I
just wanted to write it as is. The melodies came very, very quickly
and so did the words, so thats another very quick one. One of
the worst ones, in the end (laughing), was Never Said Goodbye, because
you intend to do one thing and then the album takes on a life of its
own, and you think, Maybe I should do that in this style and that
in that style, and I just couldnt nail it. It was like a
slippery snake in my hand I just couldnt nail it. In the
end, I had to let it go. I love the songs on it and Im pleased
with parts of it (pausing), I was having a very experimental stage at
the time and I was producing it, so I just kept changing my mind, so
it was really hard (laughing)! Its a lot more fulfilling when
you have one absolute frame of thought and focus, and you write and
you record. Thats a lot better than being in that kind of trying
things out stage.
13.What are some of your most cherished things about Wales and Nashville
and if you had to put together the perfect road trip Mixtape
for somebody driving through these places, what would you put on there?
My favourite thing about Wales and Britain as a whole
is the BBC, which is why Im so touchy about changing it, just
to please Rupert Murdoch. I want the BBC to continue in 20 and 40 and
60 years time. £142 a year is not much for everything the BBC
offers, and it belongs to us! Im passionate about the BBC and
its what I missed the most when I was in America. What I miss
the most about America, now that Ive moved back here, is probably
Mexican food and the music, because obviously in Nashville, youre
very close to the Mississippi, youre close to Arkansas, Alabama,
Louisiana I mean the wealth of music from these areas is astonishing
and I love doing road trips, so the next part of your question is very
fitting! If I had to put together a perfect road trip Mixtape, oh lord,
it would be pretty eclectic (laughing)! Id probably include A
Little Piece Of Leather by Donnie Elbert, Id probably include
Precious Bryant Broke And Aint Got A Dime, and Id
probably include something new, so let me think, what would I put in
there (thinking) Some Joanna Newsom, because I think its
quite hard to get in to for most people, but if you persevere, theres
just an unending amount of beauty. Id put Chicken Head Man
T- Model Ford in there, maybe some Leisure Society and then to throw
in a bit of a challenge, Id put in some Wooden Shjips theyre
more from the prog side of things, but new. And I might throw some early
Black Sabbath in there as well!
14.As this interview is for R*E*P*E*A*T, I cant let you go
without asking one question about the Manic Street Preachers, so what
do they mean to you as a band?
Well, I love their first album, the double album (Generation Terrorists).
I absolutely loved it when it came out and I thought they were so (pausing),
strong, I think is the word I would use for them. They were so untouched
by the London fashion or any other Welsh kind of fashion. They came
out, they had their own agenda and they were strong about it and I loved
them for that! And also, I loved the little bit of American that they
had about them and the boldness with lyrics and melody especially
with lyrics! Ive got to know them a little bit over the years
and theyre just absolutely gorgeous people! So yeah, thats
what Ive got to say about the Manic Street Preachers.
15.Lastly, chips or cream buns?
Chips (without any hesitation), with curry sauce And a pickled
A very special thanks to Cerys, and to Nic @ Bedlam
Management, for all of their time and help.
9th April Manchester, Royal Northern College
11th April Gloucester Guildhall
12th April Cardiff Glee Club
13th April Newport Riverfront Theatre
14th April Builth Wells, Wyeside Arts Centre
16th April Llanelli, Theatr Elli
17th April Luton, Library Theatre
18th April Aberystwyth Arts Centre
Jackanory Fanzine's 1996/7 season
'Famous Fan Local Derby'
"Manchester City have Little and
Large and of course Oasis, West Brom have Frank Skinner and Chelsea
have David Mellor. What are they all (apart from a bunch of tossers)?
They're just a selection of celebrity football fans. So below is what
a South Wales derby might look like:
Mats Wilander, David Baddiel's Dad, Dylan Thomas, Robert Croft
Harry Secombe, Dire Straits' Drummer, Catherine Zeta Jones
Kevin Allen, Gareth Edwards, Cerys Matthews
Richard Shephard, Neil Kinnock, Glenys Kinnock, Colin Jackson
Manic Street Preachers (?!*), Tom Jones, Super Furry Animals
Frank Hennesey, Shirley Bassey, Hugh Johns
Shakin Stevens Cardiff City
Well, some of the above aren't with us anymore, they've been transferred
to the big pitch in the sky, but at least they won't give away possession
on the edge of the box - then again, they're not likely to win any 50/50
We've got pace, but not as much as Cardiff
with Jackson up front. However we can counter his presence with our
overseas import Mats, who can give him an overhead volley when the ref
isn't looking! With Shakin' in goal for them, we're bound to score.
If not, then expect Allen to bring on the Twin Town twins in a double
substitution to set fire to Shaky and steal his car keys. Swansea 3,
Cardiff 1, we reckon, an easy victory, now bring on the Gallagher brothers!"
Reprinted in R*E*P*E*A*T #11 to go with
our Catatonia interview; sadly we can't find the copy Cerys signed!
* hotly disputed at the time (and ever
since!), this all dates back to an incident at this