Cerys Matthews
UK Tour
April 2010
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 2007’s ‘I’m 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 it’s 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, it’s a mind over matter thing. It’s 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, Don’t 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 doesn’t 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, it’s the feeling that you get when you’re running down a hill as a child, that’s what I think – it’s just one of the most natural things in the world and when you absolutely love music, it’s 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 I’m a big fan of Sarah Vaughan as well, although that’s probably as smooth as I would go – I’m also a big fan of Bob Dylan, but you know, sometimes people don’t like his voice. There’s what you get given, and then there’s what you do with your voice and the songs you write, that’s 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 that’s 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 don’t like to think about it too much. I listened to George Michael doing a radio interview once and he explained about a song he’d just written, and I thought, ‘You don’t need to know.’ A song should just tell its own story almost and it’s the same with songwriting, I don’t want to think too much about it. You know what the great songs are and you know what songs particularly appeal to you, and it’s different for every person. But, to look for the magic behind it, I don’t 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 don’t see why you would want to define the blues – we know what the blues is. It’s 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, I’m 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 you’ve ever written?
“I remember being 9-years-old – I already played piano and I was teaching myself guitar – and definitely, if I wasn’t 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 I’d go and hide. So in that sense, I’d love to make up songs and music and words, and I’ve done that from that age – I remember specifically starting to do that then. The most direct lyric that I’ve ever written is easy to answer, because the most direct and unadulterated lyrics that I’ve written are on my new album, Don’t 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. I’m pleased with it for that reason, there’s no hiding behind anything and it just is what it is! At that point in time, that’s what my life was like. Hopefully, it’s got a little sense of humour and you can enjoy it, it’s not too self-indulgent or inward-looking, but it works because it’s 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 I’d say, would be cigarette packets (laughing)! I mean, I don’t smoke now, but I used to (pausing), even if you don’t smoke, if you’re a writer, that would be the nearest piece of paper – when you’re waiting at the bar and overhearing conversations, or had a thought that you wanted to write down. So, cigarette packets is another big one, yeah (laughing)!”
*I ask Cerys if over the years, she has held onto any of the cigarette packets with her lyrics on them*
“No, I don’t think so, because every few years I have to get rid of bits and pieces like that, because otherwise, you’d end up with a fire hazard in your house – you’d have so many of them (laughing)!”

You Jack Bastard!

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 didn’t 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! I’m also very proud of the lyrics particularly on the new album – I love a lot of the songs on there – and there’s 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, I’ve 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, I’m doing it a bit differently and I haven’t yet pinned them down (laughing)! I know the selection of songs that we’re rehearsing and I know which ones are probably going to turn up, but I don’t know in what order, and that’s always quite a headache. Because you know, most other shows, they’ve got a script and they’ve got characters, the story-line etc., it’s already set. So, it’s kind of cheeky for a musician to turn up in the theatre and just have a collection of songs isn’t it (laughing)? So it’s quite important to get the right order I think. I love doing the tracklisting on an album, because I think it’s 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 it’s 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 path otherwise?

“That’s a really good question, and the best thing about it, is that you never plan on these things. I’ve worked with John Cale, I’ve worked with Larry Adler – the mouth-harmonica player – I’ve worked with David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards – one of the original delta blues musicians – and then of course, I’ve done stuff with Space, I’ve done stuff with The Pogues. I’ve 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 don’t want to aim to do something like that, because I’m quite happy aiming with my own music – it’s a lot more focused when it’s my own music. But when it comes to collaborating, it’s 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 that’s writing songs with people who are essentially strangers to you, but that was interesting! I’ve also written songs with Gruff from the Super Furry Animals and also my friend, Dawn Kinnard, who’s one of my best friends. So I don’t know, it’s 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, that’s 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 it’s pushing the boundaries. I also had the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, they’re 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 didn’t expect to love it, because there are a lot of quieter bands like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver and The Morning Benders. I mean, there’s a lot of them, but this fella – he’s 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, it’s 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 wasn’t around – I think I was on tour. So I was kicking myself, because he’s got a song called Chicken Head Man, that’s always on my Top 10 list. I saw him at a blues festival in Greenville, Mississippi – he’s a 70-year-old man who’s lost none of his lust for life (laughing)! I’d 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 about?
“This is going to surprise people I think (laughing), Offshore Fishing! I wouldn’t mind going out and doing a documentary on that, or maybe on the Bluefin Tuna and see what’s going on there. But, they’re two kind of contradictory things, because although I like Offshore Fishing, I don’t 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 Johnson’s 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. That’s the most amazing feeling in the world, that they’ve enjoyed your songs so much, that they know the words. You should never underestimate the joy that gives to you!”

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 we’d written the songs, that we went in and just recorded it pretty quickly. The recent album, Don’t Look Down, I did it in the same way and like I said, I didn’t 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 that’s 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 it’s own, and you think, ‘Maybe I should do that in this style and that in that style,’ and I just couldn’t nail it. It was like a slippery snake in my hand – I just couldn’t nail it. In the end, I had to let it go. I love the songs on it and I’m 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)! It’s a lot more fulfilling when you have one absolute frame of thought and focus, and you write and you record. That’s 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 I’m 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! I’m passionate about the BBC and it’s what I missed the most when I was in America. What I miss the most about America, now that I’ve moved back here, is probably Mexican food and the music, because obviously in Nashville, you’re very close to the Mississippi, you’re 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)! I’d probably include A Little Piece Of Leather by Donnie Elbert, I’d probably include Precious Bryant – Broke And Ain’t Got A Dime, and I’d probably include something new, so let me think, what would I put in there (thinking)… Some Joanna Newsom, because I think it’s quite hard to get in to for most people, but if you persevere, there’s just an unending amount of beauty. I’d put Chicken Head Man – T- Model Ford in there, maybe some Leisure Society and then to throw in a bit of a challenge, I’d put in some Wooden Shjips – they’re 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 can’t 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! I’ve got to know them a little bit over the years and they’re just absolutely gorgeous people! So yeah, that’s what I’ve got to say about the Manic Street Preachers.”

15.Lastly, chips or cream buns?

“Chips (without any hesitation), with curry sauce… And a pickled onion (laughing)!”

A very special thanks to Cerys, and to Nic @ Bedlam Management, for all of their time and help.



Don't Look Down Tour 2010

6th April – Birmingham Glee Club

7th April – Wrexham, Glyndwr University

9th April – Manchester, Royal Northern College of Music

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'

featured Cerys:

"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:

Swansea City
Michael Howard
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 challenges!

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 gig!


oeir musicm