Wales’ very own Cerys Matthews sat down with Style of the City to discuss growing up in Wales, her amazing career and opinions on today’s music culture.
As a household name both in Wales and the UK, when did you realise that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
From the very beginning, really. I remember a recorder being put into my hands in primary school around year 1 (and) even before that I can remember singing lots of songs – because I was brought up in the Welsh language – and in Welsh language schools you sing all the time! As soon as that recorder was put into my hands that was it for me.
You became famous with your highly acclaimed band Catatonia, how was the group formed and where did the name come from?
I taught myself guitar and then piano; and I pursued piano more as I got older and started writing songs. I then got involved in the Welsh language music scene when I was about 17, following bands such as the Super Furry Animals, and then you also had the Gorky’s starting out (psychedelic folk / alternative rock band from Carmarthen) around that same time. It was an inspiring scene because it was like DIY, the Welsh language society were putting gigs on everywhere and young bands were being formed across Wales and people were digesting music.
I had a boyfriend at the time – a drummer – and he came back from Senagal and Mali with lots of music from those countries (and) I was already collecting music from all over the world anyway… when I was about 18 I met Mark Roberts who was then in The Kilf (successful Welsh language act) and that was coming to an end and so we decided to start the band. The name came out of an Aldous Huxley book – The Doors of Perception. We didn’t realise at the time that catatonia meant debilitating!
Would you ever consider a reunion or comeback?
Not currently, though I never like to say never because things do change. It is a moment in time and I like to leave it there and I like to cherish it because they were very special years. They were also very dramatic years. I like to leave them there and cherish them as they were. Some of the music still gets me, the music we released over that time is very special to me.
You are one of the biggest music stars to come out of Wales receiving the highest accolade of an MBE, and the St. David’s Award, what or who was your biggest inspiration when growing up?
Lead Belly and Bob Dylan. The thing is I don’t look at the world in terms of stars and celebrities, I’m not interested in the concept at all. I think if you have an interesting life and dedicate your life to it, if you’re passionate and generous and share your interests and passions with other people, to me it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. It’s a very privileged way to live life to have an interest and if that leads you to the public life or not, that’s irrelevant (to me). The relevance come from being ignited and being curious and having enthusiasm for the gift of life.
What are some of your fondest memories of growing up in Wales?
My favourite memories are always the impromptu moments like getting soaking wet when an errant wave comes and tips you over, or picking periwinkles with my great Uncle Gwyn. Being allowed to use a sewing needle when your 4 or 5 years of age or using a knife to cut or prune fruit branches… all of these things are all around us, those are what my memories are made of. That’s what a want to do for the Good Life Festival I’ve founded, we’ve got a whole corn field where children have complete freedom to do what they want.
Yes you recently founded the ‘Good Life Experience’ Festival – what made you come up with the idea for creating this new festival?
It was coming out of all those things we’ve just been talking about, there’s so much noise and so much clamor these days from all the social media platforms and it’s all very much business orientated. I wanted to put a weekend in the diary where we could give the megaphone to the natural world, the less commercially led corporate world and invite people to come and be part of it. There’s no VIP area, you get people like writers and novelists Michael Morpurgo and Michael Rosen just walking around, or the legendary DJ and music producer, Norman Jay wandering about just soaking up the atmosphere – we are all just people. (It’s a) great weekend in Flintshire and a chance to try something new. Walk away from it inspired, or just chill out and listen to the best music I can find from all over the world.
Your music has become synonymous with Welsh culture, infused with raw authenticity. What are your opinions of today’s more manufactured bands?
We’ve had manufactured bands since music became a profitable business so I’m not one to stand in judgement. What I am passionate about is reclaiming music, music for people, for the fun of it, the hell of it and for the healing of it. Most music that has been made by man is for the sheer joy of it. I’m passionate about pulling it back from the claws of the capitalist world, and for it to be “you have a go, you join in”, if it makes you feel good but forget the rules.
At the Good Life Festival in the past we’ve had a group of Cuban dancers come over to teach people the moves of Cuban dancing; and last year we had a young Swing party teaching people to do the Charleston. This year we’ve got an authentic Wild West Hoe down, with players from North Carolina. It’s stripping away this whole thing that entertainment needs to be a certain way to make a profit, it’s turning the clock back. If you stand there and watch a fiddle player or a banjo player and they’re the best from their country and their culture it’s a jaw dropping moment. What I like now and what I’ve always loved as a child is the raw human brilliance of being able to pick up wood or string and make magic happen.
When we think of Cerys Matthews one thing that sticks in our consciousness was your unmistakable ‘Road Rage’ line which captured the raw essence of your Welsh heritage. Did you ever imagine that song to have such an effect still today?
I think the reason that line was so pronounced was because my voice was so high and the band was so loud – I had to project my not naturally very loud voice out of its comfort zone, I think rolling the r’s helped. It was completely by accident, it wasn’t something I intended to do!
Your continuity from 90’s music star to your success today in broadcasting and as a children’s author has seen you stay relevant and consistent. What do you attribute your successes to?
Thanks for all the kind words! I wish it was something quite conscious (but) it’s not, I love the world around us and there’s an awful lot of interesting things that don’t get said. I just try and share what I feel is interesting information.
If you could duet with any music star living or dead who would it be and why?
I’d love to go to the Mississippi Delta and the era of Charlie Patten… (and) I did have the privilege of duetting with Honeyboy Edwards who was one of the last living delta blues musicians. It would be a real privilege to go and walk those long walks between the plantations and see exactly what was going on and see how a sharecropper and musician lived their life at that time… it’s a fascinating point in history musically and yet so tragic and has absolutely put a stamp on the world as we know it today. It fascinates me as an era that has became the precursor of contemporary music. And of course, there’s Lead Belly – for his range – and any song he liked he sang – and I like that wide range attitude.
You dueted with Tom Jones for his song ‘Baby its Cold Outside.’ What advice if any has Tom given you throughout your music career?
He gave me a great piece of advice in 1999, this was at the height of everything. I’d just done a duet with Space and Catatonia had lots of top ten hits and we were touring all over the world. We had just recorded ‘Baby its Cold Outside’ and we were ready to go live and Tom said: “Cerys, don’t drink before a show, you’ll sing better without it and it will taste so much better later”, and I’ve stuck with that, with any kind of work I do. It’s an anomaly to believe in the rock and roll myths that you have to have some sort of out of body experience, or substance induced inspiration – that in fact only clouds up our thinking. Great art is not produced because you’re on laudanum or whatever. It was just great advice, because if you’re really sober and you’re on stage, that is the most and only inspiring substance you need.
If you could speak to a young Cerys Matthews just starting out, what would you tell yourself?
I think the biggest thing that I would say would be to not believe the rock and roll myths – and to make sure you read your contract! Because you’re young and focused on writing the songs and living the romantic dream, it’s very important to not be naïve… that is what I would tell myself. And I also think, and perhaps this is the main thing, that’s it’s really important to surround yourself with good people.
Nancy Mitford – The Pursuit of Love
The Kansas Smitty’s House Band
The last thing you ate?
Asparagus and avocado – from the co-op!
Apart from my record collection and my guitar collection, my new house in London with a garden.
Philosophy to live by?
A quote by Confucius – You only get two lives – and the second one begins when you realise you only have one