Cerys Matthews

////CERYS MATTHEWS////AUGUST 2006////

Hello there, wake up, are you with me? I can’t believe you’ve forgotten all about Cerys Matthews. There was a time at the end of the nineties, in the hay-day of the still hugely influential Brit Pop era, that this woman made Noel and Liam look like two little boys with two little toys. She was in your face, even sometimes unpleasantly so, but there was always something loveable and charming found within that Welsh brogue. But for Cerys, success and celebrity came at a price. By the turn of the century, those same journalists and music big wigs that brought her to the nation’s attention, watched and documented her spiralling down fall. Excess in many ways, led Cerys to rehab for alcohol and smoking problems, which is where the road appeared to end for both her and Catatonia. But after all the fuss had gone and the dust had settled, she left quietly for America, to rebuild her life. Now five years on, she’s married with two young children and looks very different to how she might have been remembered. She has just released her second solo album ‘Never Said Goodbye’ which encapsulates and reminisces of some of the best vocal performances from the Catatonia days. The album tells her story of the last five years and has been greeted with critical acclaim. She’s recently arrived back in the UK from her new found home of Nashville, Tennessee, to tour the new album. Outline grabbed a quick chat with her to find out how she’s been getting on…

You are currently out on the road touring ‘Never Said Goodbye’, how have the shows been going?
Amazingly well. Because we finished this album at the beginning of April, the turnaround has been really quick. So at this point, to go on tour and play it live is just a massive thrill. It’s taken me about two years to find the musicians I’m playing with at the moment. They’re not session musicians, they’re guys who play really individually with their own style, so it’s a massive thrill and I love the songs on the album. We did the last show in Cardiff last night, so they left today and we start off again in about a month, so I can’t wait.

Is it strange for you being back over here?
It is a bit strange, but it’s amazing as well. It feels like the right time to be back over here. I didn’t realise, but it’s actually four years since I left.  Time has gone quickly, but as I said, it seems like a good time, I can bring my children back now.

I wondered what you miss most about the UK, since moving to Nashville?
Oh, the great generous helping of cynicism we have. The sea and good world news.  Not that it’s good, but you get a more accurate and open version of events over here than you get in the US.

So for all the places you could have ended up residing…why Nashville?
There were two main reasons. I wanted to get away from it all on a personal level and on a musical level, I wanted to do something completely different. I’d been collecting these more traditional and rootsey sounding songs since I was nine and I wanted to record an album that reflected that interest of mine. I wanted to follow them across the Atlantic like the songs did when the people immigrated to America. So that’s the two reasons. I do a lot of road trips and love to stop off at these tiny little museums they have around Nashville. I went to one in Louisiana and they had all the toys, furniture, lace and little children’s shoes that were all brought over on the ships. I just couldn’t imagine packing up the small amount of belongings you have and leave what you know to travel somewhere completely strange to you and fight against everything to try and make a new life. I mean, it was that, that really interested me. To try and make a better life against that. I’m reading a book at the moment by Howard Gillette & Zane Miller, I think it’s called ‘The Real History of America’, and it’s scary, I mean the genocide alone…

Do you now consider Nashville as home, or do you think you’ll move around some more?
I don’t class it as home. I always consider my home to be on the Pembrokeshire coast. Right now, we’re not exactly sure where we’re going to set up home, but we’re trying to figure it out. It’s a difficult one.

Have you ever considered how your life would be if you hadn’t left the UK when you did?
No, I couldn’t do that. I was in a very bad way when I left, so it was either move or…ya know

As long as you stay in Nashville your childern are going to be growing up as young Americans. Is it important to you that they are aware of their Welsh heritage?
Yeah, it’s important to me that they have an awareness of both cultures.

Moving on to the album, could you describe it in comparison to other stuff you’ve done in the past?
Led Zeppelin versus Talking Heads versus Dolly Parton. Actually, that’s probably not very accurate but… a lot of fighting and preparation went into recording it. I just didn’t want to make an album that I’ve made before or heard before. But I am restricted by the fact I write traditional style songs with just drums, bass and guitar. I love the traditional set up, but I didn’t want to parody other bands or have major reference points. So that was the challenge…

Regarding the title ‘Never said Goodbye’ I have my own ideas, but I wondered if there was any particular meaning or significance behind the name?
That’s from the fourth song on the album called ‘Open Roads’. It’s really an ode to the fact I just dropped everything and left.

You chose Stuart Sikes (White Stripes) & Ben Elkins to produce it. I read that it took you ages to find who you thought were the right people. Can you elaborate on this?
I started out doing a set of demos for a guy called Kurt Wagner, who is the man behind Lambchop and both new Candi Staton albums and Bobby Bear Senior, which is an album definitely worth checking out. He’s a good friend and an amazing producer with a great studio in Nashville, but we couldn’t get the right personnel to get the sound I wanted. So a year on from that, and after four different studios, twenty different drummers, we found Stuart Sikes, who could get the bottom end I was looking for. Ben Elkins was a kid from Arkansas who sent in a demo to my husband and he came in to help me do the string, key and vocal arrangements, to give the album that different style. Once everyone was on board, things started moving really quickly.

After ‘Cockahoop’, your debut solo record, there didn’t seem to be much press attention surrounding you, but this time around, you seem a lot more in the limelight again. How do you feel about this?
That was a difficult time. After finishing ‘Cockahoop’ I wasn’t in the mood for doing any questions or things like that. I was still feeling very raw after my experiences with Catatonia and what happened there. But this time around I just feel so strong.

Being the face and the focal point of ‘Catatonia’, a hugely successful band, were there elements of you scared of writing and performing on your own?
No, it was liberating.

You seem like a strong minded woman who knows what she wants. I wondered with all this new found freedom in writing, how hard you find it to import ideas from other musicians and producers?
I’ve been writing music since 1991 and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot. So I know where my strong points are and where my input is required. But I also love working with other people and when I choose to work with other people it’s because I respect them and want their input too. I’ve never been as involved with a record, as I have with this one. Like with the production and mixing, because I ended up doing all that myself, just to finish it the way I’d always heard it. So I found it immensely fulfilling on that level.

I’ve always wondered what the period between finishing an album and it being released is like for its maker? Does doubt start to set in?
After finishing the album I was amazed because there were certain points when I didn’t think I’d ever finish it. So I was really happy. I might change one thing on it. If ‘Morning Sunshine’ comes out as a single, I’ll be able to do that. All in all, I’m pretty satisfied as to how it turned out.

In the past you’ve worked with Tom Jones and Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals has appeared on your latest album but I wondered who else you’d love to work with?
Prince. I would like to go into the studio with him and see how he works and get to write melodies over the rhythms he produces.

‘Open Roads’ is the first single, who chooses what the singles will be and how do you feel about that?
It’s a collaborate thing between me and the record company. Ya’know, once I’ve finished an album, I’m usually pretty happy with most of the tracks on it, so it’s interesting for me to let other people choose what they like and what they think the singles should be. Also, because I’m so close to the songs it’s sometimes hard for me to judge.

Ok, so a predictable one, but none the less an important area which should not be ignored. Who would you state as direct influences whilst working on this particular project?
I love a record right now by Vetiver called ‘To Find Me Gone’. I’ve also been listening to Devendra Banhart and Radio 101 FM in Tennessee, which mostly plays Southern Krunk, which is basically dirty south Hip Hop.

From a musical stand point, I’d be interested to know  the differences for you, between writing, recording and performing? And what you get from each?
Writing is always really easy or very hard work, but it’s very satisfying when you finish a song. The studio thing is hard work but it can be satisfying on a more academic level. When you record it’s also great watching other people work, and playing with all the old mikes and stuff. I really love the studio. Then the live thing is great because there are so many variables. I love the whole thing…

At the pinnacle of the whole Brit Pop thing, you were on the front of every magazine and being played on every radio station as well as being slapped all over the every tabloid column in the country, but that came with a price. I wondered this time around, how big you would like this to go? 
I’d like to be able to make records until I die. If I can sell a few, that’ll help…(laughs)

Can I ask you for your views on the British press, because they both elevated you to great heights, but they were also there when you were on your way down?
I don’t dwell on it to much. It’s a means to being able to hopefully continue making music. I don’t read any of it anymore and I’ve found that’s been very uplifting for me. It’s an odd part of the job…but I try not to take it too seriously.

They say having children is one of life’s major changing points, can you tell us how it’s affected you?
Ya’know, if you were a ship, they’ll be your dock. They have helped me focus so much on music, because time is so precious. You learn that you love them so much and it helps to lead you to other passions you love. Those are the things you focus on intently because you realise time is precious.

What are the real high points in your mind from the Catatonia days?
Glastonbury, Fuji Rock Festival in Japan, were big highlights. We’d been touring as a band since 1991, but in ’97 there was a noticeable change. Around the time our stuff first started coming on the radio we played one of the festivals and the tent just started filling up. I’d never played in front of that many people. Then when they were recognising songs and singing them back, I was pretty amazed.

Obviously Catatonia had a lot of big hits that people still remember and love, do you incorporate any of this back catalogue in your live set nowadays?
We do ‘Lost Cat’ from the first album and I’m not ruling out any others, but it just depends on how the set is made up, because some of them where quite dark songs. I mean, people know ‘Road Rage’ and ‘Mulder & Scully’ which are not so dark, but most of the other stuff is. But I’m not ruling it out…

After not appearing live for a long time in the UK, last Christmas you went back to Cardiff, to perform Kirsty McCall’s part in the Fairy Tale of New York with the Pogues, that must have been pretty special?
It was amazing, it’s a great song and up until then I had been living a quiet life because I was working on the record and having babies and things, so to walk on stage with the Pogues at Christmas time and do that song was special because I am a huge Kirsty Mccall fan. To top all that it was in my home town so it was pretty amazing.        

Did you rehearse this with them before hand?
No, we just went on and did it. It was wonderful for me as well, because it was just one song and there wasn’t any pressure.

So what does Cerys Matthews like to do in her time off?
I like to walk on the cliffs in Pembrokeshire and sit back and watch people. I enjoy watching my children playing. I’m going to start playing golf, my husband plays and I’ve played once. I also like fishing for Mackerel. But I can’t do that in Nashville. It’s about nine and half hours away from any ocean.

I read somewhere you are really into Hip Hop, what is it about rap music that does it for you?
Erm, no boundaries, and great string arrangements, not just your usual pedestrian arrangements that get laid on every single indie rock guitar bands released in this country, nowadays.

Is there a particuar act or album?
Mos Def, ‘Black on Both Sides’, I love it.

Ok, finally, my last question you’ll be pleased to know. You were hailed as a lesbian icon at the height of your success, how many people can put that on their CV?
I know, it’s fantastic, I don’t know how it started, but that’s fine. I have loads of old gay friends who have been coming to the shows and I think that’s great.

2 Responses to Cerys Matthews

  1. Cary says:

    I just found this interview after all these years and I must say it’s one of the best — not to mention the rare pics! I’m a massive Cerys fan and it’s always a thrill to discover “new” stuff that I’d previously missed. Well done! Cheers, Cary

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