At the height of Britpop she was the lead singer of Catatonia – but leads a quieter life these days. Duncan Seaman spoke to Cerys Matthews.
AN award-winning broadcaster, bestselling author, literary judge, ballet patron, magazine columnist and songwriter – these days Cerys Matthews has a remarkably busy life.
It’s a far cry from seven years ago when she was raising two children in rural Tennessee.
Matthews had taken off to Nashville around the turn of the Millennium after the break-up of her band Catatonia, who were famed for the 90s hits Mulder and Scully and Road Rage.
While there she released a couple of solo albums that sold modestly but it wasn’t until she returned to her native South Wales that her career was reborn.
“What happened was my work life reflects more of my interests than ever before,” she says today of the transformation.
“Even during the band stuff I loved literature and reading and an eclectic range of music.”
In 2007 she split from her first husband, American music producer Seth Riddle, and decided to return home.
Taking on a new manager, Steve Abbott, was to change her life. “He’s amazing,” she says of her now “lovely husband”.
“We’re kindred spirits, he loves a huge range of music. For the first time in my life I had a great manager – my husband. He understands what makes me tick. I’ve made great strides in my work life as well as my private life.”
She began broadcasting on BBC 6 Music in 2008 and has been presenting her own show on Sunday mornings since the birth of her third child in 2010.
The programme is famously eclectic – and this year won a Sony Award – yet its 44-year-old presenter says it has no “aims or agendas at all”.
“It’s the opposite. I love great music. There’s a lot of it out there but it does not find a place in the heavily formatted, formulaic show that they’re creating for the market rather than people’s souls.
“I hope the Sunday morning show is fulfilling for people to listen to. It has poetry, history, recipes...” she laughs, “and great music from all genres.”
Matthews’ fascination with all forms of music was further borne out this year with the publication of her book Hook, Line and Singer. In it she shares the music and words to some of her favourite songs that she has collected over the years. The idea is to encourage readers to sing along.
“Basically it’s like a recipe book for music,” she explains. “You pick it up and there are songs for all ages. I wanted to encourage people to make a noise and have fun doing these songs.”
With the festive season fast approaching, this month she takes the idea a step further with a series of concerts at which the audience will be actively encouraged to lend their voices.
“With our busy lives we have this ‘virtual life’ more of the time, which is great, but this is a chance to have the absolute opposite of that, to let your hair down. Who doesn’t like singing carols at Christmas? If it does not sound like Autotune which you hear a lot of these days, what the heck.”
For Matthews, singing was instilled at an early age. “As a child I went through the Welsh language school system [where] even in maths and geography we were learning through singing,” she says. “I went to church twice on Sundays, so I did hymn singing as well. Music and singing have always been there.”
She does, however, deplore the homogeneous state of modern popular music.
“That’s something I am beating my head about all the time,” she says. “It’s been a business since Elvis Presley, he was the first to become a brand – that’s 63 years of heavily commercialising what, in essence, belonged in the community. The easiest way to make money is to take it out of kids’ pockets, so they make music to appeal to them.
“I have no trouble with enjoying the occasional pop song. Katy Perry’s Roar is a good pop song. But it’s refreshing now with the radio show knowing there are a lot of us out there who don’t want to be a statistic of radio programmers. We’ve had a lot of success, we’re catering for a lot of people. There’s a substantial chunk of us who don’t want to be a pawn in the commercial machine.”
She’s especially optimistic about the current music scene in her homeland.
“It’s exciting at the moment in Wales. I felt the same way in the 90s when there we were coming through with Super Furry Animals and Gorkys [Zygotic Mynci] and the Manic Street Preachers. We knew each other, it creates an exciting atmosphere.
“Looking at traditional music, there’s so little of it known outside of Welsh-speaking Wales. People have been setting poetry to a musical accompaniment since the 6th century. It goes way back to the bards. Yet when you look at the Radio 2 Folk Awards and the Radio 2 Folk Show and the Transatlantic Sessions there’s very little presence for Welsh traditional artists.”
She mentions several up-and-coming Welsh artists such as Calan, Gwyneth Glyn and fiddle player Patrick Rimes.
She notes: “There’s a newfound confidence and eagerness to play outside the Welsh language area.”
When Wales recently staged Womex, the world music expo, Matthews curated the opening concert. “Some of the music in Wales has not travelled and been presented enough. There’s a new wave of enthusiasm to do that. I guess I’m part of it.”
Her latest album Hullabaloo is her second to feature traditional songs sung in her native tongue.
“I put Tir out in 2010 – that was an album of the most iconic Welsh songs, the ones you grow up knowing. It seemed natural to put Hullabaloo out as a sister collection to Tir.”
Look forward not back
The heady days of Britpop, when Catatonia were most celebrated, now seem distant to Matthews. “It’s an awfully long way away. I was in my twenties then, I’m now in my forties. I wouldn’t change it – actually I might change a couple of things on the business side, I would change my manager to the one I have now – but you can’t live in the past.”
Cerys Matthews’ Hook, Line and Carol Singing tour visits Otley Courthouse Dec 4, www.otleycourthouse.org.uk
Pocklington Arts Centre on Dec 6, www.pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk