Cerys Matthews: ‘In my culture poetry is everywhere’

Regular listeners to Cerys Matthews’ Sunday morning radio show on BBC 6 Music will be familiar with the singer turned broadcaster’s fondness for verse.

Cerys Matthews.

Her ‘Poetry in Motion’ readings have long been part of the programme, and the former frontwoman with Welsh band Catatonia has also judged the Forward Prize for Poetry and compiled an anthology for National Poetry Day.

Now the 51-year-old has teamed up with ten UK poets and musician Joe Acheson of Hidden Orchestra on an album celebrating spoken verse. We Come From The Sun will be released in January.

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Matthews says she wanted to tap into some of the “beautiful” words of a range of contemporary writers whose work she has found “life-enhancing or life-affirming”.

“I thought it would be wonderful to put them out there with music so they’re songs so that they have longer legs and a greater versatility in terms of being played in places where they might not go (otherwise),” she explains. “Quite often people put poetry in a book on a shelf and put a box around it, whereas in my culture poetry is everywhere – it’s in a walk in the woods, it’s in the sound of a bird, it’s an essence or connection with life rather than just a collection of black and white squiggles on a page.

“To me it wasn’t too radical to use these stunning pieces of work by ten different writers and write music to go with them so that they became what I like to call poem-songs.”

Acheson was a natural foil for this project, she feels. “Joe, like me, loves sound,” she says. “Whether that’s the sound of a stream, a shutter blowing in the wind, the sound of footsteps on snow or a poem being read or prose or an accent that he’d not been familiar with or a Britney Spears pop song, it’s sound and it’s the same kind of palette. If you take all sound as an influence for your palette, which is what Hidden Orchestra is, then you have got Technicolor potential. You’re not just limited to one piano or four guys in a band or an orchestra, you’ve actually got an unlimited palette to choose from, so he was an obvious choice. Joe is the Hidden Orchestra but his orchestra is banks upon banks of field recordings.”

From Zimbabwe-born Ma.Moyo to Bafta award-winner Lemn Sissay, young poet Cia Mangat and Queen Gold Medal for Poetry recipient Imtiaz Dharker, Matthews aimed to reflect a wealth of different heritages and experiences on this record.

Cerys Matthews.

“I find that at the minute we get so lost in our own echo chambers and there’s a lack of patience with listening to people with different points of view,” she says. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to just hear my voice, I’m tired of echo chambers and people shouting down if you say something’. Discussion and honesty are the way the world moves on. If you’re scared of saying something and having a discussion because people shout you down then we’re moving backwards.

“So I didn’t just want to put my voice on this, I chose these poets because a) I admire their work and b) I selected these poems because I wanted them to work within this theme. Because it’s hopefully one in a series of albums, the theme is genesis. It’s the beginning but you don’t come out of a vacuum, you come out of the sum of your parts in a way, the sum of the people that came before you.

“So it’s genesis, heritage or belonging, a journey about to begin is the loose theme of this particular album, We Come From The Sun. I hope that as humans we are connected. The way we’ve travelled and the way we manifest culturally might be different but we have a common history if you go far back. I thought it was a good place to begin this conversation.”

The album’s opening track, Flame Lily, was released as a single for National Poetry Day in October. Matthews recalls Ma.Moyo reciting the poem at Abbey Road in February. “The rhythm was so strident and the intention was so strong and powerful and confident and hopeful,” she says. “To me it was the epitome of this new beginning, this cocky little being almost wanting to stride out and make a mark, but while doing that, also acknowledging those that came before, I just fell in love with it.”

Due to lockdown restrictions, Matthews has yet to actually her collaborator Acheson in the flesh. “That’s never happened before (on a record), but thanks to technology we are able to work quite nicely remotely and it’s been an absolute pleasure, starting from having common ground with our love of sounds and understanding that it is a fine balance of not getting in the way of the story but also playing with where we can take it forward. It was fun.”

The depth of sound in these recordings suggests the album was designed to be listened to with headphones. Matthews, though, is not proscriptive. “I hope people have the complete freedom to listen to it in whatever way they want, as long as you bloody well listen to it,” she laughs. “I don’t want people to think it’s just poetry, it’s a music release, some of the poems work like alternative hip-hop or talking blues.

“The whole storyline takes the listener by the hand and takes them to different set-ups, some could be more urban, some completely country and then at one point it takes the listener down inside the human body and sits next to the heart, listening to the valves and our veins and blood sloshing around. I hope it is an aural adventure.”

We Come From The Sun is released on Decca on January 15. cerysmatthews.co.uk