For most of us, the past few months have represented challenges, difficulties and in some cases huge sadness. Cerys Matthews has had her fair share of trials over the period but she’s not one to wallow in self-pity.
“We lost our dad recently. He died of Covid and it was really hard on my mother as it was on many families. We couldn’t go to the funeral and all of that. But we were in the same boat as everyone else,” says the singer.
“My mother lives in Wales, on the same road as my sister thankfully because me and my brothers live around London. When [the first] lockdown happened, we were a family split with different border rules so I couldn’t see my mum for four months, which was really hard,” she admits. “But as I say, we are all in this together and we have to make the most of it.”
On a professional front, the former Catatonia frontwoman had just begun recording a unique album of poetry and music when the March lockdown was imposed.
“We’d go to chapel and there were glorious hymns. We inherited a piano and I taught myself to play.”
“I didn’t start out recording during a pandemic,” she laughs. “We did have a stroke of luck in that we had begun the process before corona. I invited some of my favourite writers to Abbey Road and they said yes,” she exclaims with a throaty laugh. “I think that was more Abbey Road’s than my stature! It’s a lovely invitation – to come to Abbey Road and record. You know: ‘Come and sit in the same chair as John Lennon!’ We recorded 10 poets over two days and then it was lockdown.”
Despite this huge obstacle, the album was finished. We Come From The Sun combines Matthews’ two great loves, poetry and music.
“I’ve always enjoyed poetry, books or prose. I’ve always collected poetry. I’m as happy reading or listening to a poem I love as I am a song I love. So doing this is a kind of natural progression.”
On her weekly BBC6 Music show she regularly reads poetry, combining it with contemporary music. In 2019 she released the official National Poetry Day anthology Tell Me The Truth About Life. Among her many other literary involvements Matthews is vice-president of Hay Literature Festival and patron of the Dylan Thomas Society.
She chose 10 poets of diverse backgrounds and picked pieces of their works to blend in with a theme of genesis, birth heritage and a journey about to begin.
“In a way the timing of this is almost perfect because at the beginning of lockdown it was heartening that there was a sense of having some sort of restart. When spring bloomed, we reconnected with nature and the miracle of life, parallel to this album – genesis.”
Musically, the singer, who made her name as a leading figure in the 1990s “cool Cymru” scene with the band Catatonia and hits like Road Rage, worked with composer Joe Acheson, creating pieces that incorporated not just music but recorded real world sounds, from rain and birdsong through to industrial noises.
Words and music were very much part of Matthews’ upbringing in Swansea. Her father Phillip was a doctor and her mum Pauline a former medical secretary. Matthews and her two brothers and sister were brought up to appreciate all types of music.
“My dad would play Bob Dylan and Maria Callas or Duke Ellington. He was open minded and encouraged us to appreciate life’s riches. My primary school was a Welsh language school and there was constant music and poetry and choir competitions. We’d go to chapel with Mum and there were glorious hymns. We inherited a piano and I taught myself to play.”
During her Catatonia years Matthews was a self-described “rip-roaring pop tart”, enjoying all the excesses that a successful life in the music business offered in the 1990s. Today, at 51, the woman, who was awarded an MBE for her services to the music industry in 2014, has her feet firmly on the ground and is a respected radio presenter – along with her Sunday 6 Music show, she hosts a weekly Radio 2 show on jazz and blues. She lives in London with her music producer husband Steve Abbot and their three teenage children.
“Being a mum is like being on a roller-coaster: the older they get the more they need you. You don’t think that when they are running around as toddlers and you have to watch everything they are doing. I think the hardest thing to a modern parent is the internet. It’s the biggest threat because of the stuff out there. Spotify, Instagram – their worlds are way more exciting than ours was. I would still like to live in that internet-free bubble. There is an age whereby you can keep your child away from that. But once they are in on it, that’s it.”
She celebrated her 50th birthday last year by taking the family on a trip to the Everest base camp.
“The consensus among us all is that it was the highlight of our lives. You don’t have to spend much on the trip – just get a cheap flight to Kathmandu. It’s beautiful and not like all the headlines that say there’s loads of rubbish and queues. It’s so stunning and doable. It was a bonding experience about planet earth. It reminds you what really counts.”
She’s involved in many charities but works tirelessly as vice-president for Shelter in Wales.
“We all talk about making bread and stuff during lockdown. We can bake bread because we have a safe space to do it in. That’s one of the basic needs. It’s the foundation for everything [and without it] you can’t get jobs, you can’t have a telephone. It’s the foundation that every single human being needs to live a dignified life.
“The priority for me is to bring attention to the issues and, like now, it’s not just about not having a home but difficulties paying the rent or mortgage. People can go to Shelter for help.”
Next year Matthews hopes to take We Come From The Sun out as a live tour with the poets and musicians, but she’s not planning too far in advance.
“We release the album in January, but I’m dropping a single from it on the first of every month. Then it’s Christmas and I love Christmas! Time is running so fast I don’t dare look further ahead than that. I think being sensible and trying to eke life out of it is what we have to do right now!”
We Come From The Sun will be released by Decca in January 2021. Singles are available now for download at cerysmatthews.co.uk
Photo: Paul Johnson
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