Touring musician and radio presenter, campaigner for homelessness rights, Welsh language music champion and of course, fulltime mother to three children. It’s fair to say that Cerys Matthews leads a life less ordinary.
Matthews, who turns 41 next month, is soon to be back on the road playing new material as well as reprising her BBC 6 Music Sunday morning radio show from Easter.
It’s arguably the busiest time of her career to date, which when you look at things, is no mean feat. It’s hard to believe when Matthews reminds The Big Issue that she’s now been in the music industry for 20 years. As the frontwoman of Catatonia, it didn’t seem so long
ago she was rasping lyrics to festival audiences about “thanking the lord I’m Welsh”, with a delicately balanced half empty wine glass and cig in hand.
The clothes and hairstyles may have come and gone, but it’s a familiar childlike voice at the end of the line that we hear when she picks up the phone.
“No, I don’t do much sleeping at the moment,” she explains with a chuckle. “That is the one thing I could do with right now. It’s pretty mad at the moment but it’s so exciting and I’m always happy to talk to The Big Issue; they ran one of the first interviews with me that I’d ever done.”
Since October, when Matthews released her bilingual Welsh and English album, Don’t Look Down/Paid Edrych i Lawr, Matthews’ life has been a whirlwind of gigging, TV shows and charity fundraising. In November she gave birth to her third child, Red Owen, who was eight weeks premature.
Despite this, mother and son were at the time understood to be doing very well. Something Matthews confirms when she says that although lacking a decent night’s sleep, she’s the happiest she’s been in ages.
“It does feel quite extraordinary at the moment,” she continues. “I’m the busiest I’ve
ever been in an industry I’ve been lucky enough to have been in for 20 years. Even more so now, I’m able to do more of what I fancy.” It’s fortunate then that continuing to do just is proving to be so popular.
Don’t Look Down/Paid Edrych I Lawr has been roundly praised for its cinematic, soul-inflected songs. It’s a brave and bold work that underlines Matthews’ mantra of never the same thing twice. The record might be the first time we’ve ever had a completely bilingual Welsh and English album, but for Matthews, its birth was a natural process.
“I’d not done a 100 per cent Welsh language album before, there was Awyren=Aeroplane (from 2007) but that was an EP. When it won an Eisteddfod prize it was the first time
since 1938 that it had been given to a modern composition. I was so thrilled with that.
“The music on Don’t Look Down lent itself to be translated,” Matthews explains. “It’s harder to translate songs and make them work if they’re more straight forward rock and roll ones. It would be like having The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’ or ‘Satisfaction’ in Welsh – hard to imagine. I wanted to do it because I’d never done it before.”
Matthews has sung songs in Welsh throughout her career, but she’s stuck by her stance
that it’s not a political issue. “I have an inherent distrust of politicians,” she explains. “I shy away from that world as much as I can. But I love culture and I think it adds so much to our lives. I love anything that makes us think different things.”
Citing Cardiff songwriter Cate Le Bon’s debut album Me Oh My as one of her favourites of the last 12 months, Matthews is also working on an album’s worth of old Welsh folks songs. Some date back as far as the 11th century. When these reworked songs will appear isn’t clear, but that’s partly the drawback of having a jam-packed schedule.
There seems little question that becoming a parent has changed Matthews’ outlook greatly. “What motherhood does is stop you from playing with your mortality,” she explains. “You calm down a bit and you get a different perspective. But as far as how it affects my songwriting, I can’t say. I don’t know if it has or will.”
It’s arguably the uncompromising glare caused from her 2007 stint in jungle-themed reality TV show I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here that altered Matthews’ public image from songwriter to fully fledged media star. The change has been measured in column inches ever since.
Matthews’ decision to start back gigging less than six months after she gave birth has
proven – if it was ever needed to be – that being a touring musician and parent are not incompatible. But the issue still wrangles with her.
“Why is that even being asked?” she says with a touch of exasperation. “Why doesn’t Bob Dylan or Kris Kristoffersen or Smokie Robinson get asked that too? All of them are proud and perfectly good fathers who also happen to be musicians who tour. The conclusions you come to about why male musicians don’t get asked those questions are obvious.”
For Matthews, there is no issue or compromise. When she goes on tour, so too does
her family. Baby Red Owen has “been out on three work outings so far” according
to his mum, but he’s too young for gigs just yet.
“I reckon by the end of April he will be a tour-hardened roadie,” she laughs. “My two eldest come to the shows, but from their perspective it’s not that exciting. Backstage areas are not clean or safe. But when they’re a bit older I may have to break a few child labour laws and get them working for me.”
These days, Matthews divides her time between London and Wales out of necessity. Her
children attend a Welsh school in North London and holiday time is spent back in Pembrokeshire. As far as balancing music commitments and still staying sane goes, she’s an old hand.
A question about the amount of pressure put on Britain’s young female solo
artists by the media provokes a robust response. “If you don’t mind me saying, it’s a bit of a sexist question just talking about female singers,” she says. The Big Issue responds that the treatment of female artists in the industry is certainly prejudiced at times, but asking why it happens isn’t.
“What about all the male ones?” she continues. “I think we’re carrying the female voice pretty well in this country and I don’t think the gender of the artist should matter.” The mood lightens when we move onto her current favourites.
“I love Florence Welch and Mary Epworth too, but there’s tons of stuff by male artists
I like as well. I think it’s boring to harp on about whether their male or female, it should be about what they’re doing. All I can do is try to barrack against that,” she says. “I don’t understand why we have to create these barriers.”
Given Matthews’ treatment at the hands of Britain’s tabloid press in the recent past, a bit of wariness towards journalists is hardly strange. “It’s so difficult to give yourself advice,” she says about what she’d say to her 20-year-old self.
“What I have issues with is you’re scared of saying the truth because of all this spin,” she says. “If you’re honest about something, that will be the headline and all you hear about for the next 10 years. So then you keep your mouth shut, but what happens to freedom of speech?
“Everything you say gets twisted, it’s really difficult,” she adds. A pause follows before
she gathers her thoughts. “So what I’d like to say to my younger self is shut up and have more business sense. But where’s the fun in that?
“You don’t want that when you’re 20. The beginning of your journey is always the hardest bit. So I would probably tell myself to be careful,” she considers. “I’d tell myself to be careful, but most of all to be happy.”
(First published in The Big Issue in March 2010)