- Thu, 2006-08-10 10:10
Cerys Matthews is back with her second solo album, Never Said Goodbye, the follow up to her debut solo album, the marvellous Cockahoop. This brilliant new album is preceded by the release of an equally gorgeous single - Open Roads - on August 7th. Meanwhile, Cerys is currently touring the UK for the first time in three years and is having the time of her life. Previously vocalist for Catatonia, one of the most successful bands to have ever emerged from Wales, Cerys now lives in Nashville with her husband and two young children.
I Like Music caught up with Cerys prior to her performance at London's Scala to chat about writing songs with Superfurry Gruff Rhys, Nashville nuances and why she’s feeling happier [and sounding better] than ever.
“I like music because… it’s like getting on a camel and travelling through a desert trying to find an oasis, it certainly has a mind of its own.” Cerys Matthews
ILM: We last saw you live at Net Aid back in 1999. How was it playing Wembley Stadium and doing something to make a difference in the world?
Cerys: I think it’s good to always intend to try to make a difference; it’s making a difference that’s hard though, so you have to keep trying. That’s my overall feeling about that day, and still is.
ILM: On August 21st Rough Trade release your second solo album 'Never Said Goodbye'. Of all the Never Said Goodbye tracks, which one did you have the most fun recording?
Cerys: There are two tracks that were the most fun and they were the last two to be recorded. One of those was Morning Sunshine and I wrote that with Gruff Rhys from the Superfurry Animals and we did a version with him singing, but the drumming wasn’t right, so we re-recorded it in a studio called Battle Types with this young kid called Jeremy Ferguson, who’s one of the up and coming producers in Nashville. He did stuff like Be Your Own Pet, and Josh Rouse.
And he’s just got this amazing vibe studio. So we recorded that part in the basement with no windows, and I remember the vocals on it are so much fun, I did a lot of harmony, acapella vocals right there in the bridge and we got one of the guys who lived in the house to play really bad trombone on it. It was just quite a lot of fun.
The second song is Ruby, and Ruby is a song that I really wanted to put on the record because it balances out Oxygen, which is a pretty hard hitting song and allows you to hit the high notes, and thematically it just fitted in and needed to be there for the balance of the record.
But it was really tough, because everyone kept saying, ‘no, you’ve got to do it as a slow burner’ but it slipped into Coldplay territory for a minute, and I was like, ‘No! It’s not right, it’s not right.’ And it was a really hard song to get right.
Then with the help of Ben Elkins, who helped me a lot with this record, this young kid from Arkinsas who sent in a demo to my husband; with his help we just came up with the maddest arrangement I’ve ever been involved with, and Ruby was done, so we recorded that, and we also did that with Jeremy as well. It’s a mad song and got brilliant made arrangements on it. So they were the most fun to record.
ILM: And with Ruby, it must’ve been a nice feeling getting to that point where you’d got it right?
Cerys: Yeah definitely. It’s like songwriting as well, you can wake up with some songs, and they’re pretty much written themselves, and others are really hard and you have them for years, and then, when they’re finished it’s such a relief, especially when you’ve done them pretty well.
Like Elen, I had that idea for many years, but I couldn’t finish it to be as good as I wanted it to be, and that’s where the idea of asking Gruff came. My husband says, why don’t you ask Gruff to finish Elen for you. So we called him and he said, ‘sure’ and he was on the next plane to Nashville. And I’m a huge fan of his writing.
ILM: Your new single 'Open Roads' is out on August 7th. Can you give us your own personal description of it?
Cerys: Well I don’t like pinning songs down too much, so I won’t be too specific. But it’s pretty much a look back on a different time, recalling a relationship with an old friend.
ILM: You’re touring the UK for the first time in three years right now and played at The Point in Cardiff on Monday? How was the Point gig? Must be great to be back on stage?
Cerys: All the shows have been amazing, we started off…it’s not a proper tour, but a round of live shows in Nashville, and a complete thrill to just stir it up there and play some really loud music. I’ve got the best drummer I’ve ever played with, and I think he’s one of the best in the world, along with Ben Elkins on keyboards.
Theo on guitar, who I’ve been playing with for a few years and he’s completely got an individual kind of playing and Geoff Irwin on bass and Nathan on drums[C&W legend George Jones' grandson], and every night we look forward to getting on stage and getting to play the songs, because the songs, you can’t really pin them down, and the arrangements are so mad on some of them, they change so much every night and you don’t know how its going to end up. All of us are like kids in a sweet shop, y’know, we’re like, let’s just get on stage! It’s been really amazing.
ILM: And it must be more interesting ifs not just basic arrangements but challenging ones each night?
Cerys: It is very challenging, and the shows are getting better and better. And I’m starting to see old faces and people are knowing the new songs already, as I only do one song from Catatonia, and it’s just all making sense.
ILM: What’s your current favourite Cerys Matthews song to play live?
Cerys: We actually do a few songs from the Cockahoop record and put a bit of muscle into them. And there’s a section that wraps up the set, so I quite enjoy doing All My Trials at the minute, but it’s not a very polite version it’s pretty visceral, that’s quite a thrill. And The Good In Goodbye is good to play too and that leads into the new songs. So I’m loving every minute, it’s crazy. I just love being on there and listening so closely to the guys I’m playing with at the minute.
ILM: So just really soaking it all up?
Cerys: Yeah. It just feels great. I’ve not been this happy musically with people I’m playing with, as I am now.
ILM: So you’ve gone full circle and it’s all slotted into place.
Cerys: Yeah, it has.
ILM: You’re also playing some festivals, including Cambridge Folk Festival, T On The Fringe and headlining Cardiff’s Big Weekend festival, what’s the best thing about festivals for an artist but also as a punter?
Cerys: That’s the thing with festivals it’s not pinned down to one band. You never know what you’re going to say, you never know who’s going to shine that day and you never know who you’re going to bump into. So you’re just wandering round and the openness of what’s going to happen is what the thrill for me about festivals.
ILM: Catatonia were one of the most successful bands to have ever emerged from Wales – when you look back at those years what moments stand out as ‘Oh My God’ highlights?
Cerys: I think a really good OMG moment was Glastonbury in 98 or 99 when it was absolutely pouring down. And we got to play a 50 minute set and it was about 6.30pm in the evening and the rain stopped and the sun came out for the whole 50 minutes, and Michael Eavis just said, ‘go on, do some more songs’. That was a pretty magical moment.
ILM: Are you able to stop and smell the roses and enjoy the journey, more so this time round.
Cerys: Absolutely, that’s one of the best things about my situation now. I just escaped from all the craziness four years ago, and put the dial back to zero speed, and I’ve been living a really simple and slow life for a while, and it doesn’t feel like I’m racing through anything at the minute. I’m still quite frantic naturally, but back then it was just too much, and I didn’t handle it very well, and now the focus is all on the music, and my children and my family and my band, so it feels very grounded all of a sudden, which is a huge relief.
ILM: You now live in Nashville with her husband and two young children. How has both Nashville with its rich music history and motherhood changed you as a person and your approach to writing music?
Cerys: Writing-wise, being in America is just inspiring for some reason. Maybe it’s because it’s so hot all the time and I just sit outside. And everything was so new four years ago, to just go into the back woods and just sit there and observe life. I opened it up that way. I still love big songs and still always try to write the ultimate song that I’d love to hear.
References might be a little bit more American, like I mention Dog Wood trees in Blue Light Alarm, and just subtle things like that. But I don’t think my taste in songs has changed that much, maybe opened up a little bit, because the O Brother Stuff and the band. I’ve been listening to all that sort of stuff as well as The Clash and the other stuff
Motherhood has just allowed me to appreciate what time I have to work on what I love, and music is what I love. It’s just helped me focus and become a lot more determined, and also appreciate the vision of toddlers and what they notice about life, because there’s no filter and they’re so honest and just amazing to hang out with.
ILM: Did you do music at school and what’s your advice to young musicians just starting out?
Cerys: I went to a school that was so small they just concentrated on maths, English and the sciences, so there was no music offered, but I did get sent to piano lessons. And, if you can stand it, go, because it does teach you a little bit about the rudimentaries of where the notes are and what they look like on the page, and then leave when you’ve had a gullet full. On the whole I think just go and experiment and find yourself.
ILM: Try new things and go with the flow.
Cerys: Yeah, that’s the way to do it.
ILM: Your music is brilliant and your voice is unique. Can you describe the Cerys Matthews of writing damn fine music please?
Cerys: Ah, that’s so sweet, thank you. I find for the most part that the lyrics come with the melody, when you notice something doing something or somebody says something and you’re like, ‘wow, that’s a good take’, like, for instance, Elen… A friend of mine was telling me this story about this old lady who’d sit in her parlour and play the piano and the music would entice the people spilling out of the pubs into her house for some further rest and recuperation, and I just felt that was a wonderful story that could have happened generations ago in a different age. It’s just the aspect of an old lady with all her experience, just playing music and making her house a welcome place for folk. So I just wanted to write a song that would evocate and give over that story in a really sympathetic way; it’s quite romantic, so that’s what Elen is inspired by.
ILM: And it’s amazing that a story from one person can spread into a song and the whole world can get to know about that story…
Cerys: That’s the beauty of songs, as soon as they’re written they take on their own life and they travel. It’s amazing and they mutate as well. Songs are amazing.
ILM: And then they go full circle and you have people singing it back to you.
Cerys: Well that’s the maddest thing. The guy that I’m playing with three had never been to Europe to before and Ben had never been in the studio before and we played in Llangollen on Saturday and we started playing Lost Cat and everyone was singing back, and they almost jumped off the stage in fright! And then it continued even with the new songs, and that was pretty amazing, everyone singing the new songs, so just watching their faces was amazing.
ILM: What music is rocking your world right now?
Cerys: There’s an album by a band called Veteva and that’s definitely rocking my world and King Tubby & The Aggravators album, At The Controls.
ILM: Please tell me your favourite tune that makes you instantly relax?
Cerys: Anything by Augustus Pablo.
ILM: What’s the best and worst thing about Nashville?
Cerys: The best thing about Nashville is the music and the worst thing about Nashville is the music. It’s that simple. I can add loads of worst as well; there’s no sea, bad restaurants, it’s America, and it’s got chiggers, which are little mites that climb up your leg and they dig in around sweaty areas, like where your pants are and where your bra is and stuff, pretty nasty!
Cerys: The best thing is having visitors from the UK, like bands visiting and recording in town, then sitting on the porch in the night watching fire flies go up in the sky while you sing.
[ILM books a flight to Nashville]
ILM: Can you describe your favourite place on earth?
Cerys: If it’s not on the porch with visiting musicians, it would be on a cliff side in Pembrokeshire, watching the Irish Sea.
Cerys Matthews new single, Open Roads is out August 7th.
New album, Never Said Goodbye, follows on August 21st 2006.