- Wed, 2009-10-07 15:37
Cerys Matthews is set to make history with the release of her new album Don't Look Down by becoming the first artist to release an album in Welsh and English language versions simultaneously. The former Catatonia front woman, BBC 6 Music radio DJ and mother of two has had her share of the limelight for reasons other than her songwriting (notably her appearance on the seventh series of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here) but when it comes down to it, all she really wants to do is make music.
Having spoken to Cerys in 2006, I Like Music caught up with her again to do just that, chat about music. We discuss her travels across the globe, her discovery of new performance venues and new recording artists, writing lyrics, auditioning drummers and above all else, why she feels Don't Look Down is her best work to date.
"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: How would you describe the vibe of your new album Don’t Look Down?
Cerys: I like to do something different each time I make a record. This one is a lot more cinematic than anything I’ve done before. I’m really proud of all the arrangements; it’s the best record I’ve ever made!
ILM: Were there a lot of different musicians involved?
Cerys: It’s got the best drummer I’ve ever played with on it! Mason Neely! When I was in Nashville, it sounds mental, but I went through twenty one different drummers trying to find a certain feel and I found Mason! That was four years ago! We’ve played regularly together along with my guitarist. Being with musicians that instinctively know what you’re trying to do has enabled me to make a record like this. From the get go, the groove of the record is so brilliant! When you have that, you can barely put a foot wrong!
ILM: Did your music making process change or develop for this record?
Cerys: This record was slightly different to other records. I usually write from scratch on the piano or guitar. With this one I worked closely with Mason to get the rhythm tracks first, then I focused on building the songs from there. I listen to such a wide range of music, but again, if it has a good rhythm, a good groove, bass line and drums, then you’re on to something good. Other albums were more straightforward. Catatonia for example; we were a band, we went into the studio and we record as a five piece. Never Said Goodbye was influenced by my time in Nashville, so was quite heavy on the keyboard arrangements, Stevie Wonder-ish. But this record, this is definitely groove based.
ILM: Did you approach your lyric writing in the same way?
Cerys: I wrote this album very quickly. It was at a huge changing point in my life and writing helped enormously. Both the lyrics and the melody came very quickly. There are inevitable hardships when you go through changes, I didn’t want to try too hard. I just wanted to say it as it is. With a sense of humour as well! Lyrics range from the River Nile to spiders and flies and oranges and places like Florida. I even credit my occasional shopping addiction in the track Salutations! Hopefully it takes you on a nice trip imagination wise as well!
ILM: How did it come together in the studio? What was that transition like?
Cerys: With my lifestyle at the moment, my home sort of becomes a studio, wherever that home is! I recorded along the way with this one, Seattle, Providence, Nashville, London. Simply because you can record a lot on laptops these days, even vocals. I did a lot of vocals with Candy Staton’s and Lambchop’s producer, a guy called Mark Nevers.
ILM: Arlington Way is a fantastic first single! How did that track come together?
Cerys: With some songs you can do lots of takes, you can ad-lib, you can do lots of things. With Arlington Way, that is the first take! I didn’t know I was going to go off on one at the end! I did, and we liked it, so we kept it! I didn’t want to try too hard with this record. Even though it’s highly arranged, I wanted it to sound natural as well. I want people to hear real voices, the sound of the guitar strings, you know? I hope that it’s not too formulaic, not too processed, that it’s kept the beauty.
ILM: You’ve recorded the album in both the English and the Welsh language. What’s that process like? Does anything get lost in translation?
Cerys: It was a challenge. I released a 100% Welsh language mini album in 2007. I then decided to do it with my full album. It’s definitely double the work! Sometimes the line of phrase will be better in one language than the other and there’s no telling which will work better. It can be quite funny! This time around, because the English version was so cinematic it lent itself well to being in Welsh. You can’t really do that with a lot of four four rock songs because sometimes that trans-atlantic twang sounds very strange with a Celtic language on top. Hopefully this has turned out alright! I’m getting a really warm response. It’s quite strange to put out a very contemporary album in the Welsh language.
ILM: You’ve had a very successful career as a musician. What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learnt about the music industry?
Cerys: You can’t really have a lesson you’ve learnt because it’s always changing so much and so quickly. It’s no longer a case of learning from the old, it’s the old modifying to the new. Dealing with spotify, downloads and iTunes. Not having companies running straight in to invest in new bands. You just have to change to keep up with all of those things.
ILM: What would be your advice to anyone looking to come in to the music industry?
Cerys: That’s difficult. I would always encourage somebody to just do it in their own way. Have confidence in what you’re doing and find your own way. You can’t copy anyone. You have to stick out from the norm. The artists I’m most inclined to be excited by are those that you can’t quite work out who their influences are, what they’re thinking or where they’re headed. Do it your own way.
ILM: How will you take this album to the stage?
Cerys: I always plan the set up with the venue in mind. In 2006 we did a lot of theatres and I absolutely fell in love with the acoustics of the theatre. At first it was a shock, coming from performing in a rock group for nearly twenty years! With theatre’s you have a completely different set up to a larger rock venue. You are at such an intimate level with the audience. You can hear anything they do and they can hear everything you do! We’ve been messing around with a whole range of instruments, a lot of acoustic stuff. We all play several instruments each. The colour of sound comes from the variety. It’s quite stripped down, there are no stylists, make up or television cameras. It just is what it is. A bunch of musicians on stage hopefully playing a bunch of brilliant songs.
ILM: As a musician, what have been some of your own personal highlights?
Cerys: Travelling the world and meeting fellow musicians! Highlights have been making the documentaries. I got to meet a lot of famous blues musicians. I played with David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards on a porch in Mississippi. I played with Larry Adler just before he died, he’s one of the legendary mouth harmonica players. I’ve played with Dolly Parton’s bass player! Neil Diamond’s co-writer. People who are just brilliant musicians! Also not having it happen mathematically, but just as a surprise you know?
ILM: What music have you been listening to recently?
Cerys: I have my own radio show on BBC 6 Music, from 1-4pm, Monday to Friday every week day! I get to play a whole range, music from the twenties, right up to the modern day! I’m liking Mary Epworth at the moment, it’s kind of folk but not twee folk, it’s kind of humanic folk. There’s a lot of new folk at the moment, I think she’s one of the original ones. I like a prog-rock band from Australia called Tame Impala. Also the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble from New York!
ILM: Yes! I saw them at WOMAD this year!
Cerys: Wonderful! That’s the kind of thing I get excited by! I’m not strictly into one type of music, I like every kind of music, as long as it’s the good stuff! Haha!
ILM: What are your future plans?
Cerys: I’m going to continue with the radio show. I’ve been talking to a lot of TV and production companies. I want to make more documentaries, like the Mississippi river. I’ve also got two new albums in the pipe line hopefully to be released next year! You have to work 16-18 months ahead really! That should keep me busy!