When Catatonia topped the charts, singer Cerys Matthews was one of Britpop's great hellraisers. But then she quit the band, cleaned up her act and went to have kids in Tennessee. What lured her back to Wales and the messy world of pop? She talks to Laura Barton
Thursday July 20, 2006
Matthews found fame and, furthermore, notoriety as the frontwoman of Catatonia, the band that formed in 1992 and later became entangled with Britpop, earned acclaim for songs such as Mulder and Scully and Road Rage, and frequently sang in Welsh. By the late 90s they were everywhere, the toast of the town. But in 2001, after four albums, Matthews left the band, spent time in rehab and seemed to duck out of popstardom altogether. The grapevine quivered with tales of her moving to Nashville, living in the woods and getting married.
Now she reappears again with a new album, Never Said Goodbye. Only this time she will not be heading back to America. Instead, she, her husband Seth, their young children Glenys Pearl and Johnny Jones, and their 17 pieces of luggage have returned to Britain, with thoughts of settling in Pembrokeshire. "I miss the news," she says. "I miss the eccentricity and the individuality and the education of people and I miss the sea. So for all those things we hotfoot back."
In truth, Matthews was the last person one ever imagined might up sticks to America. Not only was she famed for being staunchly, proudly Welsh, but in the furious throes of Britpop, she seemed so deeply planted in the British consciousness that it seemed impossible that she could ever be uprooted: she haunted the gossip columns, was forever photographed out on the lash, wine glass in hand, or landing kisses on inappropriate celebrities. One time, she clambered drunkenly on stage at a karaoke bar in Ibiza to sing one of her own hits, only for the stage to collapse beneath her; on another occasion she woke up from an inebriated stupor just in time to perform her next show. The only problem was, she was in France and the show was in Britain. "Lively, game, populist, frequently drunk ... and apparently in imminent danger of collapsing at any moment," wrote one music journalist at the time. "It is hard not to feel a little bit worried about her these days."
Ultimately, perhaps, she became the loudmouthed, lairy figure that even she could not escape. "This life," she told Q magazine, shortly before the end of Catatonia, "it's not natural, is it?" And so it seems she welcomed the sweet anonymity that Nashville could grant her. It was, she says, "like having a parallel life, where you start from zero again, you know? Both musically and personally."
She tripped upon Tennessee almost by accident. "I left Catatonia, and I was completely free," she recalls. After 10 years of touring, and having her schedule meticulously charted for her, she revelled in the new-found nothingness of her days. "I can't even describe to you how good it felt," she says. "That sounds bad, and I don't mean it to sound bad, but it was time." And so she went wherever the impulse took her: the central Pacific, on road trips around Britain and across America and beyond. "I had a feeling of abandonment, and I didn't have any roots or anything to really pin me down to anywhere." All the while she was thinking about her next record and where to make it. And then she hit Nashville. "I came across this small studio in the woods, and so I recorded Cockahoop there. And fell in love with the place." She smiles broadly, her cheekbones sharpen. "Love and hate with the place."
Nashville offered a breed of hyper-Americanism after all the hammed-up nationalism of Britpop. "It's a very different culture from here, Tennessee," she explains. "People don't travel as much. Something that I battle with all the time is the influence that might have on my children." Nashville, in particular, she has found a curious place to live. Steeped in rednecked southernism, haunted by the civil rights movement, and stewed in both religion and music. "It's got this albatross of country music around its neck," she says, "but you've got the Kings of Leon that live there, Be Your Own Pet came out of there ..." The answer, she suggests, is simple: "Embrace all the good stuff and don't listen to Kenny Chesney.
"But he's not one of the worst," she says. "There's two channels - the Great American Country Channel and the Country Music Channel, and you watch it for a few seconds and you notice that it's the same make-up artist who does every single artist on there. And it's just hilarious."
Indeed, it appears the hilarity of being a stranger in a strange land never subsided. Matthews' in-laws live in South Carolina. When Glenys Pearl was born, they decorated the lawn with 26 pink flamingoes. It was not an unusual sight in the neighbourhood. "Around South Carolina, life sort of revolves in a constant stream of festivities and seasonal festivities," she says. "So you'll go from Christmas to Valentine's Day to Easter to July 4 to Halloween, and there's always something. You get these old women wearing cardigans with a pattern of pumpkins on them, or a pattern of snowmen, or a pattern of Easter bunnies, and it's disgusting! And," she adds, incredulous, "they wear matching earrings! And they're really coiffed, you know? Really solidly hairsprayed hair and [in] full make-up. You'll see them in the gym that way too, with nylon tights on and little white bobby socks and terrible trainers. And it's boiling hot outside, but they wear thick layers of make-up! S'very weird."
It has been particularly odd to live in America in a period of staunch conservatism, war and religious fanaticism. "It's bloody strange!" she declares. "It's strange because, where I live, people proclaim what they believe on these bumper stickers and on the church signs on the roadsides, and there's people gathering strength from the Bible but not being Christian at all. It's not about the whole proclamation of love that Jesus Christ is meant to have taught through the Bible and through Christianity. It's not about love," she says with exasperation, "it's about fear and about prejudice, and it just doesn't add up."
"It's almost like the polar opposite in Wales, where it's the old ladies, isn't it, that go to chapel. There's something very old-fashioned and it's so sweet, the religion in Wales. And you could not call it sweet in America. You get these churches where they're sending off missionary groups to help out in Germany. And then you go to Arkansas and you see people living in third-world conditions - in their own country. New Orleans!" she adds ruefully. "New Orleans, that's all I have to say: look at New Orleans."
All in all, perhaps America was getting a little too close for Matthews' comfort: Glenys Pearl, she says, "talks with a pure southern accent - southern Tennessee, not south Wales," she adds with a whispy laugh, and hauls out her best southern drawl to illustrate: "She'll say 'thurr's a barrnyarrd' and 'ahm sceeyarrd'. She calls me 'momma'." One of the reasons Matthews is returning is for her children to see a side of life that is not physically or intellectually land-locked. "I'd like them to have the experience of being brought up by the sea," she says, "and get instilled with the Welsh ways."
Did she always suspect she would return to Britain some day? "I didn't know, and that's the way I've decided to be right this second - just not to try and plan that long-term, just to merrily go along and let what happens happen, and keep making music and enjoying my family."
Matthews uses her children and their births almost as landmarks around which she navigates her thoughts - she'll steer her way from "almost three weeks before Glenys Pearl was born" or "just after I had Johnny Jones". The delight her family brings her is tangible, and when she speaks of Never Said Goodbye as a "joyous" album, her husband and her children seem wrapped in that sense of happiness, like a pig in a blanket.
"I think there was a level of contentment that I've never felt before, especially after the birth of Glenys Pearl when we were living in a shack in the country," she says, and her voice dips soft and low and doveish. "I had this porch and this swing chair and there was this organic herd of Hereford cows and this mad farmer where we were living, and I wrote A Bird in Hand. Just to find myself in a place that hadn't changed for generations, this farm and these huge trees, being able to play guitar and realising I wanted to keep doing music. I thought having a baby for some reason was gonna be the end." The prospect didn't scare her. "I just thought it was gonna be a different chapter. But then, actually, I feel a lot happier with making music than ever before."
Never Said Goodbye still proved a difficult record to make. She began with the intention of producing "a small, beautiful album". But just one day into studio recording she discovered it was going to be an entirely different sort of sound. "I'd just written Oxygen and What Kind of Man, and for some reason it just changed. They just blew up. And I had to put a stop to the proceedings, 'cos I was also five months pregnant with Johnny Jones at that point, and it completely took me by surprise. I was like, 'Oh lawdy! I really want to do it big again!'" One imagines Matthews in the studio, the music swelling to meet her belly. The result is an album that does sound in full bloom: rich and variegated, looped and layered, and quite startlingly unlike any of her previous work.
It was a sound she strived for through 14 months, several producers, various musicians and several heated debates with her husband who, as an A&R man, had his own fiery opinions on the record. She gives a diplomatic sigh. "Seth is very passionate about music, as I am. He's very knowledgeable about music, as I am not so knowledgeable. I wind my own way. He has an opinion. So there were many, many, many, many times during this album that it was very, very difficult." It was particularly difficult in the studio, "when a producer doesn't hear what you're hearing, or the musicians in the studio prefer to look at the male in the studio, whoever that might be".
"There is," she says, "a lot of blood and a lot of people on this album."
The main problem was trying to capture a sound that was new and entirely hers. How did she describe that to her producer? "Probably pretty badly in words!" she laughs. "But I just wanted a beautiful-sounding album with a meaty bottom end and with arrangements that didn't parody any other band, didn't parody the Beach Boys, didn't parody the Beatles and the Stones, didn't parody Motown. I think it's easy when you're starting out on a project; you have the information in your brain, but how do you explain to other people what you want without using reference points? There the danger lies."
A lot of people might have been expecting her to make Cockahoop 2, but Never Said Goodbye forgoes the folkiness of that album for a sort of unconventional poppiness - but not, she hastens to add, anything approaching Britpop. "Oasis came to Nashville recently," she says. "They played the Ryman auditorium - that's where they used to record the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night with Dolly Parton and Hank Williams, Patsy Cline." Did she enjoy it? "Well, it feels good when you go and watch them, like a greatest hits."
She speaks especially fondly of the final song on her album, Elen, one of two written with Gruff Rhys of fellow Welsh band Super Furry Animals. "It's almost like an opium trip back home," she says. "It makes the album a round - it starts off in this song about New York, goes south, and then there's this trip back down memory lane, about old horsemen being drawn back home by an old lady playing the piano, going come home for rest and respite." And is that how she feels? "Maybe!" She laughs gustily. "It could well be - come home for a bit of pure song and food and great relaxation, and then, when the sun comes back up, it draws the men back to the fields to work. I like that. I like that end to it all".
· Never Said Goodbye is out on Rough Trade on August 21. The single Open Roads is out August 7 and Matthews' UK tour starts this weekend. To download the track Morning Sunshine for free, go to www.7digital.com/cerys