Cerys Matthews: Time keeps marching on – I’m never a person to look back too much
In Cerys Matthews’ native Welsh, the word cerdd can refer to both poetry and song. This juncture forms the beating heart of the BBC Radio 6 Music presenter and musician’s latest project – an album that uses both to dig deep into the British psyche.
She takes my call in a less than rock and roll setting – a local climbing centre (we speak in late 2020 when coronavirus restrictions allowed such things). “Poetry feels different at the moment,” the Cardiff native declares in her bright, husky, radio-friendly voice. “It feels like it’s not just an academic endeavour, it’s not just for the establishment, it’s not just for things to be written, to be hidden in books, to be learnt by rote, or by force.
“The way people respond to the world around them, the way the young voices and the new generations are doing it – you don’t have to just call it poetry. It’s in slogans, in mantras, in songs, in hip hop, slang and spoken word, monologues. It’s exciting at the moment. I’ve never seen poetry as just a thing on the page. I’ve always felt like they were siblings with songs.”
As if balancing parenting with her radio shows during the first lockdown was not enough, Matthews 51, continued to work away at her first studio album in more than five years, adding the finishing touches from her west London home. As its bold, evocative album sleeve points out, We Come From The Sun also features Joe Acheson of Hidden Orchestra and “10 poets”. These include the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics Lemn Sissay, multi-disciplinary artist Imtiaz Dharker and Adam Horovitz (the poet, not the Beastie Boy). February last year saw each record their pieces at Abbey Road Studios in London, before Matthews and Acheson wrote and recorded accompaniments, often remotely during lockdown.
The album, Matthews explains, is a direct reaction to a world “changing faster than I can remember”. She’s talking about “Isis, Syria, Yemen, climate change, Brexit, tribalisation, polarisation”. This, she explains, is important stuff. Matthews rejects the idea that poetry is disconnected from real life and lacks the oomph to make change. “In my language, one word covers song and poetry,” she explains. “And I’ve been brought up in the Welsh culture, which means I’ve known about my forefathers and ancient fathers who would recite these poems to mobilise armies or to motivate communities to invest a change, with music or with accompaniment. So I just see it all as art and it’s really exciting at the minute because it seems that that’s how the new generations are seeing it as well.”
Back in October, Matthews took part in National Poetry Day, debuting songs from her new album during a 24-hour poetry lock-in on Instagram Live. Inspired by the experience of performing to a new generation of poetry aficionados, she sees Gen Z embracing poetry like never before. “The world of Instagram, social media platforms, Twitter – people are used to the idea of crafting with words. Limiting the usage of words and being clever with words and trying to get attention with words or trying to get their point over with words. We’re doing it everyday – it’s just if you take away the title poetry, the vast majority of people are crafting with words every single day.”
Putting together an album during lockdown might seem an unhealthy or unrealistic target for mos, but for Matthews it offered respite from the busyness of the home she shares with her husband and manager Steve Abbott, and her three children. “It was a beautiful escape to be honest,” she admits. “Because to have three children full time at home with their school work happening – Zoom lessons, their instruments. We have been grateful to work. That was the reality of it. But it was b***** noisy and then in the middle I’m trying to do this album and then the radio show as well. It was pretty intense.”
Unsurprisingly, the spectre of home schooling loomed large. “I’m so grateful to teachers and schools and to hand them back over,” she adds with a sigh. “I was the worst homeschooler, I was awful.”
Her day-to-day is a far cry from her time as frontwoman of Cardiff rockers Catatonia during the Nineties. Matthews rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest stars of the era at festivals such as Glastonbury and Fuji Rock in Japan – and alongside Welsh bands such as Manic Street Preachers helped create the so-called Cool Cymru movement. “We had a great time,” she recalls fondly. “You start touring at the same time as The Stone Roses or Happy Mondays and end up at breakfast in Japan together and saying, ‘Oh hi!’
“But it’s funny, that’s a long time ago now, time keeps marching on. I’m never a kind of person to look back too much.”
But the intervening years have given her some perspective, she admits. “It’s really the soberness that you can look at the world and the value that you accept and realise and recognise. You look at the rest of your life and realise the value of what’s left. So then you try and fill it with things that are important to you.”
We Come From The Sun by Cerys Matthews is out now.