Artist Q & A: Cerys Matthews

2013 has been a remarkable year for singer, author and broadcaster Cerys – she won gold at the Sony Radio Academy Awards for her Sunday morning show on BBC 6 Music, her sing-a-long book ‘Hook, Line and Singer’ became a top 3 bestseller in the Sunday Times and August saw her triumphant debut at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.

Cerys is also is a columnist for the leading world music magazine Songlines, was Artistic Director for the opening ceremony of the World Music Expo, WOMEX in Cardiff in October, is vice-president of Shelter Wales, and a patron of the Dylan Thomas Society and Ballet Cymru.

We talked about highlights of the last 12 months, memories of Birmingham gigs, interviewing The Clash and dream line-ups with the Cardiff-born artist, ahead of her one-off December date here at Town Hall…

THSH: Hello Cerys, thanks for speaking with us. Where in the world are you right now?

Cerys Matthews [CM]: I’m in a hotel in Cardiff, filming a new series on songs and their rather strange histories.

THSH: How has 2013 been for you, what have been the highlights?

CM: Its been incredible. Highlights include meeting fellow devotees of music as my Sunday am radio show grows and winning the Sony Radio Academy award for the show which I program and host on BBC 6 Music, seeing Hook Line and Singer become a Sunday Times Bestseller, debuting at the proms by singing a fighting song from the 14th Century and then this week, I said hello to the Queen.

THSH: We’re very much looking forward to your one-off gig here. Can you tell us a little about what audiences can expect on the night please?

CM: It’s a one off special, with all of my favourite musicians: a Christmas Hoe Down with festive songs from Johnny Cash, Smokey Robinson, a Catatonia song or two, some bluegrass and Christmas favourites.

THSH: The specially assembled crack-team of musicians that played at the WOMEX launch recently and who will be performing during one half of the show here – how did you pick them?

CM: They are the most gifted and the most fun to be around: intuitive and ready to change things up at any time. I’s like going off-roading without losing complete control…also fun to hang out with, there is a lot of hanging out time as a touring musician.

THSH: Should we prepare a dressing room for Tom Jones in case you guys decide to give a special performance ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ for us? It is Christmas after all…

CM: That would be lovely but Tom lives in LA so I reckon it’ll be in spirit only!

THSH: Do you have any particular memories or experiences of performing in Birmingham with Catatonia or as a solo artist?

CM: I love playing Birmingham – the audiences there have been THE most musical of any audience I’ve played to during one show. They burst into song quite spontaneously one gig and even went on to beat the Welsh audiences in a Welsh language song! Ill never forget it..also the show went on to spin miraculous tales about Ladywood Reservoir and other places. In a way, their enthusiasm sparked off my current singalong project and book, Hook, Line and Singer, so I owe the Birmingham audience. This will be a lovely way to say thank you, especially at this most magical time of year.

THSH: You’re a fantastic ambassador for Welsh music and culture. Tell us something inspiring or fascinating about the country of Wales that most people may not know.

CM: The triple harp is our national instrument: a harp with three rows that sound uncannily like the kora from Africa. Such a beautiful sound. And people used to carry them on their backs and travel from gathering to gathering…

THSH: How big is your record collection and do you treasure any particular vinyl over others?

CM: I have my favourites though they change from time to time. At the moment it is a brand new issue on vinyl of Esbjorn Svensson Trio on ACT, of a live concert recorded in Hamburg. Its gorgeous.

THSH: You presented an interview with the three remaining Clash members for 6 Music recently. Joe Strummer was a big fan of music from across the world. What artists or bands do you think Joe would be into these days?

CM: Joe, much like all members of the Clash had a very wide appreciation of music and when I toured with him,he always had a ghetto blaster at hand playing music from across all genres. I rather think that Peter Doherty’s new single Fall From Grace sounds so uncannily like Joe’s vocals – world weary, but full of aching love. I’d love to have been able to invite Joe on the show and ask him to bring in some tracks to play out. It was pure pleasure to interview Mick, Paul and Topper, lovely gentlemen, funny and incredibly interesting to ask them about the nitty gritty of the recording of what have now become classics like I Fought The Law, and The Magnificent Seven as well as life on the road for them in their craziest years.

THSH: What are you listening to at the moment, any recommendations for readers?

CM: Gosh , its a tough one as there are so many great records to enjoy. My best advice would be to be cheeky and ask listeners to join me every Sunday am at 10am (swap over from the Archers omnibus if you are a BBC Radio 4 fan!) and listen to what I play. It goes from Louis Armstrong to Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding via Buena Vista Social Club, Johnny Cash, Mississippi John Hurt, Johh Holt …to new singers like Anna Von Haussen, Laura Veirs, Caitlin Rose and more. I just love to play great music from all era’s and all genres just as long as they get you feeling good and go with that beautifully, laid back, easy Sunday feel.

THSH: If we could line-up any music artist for a live collaboration with you here on Wednesday 18 December… who would you choose?

CM: How many could we invite? What are the chances of the below?! Louis Armstrong, Pavarotti, Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie, Toni Jordache,Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson,Bob Marley, Mozart…oh and Bobbie Gentry.

Cerys Matthews plays a one-off gig at Town Hall Birmingham on Wednesday 18 December 2013 (8.00pm).

Tickets and info

Cerys Matthews is on BBC 6 Music 10am – 1pm every Sunday.

Hook, Line and Singer is out now

Words: Lyle Bignon for THSH