Christmas Wishing and Hoping for the Blessed – the Cerys Matthews interview

If the phone goes and it’s a private number, I’m often on the offensive, wondering what dodgy scheme or other someone’s out to try and sell to me. But there was really no need for Cerys Matthews to formally introduce herself.

It’s difficult to remember when I first grew accustomed to that luscious lilt from this Cardiff-born, Swansea-raised singer-songwriter, musician, author and broadcaster, but I reckon it was Catatonia’s 1996 single ‘You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For’ that first made me sit up and take notice. And these days it seems I can’t put on the radio or TV without hearing her, whether voicing documentaries or fronting numerous BBC radio shows.

Now there’s a new single, Cerys joining fellow South Walian and Games of Thrones actor Iwan Rheon on ‘A Christmas Wish’, the song that opens soon to be released rom-com A Christmas No. 1, in which her singing partner stars alongside Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) in a Sky Cinemafilm streaming from December 10th, that song among several Guy Chambers compositions in BAFTA-winning director Chris Cottam’s Sky/Genesius Pictures/Lupus Films/Space Age Films production, its ensemble cast also including West End / Broadway recording artist Alfie Boe, Helena Zengel (News of the World), Debi Mazar (Goodfellas, Entourage) and Richard Fleeshman(Call the Midwife, Four Weddings and a Funeral).

Cerys is West London-based these days, her home since the late ‘90s, give or take time in America, and we started out by swapping notes about the weather after the first proper ‘bloody freezin’, innit?’ day of winter in both the capital and Lancashire. And that gave me an excuse to segue straight into – almost seamlessly – how Slade recorded ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in the summer of ’73 at the Record Plant in heatwave-hit New York, midway through a US East Coast tour. Was it a similar case for Cerys’ latest festive offering with this lad from Carmarthen (who first popped up on our screens on Pobol y Cym)?

“Actually, it’s quite unusual, because you’re right, usually Christmas songs are recorded in summer, like ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ with Tom Jones, was in June. Tommy Danvers {aka TommyD}, produced that and did International Velvet and Equally Cursed and Blessed with us {Catatonia}. He always reckoned a cool environment made for a better record, so he’d dress the studio in lava lamps, fairy lights, and in this case Christmas trees, stuff like that … even in June, with all the live players in there.

“In terms of this though, it was recorded recently. They’ve been working on A Christmas No.1 throughout this year, Guy Chambers leading on the writing of all these original songs. I won’t tell you too much about the plot, but it’s a romantic comedy, two artists battling it out for a Christmas No.1. One’s a boy band and one’s a sort of goth-thrash metal band, its lead singer, the protagonist – played by Iwan – the writer of this song, written for his niece {played by Helena Zengel}, who has cancer. 

“It’s a brilliant plot, two very different music-makers battling it out with this one song. However, that isn’t the song I sing with Iwan. That’s a kind of lower tempo Christmas song, whereas the song I was involved with and had the pleasure of co-writing with Guy was because they wanted a more upbeat song for the opening credits.

“We’ve been in touch now several years, having worked together on the Prince Harry TV programme, with Goldie and Ms Dynamite {Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment, 2010} and this one, recorded in a studio in West London, turns out to be the one of the catchiest three-minute songs I think I’ve ever worked on. There were times where I literally couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Who knows, maybe 30 years down the line, they’ll be talking about this in the way we do now about all the Christmas classics, not least those heard on entering high street shops from October onwards.

“Well, I love this time of year, you know, and as we’re talking now it’s absolutely freezing, hovering around zero even in London. The loveliest thing of all is if you’re trudging your children to school or trudging to work and back in the rain and the wind and the cold weather, thinking there’s going to be an end to term and you can light the fire, the candles, sing silly songs, and eat a lot at Christmas.

“I’ve an album of carols, Baby It’s Cold Outside, I put out a few years ago, and it’s a territory I love to go back to. It feels very … it’s a happy place, a comfortable place for me, and I hope this song brings as much happiness as it has already to those of us involved in it.”

While Cerys never met Guy Chambers in World Party days, they’re both on the credits of Tom Jones’ Reload LP from 1999 – Guy behind Tom’s duet with Robbie on ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way?’ while Cerys duetted with the Pontypridd legend on the afore-mentioned hit, which surprisingly only reached the top-20.

“Yeah, that’s eagle-eyed of you! And I can’t talk highly enough of Guy and the songs he’s written for this film – for the thrash metal band and the boy band. And the boy band {5 Together, namely Ashley Margolis, Joshua Sinclair Evans, Darryl Mundoma, George Walker and Benji Colson} … I mean, it’s just, it’s ripe for spoofing, isn’t it, a boy band? They’ve a song called ‘Maximum Pleasure’ that gets turned down by Alfie Boe, who plays the baddie record industry boss. If you’ve ever read Kill Your Friends {2008, by John Niven}, he plays that sort of crooked character brilliantly, you’d think he was born to it. And there’s a spoof Christmas song he turns down called ‘Christmas Miracle’, but I actually love that song. And they’re all Guy’s songs. He’s done amazing.”

Regarding ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, remind me of the timeframe of that with the previous year’s duet with Tommy Scott on Space’s ‘The Ballad of Tom Jones’. Did you first hook up with Sir Tom as a result of that?

“In my memory, I’d done that with Space, it was riding pretty high in the charts, and it was kind of set up live on television. Was it a Welsh programme, The Pop Factory? Or CD-UK? I can’t remember. But in my memory, it was a TV show, we phoned Tom Jones, and that conversation was the first time I’d probably come into contact with him.

“Somebody said, ‘Would you do a duet?’ Or maybe I asked Tom, ‘Would you do a duet with me?’. Something like that. I was like, ‘Absolutely. I’d love to do a duet with you’, and he said the same. It was only a few weeks following that conversation where his son and manager Mark, got in touch, said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna do this album of duets. We want you to be involved, have a think about what you want to sing, here are some choices we were thinking of. What do you reckon?’. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want the Frank Loesser song!’. My voice kind of goes with that sort of character song.”

Was your ‘bloody freezin’, innit’ line a spur of the moment ad lib?

“Oh God, yeah, absolutely! The whole setup was recorded as if it was in the 1940s, with Ian Thomas on drums, a big band set-up, and I was sharing the same vocal booth as Tom, which is quite extraordinary because we’ve both got such different voices. Don’t know how the engineers managed that. And he kind of nudged me, elbowed me in the middle of the song, and you hear me go, ‘whoop!’. We had so much fun, and it was just three takes.”

It seems these last few years we hear you all over the radio and telly, from BBC 6 Music to Radio 2 and World Service …

“And Radio 4 now, a Friday show, Add to Playlist.”

Then there are your roving reports on BBC TV’s The One Show, all those voiceovers, and even walking the Scottish Borders with Gus Caseley-Hayford, talking JMW Turner for Tate Britain’s Great Art Walks for Sky Arts …

“Ah, that was great!”

I enjoyed that too. All that certainly keeps you busy, but it’s slowed down your recording career. I enjoyed Cock a Hoop, Never Said Goodbye, Don’t Look Down, Tir, and so on, but with everything else going on, that seems to have become more a part-time passion, what with bringing up a family and the broadcasting career.

“It was such a pleasure to go into the studio and write and record, produced by Steve Power, whose back-catalogue is astonishing as well. But I’m now 13 years married and between us we have five children. So if I’m being honest, coming off the road for this period of time – and now my children are getting older, my youngest just turned 12, so they’re 12, 16 and 18 – has kept me … if you’re a touring musician, there’s definitely a push and pull effect on day-to-day family life. And I was lucky enough to have options whereby I could continue being creative in music. And with all those programmes I’m involved with on the radio, I’m absolutely knee-deep in the production …”

You can tell that you’re really into everything you do, not least your radio shows.

“I’m having the world’s longest prep sessions for any future recorders just by being able to be so … I love it, and I’m instantly there for the emerging music-makers, and interviewing some of my heroes, some of the artists that make me most excited. Totally jammy! To be able to stay home with the kids as well ….”

I was invigilating a French exam at my local high school this morning, reminding me of your aptitude for languages – from English and Welsh to French, Spanish, Catalan. Any more to add?

“I read Italian, as it’s very close to Spanish. I just love sounds, full stop! Human sounds, which includes the world’s languages. I’m one of those annoying people finding it extremely interesting to try and talk and pick up a bit – it’s really annoying for my husband when I’ve asked people from that country something for the 10th time!”

The same goes for your love of traditional roots music, I guess. Maybe that was always there, right back to busking days.

“I’m just hungry, hungry for culture, and to work out how the world works. It’s the same pot as far as I’m concerned – of language, of folk music, recipes handed down, folk cookbooks, poetry, history, geography. It’s all the same pot of this amazing world!”

You’ve come up in conversation in at least a couple of my recent interviews …

“Uh-oh! Ha!”

All complimentary. First, when Iain ‘Tempo’ Templeton talked about his Shack days and your support for that band at a key early stage, telling me how well he was looked after by you and Catatonia’s crew when they played the Royal Pavilion, Llangollen, in May ’99. I was there too, and loved those Home Internationals events.

“Oh wow!”

Then only a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Hue Williams about …

“The Pooh Sticks?”

Yes, and his current project, Swansea Sound, and the gap between, not least how he was involved in promoting you in the early days.

“He was the first to hear in public anything that Mark {Roberts} and myself and the other founding members of Catatonia were doing. I famously rejected the idea that he should work with us. That was the first time I’d ever stood on stage. It was an open mic night in Cardiff, very early ‘90s, and I think they were movers and shakers in Cardiff, and maybe we were thinking about … I remember being absolutely terrified of going up, having some brandy beforehand. Probably unwise. No, definitely unwise! I was just doing one or two songs and given that our songs were quite experimental, it was literally in the infancy of the band …”

‘Sweet Catatonia’ was one such early indicator (it’ll be 25 years since Catatonia’s debut LP Way Beyond Blue, but the For Tinkerbell EP from which that came was three years earlier), showing just how much potential the band had from the start.

“I was very lucky to work with one of the most brilliant lyricists and melody writers from the ‘90s – Mark. But, you know, Catatonia also had Owen Powell, another great songwriter. And Paul {Jones}, the bass player, is also a brilliant melody writer, string arranger and producer. Thinking back, you know, on my own terms I write melodies and produce and write lyrics, so there were quite a lot of writers in that band.”

It was clearly meant to be, the way you pulled together.

“Yeah, I think pull together but also influence each other, you know, vie for brilliance, and we were always wanting to do something slightly different from the usual sort of 1-2-3-4. That was the aim, anyway.”

By the way, it wasn’t long after Catatonia’s Llangollen shows that I found out I was to be a Dad, my eldest daughter born late January 2000. Perhaps there was something in the air that weekend.

“Oh! I don’t wanna ask what song you were getting into! Ha!”

Abiding memories, for sure, although I should ‘fess up that we had tickets for the first night, but then realised how many people were watching for free from the other side of the canal, so did the same the second night. I probably owe you a few quid.

“Ha! Do you know what, the Llangollen gig was a stand-out for me, of all the things I did in my youth.”

Such a good bill too (also involving Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Big Leaves and Richard Parfitt). I didn’t know Shack at the time, and only later discovered Big Leaves, following their path. Great times. But time marches on, and it’s now 20 years since final Catatonia LP, Paper, Scissors, Stone. Did it all end a bit flat for you, or was it a bit of a blur? It seems you were somewhat burnt out, personally and the band.

“Erm … do you know what, looking back on it, we’d only been together a few years. We could have gone a bit longer, I think. What we lacked was great guidance – to look after us as individuals, and as I mentioned earlier there were a lot of individuals in that band!

“Mark and myself had a relationship away from the band, then split, that didn’t make it at all easy. Without clear guidance, I think that made it an impossibility to carry on. And I regret that. I wish … but I’ve got a great manager now – he’s my husband!”

That’s Steve Abbott, who started the Big Cat label in 1990, early acts including 2021 WriteWyattUK interviewee Jim Bob Morrison’s Carter USM and Pavement, Abbott later instrumental at Richard Branson’s V2 label, associated acts during his time there including Moby, The Black Crowes, The Jungle Brothers, and The White Stripes.

“I’ve just been talking to Craig David and Guy Garvey today as part of a songwriting series for Radio 2. Both have had the same manager for 20-odd years, and we were paying tribute to the idea, because it really matters if you’ve got somebody on your side that has your best interests at heart, to make sense of the whole situation and inevitable ups and downs and rackets of the industry and the personal battles within bands – to have somebody you trust and love with your best interests at heart really is something you cannot underestimate its value. And we didn’t have that.”

Look at someone like Paul Weller, who had his dad, John Weller, looking after him.

“Yeah, and Tom Jones has his son! When you see an individual that has consistent success and quality material, it’s interesting when you see there’s often a strong guiding hand by their side. Because, you know, it’s an interesting ride. But yeah, with benefit of hindsight, it’s a shame in a way, because there were a lot of songwriters in that band, and I miss that part of it.”

Will there ever be another Catatonia album?

“At this point, I don’t think so. After 20 years, I still think it’s a bit too soon! And Malcolm, now I want to ask you something – do you like the Christmas single? Have you heard it?”

I have, and you’re right, it’s very catchy pop. It should do well. And back to you, if you had to choose a Christmas film that gets you every time, what would it be?

“There has to be two, and they’re two very different films. Every Christmas we watch White Christmas, with Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and the other lady I’ve forgotten.”

Vera-Ellen, I’m reminded later.

“I love that, and the other one I absolutely love, and it’s a pretty dodgy choice … the rest of the National Lampoon films I don’t like to watch, but the Christmas one – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, to me, is like, oh my God! If you’ve a member of your family that tries really hard to do things right but always gets things wrong and it ends in a mess, that’s the film for you. The Dad’s trying to get the Christmas lights up, but can’t work it out, and … I don’t know, you have to watch it! The kids have grown up with it. It’s a story of disaster that gets funnier every year, just so stupid.”

It’s became a Christmas tradition with my girls now to expect me to bring out It’s a Wonderful Life.

“Ah, that’s another we watch. And Elf, obviously. But The Grinch freaks me out.”

How about festive reads? It’s become a personal tradition in more recent years for me to read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Usually Christmas Eve, after everyone else has gone to bed. And that’s clearly an important one for you, too.

“I love it. I love Christmas stories. It Was the Night before Christmas too. And I’m doing a reading for The Samaritans this Thursday of A Child’s Christmas. Who else is reading with me? I was gonna say Simon Cowell, but it’s the actor …”

Simon Callow?

“That’s it! And I’ve recorded A Child’s Christmas and set it to music. That’s being put into a musical theatre production in Massachusetts, as we speak, to start in 2022. There’s a ballet too. But anyway, I’m boring you now!”

Not at all. But let’s get on to favourite Christmas songs … although I could probably find out by switching on some freeview TV channel or other these coming weeks.

“Well, you mentioned The Pogues, and I love ‘Fairytale of New York’ and had the pleasure of coming out of Nashville, back to Cardiff and sang that with Shane McGowan, one of my abiding memories. That was live {International Arena, 2005}. What was shocking to me was that I’d been in Hicksville, living in a shack with no water or electricity for years, coming back to duet with The Pogues at Christmas, people holding mobile phones aloft in the crowd, thinking, ‘Oh my God, things have changed!’. So funny!

“I’m a big fan of Kirsty MacColl, of course. Another great songwriter. And I love anything by Louis Armstrong this time of year, plonking along on the piano, doing really bad versions. And I know it’s not cool to say you love your own, but one of my favourites I’ve done is my Christmas album. It’s cute, with ‘Little Donkey’ on it, carols like ‘We Three Kings’ …”

I’m guessing you don’t need much persuasion to get on that piano around Christmas.

“It’s kind of a ritual, yeah – give me loads of Baileys and I’ll plonk along.”

Mint Baileys?

“No, never give me any fusion stuff! Never give me any pumpkin latte or caramel coffee. That’s my nemesis! But I will enjoy a pure Baileys with some ice in it.”

My mention of Mint Baileys was a nod to Rob Brydon character Uncle Bryn’s new-found love in Gavin and Stacey, but she either missed the reference or just wasn’t taking me up on it. Anyway, did I dream she performed ‘All Through the Night’, either in English or Welsh (‘Ar Hyd Y Nos’), on Later with Jools some years ago? Because I can’t seem to find a link now.

“Good God, I don’t remember.”

I know you did that on the Tir album.

“Yes, I love that song. We did a similar song called ‘Nothing Hurts’.”

I remember it well. Not sure that’s what I’m thinking of though.  

“But some bells are ringing in my mind, so you could very well be right. I love Jools Holland as well.”

I’m trying to recall if it was you solo on a night when maybe Tom Jones was on as well, or if it was with Catatonia.

“Or did I do it with John Cale? I can’t remember! You forget about all the things you’ve done, don’t you.”

I’ve since discovered Cerys playing with Cale on his gorgeous ‘I Keep a Close Watch’ with Catatonia for documentary Beautiful Mistake/Camgymeriad Gwych, filmed in 2000, the Garnant-born Velvets legend’s guests also including Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers, and afore-mentioned Gorky’s and Big Leaves, filmed at the Coal Exchange, Cardiff (a few extra background notes culled from David Owens, author of Cerys, Catatonia and the Rise of Welsh Pop (Ebury Press, 2000), as previously mentioned on these pages.

I’m also reminded from searching online that Catatonia played Later with Jools in November ’96, April ’98 and April ’99, plus Jools’ Hootenanny in December ’99, when Tom Jones was also on and they did ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’. ‘Nothing Hurts’ also featured that night, but I can’t find footage now. Maybe it was just a snatch of ‘All Through the Night’. Or perhaps the late-night Baileys had got to me as we lurched into a new millennium.

Anyway, I’ve since seen an interview with Cerys where she adds that was the first song she sang on television, post-Catatonia. And as I put it to her, it’s another that gives a warm feeling.

“Do you know, the best thing is whatever tradition and rituals have started in your family. Songs that come with memory and all of a sudden it doesn’t matter what songs they are, as long as they become part of your tradition, they have that lovely kind of fuzzy feeling.”

For me that would also Freddie King’s ‘Christmas Tears’, recalling John Peel playing that back in the day.

“Do you know, that should kick you off, asking people for their most wayward Christmas playlist! No holds barred! It would be such an eclectic collection.”

Good call. And where will Christmas 2021 be for you and the family? In London, or back to Wales?

“I’ve got such a tiny house in London that I can’t invite (all) my family, so I’ve actually rented a place just outside and for the first time I’ve been able to invite everyone, so I’m having a massive get-together … especially after these last couple of years.

“And I just want to wish everyone reading this a very merry Christmas!”

Consider it done, Cerys.

For all the latest from Cerys Matthews, including how to catch up on the back-catalogue, head to her website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.