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HOME ENTERTAINMENT: CERYS MATTHEWS
Interview by Will Hodgkinson
The Guardian; Manchester (UK); Jun 13, 2003 

It has been said that dogs are a great way of bringing people together. They certainly worked for Cerys Matthews. The former lead singer of Catatonia, who had taken herself out to Nashville on a whim in June last year, was walking her record producer's hound in a wood outside of the town when her eyes met those of a fellow dog- walker, a South Carolina-born scriptwriter called Seth Riddell. Their dogs introduced themselves to each other's bottoms in the way dogs are wont to do, and now Matthews is married, six months pregnant, and never without the youthful Riddell at her side.

It is the happiest of endings for what turned out to be a complete life change for Matthews. After Catatonia collapsed under a cloud of bad feeling, excessive living and physical and mental breakdown, Matthews vowed to step away from it all by making a traditional folk album. She contacted Bucky Baxter, a Nashville- based producer and steel guitar player for Bob Dylan, and sent him a demo tape. A few days later she arrived at his yet-to-be-built studio. In between sleeping in a log cabin at the empty site, mucking in with a shovel, and learning how to cope with America's road laws, Matthews wrote and recorded Cockahoop, a quiet and reflective country rock album that is a million miles away from the student-friendly indie pop of Catatonia.

"Animal life is loud, insect life is busy, and I like it a lot," says Matthews of her new home. "When I ended up on [Baxter's] doorstep, all he had was a little portable four-track, which wasn't what I had in mind. Then he started building a pond. I said to him: 'What about the studio?' He said, 'You just write some songs, and give me a hand with this.' I thought I was going to a nice studio in the woods. I didn't realise I would be helping to build it."

Matthews suspected that she wasn't coming back from Nashville "pretty much as soon I arrived. It sounds strange, but I knew that this was going to be more than just making an album even before I met Seth. It felt like this brand new chapter in my life. I don't miss my old life at all. Well, I miss my family, and I sometimes miss driving on country lanes in Wales. The roads in the States aren't so nice and screwy, or with the lovely hedgerows you get in Pembrokeshire. And the journeys are endless - I thought two hours on the M4 was long."

In most of the bars that Matthews goes to in her new home town, the pop-country of Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks is blasting out of the stereo, but round at her place the music tends to be a little less slick. "I like people like Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, the Handsome Family, and the Be Good Tanyas - the new alternative country," she says. "But I'm having a massive education in the older styles, too. Some of the downtown bars play George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and I didn't really know much about proper, old-fashioned country music apart from my dad's greatest hits albums. You know, D.I.V.O.R.C.E. and The Gambler."

Among her favourite albums is 1971's A Nod's as Good as a Wink by the Faces. As you would expect from a band that insisted on having their own bar on stage, the finest moments of Rod Stewart's former partners in crime are boozy and sentimental. "This is the sound of a real band," says Matthews. "They were lads, but Ronnie Lane's songs were always sweet and intimate. I love the Small Faces [Ronnie Lane's original band, with Steve Marriott] too."

JJ Cale's Troubadour is an album that fits in with Matthews' Nashville life. "He lives in one of these silver bullet caravans and rarely goes anywhere. He's only been on television once, ever. He doesn't do much live playing, and he doesn't do interviews, but he makes these occasional albums that have this wonderful laid-back delivery and warm sound. Like with the Faces, this is a record that seems to follow me at every stage of my life."

Matthews' and Riddell's wedding list requested that guests buy them vinyl records of their own choice, and among them was an early reggae compilation called Tighten Up. "It's got one of my favourite songs ever on it, which is Angel of the Morning by Joya Landis." The song, a submissive message of understanding from the point of view of a mistress, was made famous by the American-born, London-based 1960s singer PP Arnold and more recently by Shaggy. "I was pleased when [Shaggy] covered it because everyone should hear a great song, but then I got territorial and wished that he had never done it."

Hip-hop, up until recently an alien entity, was introduced to Matthews via Talib Kweli, a young American rapper currently being held up as something of a ghetto poet. "I play this in the car, when I'm trying to drive on the stupid interstate system, which I don't like at all. He does one song about his girlfriend having a baby at home, and another about guns and killing people. But he writes about getting on with life after the showdown. He does a bit less of the macho stance and a bit more of the political harmony stuff."

Finally, Johnny Cash is the man whose soundtrack fits Matthews' new life best. "He's so cool, isn't he?" she says in her soft Welsh lilt. "He never has to try too hard. His wife Jane died recently, which I was very sad about as I love the way they had stuck together for so long, and made their family a priority. He's come out of the other side of fashion, you know? He always keeps it stripped down. Most of us experiment with all different forms, but he knows what is right for him."

As for Matthews, she has no idea what she will do next. "I'm thinking about it all the time," she says, "and I daren't tell you what I'm thinking of just yet. But I won't be leaving Nashville."

 


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