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