The Song Remains the Same: An interview with Cerys Matthews

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The author, the singer, the award-winning radio presenter, takes to the temporary stage set up in the foyer of London’s Royal Festival Hall, a straw trilby sat atop a familiar grin that, as ever, seems to stretch from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads. The uncharacteristically eclectic audience, a gleefully expectant assortment of breezy Islington mums, weathered Britpop veterans in Welsh rugby shirts, and a sea of pre-school jam-faced infants greet her with the kind of heartfelt warmth and affection most usually reserved for a prodigal daughter, a favourite ‘fun aunt’, a first crush, or – perhaps most appropriately, in this case – a national treasure. Though she will later share with me her apprehension at the expectancy levels inherent in capturing the short attention spans of so many demanding little minds, playfully describing it as ‘probably the hardest audience of my whole life’, it is swiftly and patently evident that the strength of the connection that she is able to make with her ever-growing audience is one that has few peers. When she reaches out to encourage a hesitant nine year-old girl on to the stage to join her in a lusty and impromptu rendition of the age-old carousing song ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ she does so with the calming and comforting authority of one who has lived more than just a little, of someone who has a story or three to tell; be that via the medium of song, or in the company of a blazing fire and an exceptional bottle of malt whisky. ‘Come on, lovely’, she beckons in that voice. ‘Life’s too short to be shy.’

‘We were driving along the hedge-bound country lanes of Pembrokeshire circa 1973 in our Vauxhall Viva. There was a tractor ahead of us pulling a gargantuan sow in an open trailer. The sow jumped out, broke her leg, and hobbled off with farmer chasing. And what did we do? Of course, we burst into song – ‘Mochyn Du’ (‘Black Pig’) it was, a song about a dead pig. Cruel? Yes. And memorable? Yes. It endures as my earliest memory, and here’s why I’m sitting here compiling this book of songs – life itself supplies you with the best of soundtracks’

It seems wholeheartedly appropriate that Cerys Matthews should opt to launch her new book, Hook, Line & Singer, a lovingly curated songbook-for-all-seasons devoted to her favourite songs, ballads and good-time bygone celebrations, in a building gifted to the nation by the progressive post-war Attlee government on the founding socialist principles of learning, intellectual betterment, and perhaps most importantly, community.  At a time when Britain’s current government is doing its damnedest to systematically unravel the historic ties that for decades have bound our communities and families together there is something almost quietly defiant about a book that so boldly commemorates and encourages the coming together of children, families and neighbours in a celebratory unison of untethered escapist sing-a-long.

In leading us on a personal journey that takes in – amongst a multitude of other influences and historical curios – her Welsh childhood, her love/hate relationship with America (the Southern states having been her and her children’s home for a number of years), and her fascination for the world’s often eccentric and historical musical traditions (as routinely explored in her much-loved weekly BBC 6 Music radio show), Matthews seeks to soundtrack her life, and ours, via the medium of song; one unmoved by the joylessly cynical packaging and planning that encumbers so much of the contemporary musical experience.

When the one-time, self-styled ‘Fast-Rising, Beer-Soaked, Rip-Roaring Pop Tart’ of Britpop yore is openly encouraging you to lay down your contemporary metropolitan pretences and openly embrace the rudimentary elements of what made the communal music experience so utterly, unpretentiously joyous in the first place, it’s maybe time to cast aside all notion of urban ‘cool’ and submit yourself to the idiosyncratic nature of childhood, of eccentricity, and of shameless unconventionality.

As I travelled into London that day I chanced upon a brief but hugely impassioned blog by the writer and broadcaster David Hepworth.  Titled, ‘Music’s Like a Train That Nobody Gets Off’, it speaks deeply and emotively about a lifelong love affair with the art form and its almost limitless possibility and fascination:

Music’s like a long train. Some people got on at the beginning of the line. Others join it later. They can explore the rest of the carriages but their experience of the journey will not be the same as the people who got on earlier. The passengers who’ve been there longest may point out that the train is going round in circles and has passed certain landmarks before. The newer passengers don’t care. It’s new to them. In fact they might get excited about a station, which they previously passed through without comment. Their view of the journey is a different one. Unlike real trains, this one has unlimited capacity. Once you’re on the train, nobody checks your ticket.

It’s an article that’s still on my mind when I later speak with Cerys, given the ‘lifelong journey through song’ that Hook, Line & Singer represents, and the manner in which the art form has both delighted and inspired her from both an early and formative age.

‘There’s never enough singing together in the world,’ the author smiles, a statement that neatly encapsulates the sentiment and purpose behind her book. ‘The airwaves are so busy with so much other stuff going on, there’s always smartphones or muzak or so many other kinds of noise pollution so it’s quite nice to go back to square one.  I’ve loved songbooks all my life, I’ve got a huge collection, and I remember, from about the age of five, just getting lost in the songs and making up my own versions of them and not worrying about all of the things that we’re now bombarded with.’  I share with Cerys my own childhood fixation with music via the likes of Adam Ant and Siouxsie Sioux, how the look, the ‘cool’, the whole package, was so instrumental in my initial infatuation.

Yet at the same time, one of the most appealing things about Hook… is the simplicity of its approach, its desire to strip away the ‘cool’, and to present these songs in their most unpretentious, fundamental and purest form, an approach that is clearly dear to the author’s heart: ‘It’s all about the marketing man’s touch now,’ she opines, ‘the style of it, the process of it, the process of the sound itself, and the one-dimensional take on whatever way the artist is being pitched. It’s kind of got a little bit boring and tedious, a bit fake and shallow, and these songs are so much more than that.’

Her love of the source material, and her evident joy in the process of uncovering and researching its historical context, is plainly evident.

‘Songs as great as these are going to last way longer than any of us; songs in a pure sense that were written without any thought for becoming famous from them or making money out of them. Songs like that are just brilliant, the best thing in the world to lose yourself to. I like to compare it to cooking, the way in which modern life serves us up so much processed food, yet it’s often so much better to make it at home. It’s part of the goodness of life, the simple things in life make you feel good, they make you feel like you belong. Music’s just the same, it doesn’t belong to anybody, it belongs to us all in all of its crazy forms. It doesn’t matter if you can ‘sing well’ or not, it just doesn’t matter.  These songs are there for us, they’re a huge wealth, and they’re available to everyone.’

It seems as good a time as any to reference Hepworth’s article, his metaphorical train, and how these timeless ‘entry level’ songs feel to all intents like the first stop on that never-ending journey of a lifetime; an allegory that clearly resonates with the singer.

‘It’s true.  I wanted to compile songs that really are the most ‘singable’ ones, the ones that stick in your mind and unlock memories, from childhood, or wherever. Life gives you your own soundtrack, where you first heard a song, what you were doing, and who you were with.  There are so many aspects to them too; both the history of the songs themselves and the history that they contain.’

Whilst a casual flick through the pages of the book will uncover, amongst other treasures, a range of timeless nursery rhymes and traditional ballads, Cerys is also keen to underline the more solemn sides of much of the content.

‘By working your way through the book you’re going to learn about the famine in Ireland, you’re going to learn about prostitution, or maybe the 1930s depression in America, there’s no end to what you’re going to learn about.’ She references the song ‘Down by the River’ by way of tacit example, the original 1863 version of what later became colloquially known as ‘Clementine’, and its foreboding warning to young men everywhere to not ‘give your ladies too much rye wine / ‘Cause like as not in this wet weather / They’ll share the fate of Clementine.’  A song still patently relevant in some parts it would seem, given Cerys’s own personal experience whilst living in Nashville:

‘Everyone would go to the lake on the weekend, it was a real “white trash” thing, so much so that they would revel in the term “white trash”, a real redneck event. It was tradition for everyone to get on a “houseboat” – little more than a floating shoebox in reality – and just get really, really drunk. One day, I was visiting a friend on their houseboat and as I was walking down the pontoon this really drunk lady fell into the water right in front of me and just dropped like a stone. She didn’t fight, she didn’t struggle and no-one at all on her houseboat even noticed what had happened because they were all so drunk on Pabst Blue Ribbon. I had to grab this woman and really struggle hard to pull her out of the water, which I eventually, thankfully, did. I set her back on the boat, and then like Bambi she just waddled off.’ Cerys laughs at the memory; ‘It was amazing. She hadn’t noticed what had happened, none of her friends had noticed, and she just carried on getting drunk. So every time I think about “Clementine”, and so many of the other songs within the book that were written to pass on warnings at what was a time of mass illiteracy, I think of that woman.’

The notion of being able to soundtrack one’s life has always meant a great deal to this writer, and I share with Cerys how much her recollection of the ‘mochyn du’ and the family Vauxhall Viva reminded me of my own childhood holidays in both West Wales and Cornwall that were so often accompanied by the sounds of my dad’s archaic cartridge player and the peculiarly related appeal of the Simon & Garfunkel cartridge that had been affected by the dampness of the garage in which it had been stored, my own warped initiation into the world of timeless song craft.

‘It’s that kind of thing that makes the experience so true’, she says. ‘I’ve been thrilled by the reaction to the book so far, especially given that I had no idea how a book like this might be received. So many of my musician friends learn songs from recordings without obsessing over songbooks in the way that I do. I know that Jools Holland has a great collection of songbooks, and I know that Paul McCartney wrote The Beatles’ ‘Golden Slumbers’ having been inspired by an old medieval text, but you never really know until you go out and share these things with people.’

There’s a chapter in the book titled ‘Nana’s Tune Emporium’ which revisits a series of songs dating back to both Word Wars, the likes of ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’, ‘K-K-K Katy’ and ‘Doing the Lambeth Walk’, and it is these songs that have seemingly garnered some of the strongest and most heartfelt reactions:

‘The reaction from older people, those in sheltered accommodation, or community clubs, has been great,’ Cerys enthuses. ‘They love those really mad songs, the ones that pre-date the age of political correctness. It just goes to show what great songwriters these people were in the first place, especially when compared to the bland, work-shopped efforts of much of today’s output. ‘K-K-K Katy’ for instance, is a song about a stutter, but it’s an endearing song, it’s not making fun of the stutterer. He’s an endearing character in it, and I love singing it. The audience get it, they take it for what it is, and it forms part of the overall celebration.’

I ask Cerys if she was tempted to include more songs in Welsh than she has, especially given her own significant recorded output in her national language.

‘I wanted it to be really well balanced,’ she says. ‘It’s got Scottish songs, some Irish Gaelic in there, and many, many English songs too. I really wanted the songs to have a huge range of appeal, and for them to be accessible for a wide range of musical abilities. I just hope that there’s enough to give the utmost pleasure to the most people that I possibly could. That was the main thing for me, to include the most memorable, the funniest, the most harrowing, the most touching songs within a single book.’ Teasingly, I also make clear how heartened I was to see within the book the welcome appropriation of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, a traditional American Negro spiritual anthem, yet most recently a modern-day English rugby anthem, borne – at least in a sporting sense – of the most dubious of circumstances. Cerys laughs mischievously. ‘It’s a brilliant song, put it where it belongs! And if we appropriate it then it loses its power for the men in white.’ The socialist internationalist, Paul Robeson’s version is a particular favourite of the author’s and she includes it with the traditional lyrics:

If I get there before you do, (Coming for to carry me home) / I’ll cut a hole and pull you though (Coming for to carry me home) / If you get there before I do (Coming for carry me home) / Tell all my friends I’m coming too (Coming for to carry me home)

For a book so rooted in community, engagement, and social interaction, the personal impact upon Cerys of having taken these songs out on tour, to have interacted with the public, in whatever form that has taken, has clearly inspired her to an extent that even she might not have initially envisaged.

‘The highlight for me was undoubtedly singing “You Are My Sunshine” live on Channel 4 News, with Jon Snow,’ she beams.  ‘Both of us sat on top of the desks like little sparrows with our legs swinging a few feet off the floor. That to me sums it up. It doesn’t matter what you do for a living, where you’re from or where you’re going, put a song in your heart and it’ll make the world a better place. There are already enough troubles in the world, so let’s not forget what’s free and what’s available to us all. All of the good things you get from simply getting together in community, letting yourself go a little, and trusting again.’

‘The most interesting people and things in the world,’ she adds, almost earnestly, ‘are those that embrace the love of non-formula and have a genuine curiosity about the world. That’s what it’s all about really.’

It’s a sentiment that encapsulates the raw spirit of Hook, Line and Singer, the motivation for its creation, and is – for everyone who ritually tunes into 6 Music on a Sunday morning – the embodiment of Cerys Matthews’ utterly idiosyncratic weekly show. For the author, the singer, the award-winning radio presenter, the style and the presentation might change but the essence of the song itself – stubbornly, resolutely, and without affectation – will always remain the same.


Banner illustration by Dean Lewis