Mastering the combination of the old and new is always tricky, especially when it comes to music. Although we often achieve this with younger emerging artists supposedly emulating past icons, it still remains one of the greatest challenges, and when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong. In Wales, this combination of the old and new is especially delicate; the musical past seems frustratingly disconnected from the musical present, but that’s simply down to the uniqueness of Welsh traditional song – and also it is inevitably linked to the fact that older songs are sometimes sung through the Welsh language. That’s not to say that the traditional is for the old and the new is for the young, in fact, quite the opposite is true here in Wales. Many choirs are now being founded by younger members, by university students hoping to establish a new society. It is often inspired by existing notable choirs, but the youngsters try to bring a fresh, new feel to it. I speak on this subject with relevant experience as some school friends and I recently established what is known as an ‘Aelwyd’; we can compete in different competitions singing as a choir. Although the majority of members are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the average age of our audience unfortunately does not compare. So what is the secret? If young people are interested in contributing to older traditions, why don’t they feel as enthusiastic in supporting it? How do we begin to combine the old and the new?
Music has such power. Wales has a rich musical history, songs that hark back to school days and childhood are in abundance, but to make these sentimental pieces of music contemporary is a skill. A small portion of artists have the ability do this, and I believe Cerys Matthews is one of them. The fact that she is able to utilise this skill bilingually is a massive bonus. She is undoubtedly Welsh royalty. She’s made a swift and comfortable transition from 90’s rock star to performer and respected journalist, something very few singers manage to do these days. She is tied to many things, from writing articles for The Guardian, The Times and Grazia to being a judge for the Dylan Thomas Literary Prize; Matthews’ talents really do seem unlimited. She writes songs, books, produces award winning documentaries, and is, perhaps most admirably, a keen promoter of the Welsh language and consequently, Welsh song. She is someone who truly believes in what she does; she is genuinely passionate about music and devotes her time to spreading the word.
Matthews’ new book Hook, Line and Singer (the title of which plays on her passion for fishing) explores the derivation of old songs, a ‘mix of the traditional and contemporary’. She has the ability to give the older songs a fresh new sound, normally coupling her naturally tuneful voice with the soothing sounds of acoustic guitar. Her album, Tir, is a fantastic collection of traditional Welsh folk songs sung with a modern flair, the perfect amalgam of fresh folk and traditional melodies. I’ve often used her music in several Welsh productions of my own as I feel her music has a particularly relate-able quality to it, something everybody can enjoy; but this also gives it that younger edge, ensuring that it doesn’t reek of the past or the ‘glory days’ of Welsh music. For this reason, Matthews is always the first person who springs to mind when I’m looking for something notably Welsh, yet refreshingly new. Her music celebrates the Welsh past in a way which enables it to move forward into the present.
Matthews seems to have mastered this rejuvenation of the traditional, but is this because she is a solo artist? Solo artists have freer reign; free to be as creative as they want without perhaps the restrictions that are essential for choral singing. Is this perhaps why soloists find the reinvention of past melodies easier? I often wonder whether Welsh choral music is recognised outside of Wales, and if it is, whether it is fully understood. Male voice choirs are always popular, albeit with older generations; but the younger choir? It is something which undoubtedly appeals to an audience. In 2008, BBC’s hit talent show Last Choir Standing saw two Welsh choirs battle it out in the final. For those of us familiar with the standard of a good choir, both Ysgol Glanaethwy and Only Men Aloud were impressive, but for an English audience, there was a particular revelation. Naturally, the choirs slipped a couple of Welsh songs in there too, but was it this bilingualism that made them so popular with an English audience and Welsh audience? It made me wonder whether this was the key to Cerys’ success.
A big part of Matthews’ success is also down to her extreme likeability. There doesn’t seem to be an awful interview out there revealing her to be some horrific diva, and she seems to have a lot of support from fans and critics. She came fourth in the seventh series of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! , earning herself evident support from viewers. If Matthews is invested in a particular project, her interviews clearly communicate this. Whenever she promotes something, collaboratively or personally, her enthusiasm and genuine passion is always apparent. This trait makes her one of the most likeable Welsh celebrities. She seems like a real person, someone on the same level as you, not on that unreachable, impenetrable plane that is the realm of most celebrities.
Catatonia, even now, will generate recognition from both England and Wales. Today, some Welsh bands are hugely popular on the Welsh language scene, and receive ample production support from Wales itself. But Welsh language music isn’t just for Welsh speakers; Cerys Matthews is testament to that.
In an interview with Welsh band Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog, conducted by Iwan Huws, members of the band question why it should matter that a band are singing in Welsh, because it most certainly shouldn’t. Lord knows Radio 1 is constantly bringing us songs sung through languages that are not our own, but you won’t find people complaining that they don’t listen to ‘PaPa L’Americano’ or ‘Gangnam Style’ because they ‘don’t understand the lyrics’. It’s all about the tune, how catchy the melody is. The band also addresses the stigma of Welsh language bands writing English songs, insisting that there’s nothing wrong with that. There needs to be a halfway meeting point. In a way, bilingualism may make them more popular with different audiences. ‘We live bilingual lives: it’s natural for us to use both languages in every aspect of life.’ We just need to break through that bilingual wall.
Cerys sits enviably right in the middle of traditional and contemporary. Whilst her BBC 6 Music show won gold at this year’s Sony Radio Academy Awards (winning in the ‘Music Broadcaster of the Year’ category), she also often receives credit from older institutions like the National Eisteddfod. An award was actually resurrected for her benefit, as her album Awyren=Aeroplane won her the ‘Contemporary Composition’ award. It is difficult to imagine a higher honour, particularly from the Eisteddfod. The significance of the award only reiterates her success in moving the traditional into our present. She has covered Glastonbury in the past too, usually a privilege awarded to Radio 1 and 2 presenters. Maybe Cerys is at that stage now where she’s firmly grounded in her iconic status as a Welsh performer. But just as Cerys received her support, other performers, bands, choirs need that too. Is bilingualism key to success? Or at least key to success outside of Wales? Whatever the answer is, Cerys Matthews has cracked it.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis