I REALLY thought I was past the joys of Away In A Manger, but Cerys Matthews’ new Christmas album has proved otherwise.
“A guy got in touch on Twitter to tell me that he got pulled over by the police because he was clapping along to Go Tell It On The Mountain,” Matthews laughs. “Happily, he got away with it because it was Christmas cheer. The policeman was laughing so much when he heard the song that he just let him go. It seems to be having an effect on people.”
You might say. There is something irrepressible about a banjo-inflected Jingle Bells or Little Donkey complete with coconut shell clippety-clops.
“I wanted to make an album with families in mind,” says Matthews. “That’s why I picked these songs, because they’re the ones that we’ve all learned from the year dot. The new ones I put on there, I just love them and kids love them. Little Drummer Boy is such a sad story and it’s got brilliantly recorded military snare which I then panned from right to left as though the little boy then left the manger and was trailing up and over the hills into the distance. I was really happy with it in the end.” She giggles as though she’s a little bit surprised.
Or maybe she’s just pleased. Matthews is seriously hitting her stride. She writes and produces her own albums – TIR (2010), released on her own label, is one of the bestselling Welsh language records of all time. If you don’t want your Sunday listening dominated by showtunes or banging chart music, or The Archers omnibus, then the only show to listen to is the one that Matthews presents on BBC 6 Music. It’s not just that she plays a brilliant, eclectic selection of music – anything from the Cocteau Twins to Bob Dylan to The Coasters – she’s also got the kind of voice that’s as warming as a bowl of cinnamon-flavoured porridge. And it allows Matthews to be what, I suspect, she has always been – a witty, funny muso with an encyclopedic knowledge of songs.
“I just love songs,” she says. “I was lucky to go to a Welsh language primary school and they teach the children a lot of the old Welsh songs. I got interested right from the get-go in traditional song. It’s why I love my radio show because it was always there but no one really asked me about it.”
Matthews, 43, is probably still best known as the frontwoman of Catatonia. But there was always something impossible to define about her. On the third album, Equally Cursed And Blessed, there were strings and harps, a musical saw and a hurdy-gurdy. Matthews was a bona fide pop star but she was writing and singing about the Child Support Agency and eating disorders. Songs and the stories they tell are what Matthews loves. She tells me about quilting songs from Barra and the folk scene in Northumberland and clog dancing in Wales. “There’s an endless amount of interest, both historical and social in these old songs. You just don’t get it from current songwriters. The Scottish ones are the goriest, bloodiest and the most tragic. I love them.”
Matthews learned to sing Irish ballads in her childhood. She’s now got three children of her own – Glenys, nine, John Jones, seven, and Red, three. She says that she’s loved having them because “they’ve brought structure to a non-structured life”. I guess there’s plenty of singing in her house?
“I do sing a lot,” she says. “This morning we put the Christmas tree up and I pulled out my guitar and started singing and my son was like, “Stop! stop! Mum, I need to wee.” He’s only three so whenever I start singing he needs attention. It’s quite funny.”
It’s clear that Matthews had fun recording the album and it’s clear she intends that to continue with the live gigs. There will be candles and song sheets – it’ll be a kind of alternative sing-a-long. She’s made a pdf of the song lyrics that you can download before you go.
“It’s the thing that I’ve realised I love most about, well, life,” she says. “I love getting together with like-minded people and trying to pass the time as merrily as possible. All of us work really hard then we get home and get sucked into all that TV stuff with the adverts and all the things they’re trying to sell us. I’m just tired of it. Life goes away from us too fast without us enjoying it, really enjoying it, in the simplest way – reading together, enjoying great masterpieces together and singing as well.”
Consistency was never Matthews’ strong point – she has said in plenty of interviews how much she loathed America and then she moved to Nashville for six years. She says she dislikes reality TV yet she was on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here in 2007. A few years ago, you might have been able to call her a contrarian, deliberately refusing to fit the mould. Now, though, there’s much more of a sense that it’s just her, finding her own way to be. I don’t get the impression that there’s any artistic form – high or low, mainstream or obscure – that she couldn’t find interesting. What is anathema to her is sameness. There’s something problematic about saying she’s found her niche, because what’s she’s done is found her place by resisting any notion of niche.
“It’s such a relief to be known for a lot of different things because I’ve always been reading and I’ve always had many interests,” she says, “but it’s easier for people to present you as a one-dimensional figure. I’m lucky because I’ve got a great manager now [her partner Steve Abbott] who knows what I like doing and what I’m good at. It’s all snowballed and I’m getting more and more opportunities to share all my interests.”
She’s got a sing-a-long book coming out published by Penguin next year. She’s just made a documentary about sacred harp singing, she’s got another on the way about women country music singers for Radio 2. Her favourite song title, she says, is a Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn duet: You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly. But I Love You Just The Same. She laughs: “Aw, songs are brilliant.”
I tell her about a song I loved when I was little, on an album by Isla St Clair singing songs about the sea. It had a chorus that was about “herrings’ heids, loaves of breid, and a’ sorts of things…” I’ve only just finished telling Matthews the lyrics when she’s already found two copies of the album online for £5.99.
“I might have to buy one of these,” she says. “It sounds right up my street. There’s a young singer around just now called Bella Hardy. She wrote a song called The Herring Girls. It’s a great song. It’s about a girl who a boy tries to abuse and she kills him with her herring knife. The last verse is her on trial and she says ‘I’m not sorry.’ ” She laughs. “Check it out. Bella Hardy.”
• Cerys Matthews plays Òran Mór, Glasgow on Tuesday; The Caves, Edinburgh on Wednesday; and Mareel in Shetland on Thursday. Baby It’s Cold Outside: Christmas Classics from Cerys Matthews is out now