fbpx

In Conversation with: Cerys Matthews

"The best pieces of work will echo, ripple and resonate.'

In Conversation with: Cerys Matthews

House of Coco’s Music Editor Emma Harrison spoke to musician, song writer, best-selling author and award-winning BBC 6 Music DJ , Cerys Matthews about her new groundbreaking spoken word album ‘We Come From The Sun’.

Collaborating with Hidden Orchestra (the solo project of Joe Acheson) and some of the UK’s most eminent poets with music composed by Cerys set to 10 spoken word tracks written and performed by the likes of Cia Mangat, Kim Moore, Kayo Chingonyi and more, the album explores a ‘sound journey’ of poetry about Genesis – birth, heritage and our journeys through life.  

Emma spoke to Cerys about recording at the iconic Abbey Road studios, the process for composing for spoken word artists and why truth in art is so important. 

House of Coco

Congratulations on your recent single ‘Christmas Eve’ which you have composed and collaborated with eminent poet Liz Berry.  I watched the video of the single today in preparation for the interview and loved it.

It’s just so different and life affirming in equal measure. How did the collaboration come about?

Cerys Matthews

I’ve been a huge fan of Liz’s work since I first read her poetry and I’ve been involved in a lot of literary prizes and award ceremonies and whatnot for years now. I love reading – I’m a huge fan of literature and writers whether that’s song writing, or you know, prose, poetry, novels. I just loved literature and writing in general.

So, I came across Liz’s work as part of being a judge on the Foreword Prizes for poetry. The first collection is called ‘Black Country’. It’s just standout. I mean, literally, her writing is just so precise, and so full of light. And of course, it sticks out from the crowd because she writes in her natural Black Country dialect.

I wasn’t really familiar with the nuance of the Black Country dialect and I thought it was, you know, like many people it’s just like that but it’s got its own regional variations.

And it’s so soft. I just fell in love head over heels in love with her voice – her writing voice. Yeah!

House of Coco

When you listen to her, it’s almost like getting this warm hug. She kind of just radiates this lovely energy, doesn’t she? It’s so nice. I could just listen to her all day.

Cerys

Yeah! I think I that there’s a huge sort of prejudice against the word poetry and against the definition of the word poetry.

If we can just chuck that away and just accept that poetry is just communication.

What is poetry? It’s communication. It can communicate motivational things, political things, enlightening things, maddening things, entertaining things, or things full of love. Old memories. I mean, the first thing you do, for many people, anyway in huge events in life whether it’s births, marriages, funerals, poetry, you know is to select poetry.

In songs as well, and nursery rhymes, it’s all poetry, but the word poetry has become stained and tainted by the idea that it is epic and it can be hard to understand ‘epic’.

It’s like that language on the top shelf – dusty shelves and only academics or the elites can really truly understand them.

You know, poetry comes in all spectrums and in my culture, it’s for all men, I mean, as human beings.

It’s been written and enjoyed and made and consumed and shared by everybody, from miners and farmers to rugby fans on the terraces and graffiti artists on the streets. 

House of Coco

I completely agree. You’re a huge advocate of making poetry more accessible to people who perhaps felt they wouldn’t necessarily engage with it. But, as you said, poetry is just a definition of one thing that comes in many different ways, which I think is really lovely.

You’ve got an amazing selection of poets and spoken word artists on the new album ‘We Come From the Sun’, which is due out January 15th. You’ve got lots of different collaborations which includes the likes of Adam Horovitz, Lemn Sissay, MA.MOYO and Imtiaz Dharker.

How did you find them? Is it similar to what you did with Liz, you just really admired their work and how did you pick just ten?

Cerys

It was hard to pick just ten! So, the other poets basically was a massive undertaking. I’ve been enjoying the recordings of people like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes and W.B Yeats and you know, a whole host of writers.

I enjoyed going into the BBC archives and the archive of Decca. Then Decca asked me to get involved and I said ‘Well, why don’t we make an album with the current crop of great writers’ – to keep filling the archives, you know, because especially now when we’ve had like crisis upon crisis, with Brexit and climate change, now the pandemic, and it’s one massive thing after another.

There’s a lot to process and a lot to respond to, and a lot of writers are doing that, and I thought it would be really wonderful if we could record them for posterity. So, this is the first in a series of releases.

So, we will begin at the beginning, which is in my mind, the emergence of a new being, a story about a journey about speaking. So, it’s genesis – all the poems have to be hopeful, wide eyed – this sort of emergence of a new being, so we’ve got ‘Connemara’ by Liz Berry on there as well as ‘Christmas Eve’ and ‘Connemara’ is all about becoming a mum for the first time.

In all of this, I have never read a description of the physicality of giving birth in such a close way to the actuality.

She describes it as raw as a butcher’s shop and that’s pretty much it – you can smell the blood!

House of Coco

It’s very visceral, isn’t it?!

Cerys

Yes, so visceral and then you have ‘Flame Lily’ which kicks off the album, which is by MA. MOYO. It’s so strident and powerful. It’s about identity – the identity of an individual.

But it also absolutely celebrates the fact that not one individual comes out of a vacuum, that we are here on the shoulders of our ancestors and over the layers of humans that have come before us.

So, it was a brilliant way of kicking off this first album to do that to say, ‘here I stand. But I am coming off the back of these guys behind’. Kim Moore has a brilliant one on the album called ‘And The Soul’ – it’s about the inner self.  Who are you?

Wow, that was a poem that needed nothing more than just a thought.

We take the listener on a journey. And it can be sort of countryside sounds in the world of nature, the suburbs. You go into the city and you are right in the middle of traffic.

We also go inside the body and there’s lots of sounds of the body fluids and the heartbeat. I love that one!

House of Coco

That’s an incredible thing. Did the poems already exist in their own entity and did you then compose the music to them?

Or were they specifically written for this album?

Cerys

That’s a good question. I had such a solid idea for the concepts and the theme.

I went through my collections and picked the poems I wanted to use for it because I wanted it to work not just as individual poems, but for each poem to lead on from the other one, like it was a journey and a whole – so they are works, but they are a journey and they cross reference.

It was really important to do that. So, I hit the points I wanted to use with that in mind, then I approached the poets. And the poets happily said yes.

But I think that was because of recording at Abbey Road!

House of Coco

I am sure it was both Abbey Road and you!

Cerys

I would have said yes to Abbey Road! Even if it was just juggling!

House of Coco

It’s 2021 – let’s make it a thing!

Cerys

Yeah!

With the poems, I picked two and then I asked the poets themselves to pick one. I thought if we were in Abbey Road, behind the mic, we might as well record three each.

There were curveballs you know. Most of them when recording I’d hoped to achieve my early sketches, but there were curveballs when the poet went into the vocal booths like Belinda AKA MA. MOMO when she went in she just floored me with ‘Flame Lily’ the track that kicks off the album.

And I thought ‘Holy Shit!’ That’s gotta be the first track. I didn’t see that one coming. And that was one of her choices.

So it was an absolute dream to collaborate with these guys. You know, when I always think of somebody who’s working in music, if the lyrics are standout, you can almost do anything.

House of Coco

That’s so true!

Cerys

If the rhythm section is great and if you’ve got the best groove in the world, you can almost sing anything on top.

It works both ways. My aim was always to worst case scenario to step back a bit and not suffocate a great piece of writing and suffocate the poem.

I had to let the poems lead. Their reading of it really led the way to what sounds Joe and I put on the poem and that’s how it has to be.

House of Coco

Exactly, so you just taking an amazing body of work and then just elevating it with your compositions.

You’ve done a lot of song writing for yourself. When you are just composing the music to other people’s words, do you take more of a different approach to normal song writing?

Cerys

It is actually! I think the pressures off in a sense, because personally, I find writing music a lot easier than writing consistently great lyrics across the whole song.

So, the idea that somebody presents you and will let you choose a whole body of work that already exists – it already works!

You know that the joy is to almost add a pair of wings, so it just can get a bit further than it’s already going.

You know, you’re just adding to its engine! You know, as I said, the worst thing would be to get in the way of its engine. But if you can just soup it up a little tiny bit, so it gets into corners that might surprise people. That’s what I wanted to do. It’s inspired by things like the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg, they all mix music, you know, jazz and Langston Hughes? This is nothing new.

I’m a huge fan of music like The Beatles!

House of Coco

I’m repping The Beatles today (shows Cerys her Beatles t shirt)

Cerys

Oh, you love The Beatles?! I mean, they’re poets in a sense, you know, and this is what I’m saying about poetry that those lines stay with you for your whole life. You know ‘I want to hold your hand’ – it’s simple, but it says so much. So, it means so much to you.

House of Coco

Exactly! So, the spoken word part was recorded at Abbey Road Studios which so iconic, but you did a lot of the music production working remotely with Joe – how was that process?

Cerys

So, the thing is working remotely was something that was happening even before COVID.

So that musicians across the world could collaborate together without having to get on a plane. So, we knew it was technically possible.

The irony is that it almost focused that project even more. It almost became more magical in certain factors.

As our horizons were shrinking into each of our four walls, so our aural adventure, this journey through the countryside or through someone’s body became more real and more of an escape, and more magical. So, it actually worked in a strange way, to our favour. But to this day, I’ve not met Joe in the flesh!


House of Coco

Are you planning a bit of a reunion with the poets at some point when life gets back to normal?

Cerys

We are hoping that we can take this on the roads because it kind of belongs on the road. I’d love to meet the musicians across the world that we worked with like when we needed a specific sound like from snow melting in Nepal to pigeons in the Black Country.

We had a whole network of musicians and it would be lovely to say thank you in the flesh.

House of Coco

What’s the plan for the album – would you do a live performance of it? Would you take it on the road? If obviously we can do so in 2021? Would that be something on the agenda?

Cerys

Yeah, I would love to do that as present it as a journey – an entity and do visuals as well. Have live musicians play and Joe as well obviously.

All the poets in their own right are very, very active on the live scene.  It shouldn’t be relegated to a two dimensional black and white visual. It’s a living thing like Dylan Thomas – he took his poetry on tour throughout America. So, I mean this shouldn’t be radical or shocking. It’s not novel. It’s how poetry was always done from the beginning, the aural tradition. It lives, it echoes, it resonates and evolves. It makes mistakes. I want to do that live.

God! To be out and about would be just absolutely brilliant after this long, so let’s hope! I think it’s going to be a fair few months though yet isn’t it?

House of Coco

Yeah, I think so sadly. When it happens, I think it will be an incredibly immersive experience for those attending. I think people would come away feeling elevated.

What would you want people to take away from having either listened to the album or from seeing it as a show?

What would you think would be the key takeaways for people?

Cerys

To give people a bloody good time while also resonating and going a bit deeper. The best pieces of work will echo and ripple and resonate and will come back and disappear. You won’t forget them.

Any artists, whether it’s visual, or audio or writing will say the same thing. It’s about having an effect, that’s it – it’s as simple as that.

House of Coco

I think it definitely is and I can’t wait to hear the album. Do you have a track that you think ‘I wish I’d written this’? Or is it too hard to choose?

Cerys

All of them!

I know, going back to Dylan Thomas, he would get so angry when people would say, ‘Well, he can turn on the tap and all this work just pours out with him’

They were trying to compliment him and say he was a natural. But as he and so many other poets or writers that I wrote about, he said, you know, if you’ve written great things,  part of that means it looks effortless, but it’s like the swan – it’s so much effort going into it.

Whether it’s as a musician, or whether it’s sort of like crossing out and revisiting it in like 10, 15, 20 or 30 years, build up the writing into that particular piece of work.

Dylan Thomas would describe himself as a carpenter, you know, like keep on carving this particular piece of wood until it’s the right shape.

You know, so, I forgotten what the question was!

House of Coco

So, basically you don’t have a favourite track that you wish you had written!

Cerys

I really appreciate the work and the imagination that goes into these, because that’s the thing with poetry.

You know, poetry at its best, is when a few words say great things I should say. Then you will get the revelation in a single coupling or a comparison like the one I mentioned, Liz Berry.

You’re a brand new mom and you feel like you’re your own flesh has been like a butcher’s shelf, you know? And when you when you hit them a truth like that in a line, that is great poetry that you will not forget.

You know, ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’. Yeah. Why do people remember that line is because that’s how one feels lonely?

That hits upon a truth that we identify with or recognise.

Now, that’s what makes it great and what makes a great poem.

It’s not even just the structural aspects of this. It’s the sort of the putting things together that one normally doesn’t put together and the association and the comparison that nails it on the head. Exactly! 

House of Coco

You said earlier that this is going be a series of work. Will it be like a constantly evolving thing – can you could see several albums?

Cerys

Yeah, I didn’t want to put any limitation on it, it’ll just be as long as it needs to be as good as writing is at the moment.

It might be going on for a long time –  somebody else might have to take over, you know! The whole essence is kind of like, in all of its complexities? They are some pretty major ideas, aren’t they?!

House of Coco

Definitely! What would you tell people who hadn’t considered a spoken word album before?

Cerys

If you hate poetry, have a listen. I hope it brings makes you smile because it’s got such a variety of sounds in it.

Let me know if it takes you away and if we manage to do that as in –  take people for a walk virtually then my job’s done!

‘We Come From The Sun’ by Cerys Matthews, Hidden Orchestra and 10 poets is out on the 15th January.  

More in…

Emma Harrison
Scroll to Top