Cerys Matthews: Exclusive Interview
Cerys Matthews MBE is a music icon, broadcaster, author and a founding member of Flintshire’s back-to-basics and artisan focused festival The Good Life Experience. Here, in our recent exclusive Q&A for Like Minded Magazine, she tells us where she looks for inspiration and solace, why she believes the arts are a hugely powerful and valuable life enricher, and what being Welsh means to her.
You’ve had global success as a musician and you’re a BBC radio broadcaster so music is obviously at the heart of what you do. Can you give us an insight into what music means to you and how you think it affects others?
Singing was everywhere when I grew up – my mam sang all the time, my Nan, and in nursery then school – we learnt everything through song. It made sense, it felt good and from the moment someone gave me an instrument, I was simply hooked. I can’t really explain why, it just makes the world feel like a good place.
It’s probably part of your job description to keep up-to-date with the ever-changing music scene, but what type of music do you listen to on a regular basis? Do you have favourites?
I love early country blues and jazz, and a ton of music from different cultures: Cuban music, Ethiopian, Kenyan and I love me some Hammond organ music by players like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. I love a groove above anything so that’s where my go-to taste lies. Producers and players like Allen Toussaint, Snooks Eaglin… but I also love lyricists like Dylan, plus a triple harp player called Llio Rhydderch … she pulls and pushes the melody but she grooves. No-one sails through life – everyone has highs and lows.
What helps you when the going is tough?
I love being this age. With the benefit of retrospection and experience on this planet, you know that things will pass, you just keep breathing, and you tell yourself you are enough and that is a comfort. When I feel glum, I know it’ll pass, I look around me , look to nature and find inspiration, solace, sense and beauty there. This life is so fragile, so short.
You’re a founder of The Good Life Experience (TGLE) which has enjoyed five extremely successful years on the Gladstone estate in Hawarden and attracts visitors to Flintshire from all over the UK – and beyond.
Why do you think it goes from strength to strength?
Because it’s about community and hands-on things away from mass production: whether it be the music, food, literature, handicrafts or physical activities. They are undervalued in today’s rampantly capitalist society. And so it feels good and it’s invigorating to meet makers, artisans and fellow musicians, writers, explorers, wild swimmers and cooks and just be.
We all use social media in some form or other, but are you nostalgic of the time before Twitter and Facebook or do you embrace modern technology wholeheartedly?
I love the access to information that modern technology allows, but I do miss down time. Emails plus all these different portals to be messaged and for messaging others, I could live without. Wikipedia I could not. I subscribe to it and encourage all to do so. It’s a great first place to start research as the format is so convenient. It gets dissed, but I’m grateful for it. However, I am concerned about the vulnerability the internet and social media brings. In terms of it being the Achilles’ heel for manipulating forces to attack, and its unprecedented effect on elections and the mass psyche. The reach and influence of social media cannot and should not be underestimated now nor in the future. It’s pretty overwhelming when you start to ponder on this. I don’t do Facebook. I toy with Twitter and Instagram, though I’m pretty bad at both. It’s like having two Tamagotchis that you have to keep feeding. I’m a bad virtual pet owner – and they might die at some point – but I still manage to waste an awful lot of time on them.
Like most people in Wales, every day when I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh. What does being Welsh mean to you?
I just happened to be born there, but because my heritage leans greatly towards an appreciation and understanding of the arts as a hugely powerful and valuable life enricher, I was able to be naturally immersed in this way of thinking too, and be brought up bilingual to boot, for which I’m eternally grateful. Being born and brought up in Wales has affected everything and I’ve spent my life immersed in its history, songs, folklore, literature, music and poetry. But more importantly, appreciating my own heritage has meant that I can forge a deep and energetic interest in other cultures and heritages, too.
You’ve recently brought out another book – Where the Wild Cooks Go – an eclectic mix of recipes, music, poetry and cocktails that’s described as a ‘folk cookbook’. How is the book writing process for you and are you disciplined with deadlines?
When the subject matter is one that interests me, I need no deadline. I get the green light and I’m off. And writing this book was one of my life’s greatest pleasures – there are so many great places and people, and ideas worldwide, and revisiting some of my touring memories and friends was pure pleasure. Plus great recipes and ideas are priceless: I have some of the best recipes ever, bar none, in the book, and I mean it.
However, going back to the point about deadlines, the opposite is also true. If it’s a form to be filled, or something that simply doesn’t interest me, I’ll go to the ends of the earth to avoid sitting still to complete it. That’s when deadlines have their uses.
What can we look forward to from you for the rest of 2020? More broadcasting? Books? Time off?
I’ll be visiting various literary festivals around the country to support Where the Wild Cooks Go. I’m happy to report that it’s still building momentum. Word of mouth is spreading the love, as it’s not your usual cookbook and it was hard to describe at first. It’s perfect for any age, and for anyone – even those who can’t cook, or have remote interest in it – as it’s not just recipes, but uses food as a great springboard into pulling the world into context and revelling in our differences, too.
It’s full of curiosities, surprises, stories about great characters like onfucius, Krishna, Ibn Battuta, Zoroaster, St Patrick, Paul Bogle, Sophia Loren and Jonathan Swift (and tons more) and quotes like this one: ‘It doesn’t matter how slow you go, just as long as you do not stop’. It reached the top of the Amazon food and travel charts, and I’m over the moon. It’s the start of a new year and most of us are looking to change something, either personally or more generally.
What would you like to see change in 2020?
I’d like to see us get a more sophisticated political system and a leveller playing field all round. Now for something completely different: you’re hosting a grown-up dinner party.
Who would you invite – dead or alive?
Zoroaster, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Richard Burton, Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, Hafez, Einstein, Isaac Newton, Ava Gardner and Ada Lovelace, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Nina Simone, Anthony Bourdain and Michaelangelo. It’ll be a big party with a piano in the middle. Oh, Louis Armstrong would come, too, Sweet Emma Barrett and Helen Sharman…oh and one more, Robert Burns. I love Burns Night, and the Scottish chapter in Where the Wild Cooks Go is a tribute to it: there’s even a vegan haggis option…
Now, pass me the whiskey, the party is starting…
Where the Wild Cooks Go (Particular Books, £25) is out now, available online (www.penguin.co.uk) and in book stores across the UK.