“I love radio because it can go deep into your mind,” says Cerys Matthews, with that unmistakeable Welsh lilt. “Television is all-encompassing entertainment but, with radio, you’re imagining the things being described. It’s powerful because you’re using your senses and your brain.”
We’re at Wogan House in central London where Matthews will shortly go on air to present The Cerys Matthews Blues Show on Radio 2. It’s the latest in her expanding portfolio of shows – which includes a monthly slot on BBC World Service where she plots the musical journeys of assorted actors and musicians, and her long-running Sunday-morning programme on 6 Music, which has the biggest audience of any single show on the network.
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Matthews, who is 49, is delighted at joining Radio 2, though she has no plans to adapt what she does for a new audience. “I just make radio shows that I want to listen to and I hope other people think the same. To think too much about the individual listener isn’t my job. I’m instinctive and I trust my ears, because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole adult life.”
Matthews’s appointment is part of a drive to put more women presenters into the network’s prime slots (it remains a male stronghold on most weekday evenings), though she’d rather not be defined by her gender. “I’m yearning for the time when it’s not relevant,” she says. “We’re not there yet, but I was over the moon to get the show because it felt right. And because I have so much great music to play.”
Her playlists are the result of diligent research, whether scouring the BBC archive, plundering her own record collection or earwigging on her 14-year-old daughter’s listening habits. Right now Matthews is flying the flag for a new generation of London-based jazz musicians, including saxophonist Nubya Garcia and the Ezra Collective. “It’s just a matter of keeping your ears open and a pen handy to scribble it down. I’ve still got the musician’s hat on half the time, so I’m always trying to learn… If I get the music right, the rest hopefully will follow.”
A passion for blues and folk has been one of the few constants in a career as, variously, a pop star, reality TV star (in 2007 she was a contestant on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!), children’s book author and roving ethnomusicologist. For listeners of a certain vintage, she will for ever be remembered as the frontwoman of Catatonia, a cigarette in one hand and bottle of booze in the other. The band was the toast of the late Britpop scene, with hits including Mulder and Scully and Road Rage, and fans including former US president Bill Clinton, on whose chest Matthews laid her head while she sang folk songs for him at the Hay Festival in 2001.
But that’s all in the past. Matthews rarely thinks about it now, except when her children look up the band on YouTube to make fun of her. “It was a tiny portion of my life, and I’m glad it happened,” she reflects. “I was young and finding my feet, and it was an extraordinary place to find myself. But fame puts this glass shield around you and you become this person that you’re not. It’s not healthy.”
She first heard the blues as a child, via her father, an orthopaedic surgeon who was a huge Bob Dylan fan. “Dylan mentions so many blues players and he covers blues songs. You take his songs and you’re learning about Blind Willie McTell and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and then you’re off. This was the 80s and Duran Duran was on the radio, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.”
She collected old songbooks and vintage recordings, through which she discovered Charley Patton, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Lead Belly. “Blues is this massive cradle of creativity and cultural richness. It doesn’t end,” she says. “There’s country blues, soul blues, jazz blues… I’m opening tonight’s show with Dolly Parton because her songs are blues songs. Part of the joy of doing the show is myth-busting. It’s saying, ‘You think that White Stripes song is original? Listen to this!’”
After a stint in Nashville in the early 2000s, and a short detour to Pembrokeshire, “where it rained for six months”, Matthews eventually settled in west London, where she lives with her second husband and manager Steve Abbott, her three children and two step-children. She frequently goes back and forth to Wales to visit family and she has founded an arts festival there. While she still sings on occasion, every year brings new projects: she has just finished co-writing the score (with Mason Neely) for Ballet Cymru’s performance of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas, and also recently hosted the BBC Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast, an annual World Service programme made for the 44 British scientists and support staff working in Antarctica.
Four years ago Matthews received an MBE from the Prince of Wales and last year made it into RT’s poll of the top 50 radio broadcasters of the past 50 years, but modestly insists she’s no longer famous: “I’m just someone whose job happens to come with a bit of a profile.” Crucial to her contentment is her ability to hear the stories and celebrate the work of others. “To play records and create a good hour of radio,” she says, “that’s what shakes my tree.”
The Cerys Matthews Blues Show broadcasts on Mondays at 8pm on Radio 2