They say you should never meet your heroes, but in my line of work it would clearly be foolish – not to mention career ending – to take that advice to heart. In my experience, you’re more likely to leave with an unexpected list of short stories to read or obscure directors to research than the insatiable urge to tweet bile or shrug your shoulders with a weary ‘meh’.
That said, meeting Cerys Matthews to discuss her latest project creating the music for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s acclaimed Our Country’s Good left me nervous. During our interview in the National Theatre’s press ‘snug’ – a box room overflowing with play texts and boasting an enviably balcony overlooking the Thames – her adage that “you’re very lucky if you’re able to indulge yourself in sharing a passion with people” was all too close to home. Because, if you’ve been unfortunate enough to share a bottle of wine with me in the last couple of years, you’ll know that, up there with Desert Island Discs and Serial, Matthews’ radio show on BBC 6 Music is a passion I frequently indulge myself in sharing. Often forcefully. With an aggressive follow up text.
Matthews’ programme is a wandering, fascinating and eclectic thing of beauty that travels from softly lulling you into Sunday serenity to blasting off slovenly cobwebs with cultural shocks as Matthews – a woman who has transitioned from the mosh pits and booze-fuelled 90s fronting Catatonia to finding her inquisitive spiritual home in the embrace of some of the world’s most respected cultural institutions – indulges her own passion for discovering music and its history from pockets around the world.
Here’s the good news. If you’re a fan – given her recent high profile accomplishments vary from founding her own festival, curating at the Tate Modern, seeing her traditional Welsh album Tir turned into a ballet and creating music to accompany the words of Dylan Thomas, I’m guessing we are both many and varied – you need not worry about your vision of this slightly otherworldly, calm, mischievous and fiercely bright fountain of musical knowledge being dashed.
Dressed all in black, well-worn Panama hat slightly askew, Matthews talks intensely and graciously, eyes darkening only when the subject of the BBC reform comes up. This is a woman you wouldn’t want to fight. Not because she’s imposing but because she’d quietly listen to you before winning you over eloquently to her side anyway. She gets away with statements that in the voice of others would sound grandiose but in hers simply sound romantic – her Our Country’s Good collaborator Josienne Clarke possesses, in her words, a voice that can “trickle back over centuries” – and peppers conversations with vivid imagery that makes it clear she is a sound bet for theatre; she truly understands how to see through an audience’s eyes.
You get the feeling the only question she’d ever get stuck on would be what her Mastermind subject would be. But for now her subject is Nadia Fall’s take on Our Country’s Good; the tale of 18th century convicts shipped to Australia and one officer’s whim to put on a play. And, like everything Matthews does, she’s gone into it full heartedly with the mountains of research to prove it.
Nadia Fall called me – she said she knew of my work over the last few years, but especially because of the radio show that I programme – and said ‘Come and have a chat about this play that I’ve been asked to direct.’ I knew and absolutely adored the play; the ethos of it, the redemptive quality of art and the need to have equal rights and so forth are really close to my heart. We met up and I said ‘Yes please.’
When the children were in school and my husband was in work, I would go upstairs where I write and just start playing with ideas. The play is so well respected, it still resonates and it will continue to resonate throughout the centuries because these are issues that don’t, unfortunately, go away – migration, inequality and the redemptive quality of art – so it was just a privilege to try and add music to it.
I didn’t want to make it a big song and dance production. It had to be very subtle because the play is so competent and powerful in itself. When I read it again, my mind kept wandering back to the southern states of America, the injustices that still go on there and the prison system there. I used that as an inspiration, as well as traditional songs from the old country. I’ve always been fascinated in the history of songs and how they respect no borders and survive way longer than any one human can survive. I felt that it was apt. They’re very simple but they’re very deep.
The first thing I did was to go into the back catalogue of songs that might have been sung in the era the play is set [in the late 18th century]. There were some very bawdy songs! A lot of sea songs, shanties and love songs, so that set the template for me. That fascinates me, trying to turn back the clock musically: What were convicts listening to? What would they have sung when they’d been stuck on the seas for eight months? What would have been comfort to them?
I brought [folk duo] Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker along to the project. Josienne Clarke has that voice that has the power to almost hark back to our ancestors, you can trickle back over centuries and it’s exactly what was needed. She’s an incredible song writer and I knew there were two songs in her back catalogue that I thought were perfect for the play. We’ll see two of Josienne’s songs during the play, as well as songs that I’ve written and other traditional songs as well.
I think we’re spoilt rotten in this day and age having so much available at our fingertips with the internet. My huge admiration goes out to people that went out with a ton of electronic equipment and walked into tribal areas across continents of Africa and America, and did all those field recordings, spent their lives dedicated to collecting and researching songs for us. We lucky modern humans can just tap in.
The first thing the company did together were the workshops. I’ll tell you right away, that was probably the most exciting moment in my career so far. To be not just a fly on the wall, but part of a team of people that were bringing this great play to life. Watching Nadia and the actors at work was astonishing. This is the National Theatre, these guys are at the top of their game.
This play is about art being redemptive and that has definitely been the case in my life. I’m going to the House of Lords to talk about the BBC. I just feel like it’s part of civilisation to enable all walks of life easy access to art, easy access to unbiased information. I lived in America for six years: you want to see the alternative to having the BBC? Go to America. People have no information, no education and they’re absolutely exploited. That is all because the information isn’t out there for them, easily accessible. That is all part and parcel of education and information that we take for granted in the BBC.
I don’t think it’s political. I don’t think that [the government] need to be blinded by the ideology, I think they just need to realise that the BBC is what is great in Great Britain. It enables us to have a presence in the world that is a positive and it is a part of our culture. I think if we’re part of a cuts generation that is going to weaken it so much that it doesn’t exist for future generations, then we are going to be the biggest fools.
At this point, home for me is Ladbroke Grove in London. That’s why it’s such a thrill to come to the National Theatre in London to work, right on the Thames. It’s a magical part of the world. I like being a small fish in a big pond. I’ve travelled all my life and I’ve never felt that settled, but I’m settled now thanks to having children and living here in London and doing what I do for work. But it doesn’t mean that my upbringing in Wales hasn’t had a huge amount of influence on me. I think wherever you were brought up as a child will always have a special place in your heart, but I’ve always been a bit of a wandering person. As soon as I was legally able to I left home, I went to Spain to find out about gypsy guitar playing and Flamenco. I’ve always been as interested in my own culture as other cultures and that continues.
I’m fascinated by the fact that we all think we’re so different and yet we all still have these same hankerings. We all need a home and we all need to feel safe and we all find certain songs do something to you; those sounds might sound different on the surface but actually they all have the same effect.
I think you can say an awful lot of truth without making things too complicated, and that’s what the play does so beautifully, so I’ve stuck to simple instruments. It’s not really strictly speaking historically correct – we’ve got an electric guitar – but I want people to imagine that these instruments and these musicians could have been on this ship arriving in Australia, I didn’t want to make it too sophisticated or too modern, I wanted it to be really rooted.
I think I’m so lucky – and I never take it for granted – to be able to at this point in my life step away from the performance element and be part of the production. To work on finding the right song, finding the right musician and working hand in hand with someone like Nadia, it’s an absolute thrill.