Cerys Matthews: A star is reborn

Cerys Matthews' musical career has been nothing if not eventful - from Britpop binges with Catatonia to redemption in the home of Country. Now, she tells Fiona Sturges, she's moving back to Wales, ready to take on the world again
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Not long ago there was no escaping Cerys Matthews. Her husky, 50-a-day vocals were all over the radio while her boozy social exploits kept gossip columnists and fans entertained. Since the late Nineties, however, the ex-Catatonia singer and erstwhile party queen has come on quite a journey, moving from her native Wales to deepest Tennessee, via Wembley Stadium, the Met Bar and the Priory. In 2003 she married Seth Riddle, a South Carolina-born record producer seven years her junior, with whom she has had two children - Glenys Pearl, who is almost three, and one-year-old Johnny Jones. Now, five years after her swift exit from the limelight, she has decided to move back home and, armed with a new album, is relaunching her singing career.

Matthews has only just arrived back from the United States with her husband, children and most of their worldly possessions, though if she's tired it doesn't show. Dressed in a silk print dress and with her hair tied in bunches, she looks fabulous, a million miles from the Cerys I interviewed three years ago at her home on the outskirts of Nashville. Recently rehabilitated and in the early stages of pregnancy, then she was in an extremely fragile state. For much of our meeting she was like a frightened child, wide-eyed and talking so softly that my tape recorder barely registered her voice. When pressed to talk about her time with Catatonia, her eyes would fill with tears.

But now here she is, all smiles and sunshine. She is taller than I remember and radiates a new confidence. Right now the family are homeless and living out of suitcases in a bland business hotel in London, though Matthews doesn't seem troubled by this. Next week, they will stay with her parents and start looking for their own place. The plan is to settle in Pembrokeshire, where her family are from.

"I want to show the children a bit of my side of the cultural divide. And the people are so cool there," she says. "It'll be nice to let them run around fields and see animals and splash around in the freezing sea." While her love affair with Tennessee is by no means over, she's been homesick for a while. "Nashville is great but it's changing quickly. It's all being developed and becoming more plastic. You fall in love with a place but it takes a while to realise that there's another side that doesn't take your fancy as much."

Never Said Goodbye is in fact Matthews' second solo LP though it is essentially her big comeback album. 2003's Cockahoop, a collection of old and new folk songs, was a deliberately low-key affair, a hit with critics though not a huge seller. This album is a far more commercial proposition, full of big choruses, jaunty guitars and sweet songs about the joys of love, sunshine and the open road.

"Well, my tastes never change and just like I needed to make the last album, I needed to make this one," Matthews states. "I needed it to sound the way it does with the drums and that mad bass-playing and it being a quite uplifting kind of sound, hopefully with a little bit of humour in it, too."

Matthews agrees that she's made a lot of progress since we last met. She is, she says, more "robust", and, despite her current living arrangements, "more settled than ever." Not one for navel-gazing, even she concedes that her two solo works have offered fairly accurate reflections of her shifting psychological state.

"When I did Top of the Pops around Cockahoop I wore a big camouflage jacket. My mum said, 'Oh dear. Why don't you put something else on? You're on telly, for God's sake. You're not hiding from anyone.' That was my mentality then, but it's certainly not like that now. I think the new album speaks for itself. It starts all bold and full of bluster and finishes with a nostalgic trip home. I think I've just come to terms with the fact that I really love performing and I really love huge songs and this is what I should be doing."

Certainly, motherhood and five years in the Tennessee countryside have clearly had a restorative effect both on Matthews and her music. Rather than take her mind off her career, she says her time away has cemented her ambition. "Having children has made me fully understand how much I love music and how much it's part of what I am. The generation I was brought up in led you to believe that family and children were the be-all and end-all. Even if you were brought up in the Sixties and Seventies, being a wife and mother was still the major role of the female. And so in a way I expected all my musical instincts to come to f an end, to feel sated and content. But after Glenys Pearl was born, I wanted to make music even more. There's no history of writing songs in my family and it was always something I felt a little uncomfortable doing. Now, with my husband and children being around and being part of it with me, it feels normal. I just wish that 15 years ago I would have felt this way."

But 15 years ago, Matthews was about to embark on a very different path. Having formed Catatonia with her then boyfriend Mark Roberts in 1990, she became the toast of the Britpop scene. While songs such as "Mulder and Scully" and "Road Rage" scaled the charts, Matthews was worshipped both by women who loved her boisterous joie de vivre and men, who fancied her like mad (in a 1999 Melody Maker readers' poll, she was voted Sexiest Woman in Rock). Soon she had a host of famous fans, among them Tom Jones, with whom she duetted on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and the former US President Bill Clinton, on whose chest she famously laid her head while singing folk songs at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. For several years she lived the high life, loudly proclaiming her love of drinking and going out. Her favourite T-shirt bore the words "fastrisinglagersoakedriproaringpoptart" while her habit of arriving on stage clutching a bottle of Chardonnay became a trademark.

But then came the inevitable meltdown. While countless singers have floundered under the pressures of fame, few have endured such a public disintegration as Matthews. By the summer of 1999 her alcohol intake was beginning to worry the rest of the band. Among her more infamous escapades was when she went missing after a gig in Southampton and woke up the next day in the south of France, with no recollection as to how she'd got there. One journalist joining Catatonia on tour in Australia found them "in the worst state I'd ever seen a band". In the end they cut short the rest of the tour and Matthews fled to a friend's house in Los Angeles for a rest. In 2001, after recording Catatonia's final album Paper Scissors Stone, she left the band, citing "anxiety and exhaustion", and disappeared from sight.

While Matthews is reluctant to go into the details of what was then reported as a breakdown, she's keen to point out that she never lost her love of music. It was the fame that was a problem. So why risk putting yourself back in the spotlight again, I ask. There's a long pause. "Well," she sighs. "I know what happened in the past, but that is in the past, and now I don't know what it's going to feel like. It's different this time, you know. It's a different decade, the world's different and I'm different. I'm making it a family affair. I've spent the past few years having time to forge friendships both professionally and personally and learning how to enjoy that. It wasn't like that before. Then I felt totally alone."

But you often looked as though you were enjoying yourself.

"Well, I couldn't sit still could I? I could stay at home and watch telly when everything was over. It's just the same old bloody cliché isn't it? You play a show every night then you get used to that level of franticness and adrenaline. Then it becomes very difficult to just kick back and watch Big Brother."

Do you remember the first time you felt like you'd lost control? "I think that was the thing," she reflects. "I never did feel particularly in control. I remember playing a gig in Melbourne Park and it had rained that morning. There were thunderstorms. That was quite early on and I remember feeling not quite right. It was just a thought in my mind really, but it took another five years to end the band. It was the beginning of the doubt. There's a certain point in everybody's life when they need to step back and acknowledge a little bit about what they want to achieve. I wasn't able to do that within that band. There was never any time."

The end finally came in 2001 when, Matthews says, "my physical health began to deteriorate so much that I couldn't carry on. That's when I had to stop everything that I was doing, all the drugs I was taking. It came to the point where my asthma got so bad it actually stopped me walking more than 10 steps. So that was it. That was the end of that chapter."

The daughter of Philip, a retired orthopaedic surgeon, and Pauline, a wife and mother who later became a teacher, Matthews was born in Cardiff in 1969, though the family moved to Swansea when she was seven. She was the second of four siblings and had a happy childhood. She was a success academically, though was stung when a school report said she showed no musical promise. "They didn't even teach music," she exclaims. "So from the age of 11, I took up smoking, tattoos, boys, amusement centres. If they had no confidence in me, I thought: 'Well that's that'."

After school there was a series of false starts. For a while she worked behind a bar and on a fruit stall. She went to Spain for a year "to chase the spirit of flamenco guitar playing," but ended up working as a nanny. Back home, she began a course in psychiatric nursing at Middlesex hospital but found it too tough and chucked it in. Whatever she did, she always found herself coming back to music.

The first time Matthews became aware of the effect of her singing voice on other people, she was nine years old and sitting in a tent in her parents' garden. She sang "All My Trials", a mournful song about a woman contemplating suicide, originally recorded by Joan Baez. Hearing the sound of clapping, she unzipped the tent to find a delighted crowd had gathered.

Loud, raspy and characterised by elongated Welsh vowel sounds, her voice has since been described as "like a cross between Hi-De-Hi's Ruth Madoc and Marilyn Monroe" (Q magazine) and "like Shirley Bassey puking five pints of Jack Daniels into the Grand Canyon through a megaphone during an earthquake" (NME). It's no wonder that, 28 years after her singing debut, she's still somewhat insecure about it.

"It's very high, I think, and I've always wished that the accent didn't come through so strong. That doesn't seem to happen to other people. You know, my daughter tells me to stop singing all the time. I think it gets on her nerves."

It was "on a whim" that Matthews moved to Nashville following a solo excursion around the southern states. "Going there was a good thing for me because it was like starting again," she says. "There were so many things coming to an end at that point, that it seemed good to go somewhere completely new."

She loved the anonymity of her life there; few people had heard of Catatonia. She met Riddle while out walking a friend's dog one day and the pair felt an instant chemistry. They were married a few months later in Wales. Rather than hiring a flash car, Matthews arrived at the church on the back of a vintage tractor. She is, one imagines, the only celebrity to have had her wedding photos splashed in Hello! and Farming Equipment News.

She insists she's undaunted by what lies ahead, having learned from past experience. Looking back, she describes her career so far as "bittersweet" and has little time for regrets.

"We went all over the world playing this stuff and meeting all these people," she recalls, smiling. "I didn't hate it all of the time but there came a point when it should have ended and it didn't. That's how I see it now. I'm glad that everything has ended up bringing me to where I am today, as clichéd as that sounds. Whatever led me to Nashville, that's a good thing because I met my husband and had my children. Now we're looking at a great future - just me, my family and my music."

The single 'Open Roads' (Rough Trade) is released on 7 August. The album 'Never Said Goodbye' is out on 21 August. Cerys Matthews plays Llangollen Town Hall tonight, then tours