Just call me Duchess

With the face of a pugnacious angel and the kind of voice you only get with a forty-a-day habit, the lead singer of Catatonia is just too fabulously rock and roll. Except that according to her, she's still a girl from the Valleys with a crush on Tom Jones

Cayte Williams
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:02

CERYS MATTHEWS, lead singer of Catatonia, has a reputation. She spits music journalists out for breakfast, drinks men under the table and even when she's tied up to a chair for a magazine photoshoot, she looks like she could knock any interrogator senseless with just one flick of her stilettos. This is the hard girl of pop who once failed to made it to a gig because she was getting drunk in the South of France. I'm expecting the school bully, the girl with the pretty, delicate features, the cobra gaze, and a punch that would rattle your teeth.

So when I see her dressed in black and a camouflage jacket I fear the worst. "Alright?" she says, and fixes me with a steely look. We sit down to lunch with the most perfunctory of exchanges and look at the menu. "I'd like a bottle of red wine," she tells the waiter, "of whatever you recommend, sir." Things are looking up.

Catatonia's single, "Mulder And Scully" shot to number three back in January and Cerys suddenly became a star. It would have been a nice, light, little pop song if it weren't for Cerys. There are four other members of the band (all boys) but she's the one everyone's after. She s blessed with a voice of such emotional range that she can sound breathy, hormonal, livid and seductive in the time it takes Celine Dion to draw a breath. So where did that voice come from? "My sister's got the same voice as me, so I never thought it was anything special," she says in a staccato Welsh accent, revealing perfect white tombstone teeth. "I always wanted to sound like Aretha Franklin."

There's nothing like cutting the ice, so I ask her what her nickname was at school. A friend of a friend told me it was rather rude. She eyes me suspiciously. "It wasn't rude, it was Squeaky," she says coolly, "because I had a really high voice and when I used to get frustrated or excited it would become... squeaky."

Squeaky seems to be adapting to fame quite well. She held her own on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, survived the Record Police on The Adam and Joe Show and has conducted numerous interviews with aplomb. Things haven't always been so rosy. "I was quite a morbid child," she claims. "There was no reason whatsoever to feel that. I used to listen to The Doors, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Billie Holiday. She was quite doomed." Fame, at any rate, hasn't spoilt her. She happily confesses that Woolworths is the best place to get music these days ("They do a lot of compilations of old classics. Smokey Robinson and people like that,") and even admits to liking the Bryan Adams belter "Everything I Do, I Do It For You". But Matthews grew up in Swansea, where the only music stations were Irish radio stations or MOR pap.

"I don't ever want to be burdened by what's in and what's not," she explains, a revelation which could explain Catatonia's mass appeal. Their songs (mostly co-written by Matthews and guitarist Paul Roberts) are loved by tiny teens to thirtysomethings. Their lyrics range from organised crime ("I Am The Mob") to modern hazards ("Road Rage"). "People say we only write about love and sex, and I think ninety per cent of our songs are about those particular passions in life. But we write about internationalism, about longing, about everything... " she trails off with a wave of a Silk Cut. "And I think all of the songs have little bits of interest in them. I take the music seriously but there's no need not to have any humour."

Cerys Matthews has been called many things in her short stardom, including "the duchess of the Welsh council estates", but none of it seems to bother her. She remains both singularly unimpressed and confidently resigned to fame. "They call me Queenie in the band and I like that,"she says with relish, "but I wasn't brought up in a council estate." Nobody wants to believe that though, because Cerys is so perfect as a working-class girl made good. There she is, warts and all, screaming through bad PMT, the anger of betrayal and the joy of sex. She's Janis Joplin without the self- hate and kaftans, Alanis Morrisette without the sleeves-longer-than-her- arms cuteness, Debbie Harry without the discipline. But there's talk that Cerys is cutting down on the alcohol and that she's taking fame seriously. "It's not because of the success," she admits, "but through a fear that I was losing my voice. That put a dampener on things. I don't know how Oasis do it."

She shares a house in Cardiff with sculptor Angharad Jones - a place of wild parties with a back-yard full of sculptures and Cerys's collection of garden gnomes. But it's also a down-to-earth refuge. "We both have a strong need to achieve things," she explains, "we want to try and test things out. Neither of us likes to be told what's the norm, that's the death of imagination."

She nods to someone behind me, and five minutes later another bottle of red wine appears. If this is restraint I dread to think what excess is. "I always wanted to be a singer," she continues. "I know I'm not scared if people say certain things aren't possible. I don't know why I wanted to be a singer, I just know I wanted to do it. It's that magical kingdom you get to through music."

She got closer to her magical kingdom last month when she spoke to Tom Jones via a live satellite on TV. She had performed "The Ballad of Tom Jones", a duet written by Tommy Scott from Space in which they both sing, Sonny-and-Cher style, of their love for Jones the Voice. She describes the conversation as "one of the highlights of my life" and even went on a pounds 1,000 champagne bender afterwards to prove it. She sang the line "I don't throw my knickers at you," with a certain relish; but has she ever been the recipient of that particular Tom Jones experience? "I had Welsh flag boxer shorts thrown at me at a Newport gig," she laughs. "They had `The boys from Maesteg' written on them." Newport is the town that first brought the Welsh music scene to the general public's attention, after Neil Strauss, the rock critic for the New York Times labelled it "the new Seattle".

Matthews is unimpressed. "I thought (the Seattle label) was quite funny," she laughs. "I didn't know what he was trying to say. Were we all on smack or something! I'd never been to Seattle in my life!"

Matthews is actually a bit sick of the whole Welsh cool thing. After all, it's hardly new, it's just been discovered and marketed. U2's The Edge (a certain Mr Davis from Aberystwyth) is about as Irish as a leek and is a cousin of Aled, Catatonia's drummer. But now he can be out and proud too. "Now everybody's got a Welsh dog, do you find?" mocks Cerys, "or a Welsh grandmother!"

The red wine is having the desired effect. "Ey!" she shouts, peering at my notes. "You've got AA Gill there!" She's referring to the Sunday Times restaurant critic whose derogatory remarks about the Welsh have not gone unnoticed. "I'd like to meet him." That would be interesting, the young, hip mouthpiece of Wales clashing head-on with the tired old voice of English snobbery. What would she say to him? "I wouldn't," she says emphatically, folding her arms in defiance. "I'd wait for him to say something. If he's that closed, that's his problem."

But on to lighter things. Matthews is enjoying the trappings of stardom. She saw the Alexander McQueen and Phillip Treacy shows during London Fashion Week, and her wide, blue eyes light up when she talks about clothes. "I need help with my fashion, I think," she confesses of her personal style, which is sort of Nancy Sinatra meets Tank Girl. "Vivienne Westwood is brilliant, but I want the whole spectrum, I want Top Shop as well." She waves her arms around for added emphasis.

We've sunk three bottles of red wine, puffed our way through 40 fags, and her publicist is gently reminding Matthews that a car is waiting outside to take her to a recording studio. "I'm off to record the Ivor Novello song `Keep The Home Fires Burning'," she says very, very slowly. "It's for a new Welsh film called An-thra-cit-us." And off we toddle into the blinding sunlight.

Catatonia play Madstock at Finsbury Park on 7th June

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments