Just over ten years ago, Cerys Matthews was travelling the world as a rock star, living out of a tour bus and enjoying all the perks of the lifestyle.
Catatonia, the band she fronted, had had a string of hits and Matthews made the most of it while it lasted. But would she want to return to those days? Never.
The last decade has seen her reinvent herself and at 43, she’s happier than she’s ever been before, with a brood of five kids, her second husband (and manager) Steve Abbott and an enviably varied career that includes BBC 6 Music presenter, children’s author and literary judge.
“I feel I’m totally middle-aged now and I love it,” she says in her earthy Welsh brogue.
“There’s something incredibly freeing about being at this stage of your life. Instead of being obsessed with what it is to be a 20-something in the world, you become much more interested in what you can do to make everything okay for people around you, as well as yourself.”
When Catatonia disbanded, Matthews was burnt out and keen to draw a line under that stage of her life.
She promptly moved to Nashville, Tennessee. “It could have been Memphis and for a time it was going to be Mississippi. I’ve always loved traditional songs and world music and from a musical point of view, America is essential. I loved it so much I stayed.”
For a few minutes she’s lost in reverie: “You get a car, drive to these backwater areas, catch people singing traditional songs on small stages, eat catfish, watch the haze on the Delta…”
It was in America she met and married her first husband Seth Riddle, a musician with whom she has two children. The breakdown of their relationship remains a regret.
“One hopes you learn from mistakes like that. It’s not the ideal. But it’s a reality of the modern world that you have these broken families.
“I’ll always be sad about it but hopefully these mistakes don’t get made again. This is it with Steve. There’s no way I’m going through a divorce again.”
When she eventually returned to the UK it was with a heavier heart but a renewed passion for music of all varieties.
Matthews describes herself as a collector of songs and poems and there’s something of the anthropologist about her as she breathlessly enthuses about everything from “Polish lobster-scratching songs” to her love of Petula Clark.
She recently met a Somalian taxi driver who recited an old praise poem while they made their way to their destination.
“I loved it. It reminded me of a praise poem from the 6th century in Wales. I love how there are so many things that unify us. In art, you see what links us rather than the languages and culture that divide us.”
She’s become one of the biggest draws of BBC 6 Music’s Sunday shows where she plays a varied and fascinating range of music from all over the world, interspersed with anecdotes and stories.
“It’s such a pleasure to be able to share these things. Being in a successful band is brilliant but you’re expected to stick to your hits.
“Happily now I’m able to do what the heck I want. People seem to love the eclectic nature of the show and I think there’s a need for it – there’s nothing else like it.”
The show has led to a number of BBC TV and radio documentaries; Cerys on poetry; on Cuba; on early blues players – even fishing.
She makes an informed and endearing host, enthusiastic about her subjects and thirsty for more knowledge.
“Travel’s important to me and I find people endlessly fascinating… on top of that, you get to try the local brew and the food. It’s like a drug, travelling. You always want more.”
The Christmas show she brings to the Old Market tonight is a showcase of her treasures – covers of Dylan and Leadbelly, Johnny Cash and Elvis alongside American folk songs and other tunes “brimming with history and stories and female perspectives”.
“I’ve been collecting these songs for over 20 years so it’s a lovely opportunity to dip into the song book and bring them out.”
She’ll even revisit a few Catatonia numbers. “I gave them a break for ten years but now it feels okay. It wasn’t that I got sick of them but there’s a time and a place for everything and I felt I didn’t want to go back there without having moved on.
“Now it’s quite nice. I can go back and visit these songs without them being drenched in the emotions of the time.”
Songs are the subject of her second children’s book next year – although, she corrects me, the book is for people of all ages, a songbook of “the most hummable, sing-able, play-able songs for anyone who fancies a sing and can’t remember the words”.
It follows her debut last year, a collection of stories based on her beloved Welsh legends. Matthews had spent so much time reading – and yawning over – children’s books with her own brood she felt she could do a little better.
Was singing a big part of her own childhood? “Oh, there was too much singing in our house,” she guffaws. “My mum’s got a horrible voice! My father tries to sing opera. I’m one of four children and everyone thought they could sing but we’re not a musical family.”
Singing is a rare treat with her own children – they’re more interested in learning to play the guitar she says.
“Though we get on it in the car sometimes. I’m a bit of a Nazi when it comes to what we play. I’ve made them quite snobbish and opinionated!”
These are the things that make her happy now – hanging out with her children, finding a brilliant new record (“There’s a great shop in Memphis called the Shangri-La where you can get a good barbeque pork sandwich while you browse!”) and meeting interesting people.
“As you get older you have more freedom to do more interesting things I think. You meet good people and that’s what life’s about, whatever you do.”
She pauses. “I’m a country girl really. I went fishing the other day, caught myself two grayling and came home with a pocket full of mudbugs and a pheasant! It was a feast, especially when the rest of your family are vegetarians.”
She cackles again. “I’m sitting there like Henry VIII… couldn’t be happier.”
- Cerys Matthews performs at The Old Market, Hove at 8pm tonight, For tickets call 01273 201801 or visit www.theoldmarket.com