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Cerys Matthews Interview: 'Aghast' At A Classroom Without Singing, Former Catatonia Singer Publishes Music Book

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"Without music my life would be a dull place, I'm an obsessive, for me music is like cooking," Cerys Matthews (right) tells us.

The lilting welsh tones of the singer-songwriter have been on our airwaves since 1991, from the crooning sounds of Catatonia to her exploration of musical history and culture in her award-winning BBC Radio 6 show. Now Matthews is channelling her creativity into print with a "recipe book for music".

Hook, Line & Singer explores some of the oldest songs from social history, with some familiar titles: Three Blind Mice, spanning back to 1609, Greensleeves from around 1580 and the more modern Nellie the Elephant from 1956.

Matthews has collected, sung and played traditional songs throughout her life, starting with one of her earliest memories of driving with her family in Pembrokeshire. Whilst navigating the country lanes, an enormous sow jumped from a tractor's trailer, broke its leg and trotted away for freedom. What was there to do for the Matthews family, other than burst into a rendition of Mochyn Du (Black Pig)?

With a song for nearly every occasion, Matthews wants readers to "leave your shyness at the door and get singing" whilst exploring the history of music with over 100 songs spanning thousands of years.

Appearing on Channel 4 this week, the singer got presenter Jon Snow to mumble along to You Are My Sunshine. Snow's shyness may not have been left at the studio door...

Hook, Line & Singer (left) features musical scores, lyrics, historical contexts for each song and stylishly simplistic Victorian illustrations. With short chapter introductions revealing personal insights from Matthews' life and experiences, the hardback has the no-nonsense and practical approach of a cookery book. More suited to a coffee table or classroom, than the kitchen, there should be less risk of food stains.

"Life itself supplies you with the best of soundtracks," Matthews writes in the introduction. What about the soundtrack to her life right now? Matthews tells us that one song sums up 2013 so far - the catchy 60s Batman Theme Song, a current favourite with her children. The theme tunes' memorable repeated phrase of 'Batman' is the musical 'hook', whilst the riff promises excitement: "Na na na na na na na na .. BATMAN ..".

The simple song has the potential to last decades, perhaps centuries, sung by enthusiastic children in the playground as they play caped crusaders. It is this admiration of the durability of music that is the driving force behind Hook, Line & Singer.

"I'm a king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal," Matthews sings in her best girlish playground voice, "Roman children would sing that song - that fact absolutely floored me. Essentially, we humans haven't changed much. The children in the future will still be singing these old songs."

Songs of old weren't driven by the commercial motivation to produce entertainment to make money, Matthews explains, they had a higher purpose. "There's so much social history in these songs, they were used to inform or warn people, they helped knit societies together. Oh My Darling Clementine was essentially a warning to not give ladies red wine near water. He [the narrator] gives Clementine red wine and she falls in the water… he's not a swimmer and can't save his Clementine."

Certainly practical advice that applies to present day. Matthews was inspired to include the song when she experienced her own Clementine-moment when living in Nashville, Tennessee. Whilst strolling along a lake pontoon surrounded by tipsy revellers in half boats, she passed a rowdy group enjoying rum. She saw a woman wobble on the edge of her half boat, fall into the water and not come back up to the surface. When none of the woman's friends noticed, Matthews fished the woman out of the water.

"I put her back on to the boat, she got up, like Bambi, and then that was it. No one had noticed because they were just so drunk! These songs unlock memories … they remind you of silly, fun, or harrowing incidents. Like the dangers of drinking near water!"

Many of Matthews' collected songs are memorable from childhood days, nursery rhymes that many of us don't remember learning, but they're stored deep inside. "I'm going to take my guitar and book to my children's school and we're going to have a bloody good sing-song, because it's the best feeling in the world. The best time you can ever have with music is if you make your own music. I feel very privileged to have gone to a Welsh school where we took music for granted and sang… my school offered me a recorder at the age of five, and that was it, that was me hooked."

Music education is changing - the core national curriculum is set for radical reform as Education secretary Michael Gove's plans to replace GCSE exams with EBacc. Some say this will kill creativity in schools, as arts subjects become deprioritised. "Personally, I'm absolutely aghast and horrified at the idea that children up to the age of 11 will not be able to have music in their schools - Michael Gove has suggested that's the way to spend money, that is absolutely ridiculous." Matthews says firmly. "All children, of all means, of all places, creeds, sex, shapes and sizes need to have music up to the age of 11 in their primary schools. It's a way of opening up the world to children, helping them feel part of society and it's a feel-good activity. I know what it feels to be hungry for music, I was one of those children."

So what next for the musical virtuoso? As a singer, songwriter, broadcaster, reality TV star and author, is there an ambitious tick-list of achievements in her mind? "You got one life," she muses, "the world is an infinitely interesting place."

What about the name often on people's lips when meeting Matthews, the fondly remembered Catatonia? Is there any chance of a reunion, a one-off concert for fans? There is one single and direct answer to that: "No."

Having previously thrown water on any suggestion of rekindling the band that brought us Mulder and Scully and Road Rage, it seems Matthews is not one for looking to the musical past, unless its worthy of cultural heritage. In which case, there's space for it in volume two of Hook, Line & Singer.

Hook, Line & Singer is published on 6 June from Penguin Books.

cerys matthews hook line and singer

Cerys Matthews with her book Hook, Line & Singer at The Hay Festival 2013, Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales