Punters thinking about shelling out for a ticket to The Wonderful World of Cerys Matthews this weekend are being tantalised with the promise of a genre-hopping journey taking in flavours of rock, blues, jazz, country and world music.
Backed by a rich cast list of players from all different walks of musical life, the former Catatonia frontwoman’s “one-off special” Sunday night concert will see her become one of the first big names to play Mareel.
Matthews said she “jumped at the chance” to be involved in the opening season for the long-awaited £12 million venue’s arrival. She is effectively bookending the three months of celebrations, returning a few days before Christmas for another date as part of her solo Cerys by Candlelight tour.
“I think it’s really important that every community gets access to a good theatre, and a thriving theatre where you get performers from all over the world,” she told The Shetland Times ahead of her visit. “Every time I tell people I’m going up to Shetland, people say ‘oh my God, I’ve always wanted to go there’.”
Musicians joining her on stage include clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh and British-born duo Liz and Sarah Liew, described as offering a “dynamic fusion of electric violins and electronic beats”. The violinist pair have worked with artists including Moby, Gnarls Barkley, Goldfrapp and Boy George.
Poet, author and musician Musa Okwonga, bassist and composer Neil Charles, Cardiff-based Tennessean orchestral arranger and musician Mason Neely and multi-instrumentalist Frank Moon are also taking part in the ambitious project.
The show will include a broad mix of covers, including material originally performed by Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Sydney Bechet, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, as well as some of Matthews’ solo tracks and numbers from her Catatonia days. She also promised that at least one Scottish tune will feature.
The guests will be appearing as soloists during impromptu, free performances in the cafe bar during the day – where they will take questions from the audience between pieces – and together in the evening. A free workshop is being held between noon and 2pm.
Matthews stressed that the concert would be “accessible, enjoyable, not too avant garde – just beautiful music played a little bit differently”.
“We’ll get together, play separately, enjoy mixing it up – it’s such a fresh format, not having it so controlled,” she said.
The idea sprung partly from her new life as a radio presenter for BBC6 Music, where she has been able to share her “very large, eclectic record collection”.
“On the radio show I’ve been able to play stuff ranging from Mississippi to Ethiopian, traditional music to brand new releases and then also a little bit of trivia and poetry,” Matthews said.
Catatonia hit the big time in the late 1990s, with million-selling LP International Velvet spawning chart hits with Mulder and Scully and Road Rage, with Matthews rolling her Rs to memorable effect.
Since the band broke up, Matthews has had three children, appeared on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… in 2007 and been involved in all manner of projects.
In addition to five solo albums, starting with 2003’s folk record Cock-a-Hoop, she has become quite involved in the literary world and is an ambassador for the Dylan Thomas Society. The Welsh singer has also made television documentaries on subjects including Cuba and the Mississippi river.
“After being in a band for 10 years it was time to spread my wings and go somewhere else,” she said.
“I was lucky enough to travel the world … but it was nice to come to a point where I was used to sitting in one place for more than two nights. I have so many other different interests than just getting on stage – I write, read, enjoy learning about the world, gardening, fishing … you need to nourish your brain.”
Freed from the strain of night-to-night touring and having given up smoking, Matthews believes she “sings much better now”. Tracks like last year’s single Sweet Magnolia showcase a softer, gentler vocal tone, though she promises that “the range is still there – live you can still hear the whole scope”.
She began collecting songs at the age of nine and listened to lots of traditional Welsh language songs from a young age, so has always been “very comfortable and familiar with the roots element of songs”.
“I love the social history, the stories of people, hearing the voice of a girl talking to me from 200 years ago, because quite often that voice is hidden in history.”
Matthews is part of a growing trend – started by Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour – for musicians to take to the airwaves as presenters. She began appearing on BBC6 in 2008, gets “complete control” over everything played and featured on her show, and describes it as a “real thrill” to share lesser known songs with like-minded music fans.
This week she was involved in a Q magazine shoot with fellow BBC6 presenters, Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker and Elbow singer Guy Garvey, which was “quite amusing – we’re characters, we’ve all got our own little idiosyncrasies”.