A beer with... Cerys Matthews
Matt and Gordon chat beer and music with Cerys Matthews
Gordon | 12 Sep 2018
Cerys at the Good Life Experience
Cerys Matthews (MBE) is a singer-songwriter, radio and TV presenter, author and co-founder of The Good Life Experience. I’ve been a fan of hers since she fronted Catatonia back in the early 90s and I’ve been listening to her radio show on BBC 6 Music pretty much every single Sunday for the last ten years. So when Matt and I found ourselves in the front room of her West London home on a rainy Friday afternoon, well, I was more than a little star struck. Matt was too but he was playing it way more cool than me. We needn’t have been worried because her opening words put us right at ease...
I’m a huge fan of what you are doing. First of all, I’ve always loved beer.
Phew. With that we are straight into a story. It turns out that she has some experience at making beer.
In my family they’ve got this secret mead recipe. It’s not actually mead; it’s beer. A malt beer from Pembrokeshire. So when I was younger one of my stand out memories was, every year, we used to make home brew in an old clothes boiling thing with the old dolly and my mum’s tights to put the hops in! The malts... and the smell... and the bubbles of the yeast. I just remember it overflowing on many occasions. The smell was great. We were used to the smell because of growing up in Cardiff and Brain’s Brewery. You either love it or you loathe it and I kinda love it.
But, as we all know, the thing about home-brew is that it can go a bit wrong.
Then one Christmas, and this is the stand out memory, [the home-brew beer] became, for whatever reason, super strong. This was a type of beer that you would warm up with a little teaspoon or two of brown sugar and then give to your guests in mugs or pyrex glasses. I think we counted eight people sick that night through over indulgence, including my father who we had to be put to bed for the first time ever. It’s a standout memory because it was absolutely outrageous. It was hilarious. My dad collapsed in front of the fire with lay lady lay playing on the speakers and my mum and I had to carry him up to bed. I was a child so that was pretty hardcore. That’s why it’s so ingrained. My father hates me telling that story.
The Good Life Experience site
So how old were you when you had your first sip of that?
Oh I would have been pretty young. Because in the making of it you have to taste it to see how it’s getting on. You know my mum’s always included us in the cooking and that includes making beer as well. That was quite funny. That’s my first memory of well made beer.
We weren’t going to argue whether this really was “well made beer” or not. The good news is that it didn’t put Cerys off beer. The more we got to chat the more it became clear that she knows her beer. A recent trip to Germany left Cerys with an appreciation of the Reinheitsgebot. Having spent some time living in Nashville, Cerys was familiar with the explosion of smaller craft breweries state-side too. So when she suggested on her Sunday morning radio show that it was harder to get good beer in the UK... the sort of beer that didn’t punish you the day after with a “screwdriver headache”, there was quite a reaction.
I was inundated with people screaming at me going “NO you’re wrong... you can get great beer in Britain. Craft beer is everywhere!” My point was that you can’t go to bog standard indie clubs and expect to get a great beer. You still can’t. That was my point but it was really good to see the passion that people in this country have for beer and the change that is happening.
It’s an enthusiasm that Cerys shares across a wide variety of subjects from gramophone recordings to early jazz photography. And beer. It turns out that Cerys is passionate about good beer and the wider rise of “boutique makers”. From gin to cheese we got the impression that Cerys sees this renaissance as going some way to address the growing gap between us and our food. This leads us nicely on to talk about The Good Life Experience, a three day festival that takes place each September in Hawarden, Flintshire. The festival was founded in 2014 by Cerys along with her husband and in partnership with Charlie and Caroline Gladstone.
That essence of what makes craft beer so great... is what you are trying to capture at The Good Life?
Yes, it’s joining the dots back up again. We’ve come so far and the pace of life is so fast. The distance between our life and the food we eat [she pauses and shakes her head]. Newer generations have no idea of where their meat comes from; how yoghurt or butter is made; making fires or climbing trees. So with the festival one of the main impetuses of it was to really say “stop being a consumer” to a certain degree. Or at least to stop being an unaware consumer and be part of the story. That’s the main gist of it. It makes it unique from other festivals. I don’t want someone to just buy a ticket and be entertained by performers and have this smoke and mirror thing with celebrity and all the rest of it. I want this to be like we’re in it together and if you want to have a go at things then you have a go.
There’s no VIP area at The Good Life Experience. There’s music and poetry and celebrity cooks doing their thing over open fires. There are a bunch of small brands who are working really hard to do their own thing with a lot of integrity. You can learn new skills from spoon carving to lighting a campfire without any matches. Then there’s a bunch of really eclectic speakers… it’s the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve listened to a talk on Dylan Thomas whilst I was having breakfast. Yeah, we’re always pretty chuffed to get asked to be there to hold beer tastings.
Matt and Gordon, beer tasting
Our relationship with companies like yours is absolutely curated and with purpose. So that you can just walk through the door and be amazed at the quality and passion of people that are there. And just reconnect basically with how life works. Whatever your interests, there will hopefully be a corner of the field that will really rock your boat.
Matt fell in love with the music of Aldous Harding at last year’s festival. When he mentions this to Cerys words like “immense” and “magical” figure in the ensuing conversation. If you like a bit of alt-folk and stripped back female vocals then her latest album is well worth checking out.
At the first festival I approached Cerys with a BeerBods flyer advertising our talk later that day. Okay so it was a poorly concealed excuse to say hello. But when I told her that our talk consisted of “(free) beer and the story behind it” I noticed that she commented not on the beer being free but the story behind it. I clumsily asked her if the story part was something to do with her being Welsh and the prevalence of oral histories in Welsh culture. But I underestimated what makes Cerys so interested in things.
I am into cooking. I love gardening. I just love life. If you just take away everything else and just look out the window, at anything… [she pauses] even just a piece of moss growing. The tragedy of life is that you forget just how wonderful it is. It’s an absolute miracle. So I always like to find out how things work and the stories behind them.
This gets us onto talking about her radio show, the guests she invites and the stories she gets them to tell. The likes of Tom Brosseau whose music has diversions which resemble soundscapes. Then there’s Terry Cryer who made a fraudulent pass so he could take photographs at an underground jazz venue which later ended up with him being one of the most celebrated photographers of 50s and 60s blues and jazz scene. Or when she spoke with Jack Bruce from Cream and we got to find out what songs his mum would sing to him.
I am genuinely interested in what makes people tick and what interests me most about people is what they were like as a child and what put them on that trajectory. I am not interested in celebrity at all. I am interested in the crossroads they take. The twists and turns.
This brings us onto Cerys and music.
I listen to music and if I like it and I don’t think it’s copying anything [I play it on my show]. I really dislike bad lyrics and I really dislike music that is so self-indulgent that it’s all about the protagonist who is usually the singer songwriter themselves. This counts out about 90% of music actually unless it is really well written.
I am guessing that we get to see something of the mother in Cerys as she laments the current move towards narcissism in the form of “.. the selfie and Instagram culture we live in.” But this is rooted in her taste in music too.
I’m always harking back to less media sophisticated times. You were either entertainers or you were passing the time of day to make it more interesting for you, making music because you loved it… I like my art to be almost an academic thing. What is being authentic? We’re all on camera all of the time now. I like to listen to music that isn’t so aware of itself.
I discover the world through beer… and you do that through music, right?
Definitely. I chose my husband through his record collection essentially. Yes to Bob Dylan but not so much Tom Petty. Yes to Sarah Vaughan but no to Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez and yes to Sandy Denny and Karen Dalton. It was just fine lines between within tiny genres of tiny genres, you know! It was hilarious.
I think my face gave something away when she mentioned not being a fan of Joni Mitchell! She shakes her head at me.
No no that’s what I love about music (and beer). You can’t say to somebody it’s wrong. It’s subjective. It’s to do with your physiology or whatever. Don’t be upset anyone reading this if you like Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. I understand that they’re brilliant but they're not where I end up going. I go other places. I am sure this happens with you and beers and someone goes “oh my god this is a brilliant beer” and you go“hmmm, no”.
We want to know how she chooses music for her radio show and in asking her the question are forced to explain our own top secret method on how we choose beer and the apprehension we feel on a Thursday evening when it’s our choice of beer that week.
I love that so much and that’s exactly how I approach the radio show as well. I know that my taste cannot possibly appeal to everybody but that’s exactly going against the grain of mass programming or production works. Mass production gets rid of the top layer and the bottom layer and goes with the mush in the middle because it won’t offend and it doesn't particularly excite and it will just keep you listening or keep you consuming without thinking. I want to make people think and that’s what you’re doing. Surprise people. Change the tune. And then you can hear or taste different things. It will keep you fresh. That’s how I approach music. I am either really listening or I’d just have silence. You know I can’t have muzak. If I go to a restaurant and no one has thought about the music, I walk out gladly because I think it affects the taste of the food. It effects the night. It’s as important to the restaurant as the food and the service and the decor which everyone always thinks about and then they put a [brand name] in the ceilings and whack on some sort of awful playlist.
We can sympathise as we’ve been known to walk out of supposedly good restaurants because of a poor beer menu. These things matter and Cerys should know as she’s been putting together her Sunday morning radio show on BBC 6 Music for nearly a decade now. Each week she sends us on a musical tangent and we tell her so.
I love it when people say “I never know what to expect but I know I am going to like most of it”. That’s it. I like the fact that all generations listen too. Different factions of families listening on different continents. I love it. And music in different languages.
Beer and music are quite similar. There’s a massive proliferation of both and the choice is better than ever before but people are stuck with the choice. And that’s our job to put the best stuff in front of them. You still need those people who are super passionate about stuff to curate it.
I am loving this comparison between what you do and what I do. I think it’s spot on. Picking music and picking beers.
So how do you find it?
Let me put the question to you then first? Is it because you are always looking for it.
At this point we fess up that about a third of our recommendations come from our customers, a further third from the breweries who contact us directly and a long list of beers and breweries that we each keep makes up the final third.
That sounds pretty similar. I’ve been programming the show for ten years next year. To keep it fresh each week it has to reflect new reissues or brand new releases. So that’s about a third. I get a postal bag of CDs, still on CDs! This is the equivalent of your brewery. A third come from my old favourites or are from a whole network of music fanatics or people who just don’t want just the mainstream.
Finding something new must be the best thing ever?
Finding something great new. Isn’t that great? Life isn’t going to be long enough to taste every good beer and it’s never going to be long enough to appreciate every tune that you need to hear.
At this point a piano starts playing in the other room. We’re guessing that her son’s maths class is over. There’s a conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. What a load of rubbish that is.
The Good Life Experience takes place this weekend on the Hawarden Estate in Flintshire. We'll be there doing talks and beer tastings at the Farm Shop on Saturday, starting at 1PM.
This interview was originally published in our Spring 2017 journal.
Photo credits: Jonathan Cherry, Dave Guttridge, Simon Shoulders