I feel very lucky, as I was born and brought up in south Wales, amid people with a very natural, open-armed approach to literature and the oral tradition of poetry and music – the bards, rhythms and strict-metre poetry. Storytelling is part of life.
In Welsh-language primary school, the love of sounds and turns of phrase is always around you. I can’t remember learning maths or science or biology without there being a story or some kind of song to go with it. Storytelling wasn’t defined as some sort of academic endeavour, it was a way of enjoying the world.
This Celtic tradition of telling stories was thought to have shamanistic powers. If you go back to the Mabinogion, the ancient Welsh tales were almost like soap operas, and would leave you on a cliffhanger. And then there were other tropes, like repetition – those endless names of all the warriors that the crowd would know and would wait to see if the storyteller would forget one or miss one out.
Two favourites from my neck of the woods are the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, about a mystical woman who lived in the lake. A farmer’s son fell in love with her and she gave birth to three sons (who later became known as the Physicians of Myddfai), but when her husband was rough with her, she returned to the lake and took all of the farm animals with her. The second story, Cantre’r Gwaelod, is about an ancient sunken kingdom off the coast of west Wales. The story goes that the guy looking after the sluice gates got drunk, didn’t hear the warnings for the storm, and the whole community was lost. Of a quiet night, it is said, you can hear the bells of the old church beneath the waves… and when you drive by on the coastal road you can just imagine it. Later on, I was really happy to be involved with retelling these stories for children by creating two books in one, so you read one story, then flip it over and the other story starts.
Telling stories like these that are hooked into the landscape brings perspective, an idea of belonging and a sense of responsibility – you feel so small in the giant cog of time, but you get to know the remarkable aspect of the land, and imagine these stories connected to other human beings. It is humbling but also empowering. And whichever culture you are from, there will be these stories. You can be whisked away by a magic that’s not just entertaining but full of wisdom.
As a child being read books – and then as an adult reading to your own children – you learn to love other stories. Those books are, in a way, better than a photograph because they take you back to that moment as a child. I keep a scruffy copy of a favourite childhood book my mum used to read to me; the title in English is Mum will you make one for me?, and it’s about a mother who is pregnant and the dad puts a glass window in her tummy so the little boy can watch his sibling growing. Those feelings just stay with you forever.
On my new album, where I worked with 10 British poets, there is a poem by Raymond Antrobus called Happy Birthday Moon, about his dad reading him a story. Being born profoundly deaf, he couldn’t hear the words, he just watched his father’s finger running along the lines. His poem captures that untouchable moment where this incredible exchange is happening.
In many languages – from Hebrew to Welsh – there is one word for both poem and music, and in my mind it makes sense; both are ways of communicating or telling stories. Bob Dylan is the ultimate storyteller among musicians. The Beatles were brilliant too – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “Eleanor Rigby”. Another great example is “Green Green Grass of Home”, which was sung by Tom Jones; the prota-gonist is in prison, singing from his cell, dreaming of the green grass of home. In these stories, you take somebody into a different world. For my radio shows [on BBC 6 Music], I playlist from the top to the end as I want it to be an aural journey; you have to take the ear along with you.
I see myself as a kind of butterfly collector of stories. The world is full of so many interesting, beautiful recordings and texts and poems and writings and prose and books. I think of the Victorian idea of flitting around, finding these things and sharing them – I like the idea of that.
Cerys Matthews’ album We Come From the Sun, with Hidden Orchestra and 10 Poets, is released on Decca in January
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