Wendy Matthews Greatest Steps
Sanity Magazine Issue 10, April 1999
by Christie Eliezer
Wendy Matthews and her band were rehearsing in Sydney for a four-month period. Wendy is pretty self-disciplined anyway(she does not drink) but she prepares for the road by cutting down smoking and switching to herbal tea.
Before a show, she meditates. The idea is to create a mood where whatever happens in the musik magik, she doesnít get in the way be forcing things to happen.
The tour, behind Wendy's new greatest hits album Stepping Stones (BMG) last until July. The album includes 16 gems, including "Let's kiss (like angels do)", "Token angels", "Friday's child", "Then I walked away", "I don't want to be with nobody but you". There are two new tracks, both covers - Kris Kristofferson's "I've got to have you" and "These streets", which was written by Christine Anu and her producer David Bridie.
Although she comes across as a strong and intense singer onstage, other musicians say they like to travel with Wendy. She is well read and intelligent. She has a great sense of humour, and had them in stiches with her mimicry. In fact, she got to do her first jingle when Coke wanted someone who could adopt a Donna Summer sound. When she laughs, her green-grey eyes light up.
In fact that good natured mimicry was a reason why she ended up moving to Sydney from North America. In 1993 she was in Los Angeles, roller blading with Jack Nicholson, playing in short-lived bands, doing sessions and backup vocals for Cher, Bryan Ferry, Donna Summer and the Alpha Band. She lived in a house with some Australians and, through them, got to know Little River Band and Australian Crawl when they passed through. "They were very down to earth, the opposite of how successful people in Los Angeles behave because they're so hungry for it. Australians keep you honest and things in perspective."
Glen Shorrock asked her to tour as a backing vocalist on some solo Aussie dates. "I arrived with $400 in my pocket," she remembers. "But then again, I was going to pay my way on tour, and I didn't expect to stay more than two months. But again I made a choice through instinct. I was happier and healthier here, and Australia was more to my taste and sensibilities."
Much of Wendy's career has worked on spontaneity. She's not ambitious nor is she known as a risk-taker: simply, she intuitively senses when the time is right for a project. It took her 13 years before she made her first "real" album.
She was born in Quebec, Canada and her schooling was done in French although she spoke English at home. Her father's family had originally come from Scotland, her mother's side include Spanish, French Cajun and Native American. Her father was an artist and photographer, at one time a graphic designer with Canada's largest advertising agency. Her mother taught disabled children through music, both had been '60s radicals who had an enlightened attitude to life, attended political rallies and taught their kids to make decisions early.
A grandfather who played harmonica taught her Scottish folk songs. As a kid, she remembers, she'd sing along to discs by dramatic singers like Aretha Franklin, Patsy Cline, Odetta and Barbra Streisand, with her brothers banging on her bedroom door telling her to shut up. When she was 14, her parents divorced. A year later she joined the Lenny Benny Blues band, lying about her age to get into the club.
She began busking. She had intended to do for a weekend to play in West Canada. Instead on a whim she kept going, through the U.S. to Mexico, and back to L.A. Her powerful vocals and perfect pitch go her noticed.
A New York producer offered her a great deal of money to make a dance record: she passed when she heard he was actually a Florida alligator farmer. Sessions also got her noticed in Japan - she did the first Sony Walkman ad - so she wen to Tokyo for a time and cut a couple of nondescript jazz albums before returning to L.A.
After her move to Sydney, she found a lot of work in sessions. She did ads for Coca-Cola, L.J. Hooker Real Estate, CC's corn chips, Sportsgirl clothes and Qantas, among many. It was lucrative, and she could soon charge $2,000 and ad. She also sang backup on albums by Glenn Shorrock, Jimmy Barnes, Tim Finn, Richard Clapton, Icehouse, Noiseworks, Models (she and Models' singer Sean Kelly were romantically linked for almost ten years) and, in 1987 joined the Rockmelons. Eventually long time friend Ricky Fataar, the Beach Boys drummer turned producer, talked her into cutting the solo album Emigre. It sold 100,000 and "Token angels" (written and produced by Berlin keyboard player Roger Mason) went Top 10.
Q Was your version of "Token angels" similar to the way Roger presented it to you?
A "Yes, a friend of ours had just died, and it was the first time either of us had lost someone close. We spoke a lot about it and from these conversations came the song."
Q Did the sessions to your own album go much easier than expected?
A "Easier. I was just glad that I was working with friends I'd known for a long time. There was a naivety, for want of a better word, there. I didn't see the big picture. I was just happy I was finally making a record myself. I didn't see past a second album or even the fact I could tour."
The follow up album Lily (1992) was made with another old friend, T-Bone Burnett, in Los Angeles. Before recording it, Wendy had returned the Canada and discovered her heritage with her mother.
Q When Michael Stipe discovered he had Native American blood, it explained to him why he could sit for hours in total silence, and that he did not feel the need to communicate verbally.
A "Exactly! It's a fantastic feeling to learn why it happens."
Q Do you sit for hours without feeling the need to communicate?
Lily proved to be a monster. It sold 200,000 copies, and put her into the world of glossy magazines, highbrow newspapers and industry awards. Lily was released worldwide, and Wendy and her band toured the world. One bright moment was a spectacular show at the Sydney Opera House.
Q What was the effect of that kind of success?
A "I remember the pressure. Things really changed. I had more work and less free time. I felt a lot of pressure form friends and relations. As wonderful as that time was, I missed a lot of it because I was too busy worrying."
Q Were there days when you didn't want to get out of bed?
A "Absolutely. To me, sometimes, touring goes against the grain of music. To know from now until the end of July, to get up there and sparkle no matter what I feel like. You want to have a special relationship with audiences when you do, and it is disturbing that there may be the odd occasion when you don't feel like it. But as the old cliche goes, it bites you when you start."
Q Was it a good testing point - did you value fame over love?
A "To me it brought up - and still does, with age and time and life - that it depends on what's important and what lasts after a few years. I've sacrificed relationships, family and children. Now I think those things are important, they change with different times, I guess."
Q Unlike many rock love songs, your's are about being true to one person. Did that strike a chord?
A "Don't know. That's how I relate to it. If you're true to yourselfand what you're trying to say. To me all there is to life and love. Obviously people could relate to that kind of sentiment."
Q Dolores from the Cranberries was saying that jealousy to he success came primarily from women.
A "It's extraordinary. To me, all you have to do to be a victim in this world is to be born a women. I'm not talking about becoming a victim. This is such a patriarchal world, and for women to turn on each other, it's so sad because it's the last thing that needs to be done."
The Witness Tree album was recorded in San Fransisco with Booker T, and contains songs by Tim Finn and Don Walker. The spirit is secular gospel, celebrating and uplifting, the themes about love, family and a relationship with nature. The album title came form a story Wendy's mother told her, that the beautiful upright pine trees near there home in Canada were Holy People who had come back as trees to stand witness for hundreds of years. There were stirring Celtic songs, self penned numbers like "Standing strong" and a rendition of Edwin Hawkin Singers' 1970 gospel hit "O happy day".
"I loved the celebratory feeling of it. It was interesting working on our version because Booker got in the children of the Edwin Hawkins Singers. It was such a thrill to me. I think mine has the same feeling and energy of the original."
Q What did you think of the reaction from some audiences?
A "Unfortunately it was thought of as 'she found religion', which was disappointing that people didn't take it any further or see any other possibilities. I've never been religious. Spirituality and all its facets have fascinated, me I've found great strength. But it was a spiritual yearning more than religious conversion. It was the last thing on my mind."
Q With words as "hippie" and "new age" used to describe the lyrics, did you regret expressing yourself?
A "Yes (laughs) but at the end of the day you say, I'm trying to be an artist in my own right, and part of it is being vulnerable and allowing yourself to say what you believe." Ghosts (1997), which she co-produced, took another step to expressing her identity. It looked back at childhood.
Q Did you realise your parents' divorce left a deeper mark on you?
A "The tangible results of childhood is delayed reaction as far as I could. In my 30s I see so much of my parents' sensibility coming out in me. It hasn't been my choice. I see some much of my mother in myself. Luckily she was a role model for me, an exceptional human being, who taught me so much. We don't have a traditional mother/daughter relationship although at some points in my life, I needed a mother more than a best friend. But itís all relative."
Q Were you surprised how much angst there was in the songs?
A "Yes although not really surprised, because I'd been exploring that stuff for some years prior. I knew it was there but I sometimes got disheartened by all the feelings it was evoking !"
Q What other ways do you express yourself?
A "I do mosaics, where you cut up little tiles and do big pictures and table tops. I've always painted and done jewellery making."
Q On the cover of your album, there's a picture of you as a kid. What do you remember of that?
A "I'm in a tutu. I'm four years old. I did ballet until I was 15 or 16. I remember a nice warm feeling of calm because it was snowing outside that day."
Q What's the expression in your eyes?
A "Innocence and enthusiasm."
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