Wendy Matthews, with a little help from God and
X-Press 25 June, 1996
by Polle Coufos
When making each of her three preceding albums, Wendy Matthews says that she was never in the position to find time to actually work on her own songs and so relied on the pens of others to supply material.
On her last LP, The Witness Tree, released in November, 1994, she reached to sources as wide as Elvis and Bach to help create a fascinating work that may have been the boldest attempt by an Australian artist to bring the realm of the religious into the lives of the regular market place. Put simply, it was a gospel album, but curiously her record company, rooArt, went to great pains to make sure that it wasn't promoted as such. When speaking to X-Press Magazine last week, Matthews admitted that some people within the organisation had tried to dissuade her from this potential commercial suicide. - but she remained firm.
"I'm not in charge of promotion that's somebody else's kettle of fish." Matthews told X-Press "I suppose people tend to be scared off by that kind of stuff. Having said that I wasn't trying to make a traditional gospel album at all. I mean I'm very interested in all kinds of spiritual matters, but I'm not a traditionally religious person at all. I don't know ... maybe they got a little bit thrown by that one."
Matthews says that generally speaking the company leaves her to make her albums with little interference. She headed into this gospel wilderness with a very impressive track record. Emigré (1990), Lily (1992) had both sold very well and gathered ARIA Awards along the way, and so it was reasonable that rooArt cut her a little slack. (rooArt's CEO is C.M. Murphy, the former manager of INXS - Ed.)
Her first step was to enlist the help of veteran producer, musician Booker T. Jones. Jones, a most crucial element to the magic created in the crowded Stax studios during the 1960's and producer of Willie Nelson's multi million selling Stardust had worked on Lily and played piano on The Day You Went Away. "We got along very, very well and he's just steeped in music and rhythm and soul. He was the first person I thought of with this slight gospel, for want of a better word, flavoured album, and he was really into it."
Fitting right in with this slight, for want of a better word, gospel album was If I Can Dream, - the song Elvis premiered after he was set free by his Hollywood captors in 1968. While it may not rank as the best song he was ever presented with, his vocal on the recording of the tune stands as one of his greatest achievements. Possibly the only time the King ever truly let go and screamed, the moment is so perfect that it would be assumed that only the foolhardy or the feeble could be crazy enough to mess with it.
Matthews claims to be neither. Rather her version has come from an emotional acknowledgement of Presley more than any attempt to match him. "I just loved the words and the sentiment when you slow it down and take away all the lush stuff," she says. "It was important we had a different arrangement and production on it. That was when Elvis had the orchestra, the girls, the choir, the whole nine yards." They remain very big shoes to fill. "Oh yuh." She laughed. "But then again it was a nice addition to the album. I wasn't going for a huge single or anything like that. Still, to do an Elvis song is kind of a tough call."
Going to the Chapel
If tackling the King wasn't enough, Matthews had to go the whole hog and have go with God. Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - always near the top of any of us Philistine's classical chart, because it has the immediate hummability properties of Louie, Louie was given a fair little conversion job.
Robbie James, the Sydney-based GANGgajang guitarist who first joined Wendy Matthews' band in 1991, had been playing the tune on guitar for many years and occasionally Matthews and he would harmonise on a vocal melody idea. The pair then decided to write a lyric for it. Recording the track was another thing altogether. Wendy felt that it would be appropriate if the song be taped in a church. Eventually Saint Mary's Cathedral in - Sydney agreed, after requesting a letter and a copy of the lyrics. Matthews was sure that they were just checking that it wasn't a remake of Like A Virgin they were planning. "They let us in for the day. We just took a DAT player in, seven singers - and couple of string players and we finished it quickly. When asked if this grand idea was typical of her style of work she quickly responded that it was. "Absolutely." She laughed again and bubbled. "And those are just the kind of simpler ones that we could do."
When quizzed as just what grand plans she had in store for the album that she is due to begin recording around March she took a breath then responded. "I'm not saying it is going to be an album of traditional Scottish polkas or anything but it ... is going to be quite a bit more introspective. And a bit more quirky. I've been living with them for quite a while and I can't tell anymore but I'm quite pleased with it all." At this time it appears that the greater majority of tracks will be composed by Matthews. The reason for this has simply been a matter of time and for the singer to be able to find it.
"Emigré, Lily and The Witness Tree were literally done in four weeks, and I've never really had the luxury of taking a few months off and recording when you fiat like it and recording when you felt inspired. And taking a lot of time to work up some songs. "And for some reason this time I have been allowed this luxury. Also, I suppose it kinda depends on what you go through in life. There's just more to write about now.
"Yes, I don't write or read music - and I really couldn't tell you what key I do anything in - but I have lots of melodic ideas and lots of rhythmic ideas and lyrical ideas and I need somebody more technically minded than me to put the three together with me.
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