By Greg Taylor
"I literally left for a weekend - and never went back. We were just going to do some singing west, towards western Canada. Went across the border and continued right through down to Mexico. Where is our audience? Where are the streets? So things took their course from there... A course few travel." Most teenagers with an ounce of musical talent also have a ton of ambition which propels them into the music business - to sink or swim. Wendy Matthews decided to just ... float. Now that she has finally made the album for which Rolling Stone readers and critics named her "Best Female Singer", the question is "Who is this wonderful singer and why has she spent so much of her career making other people sound good?"
Wendy Matthews hasn't got so used to delivering her life history that it sounds like a textbook, but she tells it well. Years of travelling, years of blending her singing to the dictates of studio producers, have left little accent; if you picked Canada there's certainly nothing to indicate that much of her Quebec schooling was in French. Animated - a natural stress falls every fourth or fifth word - her speech is markedly coherent compared with many musicians, who think that 'um' and 'y'know' are substantial communication. And it's as well she can be lucid on demand - for someone who speaks of happily spending hours in company without talking, the PR drive demanded since the release of her solo album Emigre last September has been disconcerting.
The glossy magazines have leapt on board - the camera loves the fine, translucent skin, the grey green eyes edged with the first lines of care and laughter, the beagle profile softened by the long auburn tresses or highlighted with a pulled-back hairstyle held with a chopstick or two. Some even found space to talk about her music. The pictures, and videos for "Token angel" and "The woman's got to have it", and the Absent Friends' big hit, "(I don't wanna be with) nobody but you", have made a Face from this singer in the shadows. "People look at me in the streets now" says Matthews. "And automatically I think there's something wrong - is there toilet paper on my shoe, is spinach on my teeth or something? It doesn't occur to me that perhaps they ve seen some article or a clip?"
The child of predominanny Scots forbears, with A Spanish grandmother on her mother's side and some French Cajun and American Indians way back, took that first step "out of the world of my bedroom" when she had just turned seventeen. Her father, a graphic designer with Canada's largest advertising agency, had parted from her mother three years earlier, but the family remained very close. And she was a child of the Sixties, born as the decade began, raised to be free and concerned - "We were taken to political rallies in our strollers." If they wanted her to have stayed at school rather than disappear down the road in a musical van, maybe her mama, who had friends in the Canadian Film Board, shouldn't have got the little seven- year-old daughter those gigs on Sesame Street? Sure, some of the family tried to discourage her later - "As a young girl I used to lock myself up and sing at the top of my lungs to those early Barbra Streisand records, all that really kitsch dramatic stuff, with my two brothers banging on the door yelling 'Shuuuut up!'" But you won't stop her becoming a singer, even if she must wander for thirteen years and 13,000 miles before she wakes up and makes her first real, this-is-me record.
Not that people including some rather dubious types, didn't try to make Wendy Matthews ... something or other. Soon after her busking odyssey came to rest in Los Angeles, she was offered an album deal in New York. "It was a really phenomenal advance, but I passed" - possibly because the intended producer was better known as a Florida alligator farmer than a record producer. However, there were enough sessions to survive quite comfortably. "For some reason I got linked up with some Japanese work, which was very well paid, back then. I did the very first Sony Walkman ad," she admits with a grin. Later, Matthews actually went to the Land of the Rising Sun to do some serious recording - but maybe a couple of jazz albums was too serious. The Japanese public was not moved, and nor could Matthews, fiercely dedicated even then to meaningful lyrics, find much inspiration in a place where English seemed to be "merely something to put on T-shirts" - people walking wearing something like 'Happy Boy Loves Cigarettes' on their backs.
And besides, back in L.A. it wasn't all just hustle: there were chances to play the other music that kept you alive rather than surviving. "I started performing with some people, got a few bands of my own together. There was a sort of big network; we all worked on each other s things, and we didn't really consider them sessions, or even background singing. It was much more of a give-and-take sort of thing." Somehow that musical community came to include a Down Under contingent. "Lots of bands were coming across then, like Australian Crawl and Little River Band. I used to live in a big house with Australians, and everyone knew each other from years ago in London - there was just a really heavy Australian connection."
"Glenn Shorrock in particular we used to see a lot." And eventually he said, sometime in 1983, "Come out to Australia, do this tour, blah, blah, blah." "I literally left for two months - where have we heard this before? - and I'm still here." Like several others, Shorrock remembers Matthews as a good road person. "We shared same sort of humour, seeing the ridiculous side of things... and she's a good mimic"; someone who could brighten the inevitable dreary, hung over travelling days. (Maybe this was because Matthews doesn't drink much herself). Asked about ambition, Shorrock says "She wasn't that way at all. She was - and is - a very natural person, and a little bit timid about leaping in at the deep end. She felt 'It'll happen at the time'. Maybe she felt she needed a bit of life experience under her belt before she could go out there and really deliver it with some integrity."
The next slice of "life experience" wasn't all that illuminating, however. News soon spread that there was a new voice on the block, and while the Australian studio scene is smaller than L.A.'s, it may have nothing to learn about competiveness. "As far as I was raised and worked, if there was a new girl, it was sympatico. But here you get a lot of "Who's the new girl?" and some girls won't talk to you a while... I've actually had people push me away from the mike while we're 'sposed to be singing together. Sessions are a strange part of the music worlds, hidden from the curiosity of fandom, where super talent and industrial mindlessness meet to tun raw pop artists into hits and hits into soundtracks for flogging shampoo. Some rockers sneer at the image of the studio muso all sleek technique and nothing to say - and secretly most would kill for a call, for session record is the ultimate pure professional arena. Nobody care what your name is or whether you inspire teenage dreams if you're asked, it's because your peers think you're good."
Matthews was a studio veteran, but with a new set of peers. Word of mouth got her started - "I got my first jingle here because they were doing a Coke ad and they needed a 'Donna Summer', and they'd heard that I could do that" - and soon the answering machine was loaded. During the few years Matthews beguiled you into buying Coke, L.J. Hooker real estate, C.C. corn chips Sportsgirl clothes, Polaroid cameras, Deep Spring mineralwater, not to mention Qantas flights and Grand Prix tickets. "It's quite a small little scene," says Matthews of Australian session work. "People won't take a lot of chances on those they don't know: but once you get in there, the inner sanctum, you get an awful lot of work."
She reckons there's only about six singers in in thet inner sanctum in Sydney - the ones that work everyday. For these, among whom she was once numbered, it's good money: "over a thousand bucks a week if you work hard - and sometimes not even that hard. You get so that you can charge $2000 an ad, a flat fee no matter what you do." Which, as Matthews says, in one of her periodic gross parodies of an okker accent, is "pretty cushy. Eventually, you're doing three and four sessions a day. But at that stage you can also say 'No, I'm not free for that one' - you can pick and choose, and make some free time for yourself. Otherwise the work can become overwhelming. Especially when the client -usually in the form of an ad agency or rep - starts sticking an oar in. That doesn't happen too often, but everyone dreads it. 'Cos that's when you get kinds of wild things. They can't really express it in technical terms, 'cos they really know nothing about music, but they think they know what they want to hear. So you get things like 'No- sing pink! Sound more ... Pink!' and you gotta somehow BE polite, and try and sound... pink."
Calls on albums start with Glen Shorrock's Villain of the Peace and continued through more than fifteen high-profile acts from Jimmy Barnes, Tim Finn and Richard Clapton to Icehouse, the Models and Noise-works. Every so often a producer like Ricky Fataar, whom Wendy has known for nearly a decade and a half, might look up from the control panel and say "Wendy, how come this isn't your album we're doing?" But Sleeping Beauty would smile and do another dreamy chorus. Some more devious types decided to make a 'Wendy Matthews' record anyway - without telling her. "I sang an ad once - for a clothing company - that some- body actually pressed and sold as a single and had some other girl do the video," says Matthews. "It's the most cliched, disgusting, sexist clip you've ever seen in your life. I remember turning on the television one Saturday morning, and Donny Sutherland was saying 'And that was Wendy Matthews with Hotline...' It was just - an indescribable noise of mortified disgust. And I got $200 for singing this ???"
? dance bands were flavour of the month. Everyone was ringing up saying "We need a good singer because we want to do a dance album we've chosen all the songs, will you be the voice?" "Which I kind of could have done, but it wasn't that important to me; because if I was going to do an album I really wanted it to be a serious chunk of what I felt was me." Nethertheless, in 1987 Matthews joined perhaps the best and most original Australian dance band of the Eighties Sydney's Rockmelons. "I remember her as a pretty private person" says a Rockmelon principal, Ray Medhurst. "She was always great fun and a good sense of humour and a lot of laughs; she was good to be on road with, because you could always get a laugh out of her." Medhurst agrees Matthews was drifting in career terms - but believes there was method in her langour. She didn't know what she wanted or how to get it for a while she was quite happy to just take the bucks and go 'I don't have to think too much' or 'I'll do this tour'. But I don't think she was totally unconscious of her actions. She took the work that she felt was best for her profile- I don't think that working for us did her any harm. She obviously took the better jobs - and was noticed for it." His pragmatism falters. "She's got a hell of a voice; she could go anywhere. Her singing sometimes can just ??? melt."
Sean Kelly founder of Absent Friends with whom Matthews had her first bona fide Australian hit late last year, former Models leader for whom she did backing vocals back in 1984 on Out of Mind, Out of Sight - and Matthews boyfriend for the last six years recalls the start of their artistic and romantic relationship as:???? "Wendy did backings on 'Cold Fever' and then came on tour. We were more of a slow blossoming thing than instant: we were working together with the band for what seemed like ten years, but was actually only six months, before everything started going wild. It was some late night in Perth..." The pair stayed together but the Models didn't; Wendy went on to the Rockmelons, then to a Rockmelon alumni, Peter Blakeley.
While polishing up the vocals on Harry's Cafe de Wheels in Los Angeles, Blakeley's producer and manager, the celebrated Peter Asher, asked them if they'd help out one of his other clients Cherilyn Sarkasian Lapier aka Cher. "Peter Asher heard the blend of our voices and so on, and asked us to do some background on Cher's stuff - but before that he asked me to do the guide vocal for a track" Matthews explains. "I used to do a lot of that in Los Angeles; you go in and sing live with the band as they cut it, and they keep your vocal so when the artist comes in there's the song already done. Maybe whoever it is is not that brilliant a singer, and she'll sing to your voice. But it's very strange - you can actually hear your inflexions in what eventually comes out."
Asher was so impressed with Matthews's rendition of 'Jesse James' that he suggested she release it herself - "but it just wasn't my kind of song." Matthews grins wickedly when asked whether some of such 'guide' vocals could ever get blended in with the star's final rendition. So are there any other bits of Wendy Matthews floating around on records no-one's 'sposed to know about? "Tons! Actresses and people that do albums, I'm always getting roped into it. Yet, to be honest, sometimes when you hear the songs, you think 'Better them than me; at least I'll get paid for this and then I'll be wiped off!' But that's what backup singing is all about. Basically, you're used to make other people sound good."
Finally, however, it was time to stand up and make Wendy Matthews sound good. "I've never been ambitious" is a phrase scattered throughout any of her interviews, but slowly some assertion began to stir. Maybe the repeated references to You've Always Got The Blues (the soundtrack to the ABC drama series Stringer) as a 'Kate Ceberano' album helped. As anyone who heard it, saw the film clip or even glanced at the cover knows, Matthews and Ceberano shared the vocal chores equally on producer Martin Armiger's 1988 platinumseller - and yet "I've actually read 'and she sung backup for Kate Ceberano'. Not that it bothers me all that much; but after a while I thought 'If I read that one more time I'll scream.'"
So when Prince Charming, in the form of increasingly famous producer and session drummer Ricky Fataar, returned from America and said "You still haven't done a record - let's do it "Sleeping Beauty finally said: "Okay." "I asked her about five years ago if she wanted to make a record'" Fataar says. "But I guess she was singing with lots of different people and falling in and out of love. She's very careful and really wanted to be sure a bout the songs she wanted to sing. She's shy, but very funny - and very strong, very aware that she's a capable singer, and very tough in getting what she wants musically." "I can get quite bossy," Matthews agrees. "Well, not really bossy, but I usually know exactly what I want to hear." Other people know they, like to hear it, too. Emigre and Token Angel both went Top Twenty and the record company says "it's easily gold [35,000 copies] by now". Wendy Matthews hasn't had to sing a jingle for quite some time - "I think I stopped right after the Stringer albums" - and fully intends to give them a permanent miss.
"But there's drudgery in being a creative artist as well - sitting in a little interview room for hours and hours and doing nothing but talk about one's self - "and for someone who took ten years to collect and write the material for her first album, finding material for the four more she's contracted for could be daunting. "I've got melodies and rhythms going on in my head all the time, "Matthews says resolutely. "I just need somebody to help me put them together." The confidence has grown - "I think I always had something of that: I think you could call it lazy, this life has always been pretty comfortable."
She recognises the same sense of drift in relationships. "I spent about seven years with someone in Los Angeles. I've had relatively few relationships because when I do get in love with someone, it tends to be for quite a while. That's just the way it's been - I didn't choose it that way. And in the past I suppose I've stayed in a situation longer than I should have. But I think I've learned from that, grown up a bit. You just get very complacent: sometimes life isn't a bed of roses, but with all that it's easy to stay in a situation that you know isn't particularly healthy or going anywhere, it's what you're used to. Also, I'm someone who gets a lot of re-charging energy from being alone, so in that case perhaps I go away for a weekend and spend time by myself and I'll be okay, rather than completely change the whole situation."
Yet Matthews is far from lazy in the sense of inaction. "There's never enough time at home for me. I'm always itching to get back to something I'm doing. I'm not a big 'veg-outer': I'm much more likely to put the music on, and do things - making jewellery, painting a big pine bedpost, whatever... Maybe that means I'm getting older. "She laughs, but these references to aging crop up more often than you'd expect from someone who's still short of thirty-one. "This is more in the last ten years - in my mid-to late twenties I used to much rather go out at night. But now I'm so much happier at home, I can't tell you." Sean Kelly, whom I've caught in Melbourne where he's working on some songs with old Model cohort Andrew Duffield, sounds like he too would be much happier back in their Bondi home. "I just love being around here," says Kelly. "It's wonderful spending time with a creative person - and I guess I'm a bit like that, too, so we get on really well."
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