Wendy Matthews' advice to artists: stay true to who you are, no matter what anyone says
It was 1982 in Los Angeles when Australian Glen Shorrock was recording his debut album Villain of the Peace. He met 21 year-old Canadian singer Wendy Matthews who had been travelling across North America and Mexico busking after leaving home at just 16. Wendy had settled in LA, working as a session vocalist and jewellery maker (which she still is today - more on that later). Glenn asked Wendy to sing as a background vocalist on his album. It was that moment that would lead Wendy Matthews to Australia's shores on his subsequent six-week Australian tour, where she would stay and become the musical icon that we are all proud of today. Wendy Matthews went on to sing with Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss, Tim Finn, Jenny Morris, Kate Cebrano and many more artists and acts that form the foundations of the Australian music scene .
In 1985, Wendy joined rock band The Models whom she would later induct into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2010 (you know the ones: "Out of mind, out of sight, gotta keep my body tight), and then as lead singer as Absent Friends ("I don't wanna be with nobody but you, no no...").
Her first solo album Émigré was released in 1990 featuring Tim Finn, James Valentine, INXS' bass player Gary Gary Beers and other notable friends - too many to list - and featured the smash hit Let's Kiss Like Angels Do. The album was very well received and quickly succeeded by her next full length album called Lily. Recorded in LA with Bob Dylan's former guitarist turned award-winning producer T Bone Burnett who has worked with Roy Orbison, Elton John, John Mellencamp, Counting Crows, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall - we could go on - the album contained the hit The Day You Went Away. Still today, that song evokes goosebumps and nostalgia from the first breath of the evergreen notes as they glissando emotionally across the piano keys.
The iconic raspy voice of Wendy Matthews has been heard all around the world. She has supported the Neville Brothers, Simply Red and performed with Rod Stewart and a very long list of legends including the aforementioned Australian icons, and then some. And she has been an actor alongside Guy Pearce as well as a staple on our television screens for decades. She has produced 19 hit singles, won six ARIA awards from a whopping 13 nominations (excluding wins and noms with her bands), won an APRA award, recorded many many top-selling albums, and is still going strong.
Today, Wendy Matthews continues to write, record, tour and perform, basing herself on a beautiful property on NSW's mid-north coast singing, making jewellery and spending time with her animals.
Enjoy the exclusive interview with the formidable Wendy Matthews, one of the most important threads in Australian music fabric today.
What does music mean to you?
Huge question. It is my form of expression and communication. It heals me, lifts me up, and gives me conviction. I truly believe music does all the wonderful things for our souls that they say it does. Our lives would be unimaginable without it.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
There are lots of great women in every facet of music and music production. For every man who says it can't be done, there's a woman doing it who should not be interrupted.
The best song lyric ever written is……
Probably something from Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen as far as lyrics/poetry goes.
Could you offer any advice to aspiring musical artists in Australia?
It can take time to figure out who you are musically, but when you do, stay true to who you are, no matter what any one says. Every last human will have an opinion that seems valid, but unless it's yours, it won't be genuine, and people pick that up and feel it, more than overtly hear it.
A story from life on the road…?
So many. Every time we're out there actually, too many to even remember. My band are my dear friends and we do have a lot of fun. We miss each other when we're not playing!
The Day You Went Away - how did that song come about?
I did not write it. A friend in London sent it to me. It had a raging beat behind it. In the studio, [songwriter and producer] Booker T played the piano without any sheet music quite slowly to figure it all out, and the words took on more meaning and became a whole different thing. We decided that was the way to go...
More recently, you wrote a song with Megan Washington called Amelia with a beautiful video from your property on NSW’s mid north coast. Tell us about that song and that experience
I'd been on the road for some time, too many hotels, I was tired. Megan and I got together and I told her a story of how and why I felt heart broken and defeated at the time, and she suggested writing 'a letter' in the third person to myself. I was Amelia. It was to myself. She also suggested doing the vocal then and there while I felt broken. The vocal on the record was spontaneous and a one off, the only pass I did is the vocal on the song, raspy and broken!
I love the 'home movie' look so I took my iPhone down to the beach and used Speilberg's Super 8 app!
Is it true that Little Boy is about a pet deer that you sadly lost?
Yes. He's the only little boy I've raised. Bottle fed from three hours old to an eight and a half year old. We struggled through two sets of antlers and he was my dog's best friend. They'd both lay inside together on their blankets and clean each other for hours.
Your voice is incredible – how do you look after it?
Oh dear. I don't really. I've never had a singing lesson and know no technical warm ups. I'm just so grateful it's strong and there whenever I need it. I believe when you sing from the heart, not from a technical place, you open up and out it comes. And I swear, sometimes it feels like it's not from me. I love the times when it feels like it's coming through you, not from you.
Billie and Me – a tribute to Billie Holiday. What does Billie mean to you?
It's more about the way they crafted songs back then. And Billie is a perfect example. It's not an impersonation or a tribute as much as delving into the way the players used to follow the singer instead of vice versa, and the lyrics. My parents used to play her records when I was young but only now have I appreciated the way they used to write. I've always had admiration for her, her strength and weaknesses.
We recorded it live in two days at a huge empty piano factory.
When did you start making jewellery? Can you share a jewellery making tip?
I've always made jewelry though I am not trained so I'd better not give any advice except just go for it. If you have an idea it won't be difficult to figure out.
Favourite Australian music venue – past or present?
What makes a great gig for me, is the people, not the building. So I don't remember a lot of venues, though I recognise dressing rooms and the crew who run it.
Next I'll be in Nashville recording a record. Writing with some great folks for it these days.
What does Australia mean to you?
What is your favourite place in Australia?
What is your favourite Australian café/restaurant?
My kitchen and verandah.
Is there a quote, philosophy or mantra you live by?
No. Except a core belief in kindness, respect, and openness. Every day is different.
Wendy Matthews is currently on tour. Dates and places at wendymatthews.com