Wendy Matthews was about as far removed from the meat-pie and beer Aussie rock landscape as her Canadian roots, but persistence in a realm way outside of her initial comfort zone, resulted in the willowy former session vocalist appearing on nearly every notable Oz rock album in the '80s. Finally stepping into her very own spotlight, from 1990 onward Matthews' true passion for poetic tear-jerkers reminiscent of her idol Joni Mitchell’s work was at last successfully indulged. Now, 21 years on from her against-the-grain solo debut, Émigré, the Australian (officially since 2005) vocalist, is celebrating the anniversary in a retrospective tour she’s calling Standing Strong, yet this landmark, I discover, is barely half of her remarkable story.
“I guess now is a good time to celebrate what I’ve been doing for two decade before my next album comes out.” She says in an accent equal parts Canadian and Australian. Work on Matthews’ new album of originals is already underway, following on from two covers sets (She and Café Naturale). Her anniversary tour will help fund its completion as, although despite multiple-ARIA wins and serious chart success in the ‘90s, Wendy found herself out of contract in 2007 and so began her own independent label, Barking Bear to release her music on. “I’m so glad I have this label as a resource, but I am crap at the business side of things. I wish I kind of cared more about how the whole thing works, but I am singer and a songwriter, not a business woman." She adds, "I’ve moved into the category of singers who don’t sell so many records these days, but I’m also part of this world of artists who make great music in their kitchens or whatever and with no record company judging what your musical life-span is.” A passion for singing since very early childhood, Wendy claims, was the only guide in what direction her life was to take.
“I’ve been a bit of a freak for most of my life, frighteningly enough. I’ve never had a real job!” She laughs, “This is all I’ve ever done and it did determine quite a lot how my life would turn out back when I was 15 and having huge doubts about what I was going to be.” Matthew’s continues, “I realise now that I was setting myself up for something that would last and was satisfying for me. I mean if I had’ve been making dance beats, as a lot of people were, it would never have driven me like say a Joni Mitchell record does.” She adds, “Don’t get me wrong, I think music should fulfill many functions – I can get up and vacuum the house to dance music in my undies and its great – but that’s never gonna stimulate me like Joni, you know.”
Her future direction became a little clearer when, while living in LA in 1983, Matthews - who was getting casual work as a backing vocalist - by chance met legendary Australian music mogul Glenn Shorrock, who convinced her to sing backing vocals on his album and fly to Sydney to tour in his band. “Glenn, almost to his detriment, was always passionate about music above and beyond the industry. He was the sort of guy that would come off stage after a gig and still want to sit around the piano and play music just for fun, so we had no problems connecting.” Wendy recalls. Her motivation to start a new life in Australia however was hampered at first by a fear of rejection by what she perceived as an unforgiving pub rock scene. “My first experience of a female singer who’d made it in Australia was Chrissie Amphlett of Divinyls and it kind of scared me a little, because she had this machismo - which I guess she’d developed because it was a very male oriented rock scene - and I thought I was never going to be accepted into that kind of world.” Matthews, in reality was not only accepted into the Australian live music world, but was in hot demand as a session singer with many of the top rock acts at the time.
“There are a lot of years of my life that have gone into making music and sometimes I glimpse back to those times and I’m so grateful to those bands.” Wendy says. For the rest of the 1980s, her singer/songwriter roots were largely put on hold while Matthews bumped shoulders with the crème of Aussie rock – Icehouse, Models, Richard Clapton, Barnes to name a few, were demanding her services – and even found time to dabble in advertising jingles to keep the land lord off her case; “I was the ‘L.J. Hooker… you’re the best’ girl for quite some time.” She laughs, “But you know not everything I did back then I’m proud of!” Her rise to top billing artist was still a way off, but during the late ‘80s, Matthews performed on three of the biggest Australian albums - Models, Out Of Mind Out Of Sight, The Rockmelons, Tales Of The City and Kate Ceberano’s You’ve Always Got The Blues - helping to shrug of any self-doubt she may have been harboring. The turning point came when her Models’ band mates split the group into two halves in 1989, resulting in the James Freud-led Beatfish and, importantly for Matthews, her then partner Sean Kelly’s project, Absent Friends. At last the Canadian chanteuse was on lead vocal for the 1990 single, I Don’t Want To Be With Nobody But You - a cover of an Eddie Floyd song – which was so far as most Australian’s were aware, Wendy’s debut – and they liked what they heard. The single beat huge competition from a Skyhooks come-back, award-magnets Midnight Oil, INXS, Barnsey AND Farnsey to take home ARIA single of the year, cementing Matthews’ Midas-touch run.
“Things come in waves, and I guess that was my time for things to work out, but I know now that it’s impossible to keep the vibration going at such a high level for very long!” Wendy laughs. “I mean the thing about being independent is that you don’t get that level of marketing now, which is what labels are so good at, and so I see that time as wonderful, but also impossible to repeat.” Absent Friends only saw out the year before Sean Kelly went off to form The Dukes, while Matthews - still on her first wave of glory - went on to record Émigré – her solo debut. Nobody But You’s success was equalled by Wendy’s Token Angels single, and again she was picked as the industry’s favourite. Matthews was by now 30 years old, and having spent half of her life performing, acknowledges the weirdness of her bestowed ‘best new-comer’ status. “I’ve debuted more times than I can count!” She exclaims. But, discounting any uncatalogued nappy commercials, technically Wendy’s public debut as a vocalist, was at the age of four, witnessed by half of the Western world’s pre-schoolers… or so a large yellow bird informs me.
“Oh, god.” Matthews’ moans, “I got to do Sesame Street because I think they realised I was kinda able to hold a note.” This debut – which came about through family friends’ involvement on the show’s production - although undeniably glamorous, was hardly a sign of things to come. “All I remember is it was an alphabet song, and I just did the letter ‘O’ part, to which they put an animation of a goat with all letter ‘O’s coming out of its mouth.” She laughs heavily, “So, I guess my debut was as a singing goat on Sesame Street, yeah.” It’s hard not to get side-tracked by Matthews’ Sesame Street connection, but the ‘wow moments’ in her career keep piling up as our discussion continues. During a brief stint singing with The Rockmelons in 1988, a support slot on James Brown’s Australian tour led to Matthews sharing the stage with the Godfather for a couple of songs. “I hear myself talking about that, and it almost doesn’t feel real.” Wendy acknowledges, “It’s like I’m talking about somebody else’s experience, but you know, although it was amazing and everything, really I’m just glad I can say I’ve got a good James Brown story!” Many great music moments have come and gone for Wendy, but her finest hour was less a personal experience, but a song that most of Australia it seemed, claimed as their own.
Wendy's award-winning The Day You Went Away video