"All I knew is that I wanted to sing. It was just something that made me feel good. I always loved singing and wanted it to be a part of my life but in what capacity I wasn't quite sure. I never had a burning desire to be a so-called 'star'. It was just something I had a growing need to do."
With her powerful songs that speak directly to the soul, her dignity and poise and her quietly tenacious sense of purpose, Wendy has effectively given Australian music a new dimension, a new maturity, and as the Sydney Morning Herald once put it, "real class, which, remarkably, seems to be matched by success."
Wendy Matthews came at her headlining career almost obliquely. Perhaps as a result of this, she has been able to wring commercial success out of an absolute artistic stance, with each release a distinct, evolving expression.
"Each album is what I want and need to do at the time," she has said. "I make my music for me, in a sense. Basically I think I'd get really lost and lose something very important, something that's almost intangible, if I were to start choosing songs for a specific 'demographic'. I think it's still really important to do it the way you
want and the way you hear it because hopefully that's what people liked about you in the first place."
Her debut album "Émigré", which, with a compelling aura of the detachment and longing that arises from a geographical and emotional journey such as hers, touched a nerve, selling over 100,000 copies. "I wanted it to be very atmospheric, not just one song after another. I had been offered the chance to do albums over the years but it hadn't been right."
What we are dealing with here is a true body of work. Not a collection of hits cobbled together before a fad fades. Wendy Matthews is a unique creative entity, with a quality that has essentially eluded female performers in this country - the capacity to capture and entrance a large audience, who remain loyal album after album, one decade into another.
We first heard her in 1988, when a duet, "You've always got the blues", from the ABC TV series Stringer, made a modest impact on the national charts. Two years later her achingly pure voice shone out of the unexpected top five hit by informal all-star ensemble "Absent Friends", "I Don't Want To Be With Nobody But You". But it was not until in late 1990 that the radio back-announces were solely for Wendy Matthews. Roger Mason of the Models penned an arresting song for her, former Beach Boys/Monitors member Ricky Fataar produced it, Tim Finn sang backing vocals, and the timeless "Token Angels" was in the top twenty, with Wendy walking away with two ARIA's soon after (Best Debut Single and Best Female Artist - the first of seven).
Born in Montreal, Canada of Spanish/ Scottish ancestry, into a musical family environment including a Scottish grandfather who payed the harmonica and taught her heritage songs, she grew up "learning to sing from listening to records - big dramatic voices like Patsy Cline, Odetta, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin." At 15 she was a member of the Little Benny Blues Band, lying about her age to play in Montreal clubs.
In Los Angeles, she tumbled into a circle of friends, which saw her roller-skate with Jack Nicholson, sing backing and guide vocals for Cher, Bryan Ferry, Donna Summer and the Alpha Band. Then, ,whilst hanging out with a bunch of genial Aussies, she met departed Little River Band leader Glenn Shorrock, who invited her down under to sing with him on a 1983 solo tour.
Liking what she saw and whom she met, Wendy readily found vocal work in Sydney on commercials and album sessions, enhancing performances by a plethora of Australian major acts. But life changed considerably after the impact of the internationally released "Émigré" Wendy was lost to the world of paid sessions and backing vocal tour stints, with no small regret in some parts. To Models saxophonist James Valentine, who later played on her albums, "She is a superb musician with an innate musical ability who always knows what's needed. She automatically harmonises and has perfect pitch...she evokes that pure emotional response, which is rare."
Her second album, 1992's triple-platinum Lily, achieved what no other album by and Australian woman had ever been able to; not just in terms of sales and airplay but in its link to the hundreds of thousands who bought it and let it become a part of them. "I went back to Canada for quite a while before I made the album" she has
explained, "and my mother & I spent some time discovering our heritage." Armed with her own criteria of finding songs that touch the heart and move the spirit", she worked with American producer T-Bone Burnett (an old mate from the Alpha Band, who had, in the interim, cut a few albums of his own, toured in Bob Dylan's band and produced albums for the likes of Elvis Costello, Los Lobos and Roy Orbison), who declared that he wanted to ''make a good, close, intimate album that would focus on Wendy's incredible voice." Released around the world on Atlantic, it increased the size of her loyal pockets of devotees.
With the massive success of both album and the single (two ARIA's for it alone) came further hits (such as the top ten "Friday's Child"), intensive press coverage, international touring and a spectacular concert at the Sydney Opera House.
Childhood memories played a significant role in the shaping of the songs on "Ghosts" (nine of which she co-wrote), particularly in the warm and embracing outings like "Big". "We kind of breeze through childhood and it's only much later we take stock of what we've experienced", Wendy concludes. "Then we have a lot of delayed reactions to the amazing things that have happened to us."
The amazing things that have happened to Wendy Matthews on her long odyssey from Montreal to...well, the world, have shaped the songs herein. They reflect the life beliefs, enthusiasms, and compulsions of a true artist. They are the result of what she has described as her "love of creating". With the release of "Ghosts" she revealed. "There's a new attitude in my work now. My priorities haven't changed. I still want the things that last, including longevity for my work. I've built on my past, I'm positively looking forward to the future."
Any 'greatest hits' or 'best of' collection of an active artist has to draw a little line somewhere. In this case it has to come relatively early in a long-haul career, after four studio albums. By the time its successor arrives, Wendy Matthews will have delivered another stellar body of work, one shaped and enriched by the new command she has over her creativity. "The change in me has been gradual and subtle", she says, "but I feel that now, more than ever, I'm speaking from the heart."
In a career that has earned her three platinum albums and no less than seven ARIA awards, numerous hit singles and one of the strongest live followings in Australia, the facts speak for themselves.
One ingredient always remains constant - the exquisite voice that is the essence of this unique and outstanding singer, songwriter and performer, whose depth of talent and heartfelt spirit has earned her a respect and an audience equalled by few.