Friday, August 30, 2013

A Welcome Return

Last week in Australia celebrated vocalist Wendy Matthews released The Welcome Fire, her first album of original material since 2001's sublime Beautiful View.

Though some are billing the new album as a "comeback," the truth is Wendy has never really been away. In the past twelve years she's released two exceptional albums of covers – Café Naturale (2004) and She (2008); recorded a duet with Australian country music star Adam Harvey; and steadily toured and performed across Australia, most recently with fellow ARIA Award-winning singer Margaret Urlich.

Still, The Welcome Fire and the buzz around its release has returned Wendy to a level of both visibility and acclaim not seen for quite some time. And that's definitely a good thing. As regular Wild Reed readers would know, I greatly appreciate and enjoy Wendy's music. Her recordings of "Standing Strong" and "Like the Sun" speak to me deeply and have become personal anthems for me. Yet more than this, Wendy Matthews is, without doubt, one of the great singers of our time. Plus she's just such a beautiful soul.

In announcing the release of The Welcome Fire, a media release from Sydney's Brass Monkey music venue noted the following.

Beautifully evocative and superbly crafted, The Welcome Fire is an album filled with personal, poignant lyrics and reflective melodies. The album is undoubtedly contemporary in sound, yet the voice is unmistakably that of Wendy Matthews. The Welcome Fire not only re-establishes Wendy as one of Australia’s most influential and iconic voices and artists but also marks a new chapter in her career.

There are very few artists in Australia who can come close to Wendy Matthews and her stunning credentials; seven Arias, a massive 19 hit singles, and seven platinum-plus selling albums. Her career-defining album Lily sold over 500,000 copies and over 300,000 singles of her now signature song "The Day You Went Away" when released in the mid 1990s.

On her YouTube channel, Wendy has posted a series of "webisodes" in which she discusses each of The Welcome Fire's ten tracks. I particularly enjoy what she has to say about the songs "Amelia," Little Boy," and "It's Alright."

The opening track is the beautiful "Follow You Down," about which Wendy says:

[It's about] how we all have these things that we don't want to look at about ourselves. [It's also about] caring enough about someone to say, 'Look, if you want to turn around and look at the demons then I'll stand with you.'

I can't wait to hear the album in its entirety! You know, I called my parents in Australia and told them that I'd send them a cheque so that they could buy the album and send it to me. I know I could download it from i-tunes, but I like having the whole package – CD artwork, liner notes, an actual disc I can take places. Anyway, Mum said that there was no need for me to send money as they'd already decided to get the album for me as an early birthday present! How sweet is that? They actually once saw Wendy in concert. It was when she played Port Macquarie about five years ago. She'll be performing again soon in the Port Macquarie area, and Mum mentioned they might go see her again. Of course, I strongly encouraged them to do so! I definitely hope one day to see her in concert.

Anyway, I conclude this post by sharing, with added images and links, two recent articles about Wendy Matthews. First up is Australian music critic David P. Weber's review of The Welcome Fire.

With The Welcome Fire, Wendy Matthews has made an album which provides listening pleasure from beginning to end, where every song is a winner.

In terms of production, and approach, it’s in the vein of Emmylou HarrisWrecking Ball, if not as swampy. The album even starts off a bit country, with ‘Follow You Down’. The vibe is soon abandoned to make way for a more diverse palette over the course of the LP.

The vocal skills which Matthews deployed on the tearjerker monster ‘The Day You Went Away’ are brought to the fore on the piano-driven ‘Amelia’. Matthews’ performance on ‘Amelia’ could just be the best thing she’s ever done (the song bears no relationship to the one on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira). An understated arrangement allows the track to build to a stirring, spine-tingling climax. While Matthews is in no need of that travesty named Auto-Tune, her vocals are obviously weathered and tougher than what Australia lapped up with Lily all those years ago.

Feel Like Taking Your Man’ follows, with Matthews in the role of a woman doing precisely what the title alludes to. About this song, she’s said “The last thing women need to do is start turning on each other”, perhaps hopeful they don’t take the wrong message.

There’s a lovely refrain on ‘It Won’t Matter,’ and the bouncy Josh Pyke co-write ‘Everything I’ve Done Wrong’ is a hit waiting to happen. The piano is front and centre again on ‘Who I Am,’ an autobiographical song featuring images that are “tattooed” on her memory banks. The album closes with the hopeful and uplifting ‘It’s Alright,’ which is really a jam session played out.

The Welcome Fire should rejuvenate Matthews’ career. Readers and listeners could be forgiven putting her in the ‘where are they now’ file. She has released charting albums and performed live over the past ten years—it’s just that her visibility is often compared with the massively successful splash she made in the 1990s. In a period which has seen clever career relaunches for the likes of Russell Morris and Renée Geyer, the time seems ripe for Wendy Matthews.

Next, and finally, is Graeme Watson's Out in Perth's story on Wendy and her new album. In this article/interview Wendy explains the meaning of the album's cover image, a burning heart painted on her back. Of course, for Catholics reading this, this image needs no explanation. It's the Sacred Heart, the mystical symbol of love which, in the words of Teilhard de Chardin, "stands not only for the love of Jesus for us, but also for the unifying meaning and force of that love as it unites and gives greater meaning to all our best hopes, aspirations and efforts."

Singer Wendy Matthews is back with a new album The Welcome Fire. It’s a collection of adult contemporary songs that are filled with influences including gospel, country and rock. It’s possibly the best work of the acclaimed singer’s career.

Matthew’s life story is compelling. The singer grew up in Canada but left home at 16 to travel the world busking. In the late 1970s she was in Los Angeles gaining work as a backup singer. There she met lots of Australian musicians, including Glenn Shorrock, the lead singer of The Little River Band, who in 1983 persuaded her to come to Australia on a tour. Matthews decided to stay and quickly became an in demand singer working with bands like The Models and The Rockmelons.

Matthews joined the band Absent Friends, a band made up of musicians from many other bands, including members of The Models and INXS. She sang lead vocals on their cover of the Eddie Floyd song ‘I Don’t Wanna Be With Nobody But You.’ The song is one of many featuring Matthews that became a staple of Australian radio airplay.

Through the 1990s Matthews released a series of bestselling albums, scoring hits with ‘The Day You Went Away,’ ‘Let’s Kiss Like Angels Do,’ ‘A Woman’s Gotta Have It’ and many other tunes. As the new millennium dawned Matthews made a major life change, giving up city living for a ten hectare property on the New South Wales north coast. Stories of her building a traditional tipi and a mud brick house have become part of her narrative.

As we chat on the phone I note that she makes country living seem very appealing, and ask if she misses the city. Matthews breaks out in a loud laugh, and in her still clearly Canadian accent says,

“God, yes! No, I absolutely adore my trips into town and I stay with friends in Double Bay in this just incredible house, which I really enjoy. It’s just a complete dichotomy, that one.

“The reality is that it’s damn hard. I had all these incredible romantic notions, but, good Lord, it's pretty sort of ‘life in the raw’ to be honest.”

On her new album Matthews has written songs with a range of top songwriters including Megan Washington and her producer John Castle, Brisbane based singer songwriter Mark Sholtez, Gina Jeffreys' producer and husband Rod McCormack, US singer-songwriter Kim Richey, and Australian singer-songwriter Josh Pyke. Matthews puts the credit for these interesting combinations squarely at the feet of her publisher.

“I have the luxury this time of having met a couple of people, and having a wonderfully proactive publisher which is pretty rare in this country,” said Matthews, “Maree Hamblion would just ring up and say, ‘Look, I’m thinking maybe you and so-and-so would get along well. I’ll set up a day.’ So I would get on a plane or in a car in my own time and meet up with this or that person. She was hugely instrumental in that.”

The album marks the first time Matthews has been involved in writing every song on her record. She acknowledges her growing confidence as a songwriter and independent artist.

“The last album I put out was on my own little label and that was more just an exercise in trying to feel great about owning every aspect of what I do and learning the whole other side of it, which I’m not naturally interested in.”

“I just really wanted to get a general overview on the whole thing. Forming my own little label and putting out a record was a huge exercise for me. But it was just a long time coming. I’ve got journals and journals of little bits and pieces, poems and rhythms and melodies. It was a long time coming just putting it all together.”

Matthews is quick to agree that she doesn’t have a great deal of ambition, preferring to take time to allow things to naturally develop.

“Oh, God, no. No, I’m not ambitious in the traditional sense, not by any stretch. I think I’m just a little too existential for that kind of thing. I find it kind of hilarious. It’s just not for me. I’ve never been a fighter to get to the front, to be the artist. As corny as it sounds, I’ve just always really enjoyed singing, I don’t care whether it’s up the back or in the front, all that crap is just an illusion. The only thing I have found, which is wonderful, is that the closer you are to the front; somehow you have a little more power to be able to do what you’d like to do.”

The finished album is a powerful piece of work. An album that you can easily play many times in a row without wanting to skip through a single track. Each individual song is a solo work of art. Discussing the album's powerful cover image, a burning heart painted on the singer’s back, Matthews shares the inspiration for the design.

“I had this dream of these Milagros, which are folk charms from Mexico, and they’re very kitsch. You tag them on to crosses, mainly just old wooden crosses, and they're blessings. You can bless your ears, your dog, your donkey, your house, and your car. But the big mother load of them all, the big boss of the all, is the flaming heart.

“I was racking my brains for the cover thinking, 'Well, big bonfire . . . fire, hmm.' Then I thought, 'No hold on, these Milagros, which I’ve got all over my house, are exactly what I want to say in a very subtle way and it's a welcome return to inspiration and whatever fire might mean to anybody.' So I thought, ‘I’m going to put a huge whopping silver Milagros on my back!’”

Related Off-site Link:
Matthews Pushes Herself on Latest Album – Caris Bizzaca (Australian Associated Press via 7 News, August 27, 2013).

For more of Wendy Matthews at The Wild Reed, see:
Wendy Matthews
Beautiful View
Nobody But You
Standing Strong
Like the Sun


Anonymous said...

I believe I have been noted as saying something I actually didnt above.

"In announcing the release of The Welcome Fire, Joel Leffler of Sydney's Brass Monkey music venue noted the following"

I was actually Wendy Matthews support act at The Brass Monkey show not the one who gave that statement.

Whilst the words stated were all positive, the correct name should really be noted.

Kind Regards,

Joel Leffler


Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Joel. I've changed it to a "media release" from the Brass Monkey. Do you know who actually wrote the statement?