Kathy Mattea - The Human Touch

First Published Country Music International, March 1997

Weary of playing by the rules, Kathy Mattea decided to take a chance and make the kind of record she really wanted to make. “It was scary,” she informs Alan Cackett. “By nature, I’m very concerned about not rocking the boat.”

At what stage in an artist’s career do they sit back and decide to re-evaluate everything they’ve done before making the next move? Few performers could possibly last more than a few years in the business without deciding at one point that it’s time for a change or a re-think.

It’s been two years since Kathy Mattea was last in Britain and a little longer since the release of her last album, WALKING AWAY A WINNER. Back in 1995 she told the press that she was going to take life easy and spend some time relaxing. Truth be told, she’s spent her time re-evaluating her career and her life.

Back in London in January this year, Kathy was promoting her latest album, LOVE TRAVELS, and the BBC TV documentary Song Roads: A Musical Friendship From Nashville To Dunkeld, which features her work with Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean, and was shown on BBC-2 as part of its Country Night.

Not long after returning to Nashville following a successful British concert tour, Kathy started working in the studio with producer Josh Leo on a what was to become Love Travels. It was to prove a watershed period in her relationship with Josh and in the direction her music was to take.

Kathy had already collected some songs for consideration prior to her British trip and was eager to get back in the studio. She enthused at the time about some of the material, but for some reason, it just didn’t click in the studio.

“We went in and cut a couple of songs and I didn’t feel great about it,” she says candidly. “I came out of there feeling that the tracks weren’t grooving. I just didn’t feel in sync with myself.”

In a musical genre where artists are often reluctant to talk openly about the pressure involved in recording an album, not to mention owning up to their mistakes, Kathy is surprisingly forthcoming.

WALKING AWAY A WINNER had made some strong, stylistic changes from the acoustic, folk-influenced music people had come to expect. It was the first time she had worked in the studio with Josh Leo, a close long-time friend. Previously she had worked for eight years with Allen Reynolds, and then with Brent Maher for two albums. Kathy admits that fear of change in the recording studio has proved to be her personal Achilles heel.

“That was very scary for me” she admits, tackling the subject without a moment’s hesitation. “I am, by nature, very concerned about not rocking the boat, about being a nice girl, playing by the rules and not upsetting the people I work with. When it was time to make a change again, I really did agonise about what it would look like from the outside.”

It was around this time that a friend gave he a book called The Artist’s Way, described as a ‘spiritual workbook’ by the writer Julia Cameron. The book proved to be a great help.

“It helped show me what wasn’t right and what I was feeling restless about,” she explains. “It had got to the point where I didn’t even want to get on the bus. So I started thinking about what was wrong. I really needed a change but didn’t know what to do. This book really helped me put one foot in front of the other.”

Finally Kathy was able to confront Leo about why she felt they couldn’t work together on the new album.

“He was visiting the house one day and I just turned to him and said, ‘I think you want to make a different record to me. I think they’re both valid, but if we go into the studio together and don’t acknowledge this, we won’t be friends anymore.’”

The pair decided to part ways, their friendship still intact. This now left Kathy back to square one with an album deadline getting closer and absolutely no idea what the next move should be. Clearly her track record gave her some leeway with the record company.

“I’m really lucky because the head of my label is a wonderful man who has real affection for the music and puts his artists first. I had lunch with him and said: ‘Look, I can crank you out a record on the deadline, you’re not gonna care about it, I’m not gonna care about it, and they—the fans—certainly won’t care about it, so how can we expect everybody else to care if we don’t? I need time to figure out what to do next.’”

“He just looked at me and said: ‘Take your time, set yourself free and call me when you’re ready. If you want to go make a Celtic record, fine. If you want to go make a folk record, fine. We’re behind you whatever you want to do and we trust you as an artist. We want the real you.’”

So Kathy went off in search of songs and a producer and eventually found both. The producer she settled on was Ben Wisch, who had produced Marc Cohn’s hit Walking In Memphis. The pair ended up co-producing the album. “He has a real passion for the sense of what we’re both working together toward and what we’re trying to get out of it,” she enthuses.

Some of the songs on LOVE TRAVELS, such as Sending Me Angels, had been short-listed for the original Josh Leo-produced album. Others she had heard at songwriters’ nights in Nashville. But for every song she chose, there were at least a couple of dozen that were discarded. Two of these were Wild Angels and Ten Thousand Angels (covered by Martina McBride and Mindy McCready, respectively) both of which would have been totally wrong for her and everything she stands for in a musical sense.

“I didn’t feel that they were me either,” she concurs, nodding earnestly. “What I decided was that I wouldn’t make a record from the point of having some concept and fitting the record into that concept. That’s what was making me sad. Those two songs were really well-written and they were both hits, but they didn’t make me feel anything. I couldn’t have identified with them.”

For an artist who professes to going with the flow, Kathy demonstrated a real strength of purpose. It was a bold move to draw in an outside producer, even bolder to turn away obviously commercial songs in preference for more artistic and spiritually-driven songs.

“When I approached this record I didn’t want to have to think about boundaries,” she offers. “I wanted to make good, honest music, and the whole album is very eclectic. I feel my approach is one of a human being singing to other human beings. I don’t think I’m just singing to all those women over forty, or all those career girls or all those cowboys. I don’t think of myself as a woman first—I think of myself as a human first.”

Mattea had found the song Love Travels at the time that her and Josh were splitting, while The End Of The Line, a Mary-Ann Kennedy and Kyle Fleming song, was one of the tunes that she had cut with Leo.

“We just could not get that song to work,” she reveals exasperatedly. “We chased and chased, but at the end of the day, the track just didn’t groove. I agonised over it for hours, but when we cut it again, it was the right time. It just fell into place.”

The result is an adventurous and utterly refreshing performance. Kathy’s singing has rarely sounded more compelling; her voice clear and communicative. Like the rest of the album, it showcases an artist who has learned to successfully balance her creative and commercial instincts: a rare gift.

Kathy’s insistence that she find the right song every time meant that she spent almost two years chasing Lionel Cartwright’s If That’s What You Call Love. She first heard the song at a big show put on by Cartwright’s publishing company, Warner-Chappell, featuring several of their main writers, including her husband Jon Vezner. Lionel was the last writer to play that night.

“There’d been all these great songs, then he got up and played that tune and everybody in the place just went nuts,” Kathy remembers. “I was in the back of the room where it was really crowded, and I wormed my way up through to the front and found this guy who worked there, and I said, ‘I know I’m fifteenth in line for the song, but I’d love to cut it.’”

Kathy was told that the song was not available because Cartwright wanted to use it as a means of landing himself a record deal. Previously he had enjoyed a run of hits on MCA, but has been without a label deal for the past four years. In the end, still struggling to find another major label deal, he reluctantly released the song.

“It just so happened that I’d started calling up the publishers,” continues Kathy. “It was two years down the line, and I had a feeling that I’d get that song, and had taken to calling the company every week. One week they just decided that it could be cut.”

All Roads To The River, was co-written by husband Jon and Janis Ian. In the past Kathy has recorded several of Jon’s songs including the award-winning Where’ve You Been, but she is quick to point out that, despite their relationship, she doesn’t have any special God-given right to his material.

“He doesn’t tend to write songs with anyone in mind, he tries to write with his heart,” she points out. “He writes when he is inspired, and then he’ll write four or five songs in a couple of weeks. He tries to do them from the point of view of saying something honest as opposed to writing something for a specific artist. I try and keep up with what he’s writing and if I’m not going to make a record for a while, I try to not snatch up the best ones.”

“At the same time, he tries to let me hear what he considers to be the really good ones, and makes suggestions without being too pushy about it. We try to respect one another and not take advantage of how close we are. I know if I get a burning feeling about a song, that’s the only time I’ll really say something. I try and hold out for the ones that I’m really dead sure about.”

Kathy and Jon were married nine years ago. The pair spend as much time together as they can and are very open and discuss all the aspects of both their careers. During the summer months, Jon often goes out on the road with Kathy, but neither claim to be driven by commercial success, preferring to maintain artistic integrity.

“It started out good, but after the first three years, all of the thrills go away and you find out who they really are,” Kathy laughs. “We do a lot of work to balance the whole thing and spend a lot of time talking about things. We plan the year together. We really work it out together. And I have to say that a lot of what makes it work is him. He’s a generous person and does fit in around my schedule.”

Jon and Kathy also share a great love of Celtic music. Over the years they have built up a strong friendship with Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean. It all began 10 years ago when New Grass Revival’s Pat Flynn was playing one of Dougie’s tapes. Kathy heard it and immediately fell in love with the music.

Initially, their relationship was very much on a musician-to-musician professional level, but Jon and Kathy ended up spending more and more time with Dougie and his wife Jenny. The friendship blossomed across more than 3,000 miles and led to a television company making a documentary about this remarkable pairing, something that Kathy still find incredible.

“It was interesting because we’d been friends for almost 10 years now, and then somebody was going to make a film about it,” she says bemusedly, referring to the recently screened BBC documentary, Songroads. “It’s still amazing to me that someone else gave us money to do it. I went: ‘Really, they want to do this? People won’t be interested.’ But I guess that for most of your life, you just don’t have any perspective on it.”

The initial problem was how to recapture the moment on film when Kathy and Dougie first met. At the time it was no big deal, and even now Kathy cannot adequately put into words just what took place.

“It’s something that happened organically, and then you want to put it on film. We spent a long time talking about the fact that we didn’t want it to seem contrived. We wanted to try and capture the real relationship. There was a lot of talk like: ‘Oh, let’s go and reinvent the moment that you guys first met.’ You can talk about it, but to do it would have looked totally stupid, and would have taken a lot of the heart out of it.”

“We’ve spent much more time not recording together than we have recording together,” she adds. “A relationship like this takes a lot of effort to maintain across an ocean of time. It’s invaluable the effort that you put into it and over the years it’s just fallen into place. You wind up managing to come over here and spending little time often enough and Dougie winds up coming through to Nashville and stays with us.”

Anybody who has seen a travelling performers’ schedule will know it is not quite as simple as it may first appear. Dougie rarely performs in Nashville and what happens is that when he has a couple of days off in the midst of a tour, rather than relaxing in whichever city he is staying, he will hop on a plane and fly out to Nashville to renew his friendship. Kathy and Jon do the same when they are in London for business. Rather than rush back to the States, they will stay over a couple of extra days and travel up to Scotland. Many times during the past 10 years Kathy has been in Scotland without her fans or British media even being aware that she is in the country.

“In your life, the people that are your real close friends, you pick up where you left off,” Kathy says passionately. “If you’ve not seen them for months, not even spoken to them, it doesn’t matter, because as soon as you get together, it’s as if you just pick up from the day before. It’s always been that way with Dougie and Jenny.”

Not one to be bound by the chains of convention, Kathy has taken her own musical exploration to Scotland and absorbed those Celtic traditions she discovered into her own music. Like Dougie, she has taken the tradition and given it a contemporary slant so that it sounds natural for a music fan of today. Country music has always been receptive to outside musical influences, though it is not quite as open to different cultures as mainstream popular music.

“People ask me how I got to know about these people, yet they don’t question people like Paul Simon getting together with South African musicians,” Kathy says indignantly. “It’s like they expect it from pop and rock artists, but with country musicians it somehow should not happen.”

The strong Celtic influence can clearly be heard on LOVE TRAVELS, especially in the vibrant title song and the compelling All Roads Lead To The River with its exquisite little production and heartwarming moments.

“I am naturally curious. If you have a real passion for music you can’t help it,” she says. “Over the years I’ve developed a following of people who are interested in my eclectic tastes and look to my records to provide them with different sounds and styles, and that’s been a really viable thing. If I get into trying to be too commercial, I run a real risk of alienating the very people that have given me the freedom to be who I am.”