Those Were The Days, But Mary Hopkin Lives in the Present
An email interview with Rush Evans, August 2007
It was a voice of purity and clarity, strength and vulnerability, humanity and otherworldliness that somehow, amazingly, found its way onto the stage of popular music in 1968. It was fortunate that the simple beauty of Mary Hopkin's voice was heard at all among the angry, raucous, and impassioned sounds of the time. It was a voice that rang like a bell, simple and subtle, without gratuitous vocal acrobatics. And just as mysteriously as this haunting voice had arrived, it disappeared from the musical landscape.
"My first year in the music biz was very exciting," Hopkin says of that thrilling period. "I was meeting people who were my childhood idols – The Beatles, Tom Jones, Cliff Richard, etc. I didn't take it at all seriously, as I didn't expect it to last. However, after the first year, when things settled down a little, I realized that I was going in the wrong direction. The following two years or more were spent in fulfilling my commitments, and after that I was determined to take control and called a complete halt."
Mary Hopkin only wanted to sing. Even at eighteen, when her evocative chart-topping song was everywhere, she knew that she wanted solitude. It was a solitude designed not to fuel her mystique or to wrestle with creative demons away from the limelight a la Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett. On the contrary, Mary Hopkin's disinterest in public life was simply that. She was and is a normal woman intent on living life on her own terms with her own family and friends. And she still loves music.
Though she has in many ways achieved the simple life she sought, she maintains one extraordinary characteristic: an angelic voice, her understated instrument made of passion and technique in equal parts, only enhanced by her love of using it. This was true even back in the beginning, as she had to be coerced as a teen to pursue an appearance on Opportunity Knocks, the British television talent program in 1968. Her story from that point moves rather quickly: Famous model Twiggy was so moved by her performance on TV that she called her friend Beatle Paul McCartney, who was looking for new talent for the Beatles' new homegrown label, Apple Records. That is how an ordinary Welsh girl received a phone call from the most famous musician on the planet at the time. McCartney signed Hopkin to Apple, wrote a song for her ("Goodbye"), produced her album, and recorded a single for her that would soon knock his own "Hey Jude" right out of the Number One slot on the charts. "Those Were the Days" was an old Ukranian folk tune with a nostalgic feel set to new lyrics that were themselves about nostalgia. The song was an instant and memorable hit, catapulting the shy young woman to the fame that she so did not long for.
Forty years later, Paul McCartney is still the most famous musician alive, and Mary Hopkin is still content away from the public eye.
Mary long ago retired from live performances, and she grants no interviews—excepting this one only, by email, to discuss her music. Just this year, she has released Valentine, a collection of previously un-issued tracks from the seventies, and two years ago, she issued a live set, Live at the Royal Festival Hall 1972, which is as close as anyone will ever get hearing her perform live.
She has no desire to talk about her personal life or her Beatle memories from a time when she was a key player in the greatest show on earth, for what it was worth. That's okay, as there is plenty to be said about her body of work.
That Royal Festival Hall performance represents a crucial turning point in what was to become a rather unconventional life in popular music. "After I gave up the music business in 1972, after the Royal Festival Hall concert," she says, "I occasionally got involved in what I considered 'one-off' projects, with no intention of making a full-time commitment. However, the newspapers (apparently short of good stories) would report each project as a 'comeback', so it seemed as though I was interested in resuming my career. I have enjoyed these sporadic ventures, as it's fun to try new things, but my disillusionment with the music business remained and I had no intention of getting involved again."
Among the many one-off projects were brief periods as lead singer of two bands, Oasis and Sundance, and many songs for film soundtracks, including a noteworthy wordless vocal performance for the cult classic, Blade Runner.
In the late eighties, she recorded an album with limited release, Spirit, consisting of classical pieces that showcased her voice in a more sophisticated setting, that which it had always deserved, as a number of her Apple recordings were more lightweight than her personal tastes.
Among the early Apple recordings, she is most proud of Earth Song, Ocean Song, a tasteful collection of intimate folk arrangements produced by Tony Visconti, who would become her (now ex) husband and father of their two children. "It is one I could play today without embarrassment, and I feel it represents me (or at least a good part of me) perfectly. I still love all the songs, and the whole experience of making the album was wonderful."
The newly released Valentine collection consists of songs (including three originals) recorded around the same time as (and in the same spirit of) Earth Song, and Hopkin had both creative and practical reasons for sharing them with the world. "There were about thirty hefty 2-inch tapes weighing heavily on my mind, and also on my bedroom ceiling. They had been gathering dust in my loft for many years, and one morning I woke up to an ominous creaking sound, as a huge crack appeared in the ceiling. So, with some prodding from my daughter, we decided to release them from their dusty boxes before the ceiling fell in."
Another interesting recent project is a vocal contribution to Dolly Parton's respectable remake of Mary's timeless hit. "I was really pleased to hear that Dolly was recording 'Those Were the Days' and I was happy to do some background vocals for her. Her version is more robust and lively than mine, altogether a different interpretation, which was interesting. I've been a Dolly fan since I heard 'Jolene' on the radio many years ago. I love her more understated 'grass roots' music. We haven't met, but she sends me lovely messages."
Her personal fondness for the song with which she is forever associated makes for a providential legacy. "If one has to be eternally linked with any one song, then I'm relieved that it is 'Those Were the Days' and not one of my later singles. Although I'm flattered that Paul wrote 'Goodbye' especially for me, it was, I believe, a step in the wrong direction for me. I'm so grateful that he chose 'Those Were the Days' as my first single. I think 'Those Were the Days,' being originally a Ukrainian folk song, has a timeless quality, but 'Goodbye' is set firmly in the sixties pop era."
From a business perspective, though, there are certainly better things to be said of that sixties pop era, as the modern emergence of American Idol styled star-making machinery bears little resemblance to her own Opportunity Knocks beginnings. "I hated the idea of talent shows, but a local agent persuaded me to go along to an audition. When I appeared on the actual show, I was impressed by the great care that the organizers took to present the artists. We had individual orchestral arrangements especially written. We were treated with respect and presented as professionals. There was none of the public humiliation and destructive criticism of the artists that has now become acceptable. I find this quite abhorrent, and so only rarely (whilst channel-flicking) watch in horror while some poor soul is torn to shreds by a panel of egomaniacs we'd never previously heard of, all in the name of entertainment. If a true talent emerges from this awful weeding process, then he/she truly deserves to succeed. Yes, it's a highly competitive business, but surely there's still a place for some compassion and dignity."
Those thoughts represent the very reasons Hopkin is happy to be away from the spotlight. "There's absolutely nothing I miss about fame and recognition. From the moment I signed my first autograph, I disliked being recognized. I've always been very guarded about my privacy, and hated all the celebrity nonsense. I am, of course, very grateful for all the wonderful support that people have given and the creative freedom I now enjoy as a result of the early successes."
And so Mary Hopkin lives her musical life happily in her own world, writing and recording for fun with both of her adult children. She makes music for her own pleasure in her own universe; no celebrity nonsense needed.
Mary's cyberspace interviewer was unable to fully restrain himself from asking just one blatantly Beatlesque question, an irresistible curiosity involving a remarkable film clip that has surfaced on youtube.com: On a hillside, a young Mary plays a guitar and sings the beautiful song, 'Morning of Our Lives'; while a fluffy dog frolics in the grass. Is it possible that this is Paul McCartney's beloved Martha, the English sheep dog about whom he wrote in "Martha, My Dear" from the Beatles' White Album? "Yes, it was indeed the lovely Martha in the video," recalls Hopkin. "I had forgotten this reel existed until [my daughter] found it on Youtube. I was sitting in Paul's garden on a lovely summer's day, singing with guitar, while Martha completely upstaged me, rolling about with legs waving in the air – Martha, not me! I can't remember who was filming – it might have been Paul or Derek Taylor or anyone else."
The playful dog occupies a more vivid memory for her than the Beatle behind the camera, a memory consistent with her indifference toward celebrity. Why would it matter who shot the film? It's the beauty of the day and the song and the sheepdog that made the moment special.
And therein lies Mary Hopkin's world view. It's as clear as her voice.