Retrosellers interview

With Dave "Digger" Barnes, September 2010

The story of Mary Hopkin's 'discovery' has been well-documented - appearing on the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks, the world's leading model Twiggy saw the programme and called the world's top musician, Beatle Paul McCartney who then signed Mary as one of Apple's first artists. A fairytale launch for the eighteen year-old girl from Pontardawe.

Hits such as 'Those Were The Days' and McCartney's 'Goodbye' and celebrity followed, including the representation of the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, but Mary was really never happy with the showbusiness lifestyle and stardom, nor with touring.

It was said that Mary had become a recluse, whereas in reality she had simply decided to write, produce and record material on her own terms and work in the studio, ironically a decision similar to that made by her mentor McCartney and his colleagues a few years earlier.

Following her marriage to Bowie and Bolan's producer Tony Visconti, they produced probably her most acclaimed album Earth Song, Ocean Song, which included songs by Cat Stevens, Gallagher and Lyle and Ralph McTell.

Mary has worked with some of the greatest musicians, technicians and songwriters over the years and in a number of genres, including theatre, opera and musicals often returning to her beloved Welsh language. Full details of Mary's career are available on her website - link below.

These days Mary works with her son Morgan and daughter Jessica at their Space studios in Wales to write, record and release new songs as well as from a large back-catalogue of songs that Mary has written and not yet released. A new album, You Look Familiar, is shortly to be released.

This is the interview that Mary and Jessica kindly gave to Digger at www.retrosellers.com

Digger: Hello Mary and Jessica.

Jessica: Hello David. I'm here with Mary now.

Digger: This is very kind of you Mary, thanks very much.

Mary: My pleasure.

Digger: I've just had a good old listen to the Radio Wales interview from 2009.

Mary: Oh right.

Digger: That was an entertaining interview. The good thing about this one is it's not live and you can see it before it goes up on The Net, so you can relax a bit. Can you please tell us how the new album You Look Familiar came together?

Mary: We started it a few years back, my son and I. He had moved to New York, so we were working long distance. And Morgan would send me a track he'd created, composed and performed and I would generally write melody and lyrics to his chord sequences and arrangements. So it seemed to work very well and we carried on doing this and finally we have a finished album.

Digger: All due to the benefits of modern technology?

Mary: Yes. It's been wonderful, but he's come back since January to live in London, so it's a lot easier now.

Digger: So how is it going to be released? Is it purely digital or is it also going to be on CD as well?

Mary: I'll pass you over to Jessica because Jessica runs Mary Hopkin Music and releasing the album.

Jessica: Yes, it's going to be a CD release because that format is still very popular with Mary's fans - there'd probably be an outcry if it went to digital only.

Digger: They're probably like me, people of a certain age and I really do begrudge downloading music because I like to have something tangible in my hand.

Jessica: That's right. We always get asked for vinyl as well but that's really more than I can cope with but it's going to be on a CD and Morgan's done all the artwork and photos with Mary doing the concept. And then we do have a digital distribution company in London who help us out. All the stuff we've produced they've managed to get out there to HMV and iTunes and all around the world.

Digger: Super, you couldn't ask for a better distribution network.

Jessica: They're really good. A very small company, but they're really nice to work with.

Digger: The last musician I interviewed was Rod Argent and one of the things we talked about was Colin Blunstone's voice. And how it's changed over the years, in Rod's opinion for the better. Do you think your voice has changed, Mary, and if so has it changed for the better?

Mary: I would think so. I'm certainly more comfortable with my voice. Obviously I can't be objective about it but a lot of people say it hasn't changed. But what I find is that I've got a lower register now, which I like as well as the old higher register. So it gives me much more scope and I can express myself much more efficiently within the lower register because I also write more gutsy songs these days.

Digger: What do you do to keep in trim as it were?

Mary: B***** all. (Digger laughs) I'm incredibly lazy and to get in shape all I do is just sing.

Jessica: Mum always has a cup of tea with her.

Mary: Which I'm clutching now.

Digger: I know that the people at Radio Wales touched on this, but what's it like working so closely with family in these creative projects? Obviously you're proud that your kids are involved in music?

Mary: I could never have wished for a better team of people to work with. The talent is pouring out of them, God knows where they get it from but there you are! (All laugh) They're very, very talented but I think their father had something to do with that.

Digger: I was lucky to interview their dad three years or so ago, so it's quite a family affair on our website.

Mary: Well, Tony (Visconti) did some arrangements on Jessica's album. So that was certainly a family affair.

Digger: Yes. What does your Welshness mean to you?

Mary: Oh! A great deal I would say. On the cultural side, not on the political side (Laughs) I'm not interested in politics and all the pettiness. But I'm very proud of my Welsh origins and the culture and music and poetry of Wales. It has all meant a great deal to me, as it does most people brought up in Wales. You grow up surrounded by music.

Digger: It's almost like a cliche that if you come from Wales then you can sing but there must be some who can't sing a note?

Mary: There's some awful singers (All laugh) Terrible singers everywhere and good singers everywhere. You can't generalise but the LOVE of music is very strong in Wales and thankfully I think that's carried on in schools today where children are encouraged to sing. The competitive side, like the Eisteddfods, I've never known whether that's a great thing or not. But it certainly got us on the musical map.

Digger: A big tradition.

Mary: It is, from the earliest age you're up there reciting or singing your heart out or playing instruments so it's a very strong music culture. And I'm very proud of the Welsh language which is beautiful to music - I love singing in Welsh.

Digger: How strong is the Welsh language these days - is it holding its own, getting stronger?

Mary: It seems to be. Some of my family's kids - my cousin's oldest children were educated in Welsh and taught in Welsh and there's a revival certainly. I wouldn't know the statistics, you know, but certainly in Cardiff there's a big community that speak Welsh. And quite often you hear it spoken in the streets - I can't say the majority.

Jessica: Yes, you do hear it quite often.

Mary: And in the Welsh music scene there's quite a lot of Welsh-speaking artists. That's very strong here and that's lovely. The political side of it with the Welsh signs on everything I think is a lot of nonsense most of the time.

Digger: It must be very costly as well? When I was last there I was driving along the borders, for example, meandering from The Brecon Beacons to Abergavenny and Hereford and Gloucester and you are going from Welsh signs to English signs and the borders keep changing and take you by surprise.

Mary: Sometimes it's nonsense. The other day I came to a roundabout and it said 'Pear Tree Orchard Road' and in Welsh underneath it said 'Stryd Pear Tree Orchard'. (Laughs) Saying exactly the same thing basically.

Digger: Bureaucracy gone mad!

Mary: Every Welsh person can speak English but certainly the language as a beautiful language should be kept alive.

Digger: My lot are from Kerry but I didn't learn any Irish apart from the obvious - I wish I had done.

Mary: I'm pleased that it's being maintained. I think the real Welsh people are those who speak it naturally and it's being kept alive that way but there's a new breed of Welsh person, Anglo-Welsh I call them, who are the ones fussing about all these signs and often misspelling the Welsh anyway and not doing it right.

Digger: They're the equivalent of the Irish Plastic Paddies.

Mary and Jessica: Oh yes.

Digger: If you don't mind me saying, you showed a lot of character and guts to not follow the showbiz and celebrity route all those years ago...

Mary: (Laughs) Oh! Well thanks.

Digger: ... So what is it that you enjoy most about what you do now having taken the route that you chose?

Mary: Well, working with my kids is wonderful. Combined efforts - I feel as if now I am expressing myself as I've always wanted to and I'm not censoring myself. I'm just being myself and finding out what I'm about.

Jessica: I don't dare tell you to shut up.

Mary: She does try.

Digger: You were trying that one on with Radio Wales actually Jessica, weren't you? Trying to tell them that you are the ever obedient daughter? Methinks you claim too much.

Mary: She bosses me around really. She plays on that.

Digger: Another thing that I heard you touch on before was how The Internet allows people to self-publish and self-promote. I've just come back from Bestival - a good mixture of retro and contemporary acts, and I wonder what you both think of the state of British music and the technology that goes with it?

Mary: Jessica's more in touch with what's going on now. My kids feed me stuff and keep me vaguely in touch but a lot probably goes over my head.

Digger: Are you going to do any collaborations with contemporary folks? That seems to be the thing that musical elder statesmen and women do sometimes?

Jessica: I'd love it if Mary did that.

Mary: I'd love it if there were mutual respect there then I'd be happy to. But what I find though is that it was frustrating because every time I guested on something they said "Let's do a duet" and I agreed to do it and you're way back in the mix and barely there and I think "What was all that about?" Collaboration means equal shares to me. But I collaborate with my kids and they're very worthwhile people to work with. I'm quite happy working with them, but I'm always quite open to fresh projects except that we've got so much 'product' to get on with.

Jessica: There is so much still unrecorded, but what I think what we were discussing earlier today was the freedom to just create things spontaneously and fling them out like Blogs. All these ideas that Mary has that are really funny and really off the wall. These could be Blogs, Podcasts and so on via The Net.

Mary: But I don't think people would buy them. (Laughs) Rather daft ideas of mine.

Jessica: But a lot of other established artists are giving their music away or asking people to pay what they want. It's difficult trying to justify value because people are expecting to get music for nothing these days.

Digger: That's it. At the end of the day it is a business and you've got to make a living.

Jessica: Yes, eventually if nobody pays for music then there won't be any music.

Digger: What a musical heritage we've got so it would be nice if in 2050 we could have something similar to look back on.

Jessica: We need a change in attitude.

Digger: Are you at all technical, Mary?

Mary: Stop laughing Jessica.

Digger: What would young Mary have made of digital, iPods, Sat Navs, Mobile phones and The Internet?

Mary: I think as Jessica tells me - "Mummy your eyes are glazing over." To my credit, I'm learning Protools and I have two very good teachers here in Jess and Chris - Chris runs Space Studios here with Jessica. And about ten times a day I'm on the 'phone saying "Help!" I now do my own recording, so I can do the vocals and lay the basic tracks down and I'll often come to Space Studios to do a polished vocal - they have better mikes than I have and for the mixing certainly I need Chris's help. Morgan mixed this new album and I wouldn't go so far as mixing on my own.

Jessica: The reason we encouraged Mary to do her own Protools setup was because she's quite picky about the configuration and the setup and so we said "If you're going to be this picky, you need to do it yourself."

Mary: Type that up nicely please.

Digger: Does that mean she's not so picky now because she has to negotiate the technicalities?

Jessica: No, she's still as picky. I think she likes doing it now.

Mary: Yes, it is obsessive and editing I absolutely love. We did a sort of radio show including music in that and I just got completely obsessed with editing that.

Digger: When they did The Beatles Love album, there was loads of re-mastering and editing and fiddling that went on. When I first heard it, as a purist, I rather resented it and almost hated it, but as I listened to it again and again I actually preferred it over some of the original stuff, you know?

Mary: Yes, it's strange and you do adjust.

Digger: It's like that old phenomenon where you're used to a certain track order and when you hear a track end your brain expects another one to follow?

Mary: Yes.

Jessica: I like the idea that you can rejuvenate music.

Digger: Has anybody sampled Mary's music?

Jessica: The one that was Rachel's Song in Bladerunner.

Mary: Vangelis. They did something very strange with it.

Jessica: That appears on lots of chill out mixes. It was also sampled and pitch-shifted on a Future Sound of London track.

Digger: You have a lot of fans who have been with you all the way through. What's your relationship with them?

Mary: Very good. There's a handful that I've known forty years now and they're wonderful people, particularly Pat Richmond who purely off her own bat has started the fan website (www.maryhopkin.net). So anything you need to find out about me, then looks at Pat's site. They have been incredibly loyal over the years.

Jessica: There are more than three though mum.

Digger: (Laughs) I suppose Mary was talking about the die-hard original fans. Obviously you've got a huge fan base?

Jessica: I deal with the fans all the time and there's some who are willing to accept the new Mary and a lot of fans who, no matter what we put out on Mary Hopkin Music, they really don't want to know unless it sounds like Goodbye or Temma Harbour or Those Were The Days. There are people who love the preserved Mary of 1968.

Mary: It's a bit bizarre because they still expect me to have the blonde hair and I think really that would now look a bit daft.

Digger: There's an American west coast thing going on there, expecting someone to be forever young.

Mary: Yes, I do say I've moved on. Move away now please.

Digger: What do you think are you biggest accomplishments and what would you still like to achieve?

Mary: Um, I'm really doing now what I've always wanted to do, which is do things in my own way and time and with people I respect. I wasn't always able to do that while I was initially in the music business and I found it difficult to be my own boss really. Now I can work with Jessica, Chris and Morgan here at Space Studios and I feel totally at home in the studio. We can be as creative as we want to be, on our own terms and I don't have to pander to anybody which is lovely really. Obviously, I hope people enjoy the new music, but I think a lot of the older fans may not accept the new music and say "What does she think she's doing? But that's for them to deal with and I'll just carry on doing what I want to do.

Digger: At least you don't get the issue that some musicians get where they go on tour and they want to play their new stuff but the audience is expecting a medley of the old hits. Because you don't tour, you don't get that problem.

Mary: No and that's one of the reasons really because I don't then feel I'm in control. And, as you've gathered, I'm a control freak. (Laughs)

Digger: It's a phrase. All it really means is that you want to get it exactly right and on your terms. You can't rely on sound people at theatres you only visit once in a while to get it right.

Mary: I found the whole thing of touring is something I can't bear - the hotels, the lugging guitars and baggage around. I don't like any of it really. But I love being in the studio and I love being creative in the studio and so I'm really doing exactly what I want to do and so this is my fulfillment really.

Digger: I guess that's the plan for the future? To do more of the same?

Mary: Basically, yes. We've got a lot of songs that I've written over the years that I haven't put down yet and Jessica here is digging me in the ribs saying "Get on with it." So I probably just will in my own time.

Digger: Are the inspirations for songs any different now to what they were forty years ago?

Mary: Yes, I think I used to write songs that I thought people would allow me to write and now I write what I want to write. (Laughs) They can take it or leave it but I hope they enjoy it all the better. It's not going to change the way I write now. And working with Morgan has enabled me to write a different kind of song because his backing tracks are so wonderful it inspires a different kind of song. I would write with my guitar or my piano because I have a different musicianship. And the same with Jessica - I write a different kind of song with Jessica and they're both very inspiring.

Digger: I'm looking forward to hearing the new album. How many tracks are there on You Look Familiar?

Mary: There are ten on this new album.

Digger: Are they all very different from each other, is there a theme running through? Do they span a wide period of time?

Mary: I think, with a couple of exceptions, the main theme is introspection really. Trying to work out who we all are and there's an element of finding yourself if that doesn't sound too...

Digger: That sounds very sixties!

Mary: Yes, I suppose it is really. Well, that's appropriate for my age, isn't it? If you don't start asking questions by the time you reach my age then it really is a wasted life. So you really need to be looking. I hope they won't sound preachy, because they're not. It's usually me, if there's a question in the song, asking myself for the answer.

Jessica: Musically it's a nice mix, I think. Some pop and some more serious.

Mary: I hope I've offered a nice blend. I like to express different aspects of myself, some humorous and some poignant. Some a little bit naughty.

Digger: Sounds good to me. I don't trust people who aren't musical or who don't have a sense of humour. Well, I hope this hasn't been too arduous for you?

Mary: No, it's been lovely.

Digger: Good. I found some photos and you'll find some of them hilarious, I think. Lots of publicity shots, from the late sixties, early seventies, probably lots from around the Opportunity Knocks time. Some of them I hope you'll find amusing, including one where the photographer has asked you to try to stretch to pick an apple from the tree so that your mini skirt is even shorter than it should be.

Mary and Jessica: Oooh!

Mary: I came across a few of those.

Digger: If you could find some more contemporary photos, that would be appreciated.

Mary: Not from my thunder thighs days.

Digger: I wouldn't say that.

Mary: It was all that high living.

Digger: It's been great talking to you both, thanks very much for that. And Jessica thanks very much for organising this.

Jessica: It was lovely and thanks for doing your research.

Digger: It was a real privilege. People have talked about Mary being a National Treasure and a Legend. It must be really strange being called things like that. (Mary laughs) I spoke to Dame Vera Lynn about four months ago so now I have spoken to two National Treasures!

Mary and Jessica: Ahh!

Digger: I wonder what the collective noun is for National Treasures? I don't know. Thanks for that and thanks for your time.

Mary and Jessica: Thanks you very much.

Digger: Take care. Bye.

Mary and Jessica: Bye.