Mary Hopkin: Those were the days? Not for me

The singer shot to fame in the glitz of the Swinging Sixties. But she is much happier now, she tells Alan Franks for The Times, 6th June 2009.

More than 40 years after being discovered on Opportunity Knocks, getting launched by the Beatles’ new label and soaring on her high Welsh voice to the top of the charts in Britain and the US, Mary Hopkin is back. Sort of. If you were too young, or unborn, she was the long-haired blonde girl, barely out of school, who sat on a high stool and sang Those Were the Days to the tune of an old Lithuanian folk song.

It was 1968 and the Fab Four had just started Apple Records. This single was one of their first two releases. The other was their own Hey Jude, which spent several weeks at No 1, and when they were dethroned, it was by their own protégée. The 17-year-old from Pontardawe was as fragrant as a shampoo advert and sang with unforced purity. Here was a shot of commercial innocence into pop’s seedy body, a sort of non-toxic Marianne Faithfull. The only trouble was, she hated the whole business and couldn’t wait to get away.

And so she did, though not entirely, since the man she married was the legendary American rock producer Tony Visconti, who has worked with everyone from David Bowie to Morrissey and Manic Street Preachers. They had two children, both now musicians and producers, but divorced in the early 1980s.

The reason that you are reading about Mary Hopkin again is that she has made a discovery — when a crack appeared in an unsupported panel of her attic. A number of forgotten old tapes came tumbling out, ancient reel-to-reels containing recordings of dozens of unreleased songs, performed by her and produced by Visconti. A selection of these remastered sessions forms her new CD, Now and Then.

She still has an undimmed hatred of anything resembling limelight, but when she does talk it is with hilarious contempt for the world that kidnapped her and made her fortune. She winces as she remembers the horrors of being pushed into cabaret on the back of her chart success. “Oh, I once went on at the Savoy, and I just wanted to run away. Such terror. The choice of songs wasn’t even mine. There was this very camp producer and he’d come up with a song for me called A Super Special Ordinary Person Like Me. I said I wouldn’t do it, but he insisted. And then, when I got on stage, I could see Paul [McCartney], Linda [his wife], Ringo and Maureen [his wife], sitting right there in the front row. I didn’t know they were coming and I thought, ‘Oh, no, this is the end.’ They were sweet, and said it was lovely. But it was cringeing.”

Hopkin takes some getting to. Her website is not encouraging. This, for example, under frequently asked questions: How can I get in touch with Mary? “You can e-mail us but don’t count on having a reply.” I want to ask Mary about her time at Apple. “Sorry, we can’t help with this at all.” Can I have a signed photo? “Afraid not.” When will Mary perform live again? “Mary prefers not to perform live any more.”

She is to be found deep in an industrial estate not far from the centre of Cardiff. Inside a reddish block of a building is the studio where she spends her working days. With her is her 32-year-old daughter, Jessica, who runs Mary Hopkin Music, set up four years ago to release her new material. Jessica’s elder brother, Morgan, has also worked here, although he is now based in Manhattan.

Mary is 59. No more long blonde hair, but still the demure set of the mouth and the modest downturn of the eyes remembered from early LP sleeves. Yet she sounds so sure of her direction, so determined not to be pushed around that you find yourself wondering how she ever let herself get roped in for the Eurovision Song Contest. It was 1970, the year after Lulu had won with Boom Bang-a-Bang. Hopkin came second, behind the Irish entrant Dana, with Knock Knock Who’s There.

“I got pushed towards pop,” she says. “I was on a treadmill. It was showbiz. I was very young. When I got to London, the 18-year-olds seemed very sophisticated, but in fact they were really very immature, with their drugs and their parties. I never got into it. I had some friends, who’d also been signed up to Apple, and they said, ‘We had a great trip on Sunday’, and I said ‘Brighton?’ But of course they didn’t mean that at all. I was very naive, but in some ways a lot more mature. I thought, how childish, they’ve all got dummies in their mouths. All that oral gratification. So silly, I didn’t see the point. I didn’t mean it in a moralistic way. Just, if you’re having a great time, why numb it?”

It was the model Twiggy who saw Hopkin on Opportunity Knocks and told McCartney that he should take a look at her. So along came a car to take her to London for an audition. He thought she was the business and his instincts were right. He was, as Hopkin says, very commercially minded, and here perhaps was the problem. Listening to these new releases, recorded after her first emergence, in the Seventies and early Eighties, the singing sounds vastly more rounded and reflective, at times a little like the revered Sandy Denny, who died in 1978. With covers of Bert Jansch and Tom Paxton songs, as well as several of her own compositions, Now and Then is the resumption of a folk-based career briefly interrupted by global fame.

“Paul’s aim was to guide me into a more commercial sphere,” she says, “and I rebelled against it. He wanted me to try Que Sera, and I said, ‘But I used to sing that when I was 3.’ I loved it but I didn’t want to record it. But I turned up, Ringo was on drums, and then afterwards I said I really didn’t want that going out as the next single . . . and then Eurovision was the last straw. I was told they would raise the standard of song, but they didn’t.”

Then she met Visconti, whom Apple had hired as a substitute for the producer Mickie Most. “I don’t know what he saw in me. I think I’d just arrived from a riding lesson, red-faced as a beetroot, and there’s this gentle, cool, long-haired American.”

Finding these tapes so many years after they had divorced was odd, Hopkin says. Apart from the songs, there he was, talking to the musicians in the studio. It brought back good memories, which was painful in itself. Visconti remarried and had more children. Jessica and Morgan have remained close to their father. Hopkin is now on good terms with him, but this was not always so. “It was quite acrimonious at the time, and we weren’t in touch for years.”

Has she ever remarried? “No, thank you. Once was enough. I love my solitude and my independence, and I’m so glad to be living back in Wales.”

She remembers the launch party for her first album, Post Card. McCartney had hired the revolving restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower. Everyone was there. She had Eric Clapton on one side, Ginger Baker, the Cream drummer, on the other. Her parents and sisters had come up from Wales. So had her grandmother, Blodwen. The elderly woman said she’d been talking to a young man who was interested in her life in the Welsh countryside, asking her questions about the cows and the milking. She had no idea who he was, but said he was “a very nice little boy”. It was Jimi Hendrix.

“Didn’t you use to be Mary ’opkins?” they ask her in the street. Since they always get the name wrong, she can say no without lying. Were those the days? For just about everyone else, yes. But not for her. These are the ones, right now.

Now and Then is released by Mary Hopkin Music;