In his feature-length directorial debut, Matthew Walker’s I’m Wanita screened at this year’s Raindance Film Festival, picking up the award for Best Music Documentary along the way.
After 25 years of trying to break into country music, singer Wanita finds herself exactly where she started. Troubled with alcoholism and balancing her life as a sex worker, the break into country stardom never materialised. When a stranger offers to fund what Wanita has always dreamed of, she sets her sights on recording her next album in the home of honky-tonk; Nashville, Tennessee.
To mark its UK premiere, The Indiependent spoke to Walker and Wanita herself about new beginnings, classic country, and sticking to your guns when hope is lost.
The Indiependent: Matthew, did you have an interest in country music before making the documentary, or were you drawn to Wanita’s character?
Matthew Walker: I didn’t have a huge interest in country music, but I wasn’t disinterested. I’ve learned an awful lot about it. I always knew it was a genre of music that cool people loved and respected. I’d heard all the normal stuff, like Johnny Cash, but Wanita sent me on a pilgrimage into the classic canon of vintage country music. I came to love it. I was drawn to this story as the story of someone who’d tried to break into music and hadn’t quite got there.
This journey started as a short film in 2017, Heart of the Queen. Would you say this is a story that was always meant to be told?
MW: Perhaps I was drawn in by cosmic forces! It was pretty strange the way it happened. I got a call from someone I hadn’t seen in a long time, and was asked whether I wanted to come to Tamworth’s Country Music Festival in 2014. I had some free time, met Wanita and started filming her pretty much instantly. It took me about 20 minutes to fall in love with the story.
Was deciding how you wanted to tell the story a collaborative effort?
Wanita: Everything’s got rules for things to flow. With Matty’s genius direction, he was able to execute that with me still being blatantly myself. Dialogue just evolved as we went.
One of the wonderful things about the documentary is how personally attached viewers feel to every person on the screen, even if just for a second. How did you find ways of trying to get the best out of those you worked with?
W: They did it themselves. I’ve always believed that in your band you get great musicians, great artists, and great people. Then you don’t have to tell anyone what to do. None of us really had to be directed, unless a shot wasn’t clear.
MW: We didn’t do that very much at all. I didn’t make any attempt to do anything that wasn’t authentic. Wanita would’ve been straight onto me! I didn’t really mind where the story went. It was good that we had the “I’m going to Nashville” hook, because that allowed investors to understand what the story was. But I had no assumptions. I was more looking out for serendipities and coincidences.
Wanita, you mention in the documentary that ‘Wanita’ is a character. You come across as very open and honest. Has that always come naturally to you?
W: Yes. I just hope that this film will be known for how you could live your life, or how you choose not to. I was someone that allowed myself to be filmed and produced during the most vulnerable period of my life, irrespective of ‘warts and all.’ I’d like to be known for the person who splayed their entrails on the tarmac. I don’t know of anyone else that’s done that.
Did you enjoy the experience?
W: Absolutely. I’ve always felt that I would be successful one day, I just didn’t know how. None of this is any surprise to me. I knew something would break one day. This is what I was designed to do. A lot of problems in the film naturally resolve from me doing what I was designed to do. Be someone that is humble, gracious, wants to help other people—and hopefully, be one of the greatest country singers in history.
We see so many different parts of what makes you you. Would you say you feel accepted by the country industry as authentically who you are?
W: No. Absolutely not. I’m probably too rock’n’roll for them. I’m a country singer in a rock’n’roll persona. I’m not saying it’s their fault. At the end of the day, I’m someone who needs to be told what to do. Take the stresses away and I’ll never fail in a performance. Now, things are a lot easier. If I’d have had that early on, who knows where I’d be.
Is that what you mean by “country music is in the wrong era?”
W: That means I knew I was on the outs with the music I wanted to express when Billy Ray Cyrus was doing ‘Achy Breaky Heart.’ I knew in 1984, when I was about 15, that I was never going to fit in. I gave up on myself a bit. The era that I wanted to be in was gone. Not completely, but on the level I needed to be a country star.
I stuck with my guns and probably created my own genre to suit me. [With] the rock edge of Janis Joplin, but still authentic to the likes of Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams. I’m not knocking it, but country pop should be a different genre. People like me shouldn’t have to compete with it.
There’s lots of different musical influences in your album. Was that a natural decision?
W: Yes. I’ve always loved ‘roots’ music; jazz, rock’n’roll, blues, country, opera… I’m very eclectic. I became ‘the Queen of honky-tonk’ because people told me I was good at country. Once I started to explore other music, I plucked the influences that appealed to me, and hopefully ‘Wanita’ is Wanita genre!
How did you find working with Billy Yates? Did it live up to your expectations?
W: Absolutely brilliant. Him and Larry Beard were incredible. Once I knew they were impressed, I felt comfortable. Leading up to it, I was concerned they’d think I was a country hick from the backlogs of Australia, or that I wasn’t good enough. To me, I don’t sound like the greats that I listen to. Feeling good enough has always been at the back of my mind. But I’ve always kept going, because I don’t know when to stop.
There are so many talented individuals featured throughout the documentary. Was there ever a pull to make the film’s focus broader?
MW: It was always going to be Wanita. Everyone was interpreting her, like a planet that everything circles. They spin off into their own little orbits every now and again, but Wanita’s spirit holds everything together.
The UK accounts for a huge chunk of global country music fans. Would you ever consider looking for success here?
W: If you want me, I’m there. There could be a family matinee, and late night gigs for a more artistically vocal Wanita.
You finished recording the album, then there was a year’s wait until it was promoted. What did that year look like for you?
MW: We went into lockdown at the end of the film’s edit. There was a long wait to find out if we’d got into any festivals, which was quite tortuous. After getting into our first festival, they started to roll in. It’s been really beautiful. A long, drawn-out, joyful experience.
W: It’s given everyone something to look forward to, with all that’s going on in the world. I’ve written a couple of songs, had time to reflect and get healthier. I’d lost my husband by the time the film was finished. But we’re here.
What’s next for you both?
W: I’d love to see more cinema releases, and see everyone who worked on the film get more success in their field. I’d like to tour and promote the album, be singing more.
MW: I’d love to see Wanita have a career off the back of this. Record another album, get a great band behind her and go out there. It would be great if the film could take a place in Australian filmic culture.
You can read our review of I’m Wanita here.
Words by Jasmine Valentine
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