360°Sound spoke with Wanita Bahtiyar, “Australia’s Queen of Honky Tonk,” and Matthew Walker, director of the documentary I’m Wanita, over Google Meet. The film, which made its world premiere at Hot Docs, follows Wanita on her quest to become a country music star. The red-headed singer in her late 40s lives in Tamworth, Australia’s country music capital, and channels the traditional sounds of her idol Loretta Lynn. As she pursues her lifelong dream of cutting a record in Nashville, her inner demons get in the way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Wanita: Well, I pretty well had a nervous breakdown. I use this phrase quite frequently, that I’d strewn my entrails on the tarmac as the jet went off. Basically, I had disemboweled myself to the world, so it was very confronting. Realizing, of course, that a lot of the footage was in festival mode and during manic, exciting periods. I’m not that crazy all the time. I don’t drink all the time. I’m on Nicorette spray so I don’t smoke cigarettes all the time. And I’ve got a cuppa tea, no vodka or anything.
Matthew, I understand you did a short film about Wanita in 2015. Tell us about your decision to turn her story into a feature.
Matthew: There was a guy called Bado who was a supporter of Wanita. He helped finance her first album, her previous album [2013’s The Original Wanita].
Wanita: And I did pay him back every cent, too, by the way.
Matthew: He was just like, ‘Somebody needs to make a documentary about Wanita. Crazy shit happens around this woman all the time.’ A person I knew happened to be there while he was saying that. She called me up and said, ‘Do you want to come and shoot a film about this woman?’ We went up there. And maybe after the first day of shooting, Wanita threatened to sack me after about half an hour because we were doing dolly shots of the car instead of getting right in there.
Wanita: And asking me to do shit, like choreograph stuff. You can’t choreograph me.
Matthew: Having known a lot of musicians and being an amateur musician myself through my 20s, that really resonated with me at that level immediately. And the fact that Wanita could express all that stuff. All the stuff that other musos would maybe not say so eloquently. Immediately I went, ‘Whoa, there’s something here.’ That process of the short film took two years. It was a joint winner at a festival in Australia.
I was approached by somebody who said, ‘That’s the start of something. You haven’t finished.’ We went for development funding with Screen Australia. [Producer] Carolina [Sorensen] came on board. I showed her the trailer I’d made. She called me up and said, ‘This is how we can do it. Here’s the budget.’ And we just launched into it at that point at the start of 2017.
What was it like having Wanita as your documentary subject?
Matthew: Wanita would answer any question. And she would answer it eloquently and forthrightly, and she didn’t censor herself. She didn’t try to be consistent across days. Whatever mood Wanita was in, that was what you were hearing. I loved the realness of that. With Wanita, there’s no fear of contradiction.
Wanita: I reckon if you’re having a shit day, everyone should know about it. If you’re having a great day, everyone should know about it. Not everyone should know about it, but it’s the truth. People try and conceal stuff to be accepted or fit into a margin. That’s too complicated.
Matthew: I’ve done really formulaic stuff, and it really suited my approach to follow the chaos and embrace the chaos. Go with the haphazardness. Look for serendipity and not know where the story is going. Even if I thought I knew where the story was going, I was very pleased to find out I was wrong all the time.
Wanita, what do you love so much about classic country?
Wanita: I like the realness. The sadder the song, the happier I am. I identified very early on. I recollect around about age 3 I could reach up high enough to use the record player. I had options of pop music. I remember getting [the Australian compilation] 1980 The Summer for Christmas. I went out to my uncle’s and brought in all these Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and Buck Owens tapes. I thought, ‘Fuck this.’ I figured out how to record over the new cassette I just got. I got in trouble for that. I didn’t want to listen to Leo Sayer or Donna Sumer.
Loretta Lynn, let’s face it, is the greatest female country singer that ever lived. George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, it just resonates with me. I had options. All my peers listened to other stuff, but that’s what I wanted to listen to.
One of my favorite scenes was of you recording at Sun Studio in Memphis.
Wanita: There’s a bit of a discrepancy there. We had a bit of trouble with one of the guitar players. After a couple hours, I got the shits and I got on the piss, and I was portrayed in the movie as probably worse than what it was. I could have done 10 songs. I was ready for whatever. Then there was this bottle of Jack Daniel’s and I said, ‘I’m gonna requisition that for the United States Cavalry!’ And I poured it into a glass and I drank it.
Another standout scene to me was when you played a song for a woman at the airport. She was moved to tears.
Wanita: She was on her own and I could see this sadness in her eyes. I said, ‘Do you want to cuddle?’ And I gave her a cuddle. I said, ‘What’s wrong, darling?’ She said her grandmother had just died and a portion of her family had been a car wreck trying to get to the funeral. She was waiting for her brother and the airplane was late. I said, ‘Fuck it, let’s sing her a song.’ Archer gave me his guitar and I just sang Loretta Lynn’s “Darkest Day,” and I sang a bit of a Patsy Cline number. I just wanted to keep her entertained and wouldn’t let anyone leave until her brother arrived.
Matthew: It’s typical of Wanita that no matter what else is happening and how frustrated people are, Wanita will turn around the situation and do things exactly the way she wants to do them.
Tell us about the new album recorded in Nashville, I’m Wanita.
Matthew: Just came out. [Shows the CD]. I’m thinking maybe a month off from going [on streaming]. By July is the plan, I think.
Wanita: The tour will start in September or October to promote the album. That will be in various locations around Australia. The Yanks, the Americans, I mean, certainly know what they’re doing. They’ve got country music down pat. [Nashville producers] Billy Yates and Larry Beaird were just brilliant. All the musicians were world-class. It has been said to me that it is one of the greatest country albums of all time. Allen Caswell actually said that, a very famous Australian singer-songwriter.
I write very simple country-rock blues with Western swing songs, but I put very deep philosophical messages in the songs so that no one misses out. It’s not as simple as you think. If I’m referring to a man, I’m referring to the bloody world. Or a woman or a gay relationship or something that’s happening in the world that’s political or whatever, there’s always some bloody message.
You said in the film that you were born in the wrong era. You said that Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks in the ‘90s was when country started going downhill. What’s your take on the current country landscape?
Wanita: George Jones nailed this. And this is exactly what I say. There’s nothing wrong with the music that they’re doing. It just should be called something else, so the traditional country music people, purists such as myself, don’t have to fucking compete with it. They should just call it something else, take it somewhere else, and that genre is that genre. Country music is country music. If something doesn’t need fixing or altering, why alter it?
What do you hope the doc will do for your career?
Wanita: I’d love someone, like Coal Miner’s Daughter, to play a movie on my life. I’d challenge any bugger to give that a crack. I could act the older scenes. And to get to perform at the Grand Old Opry and meet Loretta Lynn. I could drop dead on stage then and I’d be happy.