First published in BROAD magazine, July 2017.
Last August, Deborah Conway received a firsthand reminder that music can transport us to a higher realm. The legendary singer-songwriter was watching the Punch Brothers, the Brooklyn bluegrass band whose lead singer, Chris Thile, received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, when she was struck by that experience familiar to every music fan: the virtuoso performance that leaves you a different person in its wake.
“Chris Thile is kind of god-like when he plays because he just never mucks up,” grins Conway, over the phone from her home in Melbourne’s Windsor, where she lives with her three daughters and partner, the guitarist Willy Zygier, her musical co-conspirator since 1991. “The Punch Brothers kept walking in, walking out and they were all around one microphone. It was an extraordinary musical moment because it was like watching acrobats defying gravity. The whole auditorium just floated out.”
Conway, who turns 58 in August, is no stranger to extraordinary musical moments, having architected a few of her own over the last 30 years. There’s “Man Overboard”, the 1985 anti-love song by Do-Re-Mi, the much-loved band that Conway fronted alongside drummer Dorland Bray, bassist Helen Carter and guitarist Stephen Phillips. (The music video, which features Conway in a newsboy cap snarling lyrics like I’ve heard about your fragile ego/your shield, your sword, over a dark, dirge-like bassline has to go down as the best eviction note to a sub-par lover in Australian music history.) Then there’s “Only the Beginning”, the breakout hit from String of Pearls, the solo album that cemented her status as one of the country’s powerhouse lyricists, while soundtracking the lives of a generation of complicated young women.
And then, of course, there’s 2013’s Stories of Ghosts and 2016’s Everybody’s Begging, critically acclaimed albums that were made in collaboration with Zygier and swap her rock n’ roll leanings for exquisite, acoustic-based songs that walk the listener through a shifting, swirling landscape of relationships, Judaism and grief. “We just celebrated String of Pearls’ 25th anniversary and performed it around the country, coupled with the album we just made,” Conway says. “You know, it’s interesting to look back and revisit all the milestones but I know that I’ve improved exponentially since my first solo record.” She pauses for a moment to consider it. “It’s brilliant to not have to compromise for someone else’s vision and to feel so in control.”
Conway grew up on a cul-de-sac in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak. Music was the defining force in her life as far back as she could recall. “There’s a photograph of myself in kindergarten as a three-year-old, where I was the conductor of the orchestra and I was always singing in the shower,” she laughs. Her parents, owners of an expansive record collection, introduced her to Broadway musicals as well as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, singer-songwriters for whom music was intertwined with story and as a teenager, the long-running music show Countdown and a trip to New York’s Tower Records (“I remember buying Al Green, Charlie Parker, Yes, Supertramp. Everything from jazz to folk to prog rock!”) widened her influences and sealed her musical fate.
At 18, she taught herself guitar and joined a local band called The Benders, later decamping to Sydney with Bray, the bandmate with whom she’d found artistic simpatico. In 1981, they formed Do-Re-Mi, finding stardom three years later with “Man Overboard.” Along with acts like The Saints and Models, they went on to become one of Australia’s seminal post-punk bands, signing to Virgin Records UK.
“The reaction to “Man Overboard” was surprising because it didn’t have a chorus and it had unusual lyrics but I understand it too because it didn’t really sound like anything else and that can work for you or against you,” says Conway, who’d already launched a modeling career and recorded a soundtrack for the ABC series Sweet and Sour. “It taught me that if you work very hard and tick the right boxes, what you’re passionate about can chime with the zeitgeist. Although, of course, sometimes that’s not how it works out.”
Although Conway, who ranks playing to 100,000 people at The Hague’s Milk Festival and performing at the ANU, a “beautiful, funny” concert where the audience threw toilet paper in lieu of streamers among her favourite memories, speaks warmly about the rise of Do-Re-Mi, evolution didn’t come until she embarked on her solo career, after the band split up in 1988. “When I was recording String of Pearls, I was experiencing a Renaissance burst of creativity and energy that had been building up for some time probably because of pressure from our label to write other things,” smiles Conway, who also made a dance record that’s never been released. “As it turned out, the record that I made on my own was never the kind that Do-Re-Mi would have made together.” String of Pearls, which included hits such as “Under My Skin” and “Release Me”, promptly went platinum and landed Conway an ARIA award for Best Female Artist. In 1994, she released Bitch Epic, a feminist call-to arms for which she posed on the cover wearing nothing but a coat of Nutella. Everybody’s Begging is her ninth album with Zygier. “We got a five-star review for it,” she says, beaming at the memory. “I was so chuffed!”
Here’s one script for music legends, particularly those that are talented, beautiful and female: get famous in your twenties and spend the rest of your career either letting the industry render you invisible or replaying your greatest hits. No such fate for Conway, who possesses a rare mix of generosity, fearlessness and creative integrity, that’s as focused on giving back as it is on pushing artistic boundaries. In 2009 and 2011, she was the Artistic Director of the Queensland Music Festival — later this year, she’ll tour regional Queensland, alongside Claire Bowditch and Katie Noonan, as part of Songs That Made Me, the festival’s mentoring program for aspiring female musicians. Then there’s Shir Madness, the Jewish Music Festival she’s co-run with Zygier since 2016, which will bring the likes of Renee Geyer and Grammy award-winning The Klezmatics to Melbourne in October. “I’m the festival director and he’s the artistic director,” she says, lighting up. “We’ve always thought of ourselves as musicians and as Jews but never Jewish musicians. Thinking of it that way was a real breakthrough moment.”
Does Conway, who was named a Living Legend by Rolling Stone in December 2016, believe that the challenges specific to women in the industry can sway their musical path? “I think it’s about the work, just concentrate on being the best you can possibly be and not about the feeling of being overlooked,” she says, matter-of-fact. “I believe in equality of opportunity but I don’t believe in equality of outcome — I really think that’s up to the amount of work an individual will put into their career.” After all, extraordinary musical moments don’t come easy. “These days, Willy and I are much tougher on each other than when we started. If you’re not going to be the hardest critic [of yourself] that you can be, you’re not going to come up with the best music you can make.”