Deborah Conway is a significant and eloquent contributor to Australian music, singing songs that chronicle the essential elements of life, love, loss, memory, the mundane and the spiritual. Restless and confounding, her powerful voice and presence has fascinated audiences for the past 30 years. A rare female agitator in a time when the music industry was male dominated; Conway continues to be a role model for young women and a mentor to emerging artists.
From the moment her band, Do Re Mi released the iconic Man Overboard, off their debut album Domestic Harmony in 1985, Conway has always followed her own path. The song was radically different to radio playlists, a rant on gender politics and without a chorus, yet it sat at the top of the charts and introduced her as a compelling force.
In 1986, relocated to Europe, Do Re Mi wrote & recorded a second album, The Happiest Place in Town. The single Adultery and album were well received but by the end of ’88 the band had split and Conway remained in the UK to work on a variety of projects. These included singing on The Iron Man by Pete Townsend, alongside Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker; and acting and singing in Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books, scored by Michael Nyman. Throughout this period Conway continued writing and in 1990 returned to Australia with an album’s worth of new material ready to record again.
Conway’s debut solo album String of Pearls, released in 1991, was a radical departure from Do Re Mi. Its themes of youthful reflection and tongue-in-cheek irreverence, embodied in It’s Only The Beginning, Release Me & the bittersweet title track, won her Best Female ARIA award that year. One of Australia’s emblematic female singer-songwriter albums, String Of Pearls found an essential and enduring place.
The album release was accompanied by an extensive national tour with band The Mothers Of Pearl in which Willy Zygier played guitar. This was the start of a highly successful songwriting and personal collaboration for Conway & Zygier that has resulted so far in eight records and three children.
In 1993, Conway & Zygier produced their first album together, Bitch Epic, the title coming from “random words, cut up and pulled from a hat”. From its distinctive cover, which saw Conway smeared with Nutella and little else, to its rich and complex musicality, Bitch Epic pursued a singular path. Once again radio was pushed unknowingly into adding unusual textures and sounds to their programming; the 5/4 beat of Alive and Brilliant and the loping, unique rhythm of Today I Am A Daisy both made their way onto the airwaves. Wanting to take music more respectfully at a time when most Australian acts were playing pubs and beer barns, Conway & Zygier became producers, underwriting The Epic Theatre tour in grand old theatres around the country.
In 1995, inspired by their first child on the way, Conway and Zygier formed Ultrasound, a band with the much missed Paul Hester (Split Enz, Crowded House) and Bill McDonald (Frente, Rebecca’s Empire). This eponymous & experimental album featured hypnotic and cinematic instrumental soundscapes as well as strange and otherworldly songs full of levity and menace. It was a radical step away from the pop world but yet another 5/4 song, 3 Love, made its way onto radio.
My Third Husband (1997) and Exquisite Stereo (2000) formed a diptych, two sides of the same coin, claustrophobic songs and harrowing tales told with grim humour. The former, written & recorded in London musically explored electronica; the latter, celebrated the full force of distorted electric guitars and drums and was recorded in Melbourne with the rhythm section from Augie March. The title track featured a duet with Neil Finn. These albums capped off Conway & Zygier’s years of working primarily with amplified instruments.
In 2001, Conway was cast in the title role of the theatre piece, Always…Patsy Cline, and began a love affair with country, roots and Bluegrass music. To accompany the production Conway & Zygier released PC The Songs Of Patsy Cline, an album of idiosyncratic versions of Patsy Cline songs, their theory being if you’re going to record classics you have a duty to make them your own. Conway was a natural Cline, loved by audiences and critics, she completely inhabited the role of the gifted country songstress who died far too young.
2002 saw the release of a Greatest Hits record, Only The Bones. It was an impressive collection of songs vividly illustrating the variety of musical twists and turns they’d taken and underlining Conway & Zygier’s reputation amongst fans and journalists for being wry and quirky observers of life.
In 2004 Conway and Zygier became truly independent and released Summertown on their own label. It was a total musical break from their previous collaborations, a sweet, breezy collection of lyrical optimism and irresistibly hummable melody. Summertown garnered enviable reviews and saw them reinventing relationships with audiences in a digital age in a very immediate and visceral way through home performances called Summerware parties. It startled media who were used to the standard barrier between performer and audience and spawned an outbreak of home party concerts.
In 2005, inspired by their adventure of new ways of bringing music to people, Conway and Zygier became producers again and launched the inaugural production of Broad. Broad combined female singer/songwriters from very different genres of music on stage together to contribute to each other’s music and explore, by way of conversation, their approach to their craft. Introducing a number of wonderful emerging artists to Australian audiences, the series of Broad productions continued in ‘06, ‘07 & ‘08 and featured the incomparable talents of Katie Noonan, Ella Hooper, Clare Bowditch, Mia Dyson, Kate Miller Heidke, Sally Seltmann and the late great Ruby Hunter, to name but a few.
In May 2008, Conway, recognised as an innovator and a generator of unique ways of presenting music to people, was offered the role of Artistic Director for the Queensland Music Festival. Conway is the first woman to direct this biennial state-wide celebration of music which is the largest by land mass music festival in the world. In July 2009 Conway’s QMF staged 44 events in over 20 regions to an audience of 140,000 across the state, including an opening event on Thursday Island with The Black Arm Band, Kev Carmody’s Cannot Buy My Soul at Brisbane’s Riverstage, Michael Nyman’s concert with William Barton and the premier Australian performance for legendary US saloon & swing maestro Dan Hicks. Conway is currently working on the 2011 program for the QMF.
Conway’s artistic director role is one in a career of extra curricular activities; writing music & appearing in Geoffrey Rush’s Belvoir Street production of Aristophanes Frogs alongside Toni Collette; accepting Paul Grabowsky’s invitation to present an evening of Conway & Zygier’s compositions at the Melbourne Concert Hall with the Australian Art Orchestra; performing in Andree Greenwell’s moving musical account of earliest female settlement of the colonies – Dreaming Transportation; writing & recording with classical composer George Dreyfus; recording with Brisbane band george their version of Man Overboard. But her career has always returned to the core business of writing and performing her songs.
In May 2010 Conway & Zygier will launch their 9th studio album Half Man Half Woman, recorded in Melbourne with producer James Black.
It is another passionate and accomplished singer/songwriter album that chronicles love in the middle ages, life in the 21st century and the human condition of now, then and what will be. It’s an album that gives equal weight to an eight-minute rant, a ninety second instrumental miniature and a song sung by their three young daughters and marks the next chapter of the half man half woman Conway Zygier project.
Reviews for Summertown
Blessed with an angelic voice, deft at lyrical wordplay and armed with a seemingly inexhaustive melody well, Conway – and partner Zygier – create songs which become best friends for life.
Summertown is magical. An acoustic album with classical moves, Conway is subtle and restrained. Partners in music and life, she and Zygier create upbeat gems, dramatic ballads, lullabies and pop with country music being an almost unconscious influence. Why Conway isn’t a world-famous diva is a mystery.
The Weekend Australian
Summertown is a lovely, acoustic set that is easy on the ear & gentle in spirit. Conway’s star has been recognised by Pete Townsend, Peter Greenaway and Paul Kelly. It’s time for the rest of us to catch on.