Nice girls don’t … smear Nutella over themselves and sing about pubic hair. However, Deborah Conway, a woman show eschews marriage but whose new CD is called My Third Husband, has always been determined to do things her way.
By Nikki Barrowclough. Good Weekend 4th October 1997
Deborah Conway is sitting in a cafe in sydney immediately next door to the cafe in which she said she’d be waiting. So, with the kind permission of the waitress, I take my strawberry frappe and move along the pavement to join the singer at a corner table where she’s sipping a strawberry frappe of her own.
She doesn’t glance up, but there’s no mistaking that magnificent slash-and-burn mouth which gives her a kind of voluptuous, devouring beauty.
The diaphanous eyes, on the other hand, palest hazel with their so-direct gaze, could almost have been stolen from another woman’s face.
“Russian, way back, on my father’s side, Spanish on my mother’s,” Conway says of her ancestory.
The singer/songwriter from Melbourne is back in Australia after two-and-a-half years in London, in tiem for the release, later this month, of her third solo album, ironically titled My Third Husband.
Conway’s partner, guitarist and collaborator Willy Zygier, co-wrote My Third Husband, and is also the father of her two-year-old daughter, Syd Dolores.
Why the name Syd? “After the luggage labels,” Conway replies, “Dolores … after Nabokov’s Lolita. She was a Dolores. I wanted something lush and sexy for a second name.”
Conway began her professional and personal relationship with Zygier during the making of Bitch Epic, her second solo album, which was released in 1994. It’s a relationship that, like others before it, she refuses to discuss.
The press has never succeeded in breaching her defences. “I think people who (ask) for that sort of celebrity generally invite it in, and then repulse it, by which time it’s too late,” she says dryly.
Conway’s family name was Cohen. Her father, a lawyer, who emigrated from England to Australia as a teenager, changed it to counter anit-Semitism when he set up his law practice. Conway’s parents wanted her to become a lawyer as well. When she told at the age of 19 that she wanted to be a rock singer, they packed her off to see a psychiatrist (who took Conway’s side).
After a successful stint as a model, she went on to become the frontwoman with Do Re Mi, one of Australia’s star pop acts in the 80’s. Their 1985 debut single, Man Overboard (vetoed by the BBC for its mention of pubic hair), made Conway an overnight idol. After several charttopping years with the band, Conway went solo. Her critically acclaimed first album, String of Pearls, sold 70,000 copies and won her best female performer at the 1992 ARIA awards.
Over the next three years, she performed in clubs and pubs for a growing coterie of ardent fans, did theatre, made a movie with director Peter Greenaway (Prospero’s Books) and wrote more songs. In 1994, she met Zygier and fell in love. The following year, they decamped with four-month-old Syd to Britain for the European release of Bitch Epic.
In London they discovered that the fledgling English arm of Mushroom Records was not properly set up to give them the backing they needed to promote the album. “We sort of knew (about the problem) before we left,” Conway admits. “But I was being indomitable: ‘I’m going and you can’t stop me!'”
She and Zygier decided the only thing to do was to get busy and write a new album.
“I always wante to use the phrase ‘my third husband’,” Coway explains. “I always thought it would be worth getting married and building up (to the point) where you could finally say ‘My third husband and I.’
“But I can’t summon the courage to marry even for the first time,” she adds.
It’s all to do with her attraction to instability, she says. (She liked the way she and Zygier had to free-fall in London.) But she does admit that she needs a temporary stability in order to write. “I used to really like my little flat in St Kilda Road in Melbourne, overlooking the railway line. The flat had this deeply poetic, romantic feel about it. I wrote String of Pearls there.”
She describes working in a room where the television shook and the whole building vibrated every time a train passed, and talks of gazing out the window, enjoying the fact that she didn’t know where the trains were heading.
This conscious casting of herself in melancholy solitude makes her seem, as one devoted Conway fan observes, “like a character from a Raymond Carver novel”.
Conway says she gets “terribly black” when she’s writing and describes the new album as introspective. “A lot of it’s to do with mortality and a lot to do with sex. It’s a late-night, headphones sort of record, a much more complex record, that take you around in circles before it takes you to its emotional heart, I think.
“That’s also how England works in a way,” she adds. “I think Australians say anything to anyone and it’s sort of meaningless. The British say nothing, and everything is in the meaning of their nothings.”
The ABC’s Elle McFeats, who says a lot about everything, got into a bathtub with Conway to film an interview with the singer for the 1994 McFeast documentary Sex, Guys and Videotape. Both were naked.
Perhaps McFeast was inspired by the famous sleeve photographs of Bitch Epic, which displayed Conway’s torso bared and smeared with two jars of Nutella. Her mother’s reaction, she says, was to remark that a little more mystery might be a good thing.
On the other hand, Mushroom boss Michael Gudinski complained that Conway utterly failed to capitalise on her sensual good looks when she wore golf pants in the video clip for Only the Beginning (the first single from String of Pearls).
“There was a discussion late one night. There were a few people who involved (and) some of them said things they deeply regretted the next morning, and one of them wasn’t me,” says Conway grimly.
Of the criticism itself, she adds, “It was laughable. I suppose we all have different ideas of what sexuality is. I think sexuality is about appearing to be a strong person who knows her own mind and is independent.
“Some people think sexuality is all about being vulnerable – like Marilyn Monroe – while someone like Katharine Hepburn bases her sexuality on being strong. Some people don’t think Hepburn is sexy – I happen to think she’s very sexy. I’d like to think that’s what I was aiming for in that video.”
In three year’s time, the singer will turn 40. “A lot of people I’ve talked to feel similarly to me – that they’ve reached some sort of watershed in their lives,” she remarks. “I suppose there’s a point when you think, ‘God, it’s no tall stretching out before me forever.’
“I read a lot of Syliva Plath when I was away. I read her letters, and she seemed to be a young woman who, at the age of 16 or 17, was totally aware of her mortality – completely aware of the limited time she had. It’s terribly rare to find that.”
It’s in this vein that Conway mentions that she likes songs about memories, “and the unresolved ambitions you become aware that you can’t fulful for whatever reason”.
Of songwriting itself, she observes, “There has to be a core of truth. People know when there’s no truth. Whether you’re someone who’s been abused or bashed up, or loved or left – it doesn’t really matter. It’s not the mechanics that matter – it’s the spiritual core.”