Anthony Horan, In Press 22nd October 1997
Some years back, Deborah Conway headed to Europe with her partner and musical collaborator Willy Zygier, the intention being to start work on a follow-up album to the much-admired Bitch Epic. Just prior to departing, Conway and Zygier had popped into a studio for a couple of weeks with Bill McDonald and Paul Hester, coming out the other end with a remarkable album under the name Ultrasound. A twisted, experimental and fascinating album, it provided a fascinating contrast to the (comparatively) more straightforward songs that made up Bitch Epic, and signposted an intriguing shift in musical direction for Deborah Conway, one which was expected to manifest itself on the next proper album. That album has been a somewhat longer time coming than anyone expected “I’ve been in London for the last two years – I have been very busy, just not in the public eye, I guess”, Deborah offers by way of explanation; now in the stores sporting the title My Third Husband, it has turned out to be more of a turn into uncharted territory than anyone imagined.
And what an album it is – recorded and mixed in London, it sounds like nothing else to be found in the present or past. It’s almost as if Ultrasound was a trial run for the pure creativity, left-of-centre experimentation and quirky audio trickery here. The single that preceded the album a short while back – a reworking of the Ultrasound track Only The Bones – provided an appropriate link between then and now, but the bulk of the album explores entirely new ground, and does so with rich melodics and seductive subtlety. It is, quite simply, one of this years essential records.
That it’s taken so long to appear in the first place is the fault of circumstance; while Deborah was not taking time away from her music after the birth of her daughter, the demands of parenthood kept her busier than even she had expected.
“No, that wasn’t my intention particularly, to take time off, she says. I mean, I was just stupid, really. I don’t know if anyone knows how to be a parent until you actually are. I hadn’t realised how absolutely intensive it can be. Its such a 24 hour job, it really is. So I guess the reason its taken so long between records is because there hasn’t been that much time for work as well as being a parent. And considering that both the songwriters are both the parents.”
So why London, then, at a time when so many Australian artists and bands were discovering solid audience support in the US?
“Mushroom had wanted to put Bitch Epic out there, so there was this offer on the table which I thought was quite good – also, I had a British passport, which I knew would make life a lot easier work-wise than it would be in America. There was also family and friends that already existed there, and I guess I thought that would make things a little bit easier with a child. But as it turned out, the shooting party had beaten me to it, and Mushroom was in a shambles by the time I arrived. So we were pretty much thrown back on our own resources, which was very good for us. So we just sat down and wrote a record.”
Part of the reason for the unique sonics of My Third Husband can be traced back to the albums genesis in technology, as Conway and Zygier worked the songs into a workable demo form almost entirely using keyboards, samplers and sequencers – a radically different approach, certainly, to that taken on previous records.
“It was the way we did the demos, so we were thrown back on that”, Deborah recalls. “We were in a small flat in London so we couldn’t turn the guitar up too loud – we did a lot of it on headphones – and these limitations explain why it sounds kind of like a bird making a nest I was always very keen to put acoustic instruments on it, though, and both of us wanted someone else to get involved and take it to the next level. It’s not a matter of how much belief you’ve got in yourself; you know after youve been working on something for a long enough time, you kind of lose a bit of perspective, and you just feel like you want some input, particularly from someone whose work you like. We wanted to be surprised.”
Once the demos were completed, the tapes were shipped off to a producer who would, at first, seem an unlikely candidate; the decision was to prove insightful.
“We sent the demo tapes wed done off to Dave Anderson, the producer of our choice, who did the Fine Young Cannibals and The Sundays. With both of those records, there was a polish about them, but there was also this raw energy, which is what we liked about it. He really liked it, and rang us and said he wanted to come and have a look at us play, which luckily we were doing a few days later. He dragged along his mate Andy Cox, who was the guitar player from Fine Young Cannibals – the wacky dancer. They both went bonkers for it, and they came back to my place that night and started dancing around the living room to the demos, and it was then that I knew that a beautiful relationship was about to happen. It was rare, and it was very welcome. Wed been working in a vacuum for such a long time, heads in manuals trying to figure out how Logic Audio and ProTools worked.”
With the album completed, the next task was to send it to the label that paid for it – and being an album that takes several listens to properly sink in and gel in the listeners mind, it likely raised a few eyebrows .
“Yeah, they were a bit nervous about it”, Deborah says with a wry smile. “Well, it doesnt sound anything like String Of Pearls or Bitch Epic, does it? Weve made a circumference pop record, as opposed to a diameter pop record. Or an isosceles pop record. Let me explain myself – Bitch Epic was probably isosceles, String Of Pearls diameter, and this ones definitely circumference. Diameter meaning cutting straight to the core, isosceles just because Im being stupid, and as for circumference – you kind of go round and round in these lovely concentric circles before you finally find your way through the maze to the emotional centre, which is definitely there, but it takes a few listens to figure it out. It’s quite a dense record – which is why we only included ten tracks. Its probably enough – I’ve never been keen on albums that go on for too long. Its a wild and wonderful and wacky record. And a good late-night spin, too.”