Playing Happy Families. Deborah Conway returns with a trip hop album

Juice October 1997- Johnny Friendly

I wasn’t coming home until I had a record finished,” says Deborah Conway, wearing her stubbornness like a badge of courage on the lapel of her faux fur coat. The record is called My Third Husband and it annouces a new side to the Melbourne-born singer-songwriter. Gone is the acoustic strum, replaced by a more atmospheric, synthesiser-based sound. But much has changed in the four years since the release of her second solo record, Bitch Epic.

Conway had created a persona as an outspoken, controversial ex-model, the reckless daughter of Joni Mitchell and Camille Paglia, but her records were less feisty than her persona. Nonetheless, Conway boasted a large and fiercely loyal audience. Two years ago, the singer moved to the UK with her four-month-old baby to promote Bitch Epic, but her arrival coincided with a restructure at the record company. Conway and her husband (sic) and producer Willy Zygier, decided to stay anyway. Mushroom Records helped out with studio equipment and support while Conway and Zygier set up a home, a studio and a new sound.

“It’s not an easy place to live,” says the mother of Syd Dolores. “It’s much easier to live here. If you’ve got a little baby, free babysitting is extremely valuable and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s very expensive to live, it’s not easy for me to make money, it’s crowded, the water’s undrinkable, the air virtually unbreathable. What can I say? Having a very large population in a very small place is both its greatest asset and its greatest downfall. But if you live in London, it’s a pretty exciting town. There’s plenty of stuff to do, plenty of stuff to see. Some of it’s even free. So I never felt bored.”

A glance at the Conway family photo album shows bucolic shots of the family playing in the English countryside and taking afternoon tea with charismatic former Labor prime ministers. But it wasn’t all cucumber sandwiches and lobbying for a Keating. Most of their time was spent in the studio, with the added pressure of living and working together on a budget. “We’ve always had a fairly intimate relationship because we work together. You know, it works out … It has to, otherwise we’d both kill each other. I’m not saying I’m easy to live with.”

As for the album’s title, Conway quips, “I’m married to my work” (she also describes the Ultrasound band and album as “an affair on the side”). Fortunately it avoids becoming the middle-aged memoir that seems to be de rigeur among writers who are Conway’s contemporaries. The album has only one song that alludes to motherhood; the rest explore the emotional terrain of love, desire and fear.

“It’s a melancholy record in some ways,” she says, “I’d call it circumference pop. We’re not cutting straight to the heart of it, we’re going through the subtext, we’re taking the circuitous route. England is not a very direct country; it’s full of subtext, hidden menaing, the unsaid. And I immersed myself in it.”

The album’s textures are reminiscent of a cross between Portishead and Ry Cooder’s soundtrack for Dead Man Walking. Ironically, however, the album also captures Conway’s range more precisely. This is the closest she has come to delivering on the promise of Do Re Mi’s startling “Man Overboard”.

Whilst in Britain, Conway played a few shows, established friendships with other musicians and found management with Peter Jenner, who also looks after Billy Bragg and Pink Floyd and who is currently shopping My Third Husband around labels in Europe and the US. Meanwhile, Conway is assembling a band in Australia to hit the road in October. No doubt she’ll be playing songs from her entire repertoire, including the Do Re Mi hit “Adultery”.