“I never felt like a victim”
As she approaches 60, it’s still “only the beginning” for Deborah Conway, who is preparing to celebrate major milestones in characteristically feisty fashion
As she approaches 60, it’s still “only the beginning” for singer Deborah Conway – who is preparing to celebrate a few major milestones in trademark feisty fashion.
Although many of her contemporaries are bemoaning the bad old days of sexism and harassment in the entertainment industry, Deborah Conway is characteristically happy to air a divergent opinion when she sits down for a chat with Stellar. “There was a great feeling of opportunity for women – we were encouraged to do anything and we did,” the singer-songwriter says of the ’80s, the era when she rose to fame. “We were all on top of [contraception] and before the nastiness of AIDS came along it meant that women of my generation were all free to be as sexually expressive as we felt we needed to be with very little consequence. It was freeing, it was fantastic, it was fun.”
It’s perhaps why she finds the #Metoo movement “a bit regressive”, and agrees with those who say it casts women as victims. Before scoring hits such as the controversial ‘Man Overboard’ with poprock band Do-ré-mi, she dabbled in modelling, happily baring her naked behind for a Bluegrass jeans billboard ad. “I’ve never felt like a victim – ever. I don’t know any women who do feel like victims, particularly. And I feel like it’s a terrible thing that we make our younger generation of women feel like they can’t just say, ‘Hey, back in your box!’ You should be able to. We always did.
“I’m finding there is a very intolerant, witch-hunt atmosphere that is very destructive, not just for men but for women as well… the idea of being innocent until proven guilty is not something that you want to let go of lightly. That’s a vital part of any working democracy and working civilisation.”
She’s been known for her feisty attitude and fighting words since ‘Man Overboard’ grabbed notice with its lyrics about “penis envy” – it was 1985, after all. Yet Conway insists she can take as much as she gives. “The thing about writing music is that so few people will actually tell you the truth about what you’re doing creatively,” says Conway, who can always rely on one person to bring her down a notch: her husband, fellow musician and collaborator Willy Zygier. “He tears it to shreds. And I’ll tear his work to shreds! It’s not always pretty, but the work that you get out of it is great.”
The couple is currently at work on their 10th album and planning a national tour next year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Bitch Epic, the first record they made together. They met when Conway was looking for a guitarist to tour with; she’d scored hits such as 1991’s ‘It’s Only The Beginning’ as a solo artist fresh out of Do-ré-mi.
Zygier initially passed on her offer in favour of a smaller commitment; intrigued, she moved her tour to accommodate him, and invited him over for a cup of tea.
“He turned up on my doorstep, I opened the door and there was that little spark you hear about,” she tells Stellar with a laugh. “It was a recognition of a kindred spirit. We still enjoy each other’s company and creativity.”
Born and raised in Melbourne, right from the start Conway knew her own mind – and was never prevented from sharing her opinions, both at home and at school. Always musical, she didn’t stick to piano lessons or sing in the school choir (“I was a bit rebellious”) but points to a photo of her pretending to conduct an orchestra at age four and plenty of singing in the shower as proof that music was always in the picture.
When she dropped out of university to join pub band The Benders, her parents sent her to a psychologist. “They were a nice, middleclass Jewish family and there was this daughter, prancing around in front of a rock band,” she says. “I guess it hasn’t really been like a formed plan, it’s just been one of those lovely, unfolding things where each thing I did led to another and suddenly, before I was conscious of it, I had established myself as a career musician.”
But it was at the dawn of the ’90s, when Conway turned that career into her own, that things became “very freeing”, she recalls. “It was me generating the work – and only me. And if I wanted to put an album out then I was going to have to pull my finger out and really focus my mind on the work ahead. There’s something really good about shouldering all the responsibility and knowing exactly what you are doing, why you are doing it and who you’re doing it for.”
The decade also brought motherhood, with daughters Syd, Alma and Hettie born in quick succession. “Those early years, when I was really caught in the kind of sleeplessness and the milky haze, and being really preoccupied with babies – that was pretty tough,” she remembers.
It didn’t stop her and Zygier producing music and touring, though, and after the release of their fourth album she played country legend Patsy Cline in the stage production of Always… Patsy Cline. “It meant that I could go off and sleep for at least five nights a week, while Willy took it all on. What a trouper – he never lost his sense of humour.”
Now their daughters are all “very strong women” pursuing musical careers – and they’ll join their parents when they play the Inland Sea of Sound festival in NSW’S Bathurst at the end of this month.
At nearly 60, Conway is still considered one of Australia’s finest singersongwriters and she doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon, even if part of her would like to. As well as the new album and national tour, she will rejoin with the original members of Do-ré-mi for a few shows.
“I was telling Willy a couple of years ago, ‘ Look, we’re going to have to think of something else to do because this is going to kill us.’ But the phone just hasn’t stopped ringing. It’s been really fun.” Deborah Conway will play Inland Sea of Sound festival (inlandseaofsound.com.au) on November 30, and is touring nationally in 2019.
“We were free to be as sexually expressive as we needed to be”