“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

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy EUGENE HY­LAND In­ter­view NAOMI CHRISOULAKIS

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”

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