The Conway Resilience


deborahconway2Deborah Conway has never shied away from hard work. With a career spanning three decades, she continues to be a creative force in the industry, singing songs that chronicle the essential elements of life, love, loss, memory, the mundane and the spiritual.

A significant and eloquent contributor to Australian music, Conway’s natural talent and gutsy attitude has ensured a strong following from the moment her band, Do Re Mi released the iconic Man Overboard off their debut album Domestic Harmony in 1985, to present day collaborations with her husband, Willly Zygier.

Grounded, focused and unfazed by the notoriety, Conway, a mother of three, continues to be an inspiration to young women around the globe.

“I have always been a very strong personality which is in part because of my father. I always felt I could be in charge of my own destiny and every part of my growing up indicated my future depended on the decisions I made,” said Conway, who moved out of home at 20. “I was modeling at the time but had always been interested in music. I loved singing and performing and was a natural show-off. I dabbled in different bands, and then joined a Melbourne band called the Benders, which was an interesting grounding. We did heaps of shows in the eight months I was with them. When the drummer left the band to go to Sydney, I was a friend of his and decided to make the move and joined Do Re Mi.”

Conway’s ability to think outside the square meant the band knew they had to do things differently to get people coming to gigs, so they decided to make an EP before performing on stage.

“We decided to do it differently, making the album and sending it to radio stations. Then we started performing live at venues and the audience had already heard the music on the radio.”

While modeling would have continued to be a lucrative career, Conway says she knew it was mainly a means to an end.

“I modeled from 18 to 23 as a way to pay the rent and earn money to play music. The watershed moment for me was getting the feature film, Running On Empty. That, combined with recording the soundtrack for Sweet and Sour, meant I could give up the modeling money.”

Stepping out as a solo artist in 1991, Conway’s departure from Do Re Mi opened up yet another creative element to the iconic singer-songwriter’s repertoire with her debut solo album; String of Pearls’ themes of youthful reflection and tongue-in-cheek irreverence embodied in It’s Only The Beginning, and Release Me. Another gutsy move, the sojourn into a solo career won her the ARIA Award for Best Female Artist that year, making her a rare female agitator in a time when the music industry was male dominated.

When it comes to longevity, Conway has a simple philosophy, saying it’s all about integrity.

“I’m just me and I don’t have a studied plan to go by but what I think is extremely valuable is your integrity. That stuff is very important to me and that’s the way to be an authentic person is to hold those values,” said Conway. “It affects your song writing and what you represent.”

As for raising a family, the 55-year-old singer says it’s been relatively easy for her to juggle kids and career as she basically makes her own hours.

“All women who decide to have a family have to make those decisions as to how much time they can afford to take off work, still more women than men make those decisions. I had it easy, I make my own hours, I am self employed and I decide when I want to work being a performing artist,” said Conway, who is mum to Syd, 21, Alma, 18, and Hettie, 16. “The girls are all musical – they get it from both sides of the family. The oldest two are pursuing university degrees in aspects of music and the youngest is doing VCE music in year 11. Whether they become musicians they are all musical and they get it from the genes.”

Being married to Willy for eight years and together for 26, the musical couple have always encouraged the girls to play an instrument.

“From the age of four, they were encouraged to play the piano.

We wrote a song for them… we were going to go to Tamworth and play it there for the very first time. It came about when we were on a long drive to Jarvis Bay and thought we could keep them entertained. They fought all the way along,” she said with a laugh. “But they do actually sing together like angels.”

Working and living together with husband Willy, Conway says there is no demarcation between cooking and writing.

“It’s only the geography that changes. We have been working together for close to 26 years, since I employed him as the guitar player on the tour for the 1991 album String of Pearls. We rarely run out of things to talk about but when we need to fill up our creativity we go to a gallery or a bike ride or walk.”

Being Jewish and atheists is just another way this inspirational couple manage to think outside the square, and their love of the poetry around the Talmud inspired their 2013 album, Stories of Ghosts.

“Being Jewish is a large part of our lives. We observe Shabbat dinners on Friday night and find it extraordinarily rich in history and tradition. Jews have been doing the same thing for a long time and there is something very precious about that,” said Conway. “In Stories of Ghosts we were really interested in exploring this kind of thing, and the poetry in the Talmud has been a wonderful resource for many creative artists.”

It was 2004 when the creative couple decided to make their first independent record, another brave move that paid off.

“We really cut ties with record companies and used a distribution company. We could handle the recording process but the challenge was marketing. We weren’t being played on the radio and were trying to find a way to get our music into people’s homes,” said Conway. “So I thought ‘why not just walk in?’ We decided to do it like Tupperware but called them Summerware Parties. We offered a deal that if people bought 30 CDs or more, we would come to their home and do a gig for 20 minutes. It was fantastic, they invited their friends and they got to experience pure music right in front of them with voices and a guitar. It was very successful. You have to be creative as the industry is not like it was… people don’t even buy CDs any more.”

Always looking for a way to break down the walls and inspire musicians, Conway is resilient and determined, organizing Shir Madness in Melbourne last year as festival director.

“Last year we did a festival in Melbourne called Shir Madness and we will do it again in 2017. It was a huge thing so had to put our own record on hold for it,” said Conway, who is currently working on a new album “We sold out on the day. It was like a mini womad in Elsternwick.”

Deborah Conway will be performing as part of PURE GOLD LIVE SALUTES – THE BEST OF THE ’70s, ’80s & ’90s at the Palais Theatre on Friday, 13th May.

First published in Mint Magazine – April 2016

Author: Anne-Marie Tunks

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