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October 27, 2021

New voices for an Old Testament

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Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier tell the Stories of Ghosts

Mandy Nolan

Deborah Conway and her life and musical partner, Willy Zygier have just released a new album Stories of Ghosts. This remarkable offering is an unbeliever’s examination of Old Testament themes from a Jewish perspective, exploring the connections between ancient practice and modern life.

‘The record is a loose dialogue from an atheist Jewish perspective’, says Conway who admits that while both she and Willy are both Jewish, neither of them believe in God.

‘I wish I did’, she laughs. ‘I really wish I could, but I just can’t. It would be very comforting…’

‘Willy and I both grew up in Jewish homes – his parents were holocaust survivors, and my parents came out from England. People who aren’t Jewish don’t necessarily get it, I guess it’s part of being a minority and having that sense of identity through your community, but we’ve written this sort of as a response to the virulent anti-semitism that is out there.’

Conspiracy theories abound, including the terrorist destruction of the Twin Towers being a communist plot.

‘That’s absolutely when the world changed for me – 9/11 – everything is different now, the gloves are off and what was latent anti-semitism has become very overt.

wp-deb-willWe grew up in a time when anti-semitism wasn’t a feature. Our parents knew about it as they’d experienced it first hand. But I guess the holocaust shocked the world into better behaviour for a while, the world was on our side for a minute, but all that good will has kind of evaporated. It makes me want to identify even more strongly as Jewish and I guess the album also focuses on the last couple of years Willy and I have been through which have been kind of tough personally with a number of people around us taking their lives.’

Conway was inspired as well by the way many artists have used religious iconography in their work. Although going back to the old testament she found the poor quality of the writing rather amusing.

‘They didn’t have much of a sense of story, it really is pre-novel, they throw all the good lines away, all the good stories are crammed into a couple of lines, and there are some amazing stories: Noah’s floods, the parting of the sea. I guess they are ways of explaining events from different perspectives or stories that were witnessed and then passed along. Maybe even a crazy climate event like the sea going out… I am sure there are tiny kernels of truth. In the best stories there always are….’

WP-Deborah-Conway-93928_RT_CMYK‘Writing is on the Wall’ is the opening track, and it illustrates through the prism of a modern context the story of Belzedar’s feast, and the disembodied hands that write on the wall of the hall where Belzedar was sitting around toasting all kinds of different gods out of God’s stolen goblets. The disembodied hand of God comes down and writes on the wall, he doesn’t understand and Daniel translates it saying, God’s not really happy about you, and he’s dead by morning! It’s a great revenge story! It’s about hubris, about being blind to the fact that you have transgressed, that you can’t see what everyone else can see – it’s a great tale that is easily ascribed to now. ‘

For Conway, it’s about suspension of belief. ‘Things don’t have to be true as such. You go in and watch a great movie and you know it’s not true, nevertheless we are moved by it. It’s like a wonderful painting, it doesn’t have to be a photographic resemblance to touch you or move you.’

Conway is also positive about Western democracy. ‘If you don’t defend democracy there will be no democracy left to defend and I’d rather live in this than anything else. When you look back over time you realise why this ‘evil empire’ looks so chaotic, it’s because it’s the clamour of many voices. Democracy is the clamour of many voices.’

Partnering with Willy Zygier on this tour, Conway is enthusiastic about the kind of shows they will be presenting.

‘I think duos are terrific things,’ she says, ‘we will be both playing into microphones instead of DIs and we are trying to work on a velvety ribbon of sound that envelopes the whole thing. We are over the whole pub thing, we want people to listen to what we are doing, if you are trying to do something and you want to encourage people to engage with the works you want them not to be talking and drinking at the same time! It’s like the theatre, you want to walk in and immerse yourself, coming out blinking into the light going ‘where was I?’

And perhaps it’s even simpler than that, ‘We are trying to take people on a mood journey!’

Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier perform at the Byron Community Centre on Friday at 7.30pm. Tix are $30.

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