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Interview: Deborah Conway

Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier

Do Re Bello… It’s only the Beginning

Bello Winter Music | 12 and 13 July

If you were creating a list of the top 20 women in Australian rock history Deborah Conway’s name would be in the top 10. She is frontwoman of 80s band Do Re Mi and one half of the onstage and off stage partnership with Willy Zygier. The are the opening night treat for Festival-goers at Bello Winter Music. Deborah spoke with The Echo about her very brilliant career…

You’ve become such a well-known name here in Australia. Did you grow up wanting to be a famous musician? When did you realise music was what you wanted to do and what did you to do in the beginning to make it happen?

When I was young I did want to be famous though I wasn’t sure how. I loved singing and I was a showoff but it all came together in a way I wouldn’t have been able to predict when I was working up my pre-pubescent shower belting act. My father had an extensive record collection of Broadway musicals that I used to sing along with and more than anything I loved the storytelling aspect of those songs. Then from about 12 I started to discover Paul Simon, Carol King, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and I was totally hooked. I picked up a guitar at 18 and taught myself some basic chords so I could play Bob, then got a capo and worked out some different tunings so I could play Joni. Years of discovery. Finally I joined a band at 20 (which was a fairly dreadful prog rock outfit) and met Dorland Bray, who was the drummer, and we decided to form a new band that did things differently – that was Do Re Mi. There was never a single moment I could identify as an epiphany, just a gradual dawning that this is what I do.

Were you a classically trained singer or did you learn in a more fluid way?

My mother thought I was too young to get singing lessons when I was a teenager so I didn’t have them until I was well into the Do Re Mi years; we were doing a huge amount of playing and I sought out a teacher who could help me sing without losing my voice.

What was your worst gig in the early days of your pub gig years?

Gee, there were so many it’s hard to pick out just one. It depends what you mean by worst (those parameters have transmogrified over the decades); in the early days I would classify that as worst sound, which generally meant squealing feedback from the foldback to a deafening degree. Generally the monitor operator would be receiving some pretty filthy looks from us until he managed to get it together.

From the one of your least inspiring moments, what has been one of your most inspiring experiences as a performer?

There are a lot of those too; I’m thankful it’s a nicely balanced ledger. Performing with Do Re Mi at the massive festival events back in the 1980s to the roar of thousands of fired-up music lovers; touring String of Pearls to sellout audiences in the 1990s; the amazing response to Broad from 2005 till 2008; supporting Leonard Cohen in 2009 at Rod Laver Arena and receiving an incredible reaction to our set from 10,000 people.

Tell us about what it was like recording The Iron Man by Pete Townsend alongside Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker. Did you have the opportunity to work alongside these two legends?

My involvement with The Iron Man was limited to my interaction with Pete Townsend, a delightful, funny, very musical guy. Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker were recorded separately so I never encountered them but I was pretty happy about being on the same album as those legends.

Your first solo album won you ARIA Best Female Vocalist award that year and the following national tour resulted in your getting to know and to work with Willy Zygier. That must have been a wonderful time, flying high off the success of your solo album and riding the wave of fame on your tour as well as meeting your future husband. Was that time one of the highlights of your career?

There’s no doubt that meeting Willy Zygier was a watershed moment for both of us. We had one of those first encounters where, as they say in the classics, ‘sparks fly’ and 27 years later we’re still enjoying those electric creative impulses.

How has your relationship both working and personal with Willy affected your music?

We have been a collaborating couple for close to three decades and through that time we have never stopped making work. As we get older we get tougher on each other; there are not many people in your life you can have that critical relationship with and it is a gift; the more we pick apart each other’s work the stronger work we make.

Your latest album Everyone’s Begging is an insightful parody of the modern world (and perhaps the continual human experience). When did your ability to incorporate social commentary into your songwriting come to the fore or has it always been a big part of your process?

Social commentary has been part of my compositional palette since Do Re Mi days – nothing new there. I like to think I’m getting better at overlaying the macro on the micro and telescoping the personal human element into a song about broader social issues. Still gotta be a good tune though!

What can people expect from your show at Bello Winter Music?

A stripped-back but energetic version of our most recent two albums with a nod to a couple of old favourites.

Whats coming up for Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier?

We are about to go into the studio to make a new album that will be released next year and which we will launch in conjunction with a 25th anniversary celebration theatre tour of Bitch Epic; look out for it, it will be mega!


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