A woman with smooth skin and big red lips, Deb opens her mouth unusually wide. She looks lovely on stage but is stunning on camera. Her photographic halo burns red on stage. She spits fire and rage out over the audience.
Deborah (Deb) Conway was born in Melbourne on 8 August 1959. Her schoolgirl photos are featured in the Jewish-Australian museum in Sydney.
Deborah’s tall frame and photogenic features paid her way through uni and modelling was her first feminist soapbox. Her refusal to shave her legs and armpits cost occasional modelling jobs but her feminist values didn’t stop her putting her ass behind the “Bluegr” for Bluegrass jeans .
It was 1979 when Deborah joined Melbourne band The Benders. Her father, a Toorak lawyer, sent her to a psychiatrist. He was convinced that since she had joined a band she would then take up drugs. She admits to a little experimentation. The Benders’ drummer, Dorland Bray was her mentor. She wrote her first songs with him. It is rumoured she was best man at his wedding. Deborah became the vocalist for Sydney punk band Do Re Mi in 1981 and went on to have significant levels of chart success. Deb wrote their top selling single “Man Overboard,” the first song on the Australian charts to have phrases like ‘penis envy’ and ‘pubic hair’ in the lyrics. She lived with Paul Hester at the time, best known as the drummer in Crowded House.
In 1988 Do Re Mi followed in the footsteps of Aussie greats like the Easybeats and AC/DC, going to the United Kingdom in search of international success. Virgin UK soon offered Do Re Mi a recording contract. Pete Townshend from The Who saw Deborah perform in a Do Re Mi video and offered her a role singing on his album, “Iron Man”. Conway said “He’s a charming, erudite man with lots of stories and the sessions were easy,… The direct result happened some time later. Virgin [UK], having got wind that I would do other work outside of Do Re Mi slapped a solo deal on the table saying that they wanted that before another Do Re [Mi] album.” Townshend’s album was not the only solo project Deborah did in London. She played a goddess, clothed while everyone else was naked, in Peter Greenaway’s film, “Prospero’s Books.” She also sang on the film’s soundtrack.
The Australian press accused Do Re Mi and Deb Conway of naivety, saying Deb was only chart fodder and implying that she should have known better. She rejected that notion, and the solo album recorded for Virgin UK was never released . Do Re Mi resisted Virgin UK’s attempts to split the band for about a year, before breaking up on bad terms anyway.
Deb went to Los Angeles for a year and spent time there learning the guitar. She drew on old friendships with Australian singer/songwriters like Paul Kelly, Tim Finn and Mark Seymour, and began to write her own music. It was three years, six producers, four false starts, three continents and two record companies before 1991 album “String of Pearls” was released.” “It’s only the beginning,” was Conway’s most successful song, reaching its highest position of #19 on the Australian charts during August 1991. The album sold 70,000 copies and went platinum, a vindication for the stand she made in London. In 1991 she won an ARIA award for best Female Artist. The success did not translate into dollars for Conway. Her desperation to rebuild her career meant that she signed a contract entitling her to publishing rights only – she received nothing from the record sales.
“One step forward, two steps backward,” her song Alive and Brilliant says. “I won’t wrestle, you won’t talk back,” she sings of life experiences that could belong to anyone, but they remain hers, loaned out to us for three minutes at a time. “That really hurts, I’m still alive and brilliant”.
In 1991 Deborah incorporated her newfound guitar skills into a touring stage act, “Deborah Conway and the Mothers of Pearl” . She said it felt more natural to sing and play guitar on stage. She became romantically and musically involved with a guitarist she hired for the tour, Willy Zygier. “I recognised almost immediately a kindred spirit and a cute arse,” she said. She considered song writing one of the most intimate of all human exchanges. The musical partnership of Conway / Zygier was now formed. Zygier collaborated on her next album, ‘Bitch Epic’ in 1993. The cover art included a naked Conway, slathered in chocolate spread, ready to devour a tray full of creamy cakes. Conway said: “What struck me more about the photo was that I was all mouth and covered in chocolate, rather than if you look really close you can see a tiny bit of nipple.”
A routine week 18 ultrasound of Deb and Willy’s unborn first child, Syd Dolores, prompted a side project in 1995. The band called Ultrasound, included Deborah, Willy, Paul Hester and Bill McDonald. They recorded an album of electronic pop in five days using songs left over from old projects. Willy, and fellow band member, Paul Hester were left to do interviews and promote the album while Deborah nursed her newborn baby. There was no tour and the album received little airplay. As a result, the album sold very few copies.
Deb and Willy took their newborn baby to the UK where they spent two years. The culmination of that trip was Deborah’s third album, “My Third Husband,” released in 1997. The album was recorded in their loungeroom with newly purchased recording equipment, juggling equipment manuals and breastfeeding. She and Willy wrote songs at night while baby Syd slept. Conway believes this dark night-time mood is reflected in the album. They returned to Australia in 1997 to release the album and promote it. While the critics acclaimed the album, radio stations viewed it as not commercial enough and it received little radio airplay.
Conway was now six months pregnant with her second daughter, Alma DelRay, and touring to promote “My Third Husband”. She explains: “I frocked up in red sequins with a large heart cut-out over the lump in gold mesh and highlighted with rhinestones. It was a showstopper with a slow reveal as the guitar which I played for the first five songs covered the heart completely. I wanted to get Shirley-Bassey-meets-Danny-La-Rue in a postmodern pastiche of glamour and earth mother-alien style. Anyway, it had the desired effect and audience and critics alike sent up a collective gasp”.
Deborah had two more daughters before she recorded her next album. Alma DelRay was born in late 1997, and Hettie Ira was born in early 2000. It would be easy to assume that Conway was busy with motherhood during that time; however a new album was brewing. A new record label, Shock Records, and a new album represented a step into the alternative domain. The new label was an attempt to force the music industry and consumers to recategorise Conway. The album she released through Shock Records, “Exquisite Stereo,” received critical acclaim but poor sales. Once again, she sings, “It’s been a long time, a long time, since anyone meant what they said…That really hurts, I’m still alive and brilliant.”
Deborah’s disappointment with the lack of commercial success prompted her to consider other options. She auditioned for the part of Patsy Cline in a stage play, saying she had nothing to lose. The part in a national touring show was a novelty for Conway, who is more used to juggling dirty nappies with recording equipment and low budget tours. Five star hotel rooms, courtesy Mercedes Benz’ and eight hours sleep a night signalled a luxury holiday from motherhood. She wrote a web log of her ‘Cline’ experience for her ‘mostly unofficial’ web-site.
Conway describes the evening after September 11: “We played a show on 12 September 2001. It was a particularly difficult performance, one woman down the front wept for almost the entire evening, we played our bums off anyway. When we got to Patsy’s plane crash, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. But we kept it together for the sake of music lovers everywhere. Then we got to go home and weep too.”
A closer look at Conway’s web log reveals a mother that loves her children, a woman still trying to figure out who she is. Deborah has determined not to be the kind of performer that does things just for commercial reasons, but she’ll occasionally surprise. Categorise her as rock-chick deftly managing motherhood and music, and it comes out that she allows journalists to sit in the back seat of her car during cross town trips – while breastfeeding! Perhaps idealism is no longer commercially viable. She sees Patsy Cline as a watershed moment in her career, and has made the foray into commercialism one more time with a ‘Best of’ album. Conway says the album has the quality of an obituary.
But Deborah Conway is far from a memory and her career is far from over. Her career has covered many places other musicians would fear to tread, and reached heights that some can only aspire to. She has had the privilege of juggling motherhood with music and devoting her working life to something that she loves. Deborah Conway is a woman who may have nothing to lose in career terms, but her richness exists in multiple facets. She is still alive and brilliant.
For more info on Deb
- Perfect Patsy (C. Webb), Sydney Morning Herald [Accessed 27 September 2002 – no longer online]
- Deborah Conway – Mostly Unofficial Site (M. O’Meara [Accessed 12 October 2002]
- Portrait of the artist as a mother (K. Kissane), The Age [Accessed 27 September 2002 – no longer online]
- Deborah Conway – It’s a girl thing (A. Prasad), Innerviews [Accessed 3 September 2002]
- Long Way to the Top: Stories of Australian & New Zealand Rock and Roll (J. Cockington) – Episode 5 – INXS, In Exile 1976-88 [DVD].
- The Real Thing: Adventures in Australian rock & roll (T. Creswell & M. Fabinyi), Published by Random House.
- The encyclopedia of Australian rock and pop (I. McFarlane), Published by Allen & Unwin.
- ‘Women’s Song: The role of female performers (S. Trenoweth),1994 Juice/Powerhouse Museum Special Issue: Real Wild Child, Published by Terraplane Press.
- Who’s Who of Australian Rock, 3rd edition (C. Spencer), Published by The Five Mile Press Pty Ltd.
- No obits, just hits (J. Porter), Time Off, vol.1087, 28 August – 3 September 2002.
This article was originally posted on the old version of my blog several years ago – some time around 2004. It was deleted during a site revamp, but I promised the Bitch Listers that I would re-post it. That was waaay too long ago. It only just occurred to me that I hadn’t done it. My apologies for the delay,…