Deborah Conway: Now she’s 64

In June 1991, Deborah Conway was driving in her home town of Melbourne and, with the aid of one of those old push-button car stereos, the singer heard her song playing on three radio stations at once. It’s Only The Beginning was everywhere. No one could resist its ringing, descending guitar hook, with its obvious echo of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven.

The song was joyous, something Conway – who had first hit the charts with Do Ré Mi’s feminist anthem Man Overboard – was thrown by. She rewrote the lyrics with a darker undercurrent before settling on the sunny optimism of the original, with its wry acknowledgment that some of the best affairs of our lives are fleeting, if not wildly inappropriate.

And then there was the film clip.

In her new memoir, Book Of Life, Conway reveals that Mushroom Records boss Michael Gudinski didn’t think she had made the best use of her physical assets by dressing in plus-fours and setting the song on a golf course – a playful homage to the classic 1938 Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.

Conway wasn’t interviewed for the recent Gudinski documentary, Ego. In Book Of Life, she details numerous conflicts with Gudinski, but on the film clip for It’s Only The Beginning, he let her have her way. “I was incredibly fond of him, and that’s why I found it upsetting that I had been so roundly excluded.”

It’s Only The Beginning was the single for Conway’s most successful album, the platinum-selling String Of Pearls. For the tour, she tapped the guitarist who would become her husband, Willy Zygier, the father of their three adult daughters Syd, Alma and Hettie. Conway, already a veteran at 32, had a life of love and fine music ahead of her.

And yet, she says, the most common question people ask her now is whether she is still a musician. “Honestly, daily,” she says. “Every day! It’s just crazy. I mean, I get it, but I don’t know, if you saw someone in the street and they used to be your kid’s doctor, would you say to them, are you still a doctor?”

We are seated in the front room of the house she shares with Zygier in Melbourne’s south-east. Hanging on the wall behind her is a large portrait by artist Esther Erlich. It captures her seated, but leaning forward, all lanky arms and legs and bold self-assuredness, staring straight back at me. Across the table, the real-life Conway does the same. It’s a little eerie.

Conway, now 64, has never gone away. Her story is just another indictment of an industry that blanks Australian women over 35. “I didn’t disappear myself. Radio disappeared me, and many others like me, and with that came the disappearance from all of those big bills around the country – the Red Hot Summer tours, all of those things,” she says.

So, Conway has continued doing her own things. There was the long-running Broad revue, in which Conway toured, sang and swapped songs with other Australian female singer-songwriters, and a stint as Queensland Music Festival artistic director. Around all of it is a big body of recorded work with Zygier, most of it acoustic, which doesn’t fit neatly into any format.

There is a wrenchingly sad chapter in Book Of Life about her late father, Carl Conway, “an incredibly complicated, difficult human being who never really got the help that he needed,” she tells me. “I never allowed him to bully me – I stormed out, I yelled back, I slammed doors. He made me so tough. God, he made me tough.”

I suggest it sounds like good preparation for a career in the music industry. “Correct!” she grins, flashing that familiar, wide, million-watt smile. “I learned some very valuable lessons. He also allowed me to see that a choice of partner who would be the 180-degree opposite person would be the correct person to be with, and Willy Zygier is absolutely that.”

Conway’s favourite word seems to be “obstreperous”. Book Of Life’s blurb proudly advertises her as “one of the more obstreperous women working inside Australia’s music industry”. Asked to describe her most on-brand moment, Conway is stumped for a moment. “I don’t know, probably doing something obstreperous,” she eventually offers.

Broadcaster and author Tracee Hutchison has a good example: of Do Ré Mi performing at the 1985 Countdown music awards. Conway raised her fist in a power salute, revealing a great thatch of underarm hair. “It was one of the greatest protest gestures I think I’ve ever seen by an individual in Australian music history,” Hutchison says.

The irony of Conway’s refusal to be sexually commodified by the music industry was that she got her start in modelling in the early 1980s. At one stage, her bare backside was hung on giant billboards around Melbourne for a jeans manufacturer (the slogan was “Get your arse into Bluegrass”).

There was, she insists, no contradiction in this. The point was that she was in control. “I was paid fairly and squarely for all of the work that I did. I was the one exploiting me! You know, all my friends were working for six bucks an hour doing bar work or retail, and I was earning 60 bucks an hour to drink a glass of milk on camera. I think I got the best out of it.”

Still, a level of contrarianism is part of the Conway package. She is irreducible. Her opinions, always forthright, are unpredictably divergent. In 2020, Melbourne was the most locked-down city in the world, a situation Conway bitterly opposed: “I know many, many people disagree entirely with how I felt about that, so we won’t go there.”

Unable to perform, she started writing Book Of Life. The last section of the book concerns her Judaism. Conway says she’s not religious, yet Jewishness is central to her identity. “It’s in the blood. I’ve done my DNA and I’m 96 percent Ashkenazi Jew – and the other 4 percent is Sephardi Jew.”

The historic improbability of this moves her. “In every generation, there’s some kind of horrific massacre or pogrom or Holocaust. And yet all these women went out of their way to make sure that the Jewish line continued, and I think that’s incredible. It’s not God; it’s believing in this thing that’s bigger than me, being Jewish.”

I suggest the rise of demagoguery and antisemitism must disturb her. She asks what I mean. Perhaps unwisely, I bring up Donald Trump. “Well, you might believe that Trump is an antisemite, but I would completely deny that. He devised the Abraham accords; that is not the act of an antisemite.”

I push back that many supporters of Trump certainly are. “Well, that’s possibly true. But you can’t necessarily pick your followers.”

Senior AFL journalist Caroline Wilson is a childhood friend of Conway’s. “There’s so many things we disagree on that sometimes I just say, let’s not talk about that today,” she laughs. Their enduring friendship is more important. “She’s steadfastly loyal, and if you had a problem, she is the first person you’d go to. She is incredibly compassionate.”

Broadcaster and comedian Wendy Harmer remembers covering the mock-outrage over the Bluegrass billboard as a cadet journalist. Later, Conway asked Harmer to appear in the video for It’s Only The Beginning. Harmer has lived to regret saying no. “I thought I’d look too fat in golf pants! Every time I see it now, I want to hit myself over the head with a nine-iron.”

But after that commercial zenith, Conway’s career began to fall off the radar. 1993’s Bitch Epic – with its famous cover of the singer topless, smeared in Nutella and stuffing cake into her mouth – went gold, with the single Alive And Brilliant. She and Zygier later relocated to London, but then Mushroom, on the verge of bankruptcy, pulled all its support. They were on their own.

If she had been bitter, she might have titled her memoir Bitch Epic, too. The music business has not been kind. There were the two years she spent making a solo album for Virgin before being dropped; Mushroom’s abandonment while they poured money into trying to break Peter Andre in the UK instead.

But that, she says, gets you nowhere. “Bitterness is the most entirely worthless and self-destructive emotion, you know, you can just make yourself ill. I don’t believe there was malevolence behind any of these things, that would give the whole thing a lot more heat. It’s just that there wasn’t enough care, and that’s different.”

The turning point was Summertown, the album she made with Zygier in 2004 which gave rise to their so-called Summerware gigs, a pun on Tupperware parties. Before agencies such as Parlour Gigs, Conway and Zygier came up with the idea of taking their music from door to door. “No one had done it before. I was like, why hasn’t anybody thought of this? It’s so obvious!”

For anyone who might have forgotten Conway, Book Of Life is a salutary reminder. Conway says she wrote the book for herself and her daughters. Mainly, it was as an expression of personal agency and self-affirmation. “I wanted to remind myself that these things happened, that I existed, and that I was taking a central role in my own life. You don’t always feel that.”

First published in the Guardian, 1 October 2023

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