Curator Nick Henderson spoke with musician Deborah Conway ahead of her performance at the NFSA on 18 March 2016.
A trip down memory lane
BY NICK HENDERSON
Nick Henderson: Last year your 1993 song ‘Alive and Brilliant’, co-written with partner and collaborator Willy Zygier, was named one of the Sounds of Australia. That track was recorded towards the beginning of your collaboration with Willy. What was the collaboration process like at the time?
Deborah Conway: We’re tough on each other. It’s not always a walk in the park, there are monsters lurking but we generally manage to find a patch of sunshine amongst the shadows. It’s been a 25-year-long partnership so I guess we must be doing something right.
Can you recall where you wrote and first performed ‘Alive and Brilliant’?
It was written on a stormy afternoon overlooking Coogee Beach. The very first time we played it live was on another stormy day at the Hyde Park Barracks, in 1992. It rained like it can in late summer in Sydney and everybody was crazily dancing around in white plastic ponchos to this song they’d never heard before.
Referencing place in a song is like an emotional shortcut and as long as you can do it without it being gratuitous, it provides a sturdy spine from which the rest can hang loosely from.
I understand you keep notebooks to record ideas for future songs and projects. How does documenting your creative process like this inform your songwriting?
I have many notebooks which at the start of any sustained period of composing I will spend some time looking through to see if there are any discarded ideas that could be reworked or completed. Those old scribbles are a resource that at best will kickstart me into a new piece, and at worst provide a bit of distraction before the hard work begins and I have to face up to the tyranny of the blank page. Either way they earn their place on the bookshelf.
In a way, each album is a reaction to the last one. Your previous album, 2013’s Stories of Ghosts, has been described as ‘an unbeliever’s examination of Old Testament themes from a Jewish perspective’. How is your forthcoming album, which I believe you are soon to go into the studio to record, a reaction to Stories of Ghosts?
It became apparent that the subject matter we were dealing with on Stories of Ghosts was enough to sustain a life’s work, so it was an easy decision to keep pushing on down that path for a second bite of the cherry.
You headlined the 15th Women in Song music event as part of International Women’s Day in Cairns this year – as an agitator for female voices in a male-dominated industry, how have you seen the music industry change?
The music industry is no longer what it once was. A great many artists have taken the role of making their own records independently of record companies and being their own marketing team with the tools of social media at their disposal.
In Australia the music industry landscape is no longer a boys’ club. Women have been on the charts for decades but now they are also DJs, managing artists and running clubs and festivals; if that is not reflected in the Top 100 charts (most likely due to who votes), it is certainly reflected in women’s earnings. It is a rare few musicians who do actually make money but they are more evenly distributed across the genders than was once the status quo.
You will be presenting a special concert at the NFSA in Canberra. Could you perhaps give us an idea of what the concert will be like?
We will be taking a little meander down memory lane and extracting a song from every solo album I’ve made, apart from String of Pearls. They are all collaborations with Willy Zygier. The idea is to explore through conversation and music the history of our 25-year writing and performing partnership.