Queensland Music Festival: Australian icon Deborah Conway says "I am always heartened at how many women there are making successful careers for themselves in the Australian music industry."

Deborah Conway, image supplied

Deborah Conway, image supplied

If you were to list Australian women in music, there is no doubt Deborah Conway would be top of mind. Deborah is woven into the fabric of the Australian music scene in a glorious way. Coming into national consciousness with her band Do-Re-Mi, Deborah eventually moved on to find her own voice and write her own songs, releasing instant classics like Release Me and It's Only The Beginning. Deborah would go on to win an ARIA for Best Female Artist in 1992. Since then, Deborah hasn't stopped making music, and in recent years, mentoring women in music. During this year's Queensland Music Festival - of which she was the Artistic Director from 2009-2011 - Deborah has been a key part of great events such as Immersion where she played an intimate gig at Brisbane's Art Series Hotel The Johnson to a handful of fans, and spending weeks mentoring women from regional Australia as part of the Songs That Made Me series. A long time champion of women in music, from 2005 to 2008, Deborah was part of a yearly tour called Broad where toured with Australian women from Katie Noonan, Clare Bowditch, Liz Stringer, Ella Hooper, Kate Miller-Heidke, Sara and more. Deborah picked up a guitar at 18 - just under four decades ago - and hasn't put it down, releasing new music with her long-time collaborator and husband Willy Zygier just last September. A beautiful force with an iconic smile, Deborah has worked in film and as a model, but nothing is more familiar and iconic (it's really hard to write about Deborah without repeating the word "iconic") than her powerful voice. Deborah took some time to talk about women in music and her time at this year's Queensland Music Festival.

Deborah Conway, image by David Harris
I suppose the most significant female mentor for me would have been my mother. She always told me if I set my mind to it there was nothing I couldn’t do, and crazily enough I believed her.
— Deborah Conway, singer/songwriter,

What does music mean to you?

I love writing, recording and performing music. It’s what motivates my working life and I feel so happy that I am able to do something that I feel passionately about that also happens to be my chosen career. I find that with being a music maker, I don’t spend so much time just listening to music - but when I do get to see a concert that inspires me, I get great joy from it.

You have been busy mentoring young women in music as part of Songs That Made Me for Queensland Music Festival - how did it all go? What did you enjoy most about the program?

We have just returned from an intense week of mentoring emerging female singer songwriters in Mount Isa, Mackay and Gladstone - there are some great talented women living outside of the metropolis in Queensland and I have every confidence that if they choose to pursue the craft and work hard they will get great satisfaction from doing so. My favourite part of this week has been listening to their songs and offering helpful criticism to improve their work. All of them took this on board with great spirit and enthusiasm.

It’s not the first time you have mentored young women. What has been your most surprising discovery with young Australian women in music?                  

I don’t know if it’s surprising but I am always heartened at how many women there are making successful careers for themselves in the Australian music industry. I think it gives a lie to to the APRA statistic when I look around and can reel off so many names of really talented women making great work and being feted for it.

 

When you were an emerging artist, which women mentored and inspired you? How has their support shaped the performer and artist you are today?

I suppose the most significant female mentor for me would have been my mother. She always told me if I set my mind to it there was nothing I couldn’t do, and crazily enough I believed her.

 

Who are your favourite women in music?

My favourite female performers and writers are too numerous to mention, but a short list would have to include Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Gillian Welsh, Carol King, Dolly Parton, Bjork, Patti Smith, Clare Bowditch and Hannah Macklin.                              

Deborah Conway, Clare Bowditch and Katie Noonan during QMF 2017. Image via Facebook/ConwayZiygier

Deborah Conway, Clare Bowditch and Katie Noonan during QMF 2017. Image via Facebook/ConwayZiygier

What is your favourite place in Australia?

Right now, I’m dreaming of home.                                            

On a night in 1982, the rock critic and soon to be Rolling Stone magazine editor Toby Creswell was manning the door of the Sylvania Hotel where the Riptides, a band he was managing, were the headline act. The gig proved memorable, not least because it was attended, bizarrely, by a group of deaf people (“I only charged them half price,” Creswell says), but more importantly because it was the night Creswell met the singer Deborah Conway. “It’ll forever be etched into my mind,” he says.

Conway had just released an EP with her new band, the avant garde post-punk four-piece Do-Re-Mi, which Creswell had recently reviewed “very unfavourably” in Rolling Stone.

”I said that I thought the group, which was then a studio effort, should get out and play. I said the songs were stilted and over-thought and that the lyrics were ‘sixth-form poetry’,” he says.

So who should turn up that night but Conway.

”She came straight towards me,” Creswell says, “bailed me up and asked me in rather forthright terms to justify my review of her EP. She was miffed but she also genuinely wanted to know what I thought and why. She was open for debate, which I thought was really commendable.”

Conway, of whom Creswell went on to be a great admirer, has been bailing up audiences ever since. From her ‘80s debut with Do-Re-Mi (and their Top 10 single Man Overboard), through film and stage appearances to an extensive solo career, the Melbourne-born singer has become a beacon of creative independence, tough and talented, beautiful and unafraid, with that fearfully large mouth and a voice to rip the roof off.
— Tim Elliot, 19 August, 2008, "Lady's night at the beckoning microphone." The Sydney Morning Herald

What next for Deborah Conway?

I am the festival director for The Shir Madness Melbourne Jewish Music Festival, which is on this year on 3 September. It will be one massive day, 30 musical acts on four stages, and with less than eight weeks to go I have still a lot to do. We are excited to be presenting The Klezmatics & David Krakauer’s Ancestral Groove, both from New York, Renee Geyer, Tinpan Orange, The Stiletto Sisters, The Grigoryan Brothers and the list goes on. Check out here for program details.

After that I will be settling down to write and record a new album, which I hope to have out in 2019, in time to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the release of our 1994 release Bitch Epic.

Deborah Conway, Music Love

Check out DeborahConway.com, and follow Deborah on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Check out the final weeks and events of Queensland Music Festival here 

The Shir Madness Melbourne Jewish Music Festival, is on 3 September. Info here

Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier perform at Camelot Lounge, Sydney Sunday, 27 August 2017 at 7pm. Tickets here