As the final days tick down to WOMADelaide 2018 we are getting excited about the multitude of talent on offer, from both overseas and local artists. The unique blend of voices, artists and experiences, never fails to delight your senses and get you thinking about what really matters in the world. Along with that, you can let yourself breathe in, look out, and immerse yourself in something that has such a positive vibe it will have you dancing for days after the end of the festival. Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier are one of the acts we are most looking forward to at Recycled HQ. Deborah has been a significant part of the Australian music scene both as a solo artist, with her band Do-Re-Mi, and now as one half of the Duo Deborah Conway and Willy Zygeir. Deborah first found musical success with her band Do Re Mi in the mid 1980’s. They were in the top 5 on the charts with their song Man Overboard – a big anthem of my younger years. In 1991 she released her debut solo album, String of Pearls – which featured the hits, “It’s the Only Beginning” and Release Me”, helping her win the 1991 Best Female ARIA. I remember driving in my car singing “it’s Only The Beginning” at the top of my lungs after meeting Mr Recycled at a party – I felt like it was our story in a beautiful song full of joy.
In 1993 Deborah and Willy produced their first album together, Bitch Epic, the title for which came from “random words, cut up and pulled from a hat”. They were breaking the mould of Australian musicians of that era who mainly played pubs and clubs, and they embarked on The Epic Theatre tour in grand old theatres throughout the country. In September 2016, they released their 9th studio collaboration, Everybody’s Begging, that was given a 5-star review in The Australian. I had a chat with Deborah about her career and their upcoming appearance at WOMADelaide.
How did you first get into music as a career?
I put an ad in the local music paper at the urging of a friend. I had a couple of people answer the ad and had my choice of bands to join. I chose a prog-rock oufit called The Benders, who I played with for around 8 months before the drummer Dorland Bray and I ran off to Sydney to form our own band, Do Re Mi. I never consciously made a decision to make music a career, that just unfolded over time.
What do you think has helped you to move forward with your music and create new projects along the way?
There are many milestones in every life and they all reflect back on each other; meeting Dorland; meeting Willy Zygier; having children; becoming an independent artist (ie establishing our own record company); inventing the home party concept back in 2004 – we called it The Summerware Party – no-one had ever done it before; coming up with Broad; and getting involved with Shir Madness Jewish Music Festival which we eventually established in Melbourne and ran in 2015 & 2017. Ultimately I think the thing that has most moved us forward as songwriters and music makers is being increasingly self critical; often painful, but it has produced our best work.
You found success with Man Overboard which addressed gender politics. It has been suggested that this was something almost taboo on mainstream radio at the time. Despite this it was a big hit – why do you think this was the case (besides being a bloody good song!) what was happening at that time?
I don’t recall gender politics being a taboo subject. I think in fact people were discussing the Women’s Lib Movement quite openly, and had been since Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was published in 1970. Maybe they weren’t agreeing with it, but it wasn’t a taboo subject. Of course what is discussed on commercial FM radio is and always was on the light side, so perhaps they weren’t putting together meaty discussions about gender politics – they still don’t. However the same didn’t go for Triple J which was all over those subjects, the more provocative the better. I would certainly classify Triple J as mainstream youth radio, broadcast as it was nationally – that’s a serious reach. I think Man Overboard was a very powerful song that didn’t sound much like anything else on radio at the time; it was highly listenable for it’s lyric content which could bear repeated listenings; and despite its not having a chorus, the song was good ear worm material.
Music has been through lots of changes in the way it is listened to, its ownership and access – do you think its ability to change us are gone? Do you think music still has a social change impact?
No I don’t think music has a social change impact, I don’t think it occupies the same place in the lexicon of youth as it once did. The lingua franca of young people lies more in the realm of video games, virtual reality, what is the current Twitter/Facebook/Instagram etc meme. Music is more fractured across multitudes of genres and an artist rarely captures a listenership beyond its core audience.
How did you and Willy meet, and how do you manage family life and working together?
We met because I needed a guitar player to tour String Of Pearls with. He was recommended to me by mutual friends. Once we had met there was an inevitability to our shared destiny. All the things we do together; writing, playing, cooking, touring, parenting; bleed effortlessly into each other and we find stimulation in all of them. Even when it’s challenging it’s easier because we do it together. I think we were very lucky to find each other.
Can you tell us about why you decided to embark on The Epic Theatre tour in grand old theatres throughout the country? And what was the experience like?
I wanted to take this version of a greatest hits show into venues that people would really enjoy going to, venues that made the programme feel special. I think theatres, with their proscenium arches, raked seating, curtains and a certain formality, do elevate any performance. Alongside the songs, I reprised my greatest costume hits that went with the various tours. They were great shows for us and our audiences.
Your recent 9th studio collaboration, Everybody’s Begging, was given a 5-star review in The Australian – can you tell us about its development?
We composed Everybody’s Begging over a year or so after touring Stories Of Ghosts extensively. However, just before we commited to recording it in late 2014, we had also commited ourselves to mounting the inaugural Shir Madness Melbourne Jewish Music Festival, which happened in September 2015. It became impossible to continue the composing process while also writing sustainability, site reinstatement and waste management plans for Shir Madness, among a plethora of other tasks we took on including fundraising. So we shelved the album and when we came back to it at the end of 2015, songs we thought we’d finished turned out not as finished as we’d thought. That 8 month delay turned into a gift of valuable perspective that improved the songs immeasurably. We’ve now incorporated a scheduled time off period into the project we’ve just embarked on, a new album due for release next year sometime.
Do you think the way we interact with live music has changed? And how do you see WOMAD impacting this?
There are certainly a lot more festivals now that when I started playing music, it has fast become the preferred way audiences like to enjoy the concert experience, bingeing. Curation is important. All festivals have to distinguish themselves and WOMADelaide does this by being the premiere World Music Festival in the country; if it’s exotica you’re after WOMADelaide is the festival for you. However it is much more than that, with a great swathe of homegrown Australian artists performing as well.
WOMADelaide is a very unique experience – can you tell us what you are looking forward to about playing the festival?
The thing I most value is stumbling upon a musical performance that I hadn’t been aware of and being swept away by something compelling, riveting or beautiful, or all of those things if I’m lucky.
Recycled Interiors is all about creating a more sustainable life – can you tell us your thoughts on living more lightly on the planet? And do you think you might ever write some songs about this?!!
Small things – hang the washing, take my own bags or trolley to shop local, reuse all my plastic containers and bags until they fall apart, and compost. They say you can write a song about anything but thus far recycling hasn’t crossed my creative synapses; but never say never!