Tomorrow Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier play in Hindmarsh in South Australia, working their way to Mackay in Queensland at the end of June. It’s a working tour, like they’ve been doing in some form for more than a quarter of a century (more of course if you include her pre-solo days in Do Re Mi).
In between will come two special nights at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid Live, marking the arrival of their 10th album, The Words Of Men, and 25 years since the ARIA-winning Bitch Epic, which will be played in full. Not a bad return on investment is it?
In this interview with the husband and wife team from 2010, Wind Back Wednesday discovers simplicity and the right time for gizmos, the traumas of making pasta and how two names is better than one, and why there is joy in the ordinary, even if you’re not really ordinary at all.
The name of their album is Half Man Half Woman, though today in a brief visit from Melbourne, Deborah Conway, tousled hair, red coat and rose-patterned stockings, and Willy Zygier, trimmed grey hair, long sloping face and neatly worn shirt and trousers, look all woman and all man.
Actually, the title says more about their lives together and the music they’ve made together for 20 years, a long-lasting partnership with quite a few runs on the board. Not just the nine albums they’ve made (he playing, co-writing and producing; she singing, co-writing and producing) since Conway’s first solo album in 1991, five years after her “pubic hairs on my pillow”-driven breakthrough with the group Do Re Mi. Nor just the Broad shows they’ve produced which have brought together a mixed assortment of female artists in a series of successful national tours.
But also a close family with three daughters. So close all five appear on one track of Half Man Half Woman. It’s an arrangement which could bring to mind teeth-grinding examples like Jimmy Barnes’ offspring’s early recordings as The Tin Lids.
"I guess we could be nailed for that," says Conway doubtfully, claiming not to remember much about the Lids. Zygier has a clearer memory but "I'm hoping our song is more interesting” he says. It is. As is the back story which goes back to a long trip from their Jervis Bay holiday farm to the Tamworth country music festival a couple of years ago.
"It's a nine hour drive and we were thinking how can we give our children some sort of activity and a kind of a stake in what we were about to do, to make it more interesting for them so that they weren't bitching and moaning the entire time,” Conway says. “So we thought we'd write a song, throw our children on the stage in Tamworth.”
Two years later they hesitated before putting it on this record, but the fact is the song fits on an album concerned with what it means to be adults and attached and committed. A record not made for teenagers and danceclubs but for grown ups.
"I guess it's a photo album of a life snapshotted," says Conway. "An interesting enough life. Not an incredible, action packed life but celebrating the ordinary. I like that because there is so much joy in the ordinary."
As Zygier points out, musically they’ve focused on the so called ordinary too: the simpler instrumentation, the simpler sound shorn of bells and whistles most recordings have now.
"It's good to sound human," he says. "I hear so many records where I think, there are no human beings involved here."
Not that they're opposed to it necessarily – “we've danced with the gizmos in the past, we made the best record we could make at that time,” says Conway – but this time it just wasn't going to work. This time they wanted to make the kind of record they put on at home, the kind of record that suited the mood and the style of songs "simple, real and stuff that was emotional as opposed to clever".
You may have noticed that while they’ve been musical partners for two decades this is only the second time Conway and Zygier have put both names on the product. Why?
Conway, who has always been quick to identify Zygier’s contribution in interviews, says she's been pushing him "for many, many years" to have his name on the records they make but he had been resisting.
It wasn’t shyness Zygier explains, but the fact is he always thought of Deborah Conway as “the brand name” of their musical enterprise and there was no need to complicate matters.
"But I’ve been chipping away,” says Conway proudly. And she finally got her way. Not, you suspect, for the first time. And Zygier is enjoying it. So much so that I speculate he might just push her out eventually.
They guffaw and exchange amused looks as Conway says “and I can stay home and bake cakes” for yes Deborah Conway bakes cakes, likes doing it too. Though Zygier, who has been the main breadmaker if not breadwinner (he’s more likely to be cooking at home while she’s doing things like being artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival since 2008) points out that Conway in the kitchen "can be an upsetting experience … for everyone".
"Deb made pasta the other night and I've never heard such histrionics," he laughs. “All you need is boiling water and the pasta and [she was] screaming.”
Conway too is laughing, admitting the truth of it and together they explain how at home, in the studio and on stage his calm brings some balance to her manic turns and how her drive lifts his energy. Half man, half woman.
Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier play Sydney Opera House on June 7-8. For full national gig details go to https://www.deborahconway.com/upcoming-gigs/
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