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Looking Back and Moving Forward: We speak with Deborah Conway

Gillian Welch’s lyrics appear in the liner notes of Deborah Conway’s latest album, Everybody’s Begging.

They conjure the image of an artist faced with the songwriter’s eternal dilemma: how do you fill the blank page with something meaningful and worthwhile? Conway, a legend of the Australian music scene, could quite easily have sat back and taken pleasure in the recognition she has received for all of her successes and hard work – but that isn’t her style.
 
As a restless artist, Deborah Conway has continually sought out new challenges. “I like having to be pushed to think about new ways to do stuff. I find that if I’m given a challenge, that’s good meat to me,” says Conway. “It's part of the human condition to want more. We are always striving, always searching. We are curious, always pushing boundaries. There are a lot of things to write about at the moment.” There certainly is, and Conway has a lot to say.
 
Everybody's Begging serves as a parable for our times by exploring themes of religion, creativity, family, grief, love, inequality, and fear (or perhaps confusion) in a rapidly changing world. These motifs are scrutinised through the Talmudic tradition of commentary and this involves a sort of ‘riffing on a theme’, whereby Conway and her partner Willy Zygier, draw on the works of their idols and contemporaries by engaging with and expanding upon ideas from the past and present. 
 
The musical partnership of Conway and Zygier is an association cultivated over a 25-year period. “It’s a long time isn’t it?” says Conway. “We’re getting better at it. It’s become more seamless”.
 
Although Conway typically handles lyrics, with Zygier shouldering compositional duties, this is by no means the rule. In fact, the collaborative process on the new record has been particularly synergistic with the pair handballing ideas backwards and forwards as intuitively as a flag-winning AFL squad. “To be honest we’ve worked so often together that we forget,” says Conway. “One thing melds into another and it’s almost difficult to remember who wrote what.”
 
Recently Conway has been revisiting her back catalogue for shows celebrating the 25th anniversary of her debut solo record, String of Pearls. The album was a success for Conway, reaching number 20 on the charts and resulting in an ARIA award for Best Female Artist. “It’s been nice revisiting that material,” says Conway. “It’s not an unpleasant trip to be thrown back to that time [and] the states of mind that I was in when writing that material”.
 
From all accounts the fans have enjoyed the nostalgia trip too. “They love it. There’s something special about hearing music that was the backdrop to your life when you bought your first car or when you were dating your first boyfriend,” says Conway.
 
Nostalgia might be as comforting as a warm bath, but Conway is keen to keep on moving forward. “I imagine there are people that can never shake the affection for the earlier stuff, and that’s fine, it’s theirs, it belongs to them now,” she says.
 
With 2017 fixed squarely in her sights, Conway is preparing for the upcoming concert at Sunset Sounds, a festival that combines musical performances with a fleet of Melbourne's favourite food trucks. It’s an opportunity for families to spread out the picnic rug and enjoy the City of Stonnington’s beautiful parks and gardens.
 
Conway is hoping to make the gig a family affair, with plans for her daughters, all of them adept vocalists, to join the band onstage. “I’m really looking forward to it, it’s such a beautiful park, and I’m looking forward to performing in it,” she says. 
 
By George Hyde

Deborah Conway will play at Sunset Sounds, Victoria Gardens on Sunday January 8 with Willy Zygier and Sal Kimber.