Game-Changing Women of Australian Music – Deborah Conway – Pt. 2

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It’s Only the Beginning (D Conway/S Cutler) – Deborah Conway 1991

Deborah Conway had never been less than alluring, candid and free-spirited as a songwriter and performer with such bands as the Benders, Do-Re-Mi and Rose Amongst Thorns, her appearance at Fremantle’s Fly By Night Club in front of 700 fans was notable not only for her performance, but the fact that the she was eight months pregnant and had cut a hole in the front of her red dress through which her baby belly protruded, predictably the fans lapped it up. She had added film roles (Running on Empty, Prospero’s Books), and overseas experience providing backing vocals on Pete Townshend’s album Iron Man to her CV before she returned to Australia in 1990, with a clutch of original songs and by 1991 she was focused on recording her first solo album, String of Pearls.

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The album was recorded at the Metropolis Studios (Melb) and Ardent Studios (Memphis) with producers American Joe Hardy, former Broderick Smith guitarist Michael den Elzen and former Boom Crash Opera bassist Richard Pleasance (Paul Kelly, James Reyne, Suzanne Vega). Sunny, uplifting, slightly bittersweet lyrics, bathed in sprightly melodic pop, had not been Conway’s stock-in trade to this time, angsty and ironic were more typical, with a stringent, funky post-punk backbeat overlaid with assertive observations about sexual politics.

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But Conway was looking for new inspiration and working with different people, co-composer Scott Cutler (below, great -nephew of Irving Berlin) had been a member of Ednaswap and co-composer of Natalie Imbruglia’s mega-hit Torn, he had also crafted hits for Sinead O’Connor, Madonna and Beyonce, Richard Pleasance would produce the session and the first single lifted off the album, It’s Only the Beginning, would reveal Conway’s new persona – sunny, lovestruck, and blissfully happy.

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The song fairly rollicks along with a stream of verses that capture the blissful rapture of falling in love “But I’ve already gone and lost my mind/ I feel like making daisy chains/ And playing hide ‘n’ seek… “It’s like a movie, and your my leading man/ The way you woo me just like Cary Grant/ You wanna hold my hand…” you had to wonder if Deborah was being facetious and sending herself up here, with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, as she barely suppressed a sly grin.

Always delightfully independent and iconoclastic in the way she presented her songs, this vid was a perfect example, the brunette woman who accompanied Deborah around the golf course was Kaarin Fairfax, actress and future wife of Paul Kelly.

She has said that she thought the song was excessively “happy” but its lyrical simplicity and bonhomie works well with the jangly, ringing guitar pop of the melody. The promo video was a 1930’s period piece in an homage to actress Katherine Hepburn, with Deborah and two others in appropriate costume making up a golfing threesome, autumnal colors, dappled sunlight, plaid skirts, tartan blanket and plus fours, add to the retro feel and Conway is positively radiant and as giddy and infatuated as a young girl who is head-over-heels-in-love could be. It would be Deborah’s biggest solo hit at #19, the album was also successful charting at #21, and Deborah picked up the ARIA award for Best Female Artist in 1992 for the String of Pearls album. Mushroom Records boss Michael Gudinski loved this song but hated the video, damning it unsexy, twee and dated, but it certainly had its fans. 

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She followed up in 1993 with the #18 album Bitch Epic, the cover art featured a topless Conway smeared in Nutella, eating cake, and was a clue to the rich and musically complex songs within, exemplified by the 5/4 beat of Alive and Brilliant and the loping rhythm of Today I Am a Daisy, she would also mesmerise audiences when she toured her stage production Always…Patsy Cline to great acclaim nationally.Below L-R- Deborah and Willy Zygier, in Patsy Cline mode, Family Pic- Deborah, Alma, Hettie, Willy, and Syd.

Deborah continues to write and record in a mutually fulfilling collaborative partnership with her husband and fellow musician Willy Zygier, such studio albums as My Third Husband (’97), Exquisite Stereo (2000), Summertown (’04), Half Man, Half Woman (‘10), were all critically praised and explored a broad palette of musical genres often in collaboration with other artists as well as their three daughters. From 2005-2008 Conway collaborated with fellow female performers to stage the Broad Festival, a musical event similar to Sarah McLaughlin’s Lilith Fair in the USA. She and Zygier have released more arcane/esoteric material in recent years with three albums that have explored Old Testament themes from a Jewish perspective – Stories of Ghosts (’13), Everybody’s Begging (’16) and The Words of Men (’19), which were again critically praised, but essentially passion projects lacking broad commercial appeal. Below – Montage of Deborah Conway’s album artwork.

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