I liked Deborah Conway the moment I learned she had an album called Bitch Epic. Fortunately, that album lives up to its name, and the rest of this Australian singer-songwriter’s output is worth getting to know too.
Conway’s first solo album was String of Pearls in 1991. The most popular song from it was “It’s Only the Beginning.” It shows the promise of a confident songwriter, even if this pop-love number doesn’t reveal how much she has to say.
(By the way, if that opening hook seems familiar, you’re not imagining it. It bears more than a passing resemblance to The Cure’s hit single “Just Like Heaven,” from 1987.)
It’s no surprise that Conway’s first solo effort has a pop sound. She spent the 1980s in a three-person band called Do Re Mi which had some success in the Australian pop charts. But even in this early album she pushes at the expected framework of pop. For example, the song “Someday,” also from String of Pearls, has a more interesting melody. And even if that melody does bring to mind the style of Natalie Merchant (of 10,000 Maniacs), Conway proves she has a voice worthy of the comparison. A tinge of American country and western sneaks into this song, too, which was to become very important in Conway’s career.
Bitch Epic came out next, in 1993, and with it a new side of Conway: snarky, snarly, and cynical. That bouncy, strong-voiced woman on the first solo album was apparently still trying to be a pop star, but a different part of her longed to break free. This new album opens with an unapologetic statement of intent, “Alive and Brilliant,” with a repeating line to start the chorus that says it all: “It’s been a long time since anyone meant what they said”:
“Holes in the Road” is another kind of departure from Conway’s pop beginnings because of its interesting rhythmic and textural use of the guitar. An electronic drone that sounds like locusts helps set the mood:
There’s a harder rock sound in the 1997 album My Third Husband. The title refers to this being Conway’s third album, which speaks volumes about her obsessive dedication to her art. No sweetness or pop fluff here. The song “Only the Bones (Will Show),” originally written for her experimental band Ultrasound, features voice distortion, driving drums, electric guitar riffs, and dissonant pitches in the melody:
Notice, though, that her voice is already showing some signs of wear. Bitch Epic was the height of Conway’s vocal power. Nevertheless, in the late ʼ90s she had the perfect voice for country music, and was cast as Patsy Cline in the Australian production of the stage show Always…Patsy Cline, which then inspired a 2001 album of Cline covers.
Since 2004, Conway has worked as part of a duo act with singer and steel-guitarist Willy Zygier, an original member of Ultrasound and Conway’s longtime domestic partner. Their songs together tend to be quieter, more philosophical, and influenced by their Jewish faith (as they have explained in interviews).
“Something’s Right,” from their 2004 album Summertown, would be a straightforward folk-style song about loneliness were it not for two factors: First, there are Conway’s exceedingly long lines of poetry that roll out the phrases of melody like country lanes stretching to the horizon. Then there’s the way the moseying pace of the verses gets interrupted twice by a strident waterfall of strings:
Sentimentality is narrowly avoided in “Cul de Sac,” a song about domestic life from the album Half Man Half Woman, also from 2004. What saves it from being sugary is the humor in the musical arrangement that includes ukulele, mandolin tremolo, accordion, and someone whistling with a warble that would make Bing Crosby proud:
On the 2013 album Stories of Ghosts, the song “Outside of Zion” has lyrics that are thoughtful and wise, with a wistfulness typical of Conway/Zygier songs. It’s an affecting country waltz. Conway’s voice is unsteady and cracking, but at the song’s climax there’s a glimmer of that roaring lioness of Bitch Epic:
It’s still the same Deborah Conway, even if the days of charting tunes are long past. In 2016 the duo put out a single from the new album they’re working on (to help raise money for its production), and you can hear that old snarky wit, if a bit more subtly, in “Life’s a Curse”:
I’m skeptical about that title, though. Conway has enjoyed decades of music-making, much of it alongside the love of her life. So, how much of a curse can it really be?