Artist profile: Deborah Conway and Willy Zygie

Written by: Fiona Gruber
Photos by: Garth Oriander
Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier are in the middle of making another album. It hasn’t got a name yet, says Conway, but after a few gigs to warm up, in August they’ll head to a recording studio in Melbourne, where they live.
‘We’ve got 15 songs and probably ten will make the cut,’ she says.
Theirs is an enduring and very fruitful partnership beginning in 1991 when Conway auditioned Zygier. At the time she was a fast-rising solo star, after a career with band Do-Ré-Mi and a hit Man Overboard which reached number five in the charts in 1985. She needed a guitar player for the tour off the back of her first solo album, String of Pearls and, she says, there was an immediate spark.
At first it was strictly business but by the end of the tour they were a couple. ‘It was a very long tour,’ she explains.
Composing is very much a collaborative effort, but there are no hard and fast rules. One of them might have a title, the other a set of chords.
They work together and alone she says, and one song might have more input from her, another from him.
‘It’s passed back and forth, but generally we’re fifty-fifty.’
Conway’s the front-woman, Zygier’s quieter but equally creative and from that spark 27 years ago, he’s co-written and co-produced on all her albums. The last four have been released under both their names.
They’ve also produced three daughters, Syd, Alma and Hettie, all of whom are now involved in music and theatre.
They got married in 2007; ‘we waited until the youngest child had stopped pulling focus. She was eight,’ quips Conway.
Family life has obviously been a rich and rewarding experience but as every artist knows it can get in the way of creativity; when I ask about the genesis of the latest album, Conway starts with a story about damp-proofing the house which meant everyone having to move out and being separated from the girls and their dramas. Suddenly it was just the two of them again. ‘It was a very productive three weeks,’ she says. This was followed up with an intensively creative residency at Bundanon in NSW. The former home of Arthur Boyd is now an artists’ retreat.
As with their previous couple of albums, the latest taps into the cultural and mystical origins of Judaism.
They also run the Shir Madness Festival of Jewish Music – Shir means music in Hebrew – Conway as festival director, Zygier as artistic director. The festival alternates between Melbourne and Sydney and is demanding but exhilarating. ‘I’m always excited about the new’ she explains.
It’s confronting for some, says Conway, that neither of them is religious.
“Some people find it odd that I can feel intensely Jewish without feeling a connection with God” she says. But it’s an exciting and intellectually stimulating pursuit. I’m not more Jewish than I was before I started exploring; it’s about realising what a rich vein of poetic material there is. It’s nourishing, exciting and rich and we’re not finished with it, we can paddle about in this for a while longer.’