Innerviews, music without borders

Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier
Opening Doors
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2010 Anil Prasad.

Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier have a unique approach to addressing the challenge of getting their music into listeners’ homes in an era of ever-shrinking radio playlists and diffuse download culture: they simply invite themselves in. The Australian husband-and-wife team of Conway, a renowned singer-songwriter and Zygier, a sought-after guitarist, composer and producer, have helped pioneer a novel way of promoting and selling their music. The straightforward, yet clever model works like this: fans band together to buy 30 copies of a new CD, and Conway and Zygier deliver them in person and perform a 20-minute house concert as part of the bargain.

This strategy has proven a great success for the duo, who have performed more than 100 of these shows to date, and sold thousands of independent CDs directly to fans with no middlemen. The math is clearly in their favor compared to the typical music industry model. Conway and Zygier keep 100 percent of the profits, compared to the miniscule percentage they would typically make in a conventional label arrangement.

Conway has a 30-year career focused on expansive rock and pop work. During the late `80s and `90s, she was a high-profile Australian pop icon with songs that explored provocative, adult themes, situated within deep, dark guitar territory, electronica, roots influences, and moody atmospheres. Several of her key albums during this period, including 1993’s Bitch Epic, 1997’s My Third Husband and 2000’s Exquisite Stereo—all co-written with Zygier— featured adventurous, sometimes subversive arrangements. One of her more well-known songs from that era, “Alive and Brilliant” was even in 5/4, the same time signature as Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

By the early 2000s, Conway and Zygier were fed up with the machinery of the mainstream music industry. They were eager to break away and maintain complete control over all aspects of their careers. A desire to focus deeply on family life with their three children also propelled them in this direction. Their first indpendent album, 2004’s Summertown, was a stripped-down, acoustic-focused effort with a buoyant bent that reflected the couple’s optimism and faith in their new path.

Conway and Zygier’s latest album Half Man Half Woman takes an even more spartan approach, designed to explore and expand the possibilities available to them as a two-person performing unit. It’s a meticulously crafted release that explores diverse settings within the duo’s mission to preserve an intimate, organic feel. Like Summertown, it’s driven by acoustic strings, including guitars, banjos and mandolins. It also finds jazz, blues and folk sharing the stage with their established pop and rock sensibilities. And like the couple’s long relationship, the album is a lasting testament to the power of commiting to a great, enduring idea.

You’ve both said the goal of the new album was to make a record that sounded like both of you playing in a room. Was that a reaction to specific experiences in your careers?

DC: In a way, each album is a reaction to the last one, but this one less so than others in the past. My Third Husband and Exquisite Stereo had a relationship that was intricately connected. My Third Husband was such a “production in a box.” It barely involved any live musicians. We used some in the end, but the album was mostly designed before that. With Exquisite Stereo, we took the exact opposite approach. For Half Man Half Woman, the reason we did what we did is because we became enamored of writing material with the purpose of seeing how far we could expand the palette of two guitars and two vocals. The songs were written around that context. In the end, we chickened out, because including some colors from other instruments was too appealing. We ended up being seduced by that. But as much as possible, we tried to honor the initial intention. We wanted to see what kind of emotional responses two guitars and two vocals could elicit from a listener. There is augmentation, but less so than on our previous album Summertown. It was a finer honing of Summertown’s direction.

Provide some insight into how you explored the possibilities of two guitars and two vocals.

DC: For me, it meant seeing how far can we go without being boring and repetitive. [laughs] We wanted to see how far we could push out and not overstay our welcome within this very limited palette, yet make each song sound unique, and be an interesting aural experience.

WZ: This record is more focused on songs as basic units—a lyric and a chord progression—as opposed to a production. There’s not much more than that. The actual genres of the songs are varied, and the forms of the songs are too. We also have instrumentals that barely go a minute. Then we have a song that’s three chords that goes for eight minutes, but barely has any instrumental component to it, with a focus on the lyric. We were trying to explore things in that way.

Tell me more about the short instrumental vignettes. What's their function on the album?

WZ: It’s interesting, because we didn’t know if they would be included on the record or not. We had a bit of an argument between the three of us on this topic. The third person was James Black, our producer. James was certain they shouldn’t be on the record.

DC: And I was certain they should be.

WZ: James said “Why don’t you make an instrumental record and leave this purely focused on the songs?” Deborah won out in the end. She saw the instrumentals as being able to lead the journey through the record. They take the listener from one song to the other and they’re aurally surprising and diverse.

DC: I see them as aural cartilage. They’re a kind of sorbet between courses. They cross a lot of genres and are reasonably eclectic, style-wise. I wanted the album to have a flow and I felt the instrumentals were the answer to creating that flow. They gently lead the listener from one emotional state into the next. They’re positioned at the beginning of that feeling to make listeners ready for what unfolds. I really felt these miniatures were instrumental in doing that.

WZ: I also wanted the instrumentals to be humorous and light, and at the same time interesting.

What did you make of Black’s suggestion about making an instrumental album?

WZ: My problem with doing an instrumental album is: who would buy it? Who would listen to it? [laughs] That’s an obstacle in the path. I’d do it for myself, but I don’t know if the world needs a Willy Zygier instrumental album, to be blunt. It’s not a consideration in playing or writing terms, but in terms of releasing it to the public.

What else can you tell me about your working relationship with Black as you made the album?

DC: We asked James to come in and make the record with us, after the demos were very far advanced. He said “You can put these demos down and add bass and drums, but I don’t want to be involved in that record. I want to take the songs apart and put them back together again.” And that’s what we did. It sounded like an interesting project, but it was quite a process. It took an incredibly long time. James really did take these things apart and some of the songs didn’t survive. Others changed character completely. There was one that galloped along that we struggled with not sounding quite right. We put it down at all kinds of tempos, changed the lyrics, put in instrumental bits and then took them out. But nothing would work. It became a bluegrass romp and turned into a dirge, and a very effective one. It was ironic that the song was titled “Time is Running Out.” It’s not on the record. It might be on the next one. I still like it. It was a case of using what fit together for the album. We recorded 18 tracks and 12 got on. At one point, I considered putting them all on, then I thought “No, it won’t work.”

What are you doing with the other six tracks?

DC: Potentially, we have half of the next album ready to go. By the time we get to that point, we will have written a whole bunch of other songs and we may reconsider what works and what doesn’t. It’s a comforting feeling to know you have songs up your sleeve for the future.

Give me a snapshot of your recording environment and how it affected the album’s direction.

WZ: We have a studio at home, as many people do these days. It was a matter of deciding if we’d get out of our pajamas on any given day and go into the studio. [laughs] James would come over every day. It would be a lot of talking in the studio. James liked to talk about the specific effect of the songs. It’s probably the most simple record we’ve made and purposefully so, but it also took the longest of any record to make. Because we made it at home, we could luxuriate, take our time, and do things again until we were satisfied.

DC: We really did take our time to take things and pull them apart, and put them back together—and do it four or five times. James is a busy guy, and we’re busy too, so it wasn’t something that was going constantly.

WZ: There were big breaks, but it was a steady process over nine months, not including the writing.

DC: Nine months—just like having a baby.

WZ: But we did it differently this time. It was time to stop having children this time around. [laughs]

DC: We put our children on this record. That was the next step. [laughs]

Describe what it was like working with your kids, who sing on the track “Into the Blue.”

DC: It was quite a brief moment, really, but they’re very musical.

WZ: When recording with children, you have to be quick. They get bored fast. They want to do their own thing and go watch SpongeBob SquarePants. They don’t want to be told “Do that line again, please.”

DC: We use their vocals in a natural way.

WZ: Just like the rest of the album, we wanted them to sound like they sound—people in a room, not people striving for perfection. It was about capturing a moment in time.

DC: They do the song live too. We get them up onstage very occasionally to perform it and it’s nice.

Are your kids impressed by your status as prominent musicians?

WZ: I don’t think they care. Children never care about what their parents do very much.

DC: They’re occasionally chuffed. Sometimes they’ll come home and say someone’s mother thinks we’re fantastic and you can see they’re pleased about it, but it’s just a moment.

WZ: As it should be.

I understand “Into the Blue” was the result of a vacation car ride.

DC: We had been going to a holiday place in New South Wales for nine years. Quite a lot of the Half Man Half Woman album was started or finished on those holidays. It was an ideal place to sit around and just play guitar and write songs. Once, we were heading off to the Tamworth Country Music Festival in New South Wales in tandem with a holiday. It’s a major music festival in Australia. It was our first trip there and we had a nine-hour drive. We thought “How can we give our kids a stake in this and get them onstage?” Willy and I had just got married the week before in December 2007. The girls had just sung at our wedding and did really well, performing their own version of “You Are My Sunshine.” We thought “This is a good opportunity to put them on stage.” Little did we know that Tamworth is full of child acts, so there was no novelty there.

After the nine-hour drive, arguing over who had forgotten which words—which drove us completely insane—they got up onstage at the Tamworth Country Music Entertainment Center. We were supporting Melinda Schneider, a Golden Guitar winner many times over, so there was a crowd of over 3,500 people in the room. The kids sang the song in tune and got all the words right. So we thought, “Let’s record it.” Initially, I was reluctant to put it on the record, thinking that I was enamored of it because it was sentimental to us. Perhaps it was an aural snapshot of our children at a particular time and place, which wouldn’t necessarily be appreciated by anyone else. But I was assured it had perfect integrity in its own right and that we should include it.

How does the blurry family/work boundary affect songwriting and recording for you?

DC: There’s no boundary really. It’s all one thing. I never feel that one thing stops and another thing begins. It’s a continuum.

WZ: When the kids go to school, it makes songwriting easier.

DC: There is that. [laughs] It helps when they’re not taking up all the space.

Half Man Half Woman and Summertown are very different from anything released under the Deborah Conway pop star umbrella. Do you feel your core fan base from those days migrated with you into this new territory?

DC: I think the core fan base is still there, but it’s difficult to know for certain.

WZ: We’ve bewildered people over the years.

DC: Within my solo career, I’ve released such extremely different records from String of Pearls to Bitch Epic to Ultrasound to My Third Husband to Exquisite Stereo. I’m sure we confounded the core base well before we put out Summertown and Half Man Half Woman. I think there was a natural attrition after String of Pearls, after I put out a bunch of songs on Bitch Epic which challenged people’s idea of what pop music is. There are people who are still there from the early days. We really connect with some of them when we do house concerts to promote the records. First, we had the Summerware Party, which has now transmogrified into the Half Men/Half Women’s Wear Parties. At these shows, we sell 30 copies of the record, deliver them, sign them, and play a 20-minute set at a fan’s house. We’ve done well over 100 of these.

It initially began as an idea designed to get some attention in the media. What we were doing was so unusual that I thought we’d gain some traction that way, which would translate into selling more records in stores. In actual fact, it took on a life of its own and became a method by which we sell a lot of records. I figured we’d do a few, get the attention, and drop it. But it became very popular. Now other people sell and promote their music with house concerts here as well.

WZ: It’s an interesting thing to do, particularly in the age of downloads, in which a physical CD is fairly worthless because people are used to getting things for free. When you play in front of people at these events, you’re absolutely there with them, three feet away. We don’t use any kind of PA. It’s just our voices and guitars. It’s an incredible shared experience, and then the CD becomes a physical memento of that experience.

DC: When we do these performances, there’s usually one person who organizes it and they’re the enthusiast. It’s classic pyramid selling. [laughs] They’re whipping their friends into coming to support them. So, you’re playing to a whole bunch of people who aren’t necessarily that interested, but it’s a compelling kind of performance. These days, people rarely get to hear music in an intimate way, so they walk away from it feeling like they had an experience they may not have had before.

Who came up with this idea?

DC: Me. I was in the shower and thinking “Look, there are all these artists of my vintage who aren’t able to get on radio anymore. I’m too old for stations like Triple J, who claim to be a youth-only outlet. I’m too weird for Triple M, which is a rock station and not into ‘girly’ stuff. The ABC, PBS and Triple R will play me. But, in general, how do you get into people’s homes if you can’t get on most radio?” Then I thought “Well, you walk in there.” It was an epiphany. I started thinking about Tupperware, and there you go.

So, if I get 30 people to buy your CD here in San Francisco, you’ll fly out to my place from Australia and play a 20-minute gig at my house?

DC: [laughs]

WZ: It’ll take 35 I’m afraid! [laughs]

You mentioned that CDs have become fairly worthless. Yet, you have a lavish, deluxe package for the physical version of Half Man Half Woman, featuring a paper orchid sculpture inside.

WZ: If you’re going to actually release a physical product today, and you’re facing the situation where as soon as you put it out, it ends up on the Internet, then why not create a piece of art? A regular CD is just a piece of packaged plastic. Listeners can hear that music in other ways. So, we thought if we made a beautiful object that it would be a more interesting and enduring proposition.

DC: It was kind of indulgent.

WZ: We’re the record company. It did cost a lot more to make this than any other record we’ve made.

DC: It was a huge amount of money. The idea was to harken back to when album covers were important—the days when you’d pore over the artwork, take out the lyrics, enjoy the photos and overall presentation. The LP was a large format. Enjoying the packaging the artist had included was part of the experience. So, the packaging of our new CD is an acknowledgement and appreciation of the totality of being an artist.

WZ: Hopefully, it reflects in the music in some way. On one level, the cover is simple and monochromatic, but there’s something magical within it.

DC: It’s funny. There’s a slightly pornographic quality to the Half Man Half Woman orchid within the package. The artists who created it did an incredible job with it. They took as long to make it as we did to make the record. At the end, they realized they had been paid 17 cents an hour to work on it. [laughs] They weren’t resentful though.

WZ: Sometimes, we’ll pull the sculpture out on stage and unfurl the flower and people applaud when they see it. It’s like a magic trick by “Deborah the Conjurer.” She whisks the hankie away and a flower suddenly appears, and there’s a beautiful thing to see. I think people are touched by it too.

How would you describe the state of the Australian music industry these days?

DC: There’s an enormous amount of talent out there and so many groups making music. But many of them don’t get the opportunity to be heard. There’s a bottleneck at radio. Radio in Australia is very difficult and unaccepting. It’s very tied to what the European and American charts are playing. I also think the Australian music business is reasonably timid, but it’s not because of the quality of the artists. There’s quite a lot of records being released. I’m a judge for the Australian Music Prize, which models itself after the Mercury Prize in the U.K. and there’s an enormous variety of music released in this country every year, and some of it is really fantastic.

Where do you feel you fit into the industry at this point in your careers?

WZ: We’re independent artists. We’re outside the industry. We have little to do with it. Actually, we have nothing to do with the official record business anymore.

DC: I have a strange reputation which doesn’t quite add up. On one hand, I’m a heritage artist that’s very well known for two songs: “Man Overboard” from 1985 and “It’s Only the Beginning” from 1991. Here we are 20-odd years later, but there’s another group of people who think we’re interesting, intriguing, mercurial, and intelligent music makers that continue to surprise. So, there’s this dichotomy of views that barely fits together at all.

WZ: Deb is definitely a respected figure. We did a series of concerts over a few years called Broad, which was about putting together female singer-songwriters on stage. We featured a lot of really interesting people, including Katie Noonan, Ella Hooper, Clare Bowditch, Mia Dyson, Laura Jean, and Ruby Hunter, to name a few. It helped many careers. Deborah was also appointed the director of the Queensland Music Festival, a major biannual event in this country.

Tell me about the impetus for the four Broad festivals you’ve done since 2005.

DC: It was a groundbreaking series of concerts that attempted to go beyond the monolithic genre of female singer-songwriters, which I was always rankled by. There are so many ways women express themselves in songwriting and performing, and I wanted to illustrate what they could be. I initially discussed the idea of an all-female Australian festival along the lines of Lilith Fair. We went away and workshopped performers’ names, ideas and stages, and presented these lists to the producer who subsequently turned around and said they couldn’t afford to do it. So, it was an idea to be shelved. I came back to it again when I had a conversation with people who ran a little theater in Melbourne who asked us to curate some evenings of music. So, we went back to the idea. Sadly, the theater turned around and said it was too expensive for them too. In the meantime, I had organized everything, so we became the producers as well and mounted quite a successful tour. The first one got enormous attention.

WZ: It was a very egalitarian concert every night. Typically when you go to a show, there might be a support act, a lesser-known act, and then the main act. But this was five women on stage, from varying points in their career—some well-known, others just starting out. Each contributed to each other’s music equally.

DC: The idea was to break down barriers between us as performers. There was none of that standoffish thing where people say “you do your thing and I’ll do mine.” There was a lot of dialog and conversation among everyone involved. Each performer wanted to understand how each other worked. The audience really got to know the performers too. In a way, it was an old-fashioned variety show, but there was something very human about it all being so open. Usually, pop music is about posing and being guarded.

Broad was enormously influential on me. All of these women did things their own way. I became so enamored with everyone and how they played guitar, used their voices, wrote melodies and lyrics, and expressed themselves. All of that rubbed off on me. It was a case of picking and choosing the different aspects of what I loved about these women and combining it into things that I did myself. I’ve no doubt all the women involved in the shows did the same thing. It was that sort of fantastic exchange. I’ve been thinking about another series of Broad shows, but financially, it’s difficult. I’d have to find someone to partner with. It’s also all-consuming. It’s the reason it took six years to complete a new album, but I think I’d like to do it one more time.

To this day, you still perform “Man Overboard,” the big Australian hit single by Deborah's `80s band Do Re Mi. Is it an obligation or are you still fond of it?

DC: I’m genuinely fond of that track. Someone came up to me a few days ago with an old 7” single of Do Re Mi’s “Adultery” and said “I don’t think you like this song, do you? You never play it.” I said “I always find it too fussy.” I wouldn’t continue to play “Man Overboard” if I really couldn’t stand it. I think it has stood the test of time beautifully. We always find a new way to interpret it. We do it as just one vocal and one guitar. Willy gets to play all these jazz licks on it.

WZ: It’s an interesting one to play because the original version is a real studio construction. When you break it down to one voice and one guitar, you find out what you can do with it. There’s only three chords in it. We go through all sorts of permutations of that song.

DC: People always love hearing it. We don’t play it at every concert, but we often pull it out as an encore.

How do you look back at your days with Do Re Mi and pop stardom in general?

DC: I don’t often look back at it. Those records were really of the `80s. Stephen Philip made all those kooky noises on his guitar and Helen Carter played interesting melodies. They were incredibly spare-sounding records. I don’t know if they were fantastic songs, to be blunt. It was good fun and I think it was a great beginning for me. I enjoyed performing and touring so intensely for that first nine months. I think we played 300 shows in the first year after the Domestic Harmony record came out. It was a good grounding. We saw a lot of the world and were very bonded. Overall, it was a good `80s rock and roll experience.

Have you ever pondered a Do Re Mi reunion?

DC: I never have. A few years ago, we talked about putting out a box set of stuff. We were very keen on using the 25-year marker to get that material out there. We negotiated a deal with a big label and they got cold feet. They didn’t think they would sell enough records, which is nonsense, frankly. Then they wanted to put out a greatest hits thing in the end, which felt like such an apology. We felt there was no point, and the whole idea was forgotten. Had the box set gone ahead, there was the possibility of an associated tour, but some of the band members haven’t played music in a long while, and I’m not in touch with everyone from the group anymore.

In general, what’s your perspective when it comes to reflecting on your earlier work?

WZ: We never, ever listen to our own records.

DC: Only with horror. I’ve learned not to go back. When you do, at some points it’s scary, then it isn't, and then it is again. There’s this long cyclical thing you go through with every record. At whichever point you are in the process, things feel either really good or really bad.

WZ: We’re always looking down the road to the future, rather than behind at where we came from.