Portrait of the artist as a mother

DEBORAH CONWAY’S second daughter, Alma delRay, is floating about in a pink cotton frock and burnished curls, talking shyly about her third birthday party. As the adult conversation resumes, she lays herself tummy down on mummy’s lap and waves her arms and legs enchantingly. The discussion turns to the deliciousness of childlike spontaneity.

And then Alma, perhaps tired of having to share her significant other with this stranger, makes a grab for Conway’s breast under her T-shirt and begins to knead the flesh. Conway keeps talking and wrestles the hand away.

She is partway through a description of her recent performance in chorales at the Sydney Opera House when Alma resumes her less-than-tender ministrations, this time moving up from a knead to a wrench. Conway squeals. “What is this? Some kind of schoolyard torture? A nipple twister?” Alma gurgles with delight.

A half-amused, half-embarrassed Conway sweeps the child into her arms and into the house, her voice admonishing. Rock’n’roll motherhood, it seems, requires the same sort of juggling act as working motherhood in any other trade, and rock’n’roll babies are just as jealous of mother’s attempts to keep a toehold in the outside world.

The beautiful, bolshie, singer-songwriter, Deborah Conway, burst onto the Australian music scene in 1991 with a hit album, String of Pearls. It sold around 100,000 copies and gave her a No.1 single – It’s Only the Beginning – that will forever be her signature song.

Her subsequent career has not quite lived up to the song’s buoyant optimism. Her later albums received positive reviews but were not picked up for radio airplay to the same extent and, while Conway has a loyal following and the respect of aficionados, Pearls remains her only big commercial success.

That does not mean, she points out tartly, that her more recent music is no good; just that it does not fit the current radio formula. “And if you don’t have something that’s being played on the radio it’s just impossible to make any headway … I think in a different kind of marketplace there would be a niche (for my music). It’s just about the size of our market.”

Her early success she attributes entirely to It’s Only the Beginning: “It was a huge song that tapped into exactly the kind of thing that radio loved. It was a feel-good song, there was an anthemic chorus, and I was the nice fresh `It Girl’ at the time.”

She was also the Cool Charm girl, the BigM Girl and the Southern Comfort girl, among others. In her 20s, Conway worked as a model. A feminist, she irritated employers because she refused to shave her legs or armpits or pluck the strong eyebrows that help give her face its arresting quality. But her sculpted cheekbones, sensual mouth and intransigent gaze still won her work.

Conway had no qualms about modelling itself as long as it was on her terms: “Six bucks an hour for waitressing and 60 bucks an hour for modelling; where’s the problem? And who’s exploiting me – me?”

It was her bare derriere displayed in ads for Bluegrass jeans that featured the letters “Bluegr” followed by a pair of buttocks. More recently, the cover for her album Epic Bitch featured her nude torso smeared in chocolate spread. Her mother suggested a little more mystery might be a good thing.

Conway says: “It never particularly occurred to me at the time that what I was doing was appearing naked dressed only in Nutella. What struck me more about the photo was that I was all mouth and covered in chocolate, rather than if you look really close you can see a tiny bit of nipple.

“We have all got them, after all. And as I’ve discovered now, it’s much more fun to actually throw them around when you can, as opposed to after three kids.” She says, with some regret: “The compass now points pure due south.”
Conway and her partner, Willy Zygier, live in a pair of converted grocers’ shops, full of space and light and family clutter, with their three small daughters. The girls have names like ’40s noir movie stars. Syd Dolores (named after airline baggage tags and Nabokov’s Lolita) is nearly six; the baby, Hetty Ira, is 13 months (“Hetty is after my grandmother, and Ira is because when I had her I knew I’d never have a boy, and if I’d had a boy he would have been Ira”).

And Alma? “Alma Ray is a cleaning company who’s card came through our door one time – no, I named her after Alma Mahler, who was married to Gustav Mahler. Alma means `soul’.” The glint returns to her eyes: “And it’s a fine road in St Kilda.”

Conway says motherhood has made her calmer and more patient – “People will disagree with me!” – and a “real mushbucket”: “Terrible stories about children – I can’t even listen to them.” But while she loves the children, she is hungry to get back to the writing she has had to put on hold since Hetty’s birth. “If I don’t start writing soon, I’ll go insane.”

The solution, she has somewhat reluctantly decided, was to “institutionalise” the children; the oldest is at school, and the two youngest are now in creche three days a week. Conway worries about missing out on some of Hetty’s babyhood, but finding the peace for creative work amid life with young children would otherwise be impossible.

For instance, the only way the Age interview can be completed is for the journalist to hitch a ride with the family as Conway drives Willy and the girls to appointments across town.

`WAS it George Bernard Shaw or Philip Larkin who said `The pram in the hallway is the enemy of art’?” she asks. “Absolutely true. It’s the mess and the lack of sleep and the lack of space to do nothing; just time to stare at the wall, or at a blank piece of paper.”

Conway has a reputation for waspishness, if not belligerence, an image she feels is undeserved. “Well, I suppose that if you have a vision as an artist that conflicts with the visions of the people around you, then obviously people are going to accuse you of being headstrong and difficult. If you’re a woman on top of that, it definitely compounds the problem.”

But she obviously enjoys the occasional joust with bourgeois sensibilities, and she has certainly had her moments. One of them came when a member of the audience at one of her concerts sat on the stage with his back to her and refused her request to move. “They said later that I spat but I didn’t spit,” she says defensively. “I just did this,” and she mimes pushing out her jaw, working languidly to develop a puddle of saliva, and then drooling. “They were upsetting me,” she says sweetly. Right.

But Conway has had to learn to be tough. She says she never made a cent from the record sales of String of Pearls because her contract entitled her only to publishing rights: “I’ve just made my first money for selling records, even though (my last album) sold a fraction of the amount of copies.”

She seems to have little fear of controversy. Heroin should be legalised, she argues, and it’s only the hypocrisy of vote-seeking politicians that stands in the way of it. “Alcohol does a lot more damage than the occasional recreational use of a tab of acid.”

Her own parents had been terrified that she would use drugs; her lawyer father (she grew up in Toorak) sent her to a psychiatrist when she first joined a rock band because he assumed it would lead to drug use.

And did it? She gives a slightly embarrassed laugh. “No, no, no. Like many children of the era, I experimented with all kinds of drugs and had great fun with them but they never took me over. It was just always fun and recreational and experimental in a purely scientific way: `What will this one do, I wonder?’.”

And she has probably always been impatient with what she sees as foolishness or pretension. She brushes aside questions about which career highlights should go in her CV. “Career highlights are always the best gigs, the ones that you know have been brilliant; the audience loved every moment, everything that came out of your mouth has been either in tune or funny or pertinent and you’ve played guitar really well and jelled with the band. When you’ve played music, really; when you’ve just been completely in the moment.”

Right now, though, a wriggly Hetty wants her next breast-feed.

Deborah Conway and her band will perform at a Valentine’s Day weekend concert at Eyton on Yarra Winery in Coldstream tonight at 7.30pm. Inquiries to 1800 622 726 or 5962 2119.

Deborah Conway, singer

Born: Melbourne, 1959.

Educated: Lauriston, Melbourne.

Career: Aria award for best female performer for the hit album String of Pearls in 1991. Subsequent albums include Bitch Epic and Exquisite Stereo.

Lives: Williamstown, with her partner and musical collaborator, Willy Zygier, and their three daughters.

First published in The Age.