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On Bitch Epic, Deborah Conway stayed true to herself

Deborah Conway eats a handful of cake
Deborah Conway on the front cover of Bitch Epic

Deborah Conway could’ve had her cake and eaten a whole lot more, but she chose restraint.

As a formidable presence out front of Australian band Do-Re-Mi, she led the Sydney group to fame and acclaim with songs like 'Man Overboard', 'Idiot Grin' and 'Adultery'.

Although going solo was a daunting process, her debut String of Pearls easily found its way up the top end of the national charts and lead single 'It's Only the Beginning' proved an inescapable radio hit single.

No one would begrudge her leaning toward a more cautious approach with her follow up record given the huge success of her new-found solo career. Except, Conway herself.

“I knew String of Pearls was a fairly basic farmers call type of record”, she told Richard Fidler on RN’s Conversations in 2009.

“And I think that putting another record out that was a re-run of String of Pearls probably would have bought me a bit more airtime on radio and a bit more success or whatever.

“But it wasn't where I wanted to be at that time. I guess the one thing that I'd always been in my career up to that point was honest, and honest to myself, and so, I guess I just kept pursuing that.”


You only need to glance at the Bitch Epic’s cover art to see an artist wholly guided by staying true to herself and her creative instincts.

The shot of Conway, hair slicked back with her naked top half smothered in chocolate spread captured in the act of greedily stuffing cake in her mouth was a startling portrait of gluttony. And 30 years ago, a startling portrait of an artist full stop, regardless of gender.

What she craved though was not necessarily success itself, but rather success on her own artistic terms.

"I was hungry for finding other things," she told Fidler about the period between her first solo record and the sophomore Bitch Epic.

"I remember writing ‘Madame Butterfly [Is In Trouble]' listening to 'Dry Cleaner' from Des Moines’, Joni Mitchell's song off Mingus, and wanting to kind of push into sort of experimental areas and push myself, and find satisfying ways to put different time signatures and chords together."


Tucked deep into the second half of the album, that fan favourite builds and blends layers of cycling acoustic and electric guitars, resonant bass and percussion, synths and string samples, lustrous backing vocals by Vika and Linda Bull, all held together by a remarkable vocal from Conway herself. It certainly stands out as the singer striking new artistic ground.

There’s a creeping resentment that lurks on 'I'm Not Satisfied', a shadowy lament permeates the wilful spirit of 'She Prefers Fire' and a delicious yearning hangs in the air with every tantalising guitar lick played by Conway’s soon to be life partner Willy Zygier on 'Now That We’re Apart'.

That’s not to say fans who connected with String of Pearls were left stranded. There’s a summery shuffle around the block with the wind at your back on ‘One More Time’, an irresistible singalong to be had on ‘Consider This’ and Zygier’s bright plucks and strums combine with marimba, tambourine and accordion to help us ride the breeze on ‘Today I’m A Daisy’.

It’s evident that with Bitch Epic, Deborah Conway was making purposeful creative strides on from wide success of her debut, even if certain elements were informed via more random means.

"I pulled the words out of a hat, because I was having a mild case of writer's block," she told Richard Kingsmill in 1993 about the process of naming her sophomore album.

"So I pulled a book of the shelves, picked words at random, pointed to them, cut them up, put them in a hat, and pulled out bunches of titles and 'bitch', 'epic' ended up on the carpet.

"And Willy [Zygier] said, that's the name of the record. And I said, 'No, it's not'.

"I canvassed a lot of people about the name, and they're all terribly offended by it, and I thought, 'Gee, this is really touching a nerve here, I think I'll have to do it'.

"But it's this word that has changed meaning so much, since it was first conceived as a put down for women.

"It's also non gender specific, that's the other thing. I mean a man can be a bitch just as much as a woman. And, you know, having a bitch about something is something that seems to be happening a lot on my record. There were all kinds of reasons why Bitch Epic just seemed terribly appropriate."


Across her lengthy career, there are many more reasons to appreciate the role Deborah Conway has played in many of our lives.

With her unnerving take no shit intelligence, sex appeal and bold as brass voice, she was the tough older sister who showed a generation of young women that there was an alternative path to the one marketed and imposed on us by mass media.

And through her Broad concert series, stint as artistic director for Queensland Music Festival and her enterprising ‘Summerware’ parties (in home gigs which kicked off in tow with her Summertown album), and the albums she continues to make now, Conway shows us that she is so much more than just the success of her early solo albums. That departure point is clearly marked with Bitch Epic.

Delve into the finest records of our time on Double J's Classic Albums. Listen to it here on the ABC listen app.