Beautiful things often come from times of turmoil. This was most certainly the case for Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier – when the long-time musical collaborators, who are also a married couple, released the exquisite folk album Stories Of Ghosts earlier this year, it had come from a lot of pain and spiritual exploration. The album saw the pair exploring their Jewish heritage in response to a series of great personal tragedies. “For our last album, Half Man Half Woman, we wrote a song called ‘Take Pity On The Beast’, which takes some lines from the Haggadah, a book of prayer that we read at Passover. The Haggadah tells the story of Exodus, but it’s also a discussion of all the arguments and debates that rabbis have had for millennia – in Judaism, there’s nothing too precious or sacred to question. After we wrote the song, we felt like this [was] something that we could explore a lot more, creatively.”

The songs on Stories Of Ghosts were born from this sense of curiosity, but also from a desire to make sense of the world following the deaths of several close friends and family members. “Around the time we were writing the songs on the album, we had a lot of death in our lives,” Conway explains, “some of it timely, and some of it not. My father died in November of 2011, and both Willy’s parents died in the years prior to that. There was another family death which was very hard and not timely at all, and there were other deaths – friends of mine had taken their own lives, and a friend of my daughter’s took her own life, a 15-year-old girl.”

It was incredibly hard and a very dreadful period, Conway says. “We were living in a house of perpetual mourning and shock. When our parents died, we were able to accept that some things are timely, but with a lot of the others we just could not. We were trying to make sense of what it is that holds people to the earth. If you’ve thrown out everything that used to make sense to people, like the tenets of religion, what else is there that makes people stick around? Those are highfalutin words, I guess, but we were trying to work through those things ourselves, and they came out in the songs. Composing becomes cathartic … You still mourn, but you take those bad feelings and turn them into something positive and creative, as opposed to just sitting there in your sadness and doing nothing.”

In December, Conway and Zygier will perform at Shir Madness, Sydney’s Jewish music festival. For the uninitiated, Conway promises a colourful event, with many different styles and flavours of music. “You can hear everything there, from very traditional klezmer music, to our kind of thing – our folk songs that examine Old Testament themes from an atheist Jewish perspective. We have Israelis coming out, who play everything from reggae to more traditional classical music, and even Kinky Friedman is coming out.” Quite apart from the music, Conway promises that the food is a big draw. “The classic sign of a Jewish festival is that there’s plenty of food and nobody standing in line at the drink stall, and from the back, everyone looks like Larry David.”

BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN

Deborah Conway & Willy Zygier play Bondi Pavilion on Sunday December 1 for Shir Madness with Joshua Nelson, Nathan Kaye, Rapskallion, Adam Katz and more.

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