Interview with Deborah Conway, Shir Madness festival director

August 13, 2015

Jewish Museum of Australia (JMA): How was the idea for this festival born?

Deborah (DC): We had played at all three of the Sydney Shir Madness Festivals and really enjoyed the experience; so much so that we started thinking about the kind of material we were writing and being very directed about who we were potentially speaking to in a performing sense. A track on our 2010 album, “Half Man Half Woman” called “Take Pity on The Beast” had an early outing at the first Shir Madness festival and it got a startling reception. In 2013 Stories of Ghosts came out. Thematically the album is around dialogues with the Torah from a Jewish perspective, albeit an atheist one. It became an incredible expedition for us mining themes that we have always been aware of but never explored as songwriters.

After three of these festivals it was apparent to us that this was a festival Melbourne could warm to. After all, Melbourne is a city that loves a new cultural experience and has embraced many Jewish events that wrap themselves around learning, film, writing and soon comedy, why not music?

JMA: What goes into the planning and organisation of a Jewish Music Festival in Melbourne?

DC: Well first of all there’s the fundraising and grant writing because without a budget there is no festival. Then there is a hell of a lot of unmusical bureaucratic red tape to traverse like site reinstatement plans, sustainability plans, road closure permits and traffic management plans and then there’s the fun stuff like choosing a program from the dazzling choices of incredible musicians from around the country and around the globe.

We have a terrific team of people working together on design, marketing, publicity, technical requirements, artist management, volunteer recruiting and a myriad of other jobs and tasks. It will have been a 16-month gestation all for one glorious day on September 6th.

JMA: What role do you think music occupies within the Melbourne Jewish Community?

DC: Music and Jews are inextricably linked; the Jewish contribution to music across so many genres is quite staggering and the list of exceptional musicians, composers and instrumentalists that occupy a central place in classical, jazz, popular culture & beyond, is formidable. For Melbourne specifically, I would say the community acknowledges that music is central to a good education and a good simcha but up until now we have not had a single focus where we can gather to recognise, enjoy, discover and communally rediscover our musical heritage. Shir Madness is a festival that we believe will be of interest to all kinds of Jews, whether religious, observant, or on the periphery – a festival that will speak to all the sons, the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who is unable to ask. A single day that brings so many musical strands together is an enterprise that we think the Melbourne community will embrace.

JMA: How has your background in music and the Arts coloured your outlook as festival director?

DC: As a musician in the role of festival director I understand that a successful festival is one that makes the experience for the participating musician a joyous and sonically satisfying one.

And I have always loved the broadest possible iteration of expression in music; I see the festival as a cultural frame within which you can take risks, challenge, entertain, move, and seduce an audience with thrilling juxtapositions and unexpected combinations.

JMA: In the past, you’ve held the role of Artistic Director for the Queensland Music Festival. How do you expect this event to be similar/ different, in terms of audience, location, culture etc?

DC: The two events are hugely different in the sense that one is a single day in a single location; the other is a 17-day event in a multitude of locations with enormous variations in specific community needs.

The similarities are that very fundamental idea of ownership and connection and bringing authenticity to the exploration of the cultural frame I referred to earlier.

JMA: What do the Sydney and Melbourne music scenes have in common, and how do they differ in your opinion?

DC: I don’t know that I could shed much light on this question, as far as I can tell the things that used to differentiate the music scenes of Melbourne & Sydney a couple of decades ago (ie more co-operation between jobbing musicians in Melbourne and maybe Sydney musicians being a little more territorial) are less apparent to me these days. Maybe Melbourne people are more hardy and likely to stand outside in freezing cold temperatures to see a show at the Myer Music Bowl, while an equivalent Sydney crowd might just pack it in? But I’m only guessing.

JMA: Who are you most excited to see perform at this year’s festival?

I think it will be the accumulation of the day rather than any one single performance; really there is so much to be excited by!

JMA: What do you hope Shir Madness can achieve, within a communal, cultural, as well as broader context?

DC: My long term goal is that Melbourne will look forward to Shir Madness as a biennial event on the cultural calendar – as stimulating as Limmud, as compelling as the Jewish Writer’s Festival, as vital as JIFF; music is the single language capable of transcending Babel’s Tower and who wouldn’t enjoy the view from there.

Written by Miriam New, Museum Marketing Intern