Debora Iyall is best known as the lead singer and lyricist of Romeo Void, a San Francisco band that mined the sexy veins of new wave music. Those who only know Iyall from her Romeo Void hits – 1981’s “Never Say Never” and 1984’s “A Girl In Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)” – may be surprised by the vulnerability of her approach on Stay Strong, but her maturity is tempered by her humor and sparkling verve.
Iyall is a fearless performer, a good time party girl one moment, a woman bravely baring the most intimate details of her soul the next. Stay Strong shows off both aspects of her personality, with Dunne’s finely crafted arrangements bringing each vignette to vibrant life. The album balances Iyall’s audacious lyrics and dynamic singing with Dunne’s diverse musical approach.
Stay Strong is a collaboration with Peter Dunne, her songwriting partner since the early 90s. On the album Iyall’s singing and lyrics and Dunne’s playing and production take an honest and imaginative direction. Iyall explains, “It’s a natural extension of the work I’ve done over the years. Peter has a way of intensifying the feeling of the lyrics with the tones and colors he brings to our songs.” Iyall is still exploring heartache, frustration and love gone wrong, but her optimism shines through even on the darkest tracks, with Dunne’s music adding to the album’s bright aura.
The duo came to their sound organically writing some of the songs together in Dunne’s studio over the years and then adding to the catalog with new songs written since last fall. The rock and dance beats are still there, but both artists are interested in branching out and expanding their creative reach. Dunne’s wide-open soundscapes include subtle touches of reggae, trip-hop, blues, hard rock and classic late night musical reverie, but it’s still an unabashed pop album. “I grew up loving pop,” Iyall says. “Working with Peter helps me stretch. To complement his inventive melodies, I grew as a singer on every song.”
The album opens with “Bring It,” a declaration of resolve set to a popping club beat. Gabourey Sidibe, the young actress who starred in the film Precious, inspired the lyric. Iyall explains: “In an interview, Sidibe said, ‘When people see me, they don’t expect much, but I do.’ When I read that I knew right away I wanted to write a song with that sentiment.” Dunne’s distorted, propulsive guitar supports Iyall’s raw, vulnerable vocal on this compelling exhortation.
"Stay Strong," the album¹s title track, is an invocation set against a soundscape that suggests a marriage of slow core and pre-Columbian trip hop. The uplifting chorus counters the bleak images of the verses and evolves from hope to jubilation as the song progresses. Iyall’s murmured vocal and Dunne’s chiming guitar give the song an elegant grace that leads up to a soaring, inspirational chorus.
Iyall’s tough but tender vocal on “One Saturday Night” twists from a wrenching statement of loss and longing to an acceptance of change. Dunne’s atmospheric playing and a simple pulsing rhythm pulls you into a mood of deep indigo as Iyall explores the curious pleasures of melancholy. The soft, tropical rhythm of “Crocodiles” has a hint of reggae, while Iyall’s dreamy vocal effortlessly floats through the mix. The song is an ecological prayer to the earth and all its creatures. Dunne’s guitar floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
“Be My Last” offers a sly tip of the hat to Romeo Void, with Dunne’s swaggering distorted guitar, new wave dance beats and Iyall’s spirited vocal. The song’s refrain is one of the album’s strongest hooks and echoes the giddy intoxication of new love’s first blush. Iyall’s whispered vocal on “Fine Black Dust” is full of peaceful intensity. The track’s discreet, organic percussion effects and long sustained guitar notes create a vast, overwhelming emotional space.
The set also includes “99,” an ode to one of California’s great highways; “Creative Engine,” a celebration of life’s mysteriously exuberant moments and Dunne’s “When I Go Blue,” a largely acoustic meditation on missed connections and miscommunication that allows Iyall to show off her subtle power. “It’s an honor to sing this song of Peter’s. I only hope I do it justice.”
Although Iyall has been keeping a low musical profile for the past few years, she’s hasn’t been forgotten by her fans or her peers. Frank Black, John Doe, Dave Wakeling, Martha Davis, Terri Nunn, Jello Biafra, Translator and Wire Train have all invited her to participate in shows in the past few years. At these shows, the response to the material that Iyall and Dunne have written for Stay Strong has been remarkable. “Looking out at fans singing along to a brand new song at a show has a powerful effect on me. I'm all fired up to embark on a new era. I’ve always loved being on stage and now that I have new songs to sing, I can’t wait to get back to performing.”
Debora Iyall was born in 1954 in Soap Lake, Washington and grew up in Fresno, California. She’s a member of the Cowlitz tribe of Washington State. She grew up loving music and poetry. “I had an older sister who always dated rock’n’roll boys. We were into the 60s San Francisco psychedelic bands and loved AM radio, which played a real mix of music - Motown, soul, girl groups and the British invasion. I knew the words to all the hits and used to sing while I was riding my bike or my horse.”
Iyall moved north after high school to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. She’d already been doing poetry readings when Patti Smith burst on the scene. “I thought about setting my poetry to music, then I saw The Avengers, one of the early punk bands. I thought: I can do that. I have something to say.” “I wanted to be part of what was going on. That meant speaking the truth, jumping on the stage, and having fun. Living in the 80s meant being in a band.” Peter Dunne was an important part of the scene as lead guitarist and songwriter for Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and Peterbilt.
Iyall started Romeo Void with fellow Art Institute student, bass player Frank Zincavage in 1979. Howie Klein, the future head of Reprise Records, signed them to his indie label, 415 Records. Rolling Stone lauded the band’s unique combination of pop, punk and dance beats and Iyall’s forceful singing style.
Romeo Void was the most successful band on 415 Records. They made three albums – It’s a Condition (1981), Benefactor (1982) and Instincts (1984) – and the Never Say Never EP (1982,) produced by the cars’ Ric Ocasek and Ian Taylor. They had hits with “Never Say Never” and “A Girl In Trouble,” which got played on Top 40 radio, bringing Iyall’s voice to the masses. In his Real Life Rock column in New West magazine, Greil Marcus praised Iyall as one of the most exceptional artists to emerge from California’s new wave scene.
Despite their rave reviews and chart success, the constant touring took its toll; Romeo Void splintered in 1985. Iyall made one solo album for Columbia, Strange Language, in 1986. She’s assembled numerous bands through the years and played venues on the West Coast in San Francisco, Joshua Tree, Los Angeles, and Portland.
She also earned her Master’s Degree in teaching in 2007 and has supported herself teaching art since the mid-90s. “Working with students and encouraging them to use their most unique aspects, I realized I should listen to my own advice, take a leap of faith, write songs and perform again. Using the DIY model of directly connecting with fans via the Internet, it seems right to give my music career another ‘go’.”