Paul Kelly Keeps Doing the Things That He Wants To
Paul Kelly is an institution in his native Australia. His musical style transcends genre, and the beloved singer-guitarist has released nearly two dozen albums since his recorded debut in 1981. Kelly was the subject of an award-winning 2012 documentary, Paul Kelly: Stories of Me, and earlier this year he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, a ceremonial designation awarded to recognize his distinguished service to the performing arts in his native country.
Halfway around the word, he’s not nearly as well known. Those who have discovered Kelly’s works – critics among them – sing his praises, but he’s scored only one hit single on the U.S. charts, 1988’s “Dumb Things.” But Kelly loves touring the states, and has done so a few times. His current tour brings him to Atlanta’s City Winery on September 27.
Ahead of the tour, Kelly engaged in a telephone interview in which he discussed songwriting, his re-purposing of the poetry of William Shakespeare and Langston Hughes, and the band-focused approach of Life is Fine, his 23rd studio album, released August 11.
When you shift between musical styles, even on one record, it never feels like a musical travelogue; it always feels totally natural. When other people try that, sometimes they come off as dilettantes. How come you don’t?
“It might have to do with being limited in skill and not really that accomplished a musician. I love all kinds of music; my taste is very Catholic. So I listen to a wide range of music and then when I open my mouth and start singing, it ends up that I sound like me. I’ve always liked many kinds of music, so I’ve always liked mixing things up; I just follow the things that I love. My voice has got a fairly limited range and I’m not what I would call a singer singer. But I sing a lot; I talk-sing. I think talk-singing has always influenced what I do anyway, so I think that’s probably what makes it sound like I’m not jumping around too much.”
How has your approach to songwriting changed or evolved since the early days?
“I’d say it’s changed very little. I never call it a craft; it’s not a craft. A craft is when you make a pair of shoes or you’re a table maker. You get up in the morning, you follow certain steps and then you end up with a pair of shoes at the end of the day. Or a table. It’s not like that with a song; you can’t necessarily follow the steps and end up with a song. You’ve just got to turn up, scratch around and – like fishing – hope you get a bite.
“So it’s always felt very scrappy to me; songwriting always feels mainly like long periods of boring yourself. And then you can eventually surprise yourself; that’s when you’re on to something.
“There has been a change in my writing in the last five years or so; I’ve more and more used poems as a basis for songs. And that sort of did change my songwriting a bit. I had always sort of started with music and then gradually found words to fit the music, but I’d always felt I can’t stop the words; it would be too restricting, and it wouldn’t allow the music to go places it could go. So for some reason I had this block: ‘Alright, you can’t do the words,’ even with my own, you know.
“But I got involved in this project about five years ago for an orchestra, and I suddenly discovered that I could do it so then I got in the habit ever since. I could put a tune to a poem, so that led to the Sonnets record which I did a couple of years ago. Now it’s just another era in my songwriting, but I still write songs. I always did write my own words but now I’m very blessed to have this other way of writing songs, so it’s a pretty good thing to find after 30 years of songwriting. I knew I could do it. I think after while I get sick of my own words, so it’s been nice to play with someone else’s words for a change.”
Was Seven Sonnets and a Song a case of you making the album as an exercise, almost to see if you could?
“I write for fun. I had put just one sonnet to music a couple years previous to that record and that is on iTunes – the famous one, ‘Sonnet 18.’ I liked that one. Then I became aware that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was coming up. I knew there were events being planned and celebrations underway for his 400th anniversary in 2016. And that was the impetus: ‘Oh well, that would be a good time to maybe do a few more of these sonnets; I’ve only written one.’ And I put the record out on the anniversary, the day he died 400 years ago.
“And Rufus Wainwright had the same idea [laughs]. I think he put it out the day before and I put mine out the day of. We both had the same idea. It was really the convergence of the anniversary and just having written a sonnet a couple years ago, and I thought, ‘I’ll try this some more.’”
The title track of Life is Fine is built around a Langston Hughes poem. What’s special to you about his words?
“That was the first time, actually, that I became aware of him. A friend just sent the poem to me and she kept going, ‘You can put a tune to it,’ and I did. I didn’t know much about him at all, but I read some more about him and read more of his poems. I was on a March-to-May tour of America, and I was in Philadelphia. I went to the market there, and I found a bookshop right at the back of the market in a really small space – all the books shoveled together – and I came across a Collected Works of Langston Hughes. I carted it all the way back to Australia, even though I didn’t have room in the suitcase.
“I don’t think he’s very well known here in Australia. But every time I posted a poem by Langston Hughes on the computer, there was a response from the crowd. He’s got all kinds of poems, and a lot of them. It might be worth mining some more; I’d be interested to know if other people have done that.”
When you’re working with someone else’s lyric – whether it’s Shakespeare or Langston Hughes – how much creative license do you take?
“That’s a good question. I’ll probably sit on the fence a little bit. I always think the words are good as they are. With one sonnet, the only license I took was to change the order, switching the last two lines that rhyme and sort of sum things up. So in a couple of the sonnets – like ‘Sonnet 138’ – I changed a couple of the choruses. I didn’t change the words, but I did repeat a couple and put them earlier in the song. Generally I try not to change things other than to make a line fit, because I’d rather just leave the poem as it was.”
Your music has long been recognized for chronicling the Australian experience. Was that something that you set out deliberately to do, or is Australian character just sort of baked into your songs?
“I think it was a lot to do with my natural tendency toward what I would call visual songwriting. I was influenced a lot by songwriters like Chuck Berry and Lou Reed. With Chuck Berry, you can see that he uses language and imagery. I always think of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly as being two mighty strands of songwriting that have sort of branched out and influenced people in different ways. Buddy Holly’s songs exist no place at all, it could be anywhere. Now, Chuck Berry’s songs, they’re little films; they’re very cinematic and you can sort of see the songs as well as hear them. The Buddy Holly line of songwriting flows through to the Beatles: me, you, love, me, do, be. Those really simple lines make up a Buddy Holly song. And those songs informed the early stage Beatles: ‘Please Please Me,’ ‘Love Me Do.’ They’re all like sort of that … they’re not set anywhere; they’re just pleasing, simple lines.
“With Chuck Berry, you can draw a line straight to Lou Reed. With Chuck’s it’s America, and with Lou Reed it’s Manhattan. So I guess I was aware of that; I know that The Kinks are another one: Ray Davies wrote about people swarming around like flies; quite a beautiful image of ‘Terry and Julie.’ So those cinematic songwriters, I’ve picked up on them. And then obviously I was going to write about the things around me and my characters and the places I knew, so that’s probably what happened. I try to write all types of songs – I love all types of songs – but yeah, my natural tendency is to always write about the characters in Australia. Because I’m Australian, that’s what happens.”
While American critics have long recognized your work, you’ve only really broken through on the American charts once, with “Dumb Things” in 1988. Do you think that your music is “too Australian” to make commercial inroads in the U.S.?
“I don’t think so, no. I remember hearing Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ and of course I had never been to Memphis, but that experience … the song’s not about Memphis; the song is about a father missing his daughter. And that’s universal. I don’t write about Australia; I write about people that happen to walk and talk and breathe and live and eat and fuck in Australia, but whatever they do and the things they get up to and the joys and the pains the go through are universal, so I don’t think there is any barrier there.”
On Life is Fine you cede the lead vocal duties on “My Man’s Got a Cold” to Vika Bull and “Don’t Explain” to Linda Bull. That’s the kind of thing one expects to find on a “band album,” not one by an artist using his own name. Was it your intention right from the beginning of the project to do that?
“I wanted to do that from the start. For a long time, I always made albums where I would sing all the songs. I made a record two to three years ago called The Merri Soul Sessions. It has different singers that sing different songs, so that’s really picking up from there.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘On the next record, I want to have at least one other singer on the record.’ I think no matter how much you like someone’s voice, it’s great to break up the listening experience with another voice. And I’m glad that I figured that out. A lot of my favorite bands have always had one main singer, but there is always someone who steps up and sings one song: Keith in The Rolling Stones, Jill Birt in The Triffids; Mo Tucker in The Velvet Underground. And especially since Life is Fine is really a band record, and I always knew it was going to be right from the start, I had made up my mind to record ‘My Man’s Got a Cold,’ and it had been sitting there for a few years and I knew, ‘that’s going to fit musically on this record,’ so it was always a plan, yeah.”
Do you approach albums as a set of thematically linked pieces or are they simply, “here are the 12 songs I’ve written the most recently”?
“I think of them as thematically [linked]. I don’t write all at once in one particular vein; my songwriting is, I guess, a bit haphazard. They come as they come. But now I try to sort them a bit as I go: ‘That one’s going to be a more lyrical record, this one is going to be for a band.’ I’ve always liked an album to have a really strong coherence.
“When I was younger it was more of a case of, ‘I’ve got 10 or 12 songs written, so I’m going to do the record.’ But I think in the last 10 years or more I’ve leaned towards becoming more and more serious about making a real album. And in a way it’s partly in response to the way that music is now streamed and downloaded and listened to. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s a great thing that we have this choice to hear a song or hear about a song and just go listen to that one song. Or like a song and not have to go to buy the whole album like you did in the old days, buy the whole album just to get the two or three songs that you like and then the rest of the album, meh, maybe you don’t like.
“So in my work and as a songwriter, I love to stream music and listen to music without having to buy whole albums or listen to music without having to buy it, you just pay a subscription and you stream it. So all that development, I’m fully with it. But more than ever, when you do make a record, there’s this big sea of music. And it’s an island. And you want to make people land on that island and spend some time there, and listen to the album start to finish. That’s a challenge. Of course I’m a realist, I know that people will say, ‘Oh, I like this song,’ or, ‘I just like that tune.’ “But I think it’s incumbent on us now; if you’re going to make an album, that’s what you’ve got to do. Paradoxically, the new ways of listening to music have made the album more important. To me, anyway.”
What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming North American tour?
“We’re going to be on the big bus again, which I haven’t done since 1998. The last tour we did with a band was in 2004, which as a four-piece. But this is the whole band with seven of us, so it makes sense for us to get back on that bus again. So I quite like that.
“Actually, I half dread it and half really get excited about it. No, that will be fun. I think what I’m also looking forward to is I’m again getting to places we haven’t played for quite a while. We’ve done east coast and west coast shows. And I’ve really missed coming farther into the country.”
Photo by Steve Young.