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A Dot, A Messenger, An Icon: An "A to Z" Conversation with Paul Kelly

Steve Stav

If Paul Kelly were an American, he'd be regarded as the States' premiere Americana songwriter. He'd be the king of Austin, or Nashville's ruling prince. But Kelly was born in Adelaide, and often places the aforementioned universal themes amidst Australian locales and history.

How to Make Gravy: A to Z, A Mongrel Memoir

Publisher: Penguin
Author: Paul Kelly
Publication Date: 2011-10

Paul Kelly

The A to Z Recordings

Label: Gawd Aggie
US Release Date: 2010-10-05

Paul Kelly

Greatest Hits, Songs From the South (Volumes 1 & 2)

Label: Gawdaggie Music/Cen
US Release Date: 2011-10-24
UK Release Date: Import

He's written compelling tales about struggles on the frontier, about those down on their luck, of memorable, sometimes roguish characters; of loves won and lost. If Paul Kelly were an American, he'd be regarded as the States' premiere Americana songwriter. He'd be the king of Austin, or Nashville's ruling prince. But Kelly was born in Adelaide, and often places the aforementioned universal themes amidst Australian locales and history. Thus, he has held the unofficial title of "Australia's Greatest Singer-songwriter" for the past couple of decades.

Kelly's fan base is among the most ardent and knowledgeable in the world; they're akin to Romantic cryptographers when it comes to absorbing his work. Geographical references are celebrated, pop culture clues are debated, literary nods are analyzed. Acknowledging his fans, Kelly recently took stock of his 35-odd years of performing with a memoir, How to Make Gravy (Penguin). Self-described as a collection of "song influences, musical essays, tour diairies, lists, family history and writing about contemporaries and my personal life", the tome certainly sheds some light on what makes this everyman's poet laureate tick. More importantly, perhaps, the book provides the sort of backdrop, the sort of context and blank-filling, for his work that admirers have been thirsting for.

How to Make Gravy, which is also a Kelly song title, originated from a liner note project for an eight-CD boxed set of live performances, The A to Z Recordings. In 2004, Kelly arranged dozens of his songs in alphabetical order, and performed them in acoustic, storyteller fashion over four nights in Melbourne. Though intended as a "one-off", the "A to Z shows" have endured in intermittent, road-show fashion ever since. Kelly ventured to Canada in late 2011 with nephew Dan Kelly, an acclaimed musician in his own right, in tow. This spring brought the "A to Z shows" to the UK and the U.S.

As one might suspect, these performances, the boxed set and book are regarded as manna from heaven by his fans. For novices, they serve as an overwhelming introduction to an astounding career -- imagine delivering a huge Elvis Costello collection, plus an autobiography and a series of concerts, to someone who's never heard of Elvis Costello.

PopMatters recently caught up to Kelly as he wound his way through the U.S. leg of his tour.

* * *

This "A to Z" -- structured show format, I imagine, keeps people from shouting out requests.

They still do! We still manage to leave out songs that people want to hear... I don't think you ever stop (doing) that. But it is true, the nature of these shows does change the audience's expectations, which is part of the beauty of it, for me. Also, it sort of takes a certain element of choice out of it for me as a performer. I just have to follow the letters! Of course, I make choices of which songs to play within those letters over four nights, or in the case of the United States, usually two nights.

A memoir, a big box set, Triple J Radio's tribute... over the past few years, somebody might've gotten the mistaken impression that you're about to retire.

Oh, I understand... this is all very testimonial. I didn't plan it to be like that. Actually, I'm pretty keen to make a new record, which I hope to do in July. I'm writing songs for that now. Those first "A to Z" shows, I didn't think that would last very long, and they grew into something more permanent. And out of that, the book sort of grew by accident. My first thought was to write some substantial liner notes to accompany a box set of live CDs... these days, I don't think you can just release eight CDs wrapped in plastic. I wanted to make a beautiful object, a beautiful booklet with pictures and stories. I started writing notes and some stories down, and realized after a while that if I kept going, I could write a book. And when I realized I could write a book, I decided to write a book properly. I sat down for three years and wrote it. In that time, I didn't write songs... not out of conscious choice, but songs just didn't happen. It was if I had flipped a switch -- I'm a male, I can't do two things at once!

And I also realized that I was writing a memoir -- albeit an unorthodox one -- and not chronological in any way. I really enjoyed writing it, and every day was fresh for me. It was kind of like writing songs in that you write them one at a time, and not in any particular sequence... and arrange them later.

I guess for me playing these shows.... it's not so much like, "Oh, here's a new record I'm going to play, and here's a few old songs as well." This whole "A to Z" concept kind of took away the idea of "the old and the new". It reinforced the idea of songs as being tools in my toolkit -- they're things I take with me to work; I keep 'em in good working order by playing them. New songs come along, and kind of slide in... we're playing some new songs in this round of "A To Z's".

While writing your book, what were some of the events or situations in your life that, upon re-examination, perhaps you developed a different perspective of?

Um... this is a tough one. When I was writing about my family history, it involved talking to members of my family, and doing some research. You have these family stories that get passed on; you know some of them, and are a bit sketchy about others. Going back and getting more accurate information on those was very interesting for me.

The hardest thing about writing a memoir, for me, was being truthful (chuckles). I mean, I've written fiction all my life. Some people assume my songs come from real life, but to me they've always been fiction. Even certain songs that may have used details from my life that people may have recognized -- I never feel they're autobiographical. I'm sort of "anti -- self-expressionism", with my songs, I'm not into songs as therapy or anything.

But I was in the foothills of the book when I realized it was going to be an autobiography of sorts... and I said to myself, "If you're going to write a memoir, you're going to have to put some guts on the table." I've read read some musicians' memoirs where they either gild the lily about themselves, or they leave some things out. My book's not a "tell all" by any means, but there are certain things that were a part of my life... using heroin over a period of time, for example -- I knew I couldn't pretend that that didn't happen.

I said to myself, "I'll write about that, and then decide later whether to leave it in or not." At the end of the day, I thought I needed to leave it in, because there would a hole if I didn't.

One of the distinctive aspects of your songs is a certain sense of bravery when it comes to not only structure and topic, but point of view. For example, you've written an epic about the world's greatest cricketer, and a song in the person of... shall we say, a well-traveled woman. Did this fearlessness come natural to you, or did you have to work at it?

(Laughing) "Fearless" may be another word for "stupid", or "foolish", I don't know. I think of songwriting as a form of play. True play is sort of aimless, it can go anywhere; if you're in the right environment, it can be fearless.

I haven't done much acting, I've been in one play and one movie. In the play I was in, in the early '90s, we had the luxury of a five- or six-week rehearsal. We did a lot of actors' exercises and role playing, a lot of the kind of things that people use in theater sports -- as the director had come out of that traditiion. A lot of improvisation. You couldn't do that stuff without "letting go". You had to be brave if you wanted to cut the mustard as an actor.

I gained a lot of insight into how hard acting is and how brave actors are, doing that. I also saw parallels between that and songwriting. I mean, you don't write songs unless you're an improvisor.

Will you play a bit of "A to Z" with me? I've chosen "Before Too Long", from your days with the Messengers, out of a hat... I remember seeing the video for it on MTV, and running out to buy Gossip the next day.

Not much to say about that one, lyrically. Like most of my songs, it was fitting words to a tune. I do remember the first few notes of the melody probably being triggered by the Irish song, "Carrickfergus". We started to play the song live, and for me, it was sort of a hard, clunky song to play because it had so many fast chord changes -- which is unusual for me. It's only when we recorded it that I felt it came into its own. It stood out from the others, as being a single.

I always had a funny thing about the key of that song -- I had to turn it up to play live, and I think I still do that now. It was a real "band song", but it's stuck around, it's one that I can play as a duo during these shows with Dan.

The other thing about "Before Too Long" is the guitar break in it epitomizes Steve Connolly, who played with me for seven years. I can't play that song without thinking of him; he died in 1995 at the age of 36. He was the kind of guitar player who sort of "dug in" when he played, he wasn't a "shredder" by any means; he didn't like that style of playing. His approach to playing what you would call a solo was really to re-state the melody of the song, and maybe just twist it a little.

It was real signature of his. He did that with quite a few songs of ours, but ("Before Too Long") was probably the first song where it was really refined.

My nephew Dan Kelly is about 19 years younger than me. He started playing guitar when he was 13. He learned a lot of Steve's parts from my early records, so he's a perfect companion for these "A to Z" shows. He knows the old records better than I do. I don't listen to my records once I've finished recording them, I don't know many musicians who do -- I'd rather listen to other people's stuff.

As we're on a theme of retrospection... do you have a favorite story that's been told to you by a fan that concerns your music?

I get a lot of letters... can't think of a particular one right now. I get some heartbreaking letters. I don't want to talk about them; they're a bit private for the people who write them.

That must be hard to deal with.

No, it's not, because generally (the writers) are talking about how important music was to them during a certain crisis in their lives. It's definitely one of the functions that music performs... music can be just background at work; it can set the mood at a party; it can be something you listen to with a loved one. It can be something you turn up and do housework to... I can't do any work around my house unless I put some music on!

People use music at weddings, funerals... they use it, sometimes, to get through the hard times. Use it to make the hard times better. So if people write me about a song or a record helping me get through a really tough time -- the illness or death of a loved one, a breakup, whatever -- well, I feel that's what songs are for; they're doing their job.

To get letters like that, it helps me get up the next day and go do it again.

* * *

(Paul Kelly's How to Make Gravy has also been released on audiobook, with a bonus disc featuring noted Australians Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe and others reading selected chapters)

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