PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Photo: Cybele Malinowski / Courtesy of Jason Schneider Media

Paul Kelly: Interviewing an Australian Icon

From setting Shakespearean sonnets to music to releasing an entire album of funeral songs, Australia's guitar-wielding poet laureate Paul Kelly shows no signs of slowing down.

Paul Kelly
Cooking Vinyl
18 October 2018

If you’re not from Australasia, you might have heard of Paul Kelly. You might not have. He’s toured overseas extensively, yes, though as he tells us, “when we tour America, we play in little clubs. I love that.”

It’s not surprising that discrete, hole-in-the-wall venues suit Mr. Kelly. Despite a career spanning four decades, he has none of the arrogance that is seemingly required for international stadium tours. So perhaps it stands to reason that those north of the equator may not be familiar with his brand of folk-cum-rock-cum-country music.

If you do happen to be Australian, Paul Kelly needs no introduction. His music is dogmatic. Unapologetically domestic. Even at first listen, intensely familiar. It’s prerequisite to any barbecue, road trip or summertime Christmas celebration (that’s not a typo). No one else has chronicled our culture so conclusively. No one else has been the soundtrack to over four decades of childhoods. No one else has crawled their way into the hearts of a nation with such ease.

But even on home soil, Paul Kelly is unassuming. When I call him up, it’s as if I’m calling an interstate relative, not a musical icon. There’s a gentle, almost timid, grace to everything he says, and the way he says it. You could argue that this easily-underestimated presence is the very essence of Kelly’s music. For years he’s been spinning tales of the unlikely hero and the beautifully quotidian. As Kelly puts it in one of his songs, the “nonchalant phenomenon.” It’s perhaps unsurprising that the redemption of the underdog resonates so cleanly with Australia — a convict country forever punching above its weight.

Kelly himself emerges as something of an unlikely hero, too. At 63, he’s releasing material more rapidly than ever, and over the last decade has expanded his musical horizons through a foray of new projects. From setting Shakespearean sonnets to music to releasing an entire album of funeral songs, Australia’s guitar-wielding poet laureate shows no signs of slowing down. This year, he’s released yet another record, Nature, on which he’s set a handful of his favorite poems to music. Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, and Philip Larkin are a few of the stops on this journey through the canon of modern poetry. Kelly brings these literary treasures to life with the help of some old friends, and his patented musical stylings. PopMatters chats with Paul Kelly about collaboration, poetry, and gravy.

Poetry is central to the new album, what is so special to you about the poems you’ve chosen to adapt?

A couple of them I’ve lived with for a long time. The Dylan Thomas one that starts the record, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is one of those poems that has very vivid imagery. It’s kind of a mysterious poem in some ways. It sort of works in a non-rational way. I love Sylvia Plath. I’ve loved her for a long time. There’s quite a few poems of hers I like, but that’s the first one I’ve put to music.

Philip Larkin is a great poet. The beauty of Philip Larkin is that he seems so almost conversational but there’s a great discipline and technical skill in his work that goes unnoticed. “The Trees” is one of his more uplifting ones. He has a reputation as being a bit miserable which I think is unjustified. The very act of writing a poem is an act of joy or an act of affirmation. He wrote poetry all his life. To me, that’s a man full of life and wonder.

I guess just thinking generally about using poetry, it’s only something I’ve done over the last five or six years. It’s a new discovery for me. I’ve certainly read poetry all my life but I’ve never thought of that as a way to write songs. I was involved in a project about six years ago putting poems to music for a classical music project and that sort of started to turn the key for me really. Then I decided to do a record of Shakespeare sonnets a couple of years ago. So since then I’ve kind of gotten into the habit of if I like a poem I’ll have a look and see if I can put music to it. It’s just become another way for me to write songs. It’s sort of sped up my songwriting in a way. For me, writing words is always the slowest part of writing songs. Nature has got five poems so I only had to write lyrics for seven songs. [laughs]

That’s so interesting that you say the words come more slowly. Whenever I think of your music I think of such true-to-life storytelling.

I always have much more music than I have words. Most times when I’m writing songs, I’ve got the music as sort of a roadmap of the song, but without the words filled in. I might have a title or a few phrases but often its just sounds that I sing and I think that it sounds like a song, and words come afterward. They usually take a while.

I’ve heard that Mick Jagger writes, or did write, in a similar sort of way where he’d vocalize sounds and the band would then adapt them into words.

Yeah, I think quite a few people do that. Often when I get a song idea I just sing. It’s not words, it’s just sounds. They sound like words but they’re not. Or they might be nonsense words. Some of those words sort of speak. I didn’t know that about Mick but you can sort of hear it in their songs. Obviously, you need to get words to fit the sounds. It doesn’t always pan out like that. Sometimes the words go their own way and you end up with almost like a compromise between the sounds you heard in your head and what you end up writing. It’s always some kind of fall from grace, putting the words in. When they’re not words it’s all possibility. At some point, if you want to actually write a song, you have to put some words in there.

Is it different when you’re writing a song, like “Bradman” or “To Her Door” or “How To Make Gravy”, which follows a specific character’s journey?

Yeah. “Bradman” started as music. I know there’s a phrase in there, “He’s more than just a batsman, something like a tide” but with “Bradman” it was more talky, talk-singing. I had the music first and I had to get the words to fit how the music felt. The music was simple but a little bit odd. It’s a three-bar pattern which is not that standard. That was a long time ago. I never really remember but I do know [that] music was first. “To Her Door” was definitely a tune for a long time that I had different sets of words for earlier but I ended up changing. “Gravy” was definitely a tune, or at least chord changes, that was there first. The songs you mentioned, I know, do sound like the words were written first but none of them were.

Collaboration is also really prominent on this album, but that’s not a recent thing. What do you look for to work with someone musically?

The beauty of collaboration, when it works, is that you come up with something that you never could have come with by yourself. To me, that starts with the band. When I have a completed song I take it to the band. The songs are pretty open-ended when I take them in. Ash Naylor [Kelly’s guitarist] comes up with a riff that really makes the song jump a different way. Collaboration with the band in terms of the arrangement of songs is fairly wide open. Over the years, from different times, songs have come from jamming with the band at rehearsal, so that’s another way to do it.

A collaboration I’ve really enjoyed has been with Alice Keath, who’s sung on two of the sonnets on that record and on a couple of other things I’ve done that haven’t come to light yet. And also on “The Trees”, the final song on Nature. Whenever I’ve got an initial tune, she has a way of finding a harmony and I just love the sound of her voice. She’s someone I’ll probably continue to work with when certain kinds of songs come up. A song like “The Trees” and the two she did on the Sonnets record…the tunes are a bit more modal. They have funny intervals and it’s sort of hard to put a harmony to but she used to sing a lot in choirs when she was younger and she’s got classical training. She seems to be able to find really unusual harmonies so I love working with her for that.

One of the things I like about collaborating is having a number of different women sing on the record. Obviously, I’ve worked with Vika and Linda [Bull] a lot over the years. They’ve been on lots of my records. Having them as well, and my daughters Maddy and Memphis singing on a couple of songs, Alice and Kate Miller-Heidke was great. I was struggling with “Bound To Follow (Aisling Song)”, because when I first tried to do it, I tried to sing that voice in the chorus in falsetto, but it wouldn’t work. Then we tried it with Vika and Linda doing that part and that didn’t work. Then I sent it to Alice thinking she could do it, but she said, “It’s not quite the right key for me, but why don’t you ask Kate Miller-Heidke?” So Alice handballed it to Kate and it was right straight away. Obviously, she can get that high, she’s classically trained. But she had the right tone and the right ethereal quality in her voice to make that song work.

You’ve been in the business for over 40 years and you’re releasing material more rapidly than ever before. Has that been deliberate?

No, it’s not deliberate but I think it probably harks back to what I was saying before about putting poems to music. It’s sped up my songwriting. [ laughs] Like I said, I only had to come up with seven sets of lyrics for Nature. I think it relates to collaboration. In a way, I think of working with different words written by other people as a form of collaboration. It’s working with those poets. Collaboration can be stimulating. It’s fertile ground I guess. Things come up. They’re coming out probably a bit too fast for the records company. [laughs] They’re pretty good at dealing with it.

I’ve got another project coming up next year which is again poetry, about birds, set to music. Which is a collaboration with a classical music trio and James Ledger, a classical music composer that I’ve worked with before on Conversations With Ghosts about six years ago, where the whole poetry thing started. That’s going to be a show next year that premieres at the Adelaide Festival on March 1st and 2nd, but we’re going to record it as well so that’ll be a record sometime next year. It definitely won’t be any kind of pop record but it’ll be a record nonetheless. Another one for EMI to deal with.

Do you expect that there’ll be some similar voices on that record as have featured on Nature?

Alice Keath is involved in that record. Alice is singing on it but she’s also playing banjo, autoharp, and glockenspiel, so she’ll be all over it.

Your songs often hit quite close to home in their lyrics, especially for Australians, how personal do you allow yourself to be when you do end up writing the lyrics?

In my mind, they’re all stories. My songs are fiction, even if on some I might draw more closely from my life than others. As soon as it’s becoming a song, the personal goes out of it for me. I don’t see my songs as autobiography or self-expression in that way. Sometimes it’s totally imagined and other times it’s drawing on details that I know. But it’s all fiction, except for what I call the “newspaper songs.”

Those are songs based on, say, Charlie Perkins: “A Bastard Like Me”. That’s based on a real person, and “Bradman” (based on cricketer Donald Bradman). Songs like that over the years … “From Little Things, Big Things Grow”, “Maralinga”, they’re songs that are based on real events. I wouldn’t call them fictional, but those kinds of songs which I’ve called “the newspaper songs”, they’re the exception, not the rule.

Is it your gravy recipe in “How to Make Gravy” though?

Yes, it’s the one I use. That’s the one true thing in the song. [ laughs] That came from my first wife’s father-in-law. He taught it to me so I still use it.

How do you going about choosing a setlist for your gigs these days when you have so much material?

It’s always a bit of a dance, a bit of a blend. We’ve got shows coming up in December here in Australia. They’re big, outside, festival shows. Those shows you need to put in a fair swag of well-known songs to make those shows work. They’ll have a fairly generous weighting towards Nature and Life Is Fine, the last two records, as well as older ones. And I always try to put in a few surprises. Setlists will often depend on the venue too. If it’s an indoor theatre show, you’ve got more room to do some more subtle things or some more atmospheric type of pieces. Festival shows though, you have to sort of go a bit broader.

Is there a sort of venue you prefer to play in?

I guess I really like the variety. I love playing an outdoor festival in the summertime, and that sort of gathering of people on the grass. They’ve got their wine and their food. I like that. When we tour America, we play little clubs. I love that, playing in small bars. And the theatres that I mentioned before where people are very attentive means you can do songs that require a bit more attention. I guess I do like all the different types of shows.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

That you have less time than you think you do.