Paul Kelly makes music. That’s apparent, of course, but it bears repeating – Paul Kelly makes music, and he does so the way a carpenter builds doors; the way a tailor spins suits. To be perfectly honest, you or I probably don’t have anything like that in our lives. Sure, we have things that we are good at – but Paul Kelly is not just good at writing songs. And sure, we have things that make us happy – but Paul Kelly is not just made happy by writing songs. Songwriting is not of Paul Kelly. It is him.
So yeah, you could say, “his discography is his life’s work” or something hoary like that, but that would imply that there is some kind of distinction to be made between the day-to-day detritus of his everyday existence and his songwriting; that some line exists between the Kelly who gets up onstage and performs his beautiful, rich songs, and the Kelly who sits across from journalists at a table scattered with semi-nibbled sandwiches, occasionally nudging half a glass of red wine across its surface. Which, to be perfectly honest, there doesn’t appear to be.
For instance: There is a guitar in the corner of the room. Kelly is sitting across from it, perched on a tall stool in the headquarters of Universal Music in King Cross, a part of the world he has both memorialised and glorified in a number of his songs. Throughout the interview, Kelly is attentive, and he is kind, but he can’t seem to keep his hands off the guitar – he’s playing it when I first walk in, strumming a few bars of a pleasant, pretty song, entertaining no-one but himself.
“I have this group of friends and we have these music nights,” he says at one point during the interview, smiling an easy, corner-of-the-mouth smile. “And we’ll go, ‘Okay, it’s going to be an Elvis music night tonight.’ And I’ll learn a whole bunch of Elvis songs and print out the lyrics and we’ll all have a night where we just sing Elvis and drink some wines for a few hours. So far we’ve had a Hank Williams night, a Johnny Cash night, an Elvis night…” He counts the artists off his long fingers. “I think the next one is going to be Neil Young.
“It’s good for me because I go, ‘Oh good, now I get to learn another five Hank Williams songs.’ And I know quite a few of them anyway, so it’s good going the extra mile and learning some new ones. And sometimes you think, ‘Oh I know that song’, but then you realise, actually, you can’t sing it and play it all the way through. You don’t know all the chords. So you get to learn the internal workings of the songs – the mechanics.”
Kelly goes to a lot of concerts these days, he says: tonight, when the interview is done, he will head off to Cockatoo Island to watch a set by the young New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, whose first record he enjoyed immensely. And he listens to a lot of music too, mostly, these days, by streaming it online, but sometimes by dipping into his enviable library of cassettes and CDs.
“The digital thing came just in time – just as things were getting a little crowded in the house,” he laughs. He laughs a lot, actually: maybe more than one would imagine a man who has written songs as wrenching as ‘Winter Coat’ might laugh.
“I’ve got a lot of CDs. I’ve never had many records because I started travelling as soon as I left school when I was 17, so I had already moved around for many years. But I do have a lot of cassettes, which I still hang on to and treasure. I’ve still got a cassette player. I used to make a lot of cassette compilations. I like hanging on to them and playing them from time to time. They’re like little snapshots.”
For Kelly, listening to music is all about enjoying that carefully demarcated space a good album can carve out; about drinking in the things a record can do to its audience when they lower the needle and don’t stop listening till the last song is done. So as far as he’s concerned, ominous milestones like the oft-discussed death of the album are to be ignored or to be laughed at, which he does, shaking his head gently from side to side.
“I grew up making albums and listening to albums so that’s my natural inclination when it comes to writing music. So that means even more so nowadays I want to make records; I want them to be really strong and to have a coherent framework. I want to be able to say, ‘Hey, if you want to, you can listen to this from start to finish and it’ll take you on a little journey.’ Of course I know that people break it up anyway that they want, and that’s all well and good. But it makes me sort of strive harder to make an ‘album’. Now, more than ever, I think the album is really relevant. It sounds paradoxical, but I like having a framework.”
When Kelly was a young listener, he used to “graze”. At the age of six or seven, when music first really made itself known to him, he was all about singles rather than records, and he used to greedily eat up those passed down to him by his sister. “I loved The Beatles, Peter, Paul And Mary….” he says. “I loved them a lot.” The radio was a good friend too. “I’d always listen and just think, ‘Oh I love that song.’ But I always thought I could never do anything like that; could never write songs like that.”
Kelly grew up in a big family – he has seven brothers and sisters, who, as Andrew Denton once noted in a televised interview with Kelly, have variously worked as “a nun, a social worker, a Buddhist, a music teacher and a candidate for the Greens.” Kelly’s father died due to complications associated with Parkinson’s when Kelly was only 13 years old, and a lot of his musical taste was guided and shaped by his siblings, particularly his brothers, who steered him towards the gentle magic of the record when he got a little older. “When I was a teenager, the album came into my life,” he said. “My brothers gave me Bob Dylan records, and Pink Floyd, and The Moody Blues, and Jethro Tull. Those were albums that you sat down and you listened to.”
Kelly still listens to a lot of those records now; still turns to them, when he is feeling creatively exhausted. He is famous for his tendency to magpie together pre-existing songs, and, when stumped, will use old favourites for inspiration. “You learn how to write songs by copying other people,” he told Denton in that televised 2004 interview, and it’s a sentiment he echoes now. “Songwriting isn’t like prose writing, where at least you can put down one sentence, then another sentence and you’re going somewhere,” he says.
“With music, you might try to write and you’re not going anywhere at all. You’re just bored. But then you can think, ‘Oh, nothing is happening? Okay, I’ll go and learn this other song.’ You can learn, I dunno, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ or ‘Love Hurts’. So that’s still part of what I do. Learning other people’s songs. It’s just fun.”
But is that always the way Kelly wrote? Is that how he used to work, say, back at the very beginning, when he first got drawn to songwriting at the tender age of 21? But Kelly isn’t into self-mythologizing, or indulging in the florid origin stories that some musicians drape themselves in. So when the question is posed to him, Kelly just shrugs good-naturedly, the brown, three-piece suit he is wearing heaving up and down with him. “I just wrote a song,” he says, with a grin. “And then I wrote another one.”
Next month will see the release of Life Is Fine, Kelly’s 15th studio album, and his first record of strictly original material since The Merri Soul Sessions. In the Facebook post that announced the record, Kelly called it a “widescreen, technicolour album with the whole band” and it’s certainly true that fans of the musician’s work in the ’80s – bold, big records like Gossip and Under The Sun – will appreciate its richness, and its light.
Listening to Life Is Fine, the first impression one gets is that Kelly is having fun; pure, unashamed fun; fun without boundaries. The album is packed with the ease and grace that Kelly just kind of naturally gives off these days – the kind of effortless precision that comes from a lifetime of effort’s expenditure. Listening to a song like ‘Firewood And Candles’, the record’s first single, is rather like watching old footage of Maradona in his prime batting about a ball, or listening to Sylvia Plath read her poetry in the recordings she made just before her death. Something just clicks, things just fit, and the song creaks with the most uncomplicated kind of pleasure.
The album came together relatively easily, Kelly says, once he had his starting point. He knew he wanted to make a “joyful” record, something that could house all the optimistic, oddball songs he has been writing over the last few years. “It’s been coming for a while,” he says. “I’ve wanted to put out a rock’n’roll record; a band record. An upbeat record. The kind of record that EMI have wanted me to put out for about five years now.” He laughs. “They’ve been going, ‘When are you going to do a normal record?’ And I’ve been saying, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming.’”
With that framework in mind, actually assembling the album was pretty easy. “I make my records fairly quick. I don’t really get too lost in it. This record was done in two sessions, a year apart, one in February 2016 and then one in February 2017. But in both those sessions it was just about recording the songs I had already written. So it wasn’t like, ‘We’re making a record!’ Once I knew I was going to make an upbeat record, I started gathering together the songs that were like that. The songs are more playful, so every time I wrote a song that had that feeling I was like, ‘It’ll go on this record, the playful record.’ Then I started writing some more. You get a few songs that are starting to talk to each other, then you write the rest, and that sort of finishes the record off.”
Life Is Fine is effortless, sure, but it’s also distinctly, deliciously odd. Kelly’s skills as a surrealist tend to go underappreciated these days, and he is often unfairly regarded as a strict documentarian – a kind of stoic, Antipodean Ken Loach, or an Ochre Woody Guthrie-type. But there has always been a glimmering sense of the otherworldly to him as well, and his songs tend to glint and to wink with something that sets him apart from those chroniclers of the everyday. The best of his discography makes no claims on objective fact, and he is as likely to tell fables as he is to tell stories; to buck away from the real world at the last minute, swerving off into somewhere stranger. There is a reason, for instance, that one of his best-known songs contains a gravy recipe; that another includes lines about being “in the middle of a dream.”
So it fits that the centrepiece of his new record is a song called ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’, an emphatically, unashamedly big number about coming down with a flu. “When I wrote it, I went ‘Oh, that’s a funny song, that’ll fit with something one day’,” Kelly says. “I knew it’d be a good one when I put it to the band.”
It’s not the only serve of slapstick on the record, either. There’s the gently comic ‘Josephina’, a lilting love letter of a song that Kelly has spent the last four years trying to find a home for. And there’s ‘Leah: The Sequel’, which starts soulful and ends demented, as the song’s long-suffering narrator gets saved from drowning only to end up toiling away at a cannery at the behest of a beloved.
“Toe-tapping” is maybe a cliché these days, but it’s hard to call Life Is Fine anything else. There are streaks of Kelly’s beloved blues in there, and the old-time soul he has spent the better part of three decades chasing down – not to mention those moments where Kelly’s high, ochre voice takes on the unmistakable throaty timbre of the King himself. Clearly those nights strumming through Elvis tunes have played on Kelly’s mind; have shaped this record, a collection of songs with all the panache of something like Loving You.
Which maybe makes Life Is Fine sound old fashioned – like a glorified golden oldies compilation, or an unholy cross between Aussie pub rock and a classic hits radio channel. But thanks to Kelly’s band, and his rich, cutting lyrics, the thing never becomes a history project. Without ever obviously straining towards the contemporary, Kelly’s compatriots keep the thing fresh, and for Kelly, working with a full rock band has been one of the pleasures of making Life Is Fine.
“When you take a song to the band and you’re not always so sure about it, they go ‘Yeah great!’ and they sink their teeth into it. And that’s when the song starts to happen. It’s come out of you then, and other people are reacting to it. The band start reacting to it. And that’s one of the joys of this record for me. I can hear the verve and the joy of the band in the record.”
Kelly was also helped along the way by Bill Miller, a good friend and longtime collaborator. Miller wrote four songs on the record, and his deft, playful touch suits the tone of the thing to a tee, offsetting the occasionally more reverential moments with pulse-quickening pop flourishes. “He’s one of those guys that knows every pop song,” Kelly says, somewhat enviously. “He’s just an encyclopaedia of pop music, so he’s a lot of fun to write songs with. I mean we usually just get together, just to watch sport, and then we might play the guitar and play tunes for fun.”
It hasn’t all been perfect writing Life Is Fine, because of course it hasn’t – because not even the things that we love always treat us kindly. Kelly has had the mundane, itching agony of the mixing process to endure, and he found it hard to sit around twiddling his thumbs while the album got its final layer of post-production polish. “I get most wrapped up in the record around that point,” Kelly says, looking, for the first time, a little glum. “That’s when you’ve got this thing that you’ve made and then you’ve got to balance it and mix it, which is kind of time-consuming, but nothing new is really happening. The engineers do all the mixing. And by then I’m sort of getting impatient – I just want to get it out; to get back the test pressings and just listen to it.”
That’s happened by now. Kelly has the test pressings at home, and he listened to them the other day in full. The album finally felt real, he says. It wasn’t just a thing in his head anymore; Life Is Fine became a real-world object, something to be shared. And now, finally, he can start to tour it. “That’s when it really comes to life,” he says. “That’s why you do all this.”
For a lot of musicians, the little window between an album’s completion and its release date is its own special kind of torture; a patience-testing, nerve-shredding few weeks in which all you can do is twiddle your thumbs and worry. But Kelly is beyond all that these days. He is, in this way as in so many others, at peace. “Some people will like it, and some people won’t,” he says. “You know, same as it ever was.” He claps his hands together, and they make a thin, papery sound that echoes through the room. “For those who like it then, off it goes.”
A few years ago, a key got turned for Kelly. Around the release of Spring And Fall, his melancholic 2012 record, he was asked to collaborate with a classical youth orchestra. The project intrigued him, but it intimidated him as well – the idea was that he’d be paired up with a composer and together they’d pen a song cycle, something he’d never done before. It was all a little overwhelming. “I just didn’t know how to write songs with a composer,” he says now.
But venturing into the creative unknown wasn’t something new for Kelly. Though he is recognised almost universally as a master, he doesn’t consider himself one; doesn’t think he has an edge over anyone else engaged in the thankless, unforgiving struggle that is writing songs. Even when he’s just writing – when there is no song cycle to be penned, or deadline to be met – he’s never really sure where he’s going. He just picks a road and follows it, and more often than not he’s as surprised as his listeners by where he turns up.
It wasn’t like that when he was writing prose, mind you. His book, How To Make Gravy, a beautifully-written dance through his creative process, was surprisingly easy for him to write. “It was much more enjoyable,” he says. “Because I was writing about things I loved: about songs I loved, about people that I loved. It wasn’t like I was sitting down and going, ‘What am I going to write about today?’ I had my way in each day.
“I mean, I knew if I sat down at the beginning of the day, then by its end I would have something to show for it – 500 words or a thousand words, or you know, whatever. It was like bricks and mortar. It was much more graspable … I started to love the word count. I’d be like, ‘I’ve written 20,000 words!’ Whereas writing a song is a bit more like fishing. You doodle around, you sing a bit, you try to make up a melody. But you might never get anything. You might be there for days, and get nothing.”
And that’s exactly where he found himself when trying to write the song cycle: sitting around, getting nothing. He’d noodle a bit on a guitar, but it never really came to much – he was so unsure of where to start. So, flummoxed, Kelly once again turned to the work of others for inspiration. But rather than playing a few of his favourite tunes, he instead turned to his library, and to poetry. “I just started picking poems that I liked, and that fit together thematically,” he says.
He was just trying to get the ball rolling; to do something, hoping that things might click. And eventually they did. “That was the first time that I tried putting poems to music,” he says. “So that changed things for me in turns of writing songs, because I’d always written my own lyrics. I put poems to music pretty regularly now. It’s good because writing words is the hardest part of writing songs for me. Melodies I find are much easier. It’s good when you’ve got the words there and they’re really great words. So suddenly having this whole other way to write a song was a revelation for me.”
That revelation was reflected in Kelly’s work, particularly in Seven Sonnets And A Song, a paean to Shakespeare that saw Kelly set a selection of the bard’s poems to music. “I just put some music to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I like them, and then I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll try a few more.’” He shrugs. “And the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was coming up so I thought I’d give it a go and release a record.”
That is how music tends to happen for Kelly these days. Accidentally. He has no grand plan anymore – if he ever did, he’s long since abandoned it, and his career seems to follow whatever twists and turns the world has in store for it. That’s why he released a record of songs he’s played at funerals with his friend Charlie Owen last year; why he went on tour with Neil Finn back in 2013, the two of them taking turns playing each other’s hits. Kelly describes that experience as being like “taking apart a clock and really learning how it gets made”; as a way of learning that even the things you think you know – things as familiar to him as the Crowded House songs he’s poured over for decades – have a way of surprising you.
And, just as pertinently, those strange creative whims explain why his new record – the most jubilant and expressive record he has released in years – ends with a song about suicide. For all of Life Is Fine’s bombast and the strange, colourful places that it goes, it ends not with a technicolour cry but with a whisper. The title track – what Kelly describes as a kind of coda – is as subtle and as sad as the record gets, closing the thing out on a note of quiet, tragedy-tinged defiance.
It’s also one of the record’s sparsest songs. There’s nothing in there but Kelly and a nylon-string, his voice gossamer thin, an organ and an electric guitar occasionally warbling up behind him. “If that water hadn’t been so cold I might have sunk and died,” comes Kelly’s voice skipping across the chorus. “But it was cold in that water, so cold.”
The song is based on a poem by Langston Hughes, one passed on to Kelly by a friend a few years ago, and it gives the record its sense of finality. The album might be stuffed with songs about canneries and about colds; pockmarked with punchlines and carried with the lightest of touches, but it ends with a song about living in spite of; about life as a form of defence. Indeed, it’s only when the song is done that you realise the double-edge to the record’s title. Life Is Fine is no jubilant testament to life’s goodness: that’s “fine” as in thin, fine like a thread.
But because Paul Kelly is Paul Kelly – because he is a man who doesn’t have to fall over himself to explain away his songs, or to disseminate them into cheap themes and cheaper still sentiments — he doesn’t describe any of it that way. “It’s got a deft touch to it, that song,” Kelly says, simply. “I could have saved it up for another record, but it just felt like a nice little ending for this one.” And then he smiles, gently, as though it is all so simple – which, to be perfectly honest, more often than not it is. “And it gave me the title.”
The door clicks open. It’s the publicist, come to whisk Kelly away; to take him back to his hotel so he can settle in a bit before the evening’s concert, and then, tomorrow, a media showcase during which he will play some of the songs off Life Is Fine in public for the first time. But before he goes, Kelly has the guitar to attend to. It is in his arms before my Dictaphone even gets shut off, so this is how the recording of our interview ends – with strumming, a few gently plucked chords and Kelly’s high voice winding around some mumbled words. And in this way, his playing gives the impression that our conversation has all been one long tune; that Kelly has been singing all this time, simply waiting for the guitar to kick in.