“It feels good!” smiles Paul Kelly with an air of relaxed affability in his dressing room at Shepherd’s Bush Empire ahead of the show that will close his UK tour. With his characteristic softly-spoken conversational economy and low-key attire of well-worn t-shirt, jeans and baseball hat it’s easy to forget the Australian songwriter holds a status approaching something akin to a national treasure and a 30-year musical staple (attributes he’ll bring sharply into focus through his transformation into a besuited dynamo who’ll later energetically hold court for over two hours).
We’re discussing how the release of his 25th album, last month’s Life Is Fine, saw Kelly score his first number one at 62 years old and he describes the experience with a faint air of relaxed bemusement. “We’ve never had one before,” he admits “and when you put out a record it’s not just about me and the band – it’s about the label and the management and the team behind it. They get a bit excited by it, and it’s a bit contagious, really!”
After a career so wide-ranging and lengthy it would be easy for Kelly to feel as though he has nothing left to prove, rendering such successes somewhat meaningless. Naturally, the next question is whether things like chart success continue to provide artistic validation, or has he moved on from viewing his career through the prism of such quantifiers? “Most of my favourite records were never really charting records – or certainly not records that went to number one – but they’re records that have stood the test of time,” he says, “so I want to make records that people still listen to years from now. It’s easy to sit here and say I don’t care about number ones but it’s like people saying they don’t care about awards and then they win one and realise it’s quite nice. There’s nothing wrong with getting a number one at all, but it’s not the way I work. You can’t plan these things anyway. I write the way I write and things have turned out as they have.”
Last year Kelly released two albums which were both thematically-driven and somewhat off the beaten track; Seven Sonnets And A Song set Shakespeare works to music, while follow-up Death’s Dateless Night is a collection of songs he’s been asked to sing at funerals. Life Is Fine is his return to the more traditional songwriting with which he’s plied his trade. “I’d always planned to do a band record with me singing most of the songs on the record, especially after last year,” he says of his approach to the record, adding that “I was very keen to come out with something of complete contrast”. Kelly’s bandmates have long described his processes as akin to a creative warehouse where he puts ideas in storage and takes them down again via a mental forklift to use as and when the appropriate juncture arises. It’s something he tacitly corroborates as he explains how he “didn’t write in a burst and it’s not like all the songs that appear on it were all written in the last year. Some were but there are others that stem from further back. I write quite haphazardly and song tend to come at me randomly and then I sort them – I sort songs into piles and once I’ve got enough of one kind of song I’ll start making that sort of record.”
Kelly believes that his recent musical adventures have enabled him to grow as an artist, claiming that making last year’s thematically-driven albums have allowed him to, as he says, “go off the main path for a little while – then you come back onto the main road, as it were, you also bring along all the things you’ve learned and discovered when you’ve gone off for a bit of a wander.” Describing how he started putting poems to music, he details how he “ended up doing it for a particular show and it’s sort of become a part of my songwriting ever since. It now sits alongside my normal songwriting process, which involves writing the music to it first and then putting the words to it afterwards. It’s given me a new way of writing songs.”
But if some of methods are new, the supporting cast add a touch of comforting familiarity; drummer Pete Luscombe and sisters/backing singers Linda and Vika Bull have worked with Kelly on and off for a quarter century, bassist Bill McDonald around fifteen years, and guitarist Ash Naylor and keysman Cameron Bruce over a decade. It’s a a setup which Kelly concedes eases the creative process, describing the current Kelly gang as one where “everyone’s good friends and we all enjoy each other’s company, which makes it easier to go into a studio and record. I’ve always enjoyed recording quickly too, so we set up in the studio and hunt all the songs down until we’ve got a good performance. We don’t labour in the studio, I start to get bored if we’re in there for too long!”
The record that’s ensued is one that’s defiantly upbeat and unashamedly hopeful. Beginning with the purposeful ‘Rising Moon’, soulful ‘Finally Something Good’ and driving ‘Firewood And Candles’, it feeds through the percussive ‘Rock Out On Sea’ and lilting romance of ‘Josephina’ before ending on the simple arrangement of the title track, telling the story of a narrator attempting suicide but who ultimately decides to live. “ I was conscious of wanting it to be upbeat and playful,” Kelly says of the record, “and I was just gathering the songs and getting some that were a bit light-hearted like ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’ and ‘Josephina’ – they’ve got a fair bit of humour in them and I knew that even though there’s a fair bit of difference between them musically they all belonged on the record. To me, they’re linked by a certain playfulness.” As we discuss the album’s sequencing and gradual move from vibrant beginnings to the affecting and plaintive (but ultimately uplifting) title track, he turns his attention to the latter, adding: “I love that poem and I love the light and dark that runs through it – it’s a poem about suicide but it ends with a burst of joy where the narrator decides not to kill himself but to live on. Both that light and dark nature and the humour of the song pointed to the direction of the album and it was a nice coda for the record.”
“You pick it up and pass it on – that’s what we do as songwriters.”
The poem that forms the title track was originally written by Langston Hughes, and is the latest example of Kelly either repurposing the work of other artists or using them as an initial nugget from which to form the basis of his own. Raymond Carver’s short story ‘So Much Water Close To Home’ afforded the title of his 1989 album (the title track condensing the original literary plot into a song-friendly narrative), while the 2012 feature documentary Stories Of Me features a segment examining Kelly’s occasional borrowing/reworking of Bob Dylan lines. As well as his record of Shakespeare sonnets, Kelly has taken inspiration on Life Is Fine not only from Langston Hughes but also Roy Orbison (‘Leah: The Sequel’ is an intended companion piece to Orbison’s ‘Leah’) and performance artist Marina Abramovic (‘Rock Out On The Sea’ telling the story of her famous 1974 piece Rhythm 0). “I came up through folk music where it’s freely acknowledged that you take and you borrow from the work of those that have come before you,” says Kelly, when asked if the idea of taking other people’s work as a starting point to create his own is one that excites him creatively. “I’ve always had that feeling that I could pick things up from others, but also pass things onto others too. I like being able to point other people who listen to my songs to those influences as well, and maybe make them go and find out about Marina Abrmaovic or read a Raymond Carver story or go and listen to Roy Orbison. You pick it up and pass it on – that’s what we do as songwriters.”
Kelly’s comments about picking things up and passing them on come at a timely moment in his career, during a decade where arguably he’s been afforded a period of reappraisal thanks to his book How To Make Gravy, accompanying A-Z Collection boxset and the aforementioned documentary. But if they have showcased the breadth and quality of his catalogue, being cited by the current crop of internationally-recognised Australian musicians has put both he and his output in the limelight in front of a whole new audience. Courtney Barnett repeatedly cited Kelly during her breakout album cycle, recounting how dissecting his hit ‘To Her Door’ during a high school exercise opened her mind to the importance of – and possibilities afforded by – good lyricism and describing him as Australia’s Springsteen (he in turn has praised her ‘Barnettian’ worldview, and made a cameo as an annoyed bowler in the video to ‘Elevator Operator’). Recently Australian Music Prize winners A.B. Original have collaborated with Kelly, appearing on-stage together at the this year’s edition of Australian festival Splendour In The Grass to reprise a legendary performance from Triple J’s ‘Like A Version’ series that saw Kelly’s ‘Dumb Things’ transformed into a searing anti-racism anthem. But as impressive as his continued relevance – and growing international reputation – is, it’s something which doesn’t seemingly phase Kelly. “It goes back to what I was saying earlier – pick it up and pass it on, that’s what it is,” he says. “I’ve picked things up from people that came before me so it’s only natural that those coming up now will draw influences from all kinds of things. You’ve just got to stay in the mix!”
The social responsibility at the heart of A.B.Original shines a light into some of the cultural changes taking place in Australia at present, including seeking greater justice for aboriginal communities and an ever-growing call to change the date of Australia Day from that to which celebrates the arrival of the first settlers – hence its renaming by its critics to ‘invasion day’ – to one which includes all Australians. A.B. Original‘s ‘January 26’ lays their criticism bare, but the fact that the likes of Kelly and Midnight Oil discussed similar topics in their songs thirty years ago highlights how long a process it’s been. Kelly’s own ‘Bicentennial’ addressed the exact same topic – in tandem with police brutality – back in 1987, while his work has frequently documented aboriginal life; ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ tells the story of strike leader-cum-land rights winner Vincent Lingiari, ‘Rally Round The Drum’ details the life of indigenous outback tent fighters, ‘Special Treatment’ the injustice at the heart of the indigenous existence.
As someone sufficiently in tune with the indigenous population to have performed at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention, is it dispiriting for Kelly that the conversation hasn’t moved on as much as it should have done? “In many ways things have maybe improved,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “but improvement isn’t a straight line and it’s often very jerky and jagged. In Australia, our fundamental problem is that we never acknowledged in our own history that of the dispossessed and Aboriginal people, and that it was brutal and in many places bordered on a war. That was brushed over in our history, and it was always framed by the settlers in different language like ‘we had to teach them a lesson’ or ‘dispersals’ – which was another word for massacres. There’s a silence in our history that’s exacerbated the situation.”
Having championed the cause – and having long been welcomed within the indigenous communities as a result – you get the impression that silence on the matter isn’t going to be a part of Kelly’s make-up any time soon. Nor, for that matter, is ceasing to make records. In the same way that Kelly is continually fascinated by the human condition, so too does he seem ever-amazed at the power of music and how it can travel. As our time comes to a close and I ask him what he hopes people take away from the record he offers this, which could also act as a shorthand mission statement for his whole creative process.
“I like how with songs you write them and record them and then they head off to make their own way into the world in unpredictable and surprising way. As a writer, I like to be surprised and so I hope that rings true of listeners as well, I hope they find a surprise in there and find something that makes them think differently.”