Photos by Sam Brumby
It’s not often that you meet a national treasure, but that’s exactly what was awaited me in the front room of EMI records in Sydney.
Paul Kelly is a name synonymous with some of the most prolific and eloquent telling of Australian stories of the last 50 years, and the songs that contain these stories have woven their way into the fabric of what it means to be an Australian. Paul Kelly’s just released his 23rd— although it’s a little hard to count as the man’s prolificy lends itself to countless collaborations and side projects—studio album Life is Fine. Something that neatly coincides with his headlining of the GW McLennan tent on Saturday night at Splendour in the Grass.
Paul Kelly’s tenure as the unofficial bard of Australian culture has spanned well over thirty years, and for the enlightened, hell, even for the unenlightened, you’d be hard pressed to hit play on anything that commits to music the vast and complex nature of this country better. Paul’s music and the narrative that it carries, whether it be the tale of Aboriginal rights activist Vincent Lingiarri’s struggle for indigenous land rights, or Donald Bradman scoring centuries at the MCG, has become an unwavering part of who we are as a nation.
It’s a relaxed Kelly that greets me at the EMI office, wearing a dark brown twill slimline suit with a with an open coloured shirt underneath, and the obligatory black Redback boots. The remnants of lunch—bread, cheese, olives, red wine—are strewn across the marble table top, as we sit down for a cup of tea (both white, no sugar). The new album is the reason that we’re in the same room, with Paul doing press in Sydney before playing a showcase the next day to a select few, so it seems the best place to start. Life is Fine is an upbeat, full band record, and it sees Kelly on top lyrical form.
“It’s been on my mind for a while to do a straight rock ‘n roll record,” he says. “The last four or five years have been diverse—a bit off the beaten track. And I had an album called Spring of Fall out five or so years ago which was a record of songs without much collaboration and it was fairly melancholic, so I just wanted to make a straight up band record. I’ve been writing the songs for a few years and putting them aside until the other projects had sort of finished their lives. So I’ve seen it on the horizon for a while and I’ve been driving towards it.”
There’s few that can construct a song quite like Paul Kelly. Whilst they mightn’t be the most progressive or virtuosic in form—most tending to be fairly simple melody wise—Kelly’s ability to seamlessly blend the melody and the narrative is what makes him who he is. Writing is the thing that Kelly clearly states is his raison d’etre, whilst admitting that doing it for 30 plus years doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
“It’s never been easy,” Paul says. “I wouldn’t call it hard, it just doesn’t—they don’t come that quickly. I don’t really sit down and write a set of songs for a record; I write pretty ad hoc. A song here and a song there, and they’re often quite different. Then after a while I start sorting them out and say, ‘ok this song’ll be right for this kind of record, that song will be good for that record’, and I start putting them in little draws.”
I follow up on the theme of being a writer first and foremost and ask Kelly whether he feels burdened with constantly feeling like if he’s not producing song and verse, then he’s wasting his time. He explains that he’s become used to that element of his vocation, and has learned to tolerate it.
“It’s a good job song writing, because you’ve got to have the idle time to write the songs,” he says, “and that’s good. It’s good to have a life where you’re not always, working (laughs).”
Chatting to Paul Kelly, it’s impossible not to catch a sense of his eternal optimism. He’s not a man that’s adverse to change, and there’s little, if any, hankering for the old days that I can pick up. Fittingly, Paul admits that despite a healthy vinyl collection, he streams most of his music for convenience.
“I’m reading Mozart’s letters at the moment,” he tells me, “and he writes about this piece and that piece. Of course I don’t have all of Mozart’s recorded works, but I can go to Spotify and listen to sonata number four, that he’s talking about right now. So that enriches my reading of the book. But if I was reading it 20 years ago I’d be thinking, ‘am I going to have to go down the record store and buy Mozart’s sonatas? And which one shall I buy?’” Before adding that it’s a, “loss that you don’t listen to a record and persevere until you like it. But it’s a great gain that you can hear about music and then just find it.”
A Paul Kelly show in 2017, especially in Australia, draws a diverse crowd. Far from just the bastion of those who grew up following Kelly’s music from its fledgling stages in the early 80s, in te tradition of folk music (which Kelly no doubt dabbles in, but is not limited to) parents, aunties, uncles, have passed on the treasure of his music to the younger generation. It’s not unusual to see parent and offspring belting out choruses in unison, and it’s something that Paul Kelly’s rightly proud of.
“It’s great to play shows and see all ages and parents with their children,” he says. “That was always my aim: to write songs that are built to last. So it’s good when you see that they still work. Some songs just fall away, or I lose touch with them myself—if I don’t synch or connect with them anymore. But I like having a big swag of songs. It’s like having a tool kit. I know that I can go to work and I’ve got a lot of tools and can take different ones out and know that they work.”
Paul Kelly’s headline Splendour set is sure to be a roaring celebration of both his career, and the coming together of a community in the way that this festival encourages. Kelly’s relationship with the “festival” as a fixture of Australian culture goes all the way back to the Nimbin Aquarius Festival of 1973 where he travelled in a bus from Adelaide with a group of friends to join in the momentous occasion. “They’re large community gatherings,” he says of the magic of festival. “You’re free, you’re not trapped, you can move from stage to stage, location to location, go with a group of friends. Festivals have been around ever since we’ve been human.”
As to the festival at hand, Paul admits that despite the presence of a new album, he’ll be rifling through his toolbox for a selection of the classics. “At Splendour we’ll do mostly well-known songs,” he says with a wry grin. “We’ll do a couple from the new record as well; the songs from the new record will fit a festival. It’s always a bit of a balancing act between what people know and what you want to introduce them to, but we’ll definitely stick to the songs that people know. It’s more fun for everyone that way.”