Photos by Sam Brumby
On the day I meet Paul Kelly, he has just travelled from St Kilda to Kings Cross.
Well, technically we’re in Woolloomooloo, but from the seventh-floor window of the EMI building, we can see the Cross’ iconic Coca-Cola sign at the top of William Street. To me, it feels like a fitting coincidence, but I soon gather that Kelly has lived in St Kilda for 25 years and must come to the offices of his record label semi-regularly.
In his 1985 folk-ballad, ‘From St Kilda to Kings Cross’, Kelly lamented that the journey took “14 hours on a bus”, but today he caught a plane from Tullamarine. He arrives at the EMI building in a dark green suit with one guitar and a small suitcase, greeting his label rep with chivalry and gratitude, and accepting a cup of tea.
Kelly is 63-years-old, has just recorded his twenty-fourth album and has been performing music for 44 years. At this point, it would be hard to name another musician who has encapsulated the multifaceted shades of Australian life with such compelling storytelling and enduring success. He’s had a long and esteemed career, though music was a big part of his life long before it morphed into his career.
“I started writing songs and playing music because I didn’t want a career,” says Kelly. “I didn’t want to have a regular job, I wanted to be able to just follow my interests with music and reading.”
To date, Kelly has written about Donald Bradman and Ned Kelly, contributed to the land-rights anthem ‘Treaty’, with Yothu Yindi, and is responsible for staple Australian classics like, ‘How To Make Gravy’, ‘Dumb Things’ and ‘To Her Door’. He’s toured with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, was inducted into the ARIA hall of fame in 1997 and received an Order of Australia in 2017. But, as Kelly explains, it didn’t all happen quickly or easily.
“It was 11 years between writing a song and actually feeling like I could make a living out of this,” says Kelly. “I didn’t really make a living off music until I was about 32.”
He can still clearly remember the first taste of commercial recognition: “We were driving from Sydney with the band to do a show and ‘Before Too Long’ came on the radio,” says Kelly. “This was the first time I’d heard my own song coming back at me from somewhere else. So we all jumped up in our seats and sung along at the top of our voices.” He smiles, “That was a moment.”
This was circa 1986, not long after he and his band, Paul Kelly and The Coloured Girls, had put out their breakthrough rock and roll album, Gossip. It got radio play, they got their first royalty cheques and it was a glimpse of life as a full-time musician. Kelly says he’d been working odd jobs up to that point and then he remembers thinking, “Oh, maybe I don’t have to do part-time jobs anymore.”
Another moment that Kelly remembers profoundly was writing his first song. He’d written poetry and covered other people’s songs on guitar, but at 21, he managed to combine his own lyrics with his own music for the first time. “I can still remember that very clearly,” he says. “That felt like a little door opening.” The next logical thought was, “Well, if I can write one, I can write another one.”
But it was never quite that simple. Kelly maintains that the songwriting process has always been challenging and mysterious, describing it as something that he has never quite figured out. In previous interviews, I’ve heard him liken songwriting to catching a fish and describe how he often copies riffs from other songs, then changes a few chords here and there. Today he says it’s about “turning up”.
“The song won’t come unless you’re having a go,” says Kelly. “Or making yourself receptive in a way. A lot of it is clearing distractions and being able to let your mind go into half thinking, half dreaming… There’s this playing around until something happens.” Essentially, it’s about sheer persistence, says Kelly, “If you keep turning up, hopefully, something does happen.”
Another method for crafting songs—one which Kelly has been using more and more in recent years—is borrowing words from classic poets and putting them to his own music. Kelly’s twenty-fourth studio album, Nature, contains poetry from some of the classics: Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin. It also contains four songs that he originally wrote as poems, then later converted into songs, as well as three songs that “came along in the usual way”.
‘A Bastard Like Me’ is one of the standout songs on Nature and perhaps the most important one. It’s written in the first person about Charlie Perkins, a man of Kalkadoon, Arrente and Irish heritage who became one of Australia’s most inspiring Aboriginal activists. Perkins is best known for organising the Freedom Ride of 1965, a bus journey around rural NSW exposing the widespread discrimination and segregation of Aboriginal Australians in supposedly public venues, such as movie theatres, swimming pools and RSL clubs. The protests gained national attention and propelled Perkins into a political career.
“Yeah,” Kelly smiles widely when I ask if Charlie Perkins was a hero for him. “He was an activist, fighting against injustice and often fighting against government policy and then at other times in his life he got into government,” he explains. “He wasn’t just somebody who jumped up and down and shouted, he actually was very practical in his activism, hands-on, day-by-day, trying to make things better for his people. So I really admired him for that.”
‘A Bastard Like Me’ is actually the title to Perkins’ autobiography and Kelly says the song is “about the feeling of being an outsider”. Kelly often writes songs in first person, but in most cases, his songs are about fictional characters. With this song, however, there was a bit more pressure to handle the history with care and respect.
“When you’re writing about someone real, I felt a sense of responsibility about that and I thought it was important to check with the family,” says Kelly. He had already worked with Perkins’ daughter, Rachel Perkins, on a film back in 2000, and the pair have been friends ever since. The family approved of the song and Rachel ended up providing some family Super 8 footage of Perkins for the film clip.
Kelly has said that the songs on Nature all contain some reference to, “the natural world—trees, birds, animals, plants, dust, desert, water—and human nature’s small place in that world.” This is most obvious on the song, ‘With Animals’, which is a shortened adaptation of Walt Whitman’s epic, ‘Song of Myself’. Whitman reveres animals because “they do not sweat and whine over their condition” and “they do not make me sick discussing their duty to God”.
“For me, the poem’s more about humans than it is about animals,” says Kelly. “So I like it for that.” I comment that these lines are a bit misanthropic and definitely anti-religious, but that Kelly’s songs often reference god and the bible.
“I was brought up Catholic and culturally I’m a Catholic,” says Kelly, adding, “I don’t believe in praying to a god or anything like that but I love the language of the bible so I’ll read the bible from time to time… it underpins so much of our culture.” He adds that while Whitman was criticising the bible, he was surely influenced by its language.
It’s been pointed out before that the major tropes in Kelly’s songs are “family, god and country,” which is certainly true in Nature. But there are also ghost stories and love songs. The first single from the album, ‘With The One I Love’ is about “the chaos of love and how sometimes it just totally upends a life,” says Kelly. When I ask if this has happened to him recently, Kelly explains that most of his songs aren’t about him.
“Obviously some details from my life get in there,” he says. “[But] I’d say most of them aren’t autobiographical at all.”
And maybe this is why Kelly’s songs are so enduring—they come from a whole range of perspectives and experiences, far beyond his own.