Where do you start when introducing someone like Paul Kelly? Do you start by talking about his eight ARIA Awards – the Australian equivalent of a Grammy Award? Do you talk about the 20 or so albums he has released, the diversity of those recordings or the successes they have achieved? Do talk about songs like “Before Too Long,” “Darling It Hurts,” or “To her Door” that have become icons in his homeland? Do you talk about his co-write, “Treaty,” with Yothu Yindi, which saw an Australian indigenous music band top the charts for the very first time? It is a no win situation because no matter where you start and what you cover, you are sure to fall short of conveying the true impact Kelly has had on Australian culture during his 30 years of music making. As well as preparing to venture to these here shores, Kelly is brandishing a new album, Spring and Fall, his first release of new material in five years. Not that he has been lying idle in that time. Not only did he release The A-Z Recordings – an eight CD set of live recordings from a series shows he performed around Australia, usually over four nights with each night featuring a different song list where he worked his way alphabetically through over hundred songs from his catalogue - he also authored an accompanying memoire, How To Make Gravy, A Mongrel Memoir. Having been out of songwriting mode for a while, when it came time to turn his attention to a new album, he did so in the form on an intimate and inflicting song cycle. Kelly is about to embark upon a North American tour in duo mode with his nephew, Dan Kelly, in accompaniment. It gets underway on April 20 at the famed Sings Like Hell series in Santa Barbara, California, and takes Kelly across the country, playing out until early June. Brett Leigh Dicks recently spoke to his fellow countryman while he was in the midst of an Australian tour with fellow Sings Like Hell alumni, Neil Finn, and learned that retrospection is all well and good, but a writer only feels useful when writing something new.
You are currently out on the road with another Australasian musical icon, Neil Finn. Having produced so many iconic songs between the two of you, I suspect pulling together a set list took quite some time….
Yeah. We got together a fair way in advance and aimed to put together 30 songs. But we ended up with 34 songs so we can rotate a few songs in and out now. We play an even number of songs, about 17 each. I suggested some of Neil’s and he suggested some of mine and we play on each other’s songs and trade verses and sing harmonies and we share the band. So it’s quite knitted together and we’re both on stage the whole time.
What’s it like to be performing in band with Neil Finn one moment and then coming across here and playing in a duo with Dan Kelly?
Dan’s actually in the band with Neil so there’s a decent amount of continuity there. All throughout the time I’ve played, I’ve played in different formats – solo and duos and with bands – it keeps things interesting and brings some variety. I don’t mind it at all.
You have spent a lot of the recent past in retrospective mode. But here you are with a new studio album. What was the impetuous for a new record?
I hadn’t written a lot of songs for a while because I was pretty involved in writing a book which took two and half years and was related to a series of recordings called The A – Z Recordings. When that book came out I did a lot of A – Z shows which went over a year and a half. So I had a bit of a break from writing songs and when I started thinking about doing a record, Dan and I had been playing a lot as a duo, so I wanted to make record with the two of us, something intimate, and not go into the studio with a band.
With that aesthetic in mind, I needed songs that would work with that, singer-songwriter type songs. I know that sounds strange because I’m known as a singer-songwriter, but I’ve always gone into the studio with a band to make a record and I wanted this to be about the two of us. That’s when the idea of making the record a song cycle started to develop in terms of one song leading to the next to tell a story.
And what inspired the theme of a love affair?
I had a song that I had for a while called “When A Women Loves a Man,” which I had written six or seven years ago and was covered by Renee Geyer, but I hadn’t recorded it. And I had a song called “Someone New” which again I had written six years prior, but hadn’t recorded it. So I looked at those two songs and thought they could be part of a story. The first song I wrote for the record was “Cold as Canada,” which is a real leave-taking song. “When a Man Loves a Woman” is about the beginning of love, “Someone New” is a turning point song, where the narrator of the song is deciding whether to stay or go, and with “Cold as Canada,” being a leave taking song, I thought if I could write around those songs and fill in the gaps I’ll have the story of a love affair.
You alluded to working with Dan Kelly. He is of course a musician and writer in his own right, but also your nephew. You were there when he first picked up a guitar. How has your musical relationship with him evolved over the years?
It’s been a long and happy collaboration. He first started playing guitar when he was 13 and learned a lot of Steve Connolly’s parts off my early records as well as a lot of other things he loves like Dire Straits, Supertramp and things from my little brother’s record collection that has everything from Van Morrison to Pink Floyd. Because he learned a lot of my early records, he knows a lot of my songs better than I do. Of anyone I’ve played with he’s the one that knows my repertoire the best. Which is very handy to have when pulling out a song that I haven’t done for a while because he will know it. And I love playing with him because he’s very eclectic and has deep roots, but he’s got his own style. He’s quite idiosyncratic in the way he plays.
You mentioned being known as a singer-songwriter, but you are very eclectic yourself. You have made quintessential rock albums, you have made folk albums, and you have now made this intimate singer-songwriter album. Two records that really stand out for me are the two bluegrass records you did. What lead you down that path?
That was just scratching an itch really. It’s a kind of music I really love and have always loved. When I first started playing I was listening to people like The Stanley Brothers and that had a big impact on me. I love the singing and playing and the feeling of their records. I ended up doing two bluegrass records, but the first one came about because I had a heard a record by Tim O’Brien called Red on Blonde where he did bluegrass versions of Dylan songs. It was a good record, which made me think I could do something similar with my songs because my they have folk roots. So I went back to my old songs and figured out a few that would suit that style and then wrote some new ones as well and that became a record called Smoke. I put a band together and did a mix of old songs and new and then did another one album called Foggy Highway. It’s something I could well return to down the track.
It’s not something I wanted to do for that long. A writer only feels useful when they’re writing something new. The retrospective period ended up going longer than I expected and it all had to do with writing a book. I thought I was sitting down to write liner notes for a series of recordings and at some point I realized this could be a book. So then I turned my mind to writing a book. The book was a new project for me so that’s what kept it fresh.
The A-Z Recordings must have been quite an experience, for artist and audience alike….
The good thing about was that I got back in touch with a lot of my old songs. Over the years I have played a certain group of songs that work in a show or played songs that people want to hear that they know. So before I stumbled across this format, I did the first shows in 2004, there were a lot of my old songs that I hadn’t touched in a long time and I had to remember and relearn them. The first A-Z show was a one off and then I realized this was a new way of doing shows and that opened up new possibilities for me. Dan has done all of these shows so between the two of us we now have 150 of my songs they we know because we have played them so much. Having all those songs back in play again is a real thrill.