Paul Kelly’s new album, Nature is due for release on 12 October. The follow up to the multi-award winning 2017 release, Life Is Fine, sees Kelly putting poetry, his own, and some of the world’s greatest poets to music, along with some of his songs. Around The Sound spoke to Kelly over breakfast (fruit toast for him, just tea for ATS) about the distinction between poetry, lyrics and music, and found him more willing to talk about blurring lines than take on the mantle of Australian icon.
I’ve had a couple of weeks to prepare for this interview, so Paul Kelly and his music have been rattling around in my head for a little while now. What to ask? How to address the man’s work and his place in Aussie culture? Random events always mean something, so when I’m idling on the couch early one evening watching The Chase (street cred. has just hit zero, but it’s OK it was never that high, anyway), and one of the questions addresses Kelly’s song, From St Kilda To King’s Cross, and everyman Australian gets it right, I think I’m in with an opening. I use this appropriation of Kelly’s work into popular culture to suggest that his place as a cultural icon is now safely cemented, such is the ubiquity of his reach.
Kelly’s response was pure poetry, brief, to the point and laden with whatever meaning you’d like to give it: “I think it’s just being around a long time.”
He did elaborate.
“It’s kind of out of my hands. I’ve been writing for a long time and I meet people who’ve been living with songs of mine for a long time and, just like I do with my favourite artists, I’ll play their songs for over 30 years or more. I don’t have that relationship with my own songs. I’ve been playing some songs for 30 or 40 years, but I guess I’m just much more inside it, so I don’t feel like it’s that real to me.”
Listening to Kelly speak, it wasn’t so much that he was brushing off the mantle of icon, more that he didn’t believe it was his determination to make. Kelly’s job is to write the songs, our job is to make sense of them and decide their worth. So, how do we reckon up?
In the 40 or so years that Kelly has been writing, recording and playing music, he’s released 22 studio albums and numerous other recorded works. He’s played countless shows to audiences across Australia and the world. He’s sound tracked, commented on and interpreted important moments in our history with songs like Bicentennial, From Little Things Big Things Grow and Bradman. And he’s managed to capture the essence of life in Australia, our people and landscapes in ways that few other song writers have; usually with a poet’s economy of words, and with lyrics and music that have a knack for speaking to most everyone. As Kelly wrote in Bradman, he’s very good at ‘let[ting] the part tell the whole.
When he’s on song, Kelly’s music can move the doughiest of feet, lift the weariest of spirits and challenge the minds of people from all walks of life. Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, Kelly is part of the Australian cultural furniture, readily taking a place next to some of the Aussie poets that he loves and has learned to emulate, like Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood.
But he’s also thoroughly present, with eyes firmly fixed on the future, on what’s next.
“My work is trying to write new songs, that’s what takes up most of my time. It’s like I see my songs in the rear-view mirror.”
Which brings us to the new album. Nature brings together poems from five literary greats – Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin – together with poems that Kelly wrote himself and later put to music, and his original songs that came along in his usual way, as sounds sung to chords that then turned into words.
Nature is an evolution of sorts for Kelly and, in part, evidence of his emancipation from his usual way of writing songs.
“Having been a writer for 40 years, I think all writers want to break their own habit. Most writers, and I’m the same, get stuck in certain grooves. Suddenly finding a new way to write songs is a real gift for me. I started putting poems to music about six years ago, for a classical music project, and then I just got into that habit of doing it, and that led to doing the Shakespeare sonnets [Seven Sonnets & a Song]. Now, it’s just another way for me of writing songs. If I like a particular poem I’ll say, ‘I wonder if I can put music to that?’ I find it exciting to have found a new way to write songs. Once I realised I could put poems to music, something shifted, it was like a key turning and I realised I could write songs either way. I still have lots of song ideas and sing them into…well, I sing them into the phone now, and sometimes get words to fit them. Other times I’ll write the words first and then start fooling around with the song.”
Fitting then that Kelly has chosen Nature as the title for his new release, as he seems to have found a new lease of life as a song writer. Maybe. But, then, maybe not.
“I write haphazardly. I write songs as they come along. They come along one at a time and they’re quite different to each other, and some I’ll put in a folder or, every now and then, I’ll get together with the band. We’ve gotten in the habit now, over the last few years, where we’ll get together once or twice a year for a week and play every song that I’ve written [since last getting together] and then sort them in different ways. So, a lot of the songs on Nature were written and recorded around the same time as the songs on Life Is Fine. And it wasn’t until I looked at them and saw the titles that I thought some of these songs could be talking to each other, and that starts to give you a direction to write other things and finish the record off.”
As to the selection of the poets whose work is represented on Nature, Kelly says, “All those poets have been favourites of mine for a long time, they’ve lived with me.” Including, of course, Kelly himself. And it has to be noted here that Kelly’s poems put to music on Nature stand up seamlessly next to the five other poets represented on the record.
I put it to him that he’s the only Australian poet on the record and, again, he declined politely to take on the mantle of being culturally significant.
“That’s not deliberately structured that way. The first time I started putting poems to music was for a classical music project for a student orchestra in Melbourne. Some of the poems were by Les Murray and Judith Wright. I’m working on a project for next year putting poems about birds to music, Judith Wright again, who wrote a lot of poems about birds, Gwen Harwood as well. So, I have been putting Australian poems to music, but none of them ended up on this particular record.”
What Kelly is happier to do is muse on the craft of the poet alongside that of the song writer. He starts by talking about his own propensity to rhyme.
“I’d sort of written poems very casually over the years, more poems to friends and little rhyming poems. I rhyme for fun. I rhyme in texts. Not all texts, but I rhyme quite often in texts. I rhyme even when I’m not writing songs. For me putting poetry to music shines a light on these great poems and poets. If it helps people discover a poem and then discover that poet, that’s good. And, if people don’t like my music, or musical interpretation of a poem, they don’t have to listen to it. They’re not forced to listen to it, they can always go back to the poem.”
Thinking more about his motivation, Kelly reflects, “I put the question to myself, ‘Why?’ and some people have asked me why I would put poetry to music, some people are opposed to that. And I think it’s a valid argument. When you read a poem, or know a poem well, you might view it in your head in a certain way and someone else singing it might be jarring. The way that some people don’t like it when a film doesn’t really represent the book. So, there’s that argument, ‘Why?’ But then the counter argument is, ‘Why not?’ So, I definitely have that debate with myself, ‘Should I be doing this?’ And the answer is a very emphatic, ‘Yes.’”
“The River song, off Nature, you can see it’s a poem in the sense that it doesn’t have verse and chorus, there’s no repetition of any rhymes, it’s just a poem. And, A Bastard Like Me was written pretty much as a poem first.
A Bastard Like Me is named after Charles Perkins’ autobiography, the first Aboriginal man to receive a university degree from the University of Sydney and a leading figure over many years in the struggle for justice and equality for Aboriginal Australians. It’s a song that adds to Kelly’s canon of protest songs/historical documents and begs the question, where does Kelly think we’re up to in achieving equality and reconciliation?
Kelly pauses for a good while, and I think maybe he’s going to stick to talking about Nature, poetry and the process of song writing, and fair enough, too. Then the words, come: measured, carefully considered.
“The battle’s still on. Some things have got better, some things have got worse. I still don’t think we’ve properly acknowledged our history, that’s probably one of the stumbling blocks. Australia was taken by force, with massive dispossession. A whole lot of things got smashed and the consequences are still with us today. There are still a lot of people who don’t want to acknowledge…people say, ‘Let the past be the past and let’s just get on with it.’ But how can you get on with it if you don’t properly acknowledge what happened? There’s been great silence about that. And the myths that Aboriginal people were nomadic, they weren’t really using the land. But in Victoria, for example, there’s a lot of evidence of agriculture, farming and settlement. There’s a book by Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, which talks about that, and puts the case that there was a lot of deliberate destruction of structures because it would help justify those myths. And that’s only just coming to light. So, I think there still needs to be a lot more work done before we can properly acknowledge what happened.”
Here we see another reason why Kelly is part of all of us. He’s able to comment on the sticking points in our history, the things that hold back Australia’s social progress and do it with credibility, persuasiveness and compassion. He’s also able to put into words and music songs that wash over and through our collective consciousness just as naturally as the waves that lap at our beaches. Kelly’s song lines join us together in the same way as the coastline that most of us cling to and the roads that move us between our cities and towns.
Paul Kelly may not be willing to take on the mantle himself, but any analysis has to conclude that he is an Australian cultural icon. In part, this stems from the ease with which his songs are able to be recognised as quintessentially Australian and in part from his willingness to challenge his own ways of doing and being, because in doing so he also challenges us, effortlessly through the seduction of his songs.
“I don’t like the distinction between high and low art, but I do like to mix them up as much as possible, blur the lines. And I do like pointing people to the things I love. That’s another reason for writing, to point people to your music and the writers that you love.”
There’s plenty to love in Kelly’s new album, Nature. And plenty of Aussies who point to him as a thing that they love. Quite rightly so.
Nature will be released on 12 October, and follows the release of the album’s opening track, With The One I Love.
Kelly entered the studio in Melbourne in March and May this year to record Nature with his band – Peter Luscombe on drums, Bill McDonald on bass, Ash Naylor and Dan Kelly on guitars and Cameron Bruce on keyboards. “I love playing with them,” he says. “They can morph from delicate scientists to big riff rockers and all states in-between.” It also features the vocals of Vika and Linda Bull, his daughters Madeleine & Memphis Kelly, Alice Keath and Kate Miller-Heidke.
Explaining the creative process behind Nature, Kelly says, “What links them all [the songs] is the natural world – trees, birds, animals, plants, dust, desert, water – and human nature’s small place in that world. Most of the pieces were written over the last four years in and around the recording sessions for ‘The Merri Soul Sessions’, ‘Seven Sonnets And A Song’ and ‘Life Is Fine’. I didn’t realise I had the makings of another album until I put the songs in a folder and saw the titles staring me in the face. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing until you look back.”
“I think of Nature as a companion piece to Life Is Fine, itself full of moons, rain, rocks, rivers, seas, smells and lovers.”
Kelly’s Platinum certified 2017 album Life Is Fine debuted at #1 on the ARIA Albums Chart, giving Paul his first ARIA Number One album in a career spanning 40 years. At last year’s ARIA Awards, Kelly took home Best Male and Best Adult Contemporary Album, along with Best Cover Art and Engineer Of The Year. These results ensured Kelly a remarkable 14 ARIA Award wins from a career tally of 51 nominations.
Nature will be available physically in both standard and deluxe versions. The standard version is the 12-song single-disc CD and vinyl. The limited Deluxe Edition of Nature is a major bonus for the legion of Paul Kelly fans: Disc 1 is the 12-song Nature album and Disc 2 is a 27-song DVD, capturing last year’s triumphant show from the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, which was broadcast live around the country by the ABC as their major ‘Australian Music Month’ promotion. The DVD captures Paul and his long-time band in brilliant form as they feature songs from the just-released, ARIA award-winning Life Is Fine album as well as Paul Kelly classics like To Her Door, From Little Things…, How To Make Gravy, Before Too Long, Deeper Water and many more.