FINE TIME

PAUL KELLY TELLS ANDREW P STREET ABOUT STRUG­GLING WITH BAND NAMES, THE BALMY ST. KILDA WEATHER, AND THE POWER OF A THIRD FRET CAPO.

Australian Guitar - - Feature -

It’s been a sur­pris­ingly long time since Paul Kelly has made… Well, a Paul Kelly record. He’s been enor­mously busy, to be clear, but on projects with very clearly de­fined bound­aries. Since Stolen Ap­ples came out in 2007, he’s writ­ten an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy ( How

To Make Gravy, pub­lished in 2010) and fea­tured in a biopic ( Sto­ries Of Me in 2012), com­piled his en­tire body of work in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der for the A-Z col­lec­tion and re­lated tours, and roamed the coun­try swap­ping songs with Neil Finn – which was later re­leased as the Goin’ My Way al­bum in 2013. He’s also made a bunch of records, but they’ve all been some­what con­cep­tual in na­ture. 2012’s Spring

And Fall was a con­cept al­bum track­ing the slow death of a (fic­ti­tious) re­la­tion­ship in mid­dle age; 2014’s The

Merri Soul Ses­sions was a chance for Kelly and his long time band to re­visit old songs with new singers; his two 2016 al­bums were a col­lab­o­ra­tion of songs for fu­ner­als ( Death’s Date­less Night, with Char­lie Owen) and com­mis­sioned mu­si­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Shake­spearean writ­ings ( Seven Son­nets And A Song). So Life Is Fine is the first time in a decade that Kelly has just got­ten a bunch of songs to­gether and made them into a record – but as we sit in the el­e­gantly fancy EMI of­fices in Syd­ney, he ex­plains that he’s al­ways got songs kick­ing around.

“The songs came over a few years. They were songs I’d writ­ten, but they were the songs that weren’t fit­ting into the other projects. A song like ‘Josephina’ must be eight or nine years old now, but didn’t re­ally be­long on any­thing I was work­ing on then – I liked it as a song, but it didn’t re­ally fit on any of those other records. ‘Ris­ing Moon’ has been around for a few years, as has ‘My Man’s Got A Cold’. I don’t re­ally go. ‘Here comes the record, and I’ll write these songs.’ It’s more that I’ve just been fool­ing around with stuff over the years.”

Was there any over­ar­ch­ing theme to the al­bum?

I knew I wanted to make a band record, be­cause

Spring And Fall wasn’t a band record – it was pretty pas­toral; there was no bass and drums. And this one’s sort of an ex­ten­sion of the Merri Soul record, get­ting the band to­gether with some up­beat songs. I’m singing most of them, but I’m also giv­ing some of the vo­cals out – I gave one song to Vika and one to Linda Bull.

At the risk of com­par­ing it to The Mes­sen­gers, So Life Is Fine al­most sounds like it could be a “Paul Kelly And The Some­thing” record, since the band is so prom­i­nent on it.

Yeah. I was ac­tu­ally toss­ing around ‘Paul Kelly And The...’ names, but we never came up with a great one. I was also talk­ing to a cou­ple of peo­ple at EMI about it, and they were like, “[ Sigh] can you give us a nor­mal Paul Kelly record?” And I said, “Yeah. I’ve got one com­ing. It’s go­ing to be poppy and rocky with short, up­beat songs and lots off riffs, and some of the songs are more light-hearted.” I think once peo­ple hear it, it’ll be pretty ob­vi­ous that it was a strong group ef­fort.

You took pi­ano lessons be­fore you started mak­ing this al­bum – why so?

I’m sick of my own lim­i­ta­tions and habits as a writer. The lessons were great fun. I prac­ticed a lot and I had lessons in 2014 and 2015 be­fore things got re­ally busy again. And a few songs came out of that. “My Man’s Got A Cold” was one. Ob­vi­ously, it gave me some dif­fer­ent voices to play with. I think we all tend to fall into our own pat­terns over time, and so any­thing you can do to break that helps. Whether that’s to put the gui­tar un­der your chin and muck around with it, or pick up an­other in­stru­ment, or play some­thing you don’t know that well – I’m all for it.

“ONCE PEO­PLE HEAR IT, IT’LL BE OB­VI­OUS THAT IT WAS A STRONG GROUP EF­FORT.”

What other songs do you think wouldn’t have ex­isted had you not spent some time in a dif­fer­ent headspace?

Oh, I think “I Smell Trou­ble” – that’s me play­ing the pi­ano on that – and “Fi­nally Some­thing Good”. One of the pieces I was look­ing at with Adam [Rudegeair, the Mel­bourne jazz ar tist who taught Kelly pi­ano] was by Th­elo­nius Monk – a piece called Mis­te­rioso. And he just showed me, just to get me to prac­tice my play­ing sixths. And so I was fool­ing over that, and I started to write a tune to that.

You also men­tioned that you’ve been play­ing more elec­tric gui­tar again.

I’ve al­ways played a bit of elec­tric gui­tar, mainly in the shows. I don’t know – did I play an elec­tric on the record? We had Ash [Nay­lor] do­ing most of it.

Well, when you’ve got Ash Nay­lor at hand, why would you?

[ Laughs] Ex­actly! And Dan Kelly played on a few tracks as well.

Again, was that a mat­ter of re­dis­cov­er­ing some old tricks, or get­ting away from do­ing chords and ba­sic stuff around that?

It was be­ing able to make some noise and writ­ing things around that. I usu­ally write songs so hat they’re usu­ally just based on chords. I like to write around a riff.

Leav­ing aside the song it­self, So Life Is Fine is such a good ti­tle. It al­most feels like it’s a glass-half-empty test for the punter: do they read it as, “Oh yeah, life is fi­i­i­i­i­ine” or, “Eh, life is fine, I guess”? Or do they take ‘fine’ as in a thread that could be eas­ily snapped. It’s a very evoca­tive ti­tle for some­thing that’s so sim­ple, which is im­pres­sive for three words.

[ Laughs] Yeah.

And so to clar­ify the ti­tle’s in­tent, are you drown­ing on the cover or are you wav­ing?

[ Laughs] I’m just swim­ming around, go­ing, “Hurry up and get this photo over and done with!” It was taken by a friend of mine, Steve Young. He said, “Can I do your por­trait?” I said, “Yeah, okay.” He said, “Would you mind do­ing it in the wa­ter in St. Kilda?” I said, “Okay.”

That is the bluest wa­ter I’ve ever seen at St. Kilda.

Oh, I as­sume it’s Pho­to­shopped. The orig­i­nal photo wasn’t taken there. It’s been coloured.

It looked down­right trop­i­cal, which is not what I im­me­di­ately as­so­ciate with St. Kilda.

[In a de­fen­sive tone] Hey, some­times St. Kilda is quite trop­i­cal.

One thing I liked about “Fire­wood and Can­dles” was that it re­ally took me back to when I was first lis­ten­ing to your mu­sic – which was when I was first learn­ing to play the gui­tar – and how I could re­ally hear the shapes of the chords; y’know, “Hey, that’s a D! That’s an A! I can play that!” It was re­ally in­spir­ing to me.

I hadn’t even no­ticed I did that. That’s in­ter­est­ing. I still write pretty much all those chords in the first po­si­tion, if I don’t like it, then I capo up the neck. So with that song it’s ended up in a funny key, ‘Fire­wood and Can­dles’: it’s an E mi­nor as far as the shapes go , but it’s ac­tu­ally in G mi­nor.

G Mi­nor is fun to write in. It makes you work.

Yeah. Put the capo on the third fret and you’ll be al­right.

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