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