After 30 years of making music, Paul Kelly reveals he is under the spell of William Shakespeare
Three quatrains and a couplet. Yeah, Paul Kelly knows a bit about that. The revered Australian singer-songwriter has long found inspiration in the famous 14-line line sonnets that William Shakespeare penned in Elizabethan times.
“They’re quite magical and mysterious,’’ he says. And Kelly, who treasures his three-volume Collected Works of
William Shakespeare, has always seen parallels between sonnets and songs.
“They have a shape where something is supposed to happen two-thirds of the way through. There’s a shift, a twist, which is what a bridge does in a song.’’
But setting music to a sonnet – that’s something else. Only now, after 20 studio albums, has Kelly decided to cut Seven
Sonnets & A Song. This “mini album’’, featuring several esteemed musicians, launches today to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day ...” yes, Sonnet 18 is on his setlist. So is
Sonnet 60 (“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore/ So do our minutes hasten to their end”). But in crafting this project, Kelly delved deeply into the 154 poems accredited to Shakespeare and excavated lesser-known gems about love, lust and life. “I wanted to make this record fun, not high art,’’ he says.
Kelly’s music is lodged deeply in Australia’s sonic landscape. From To Her
Door and Before Too Long to Bradman and How to Make Gravy, his earthily lyrical songs have reflected on the passions and peculiarities of this country. Shakespeare speaks of another place, another time. Yet Kelly and the Bard go way back.
“Like most people, my first experience of Shakespeare was at school,’’ he says. “I fell for the plays first. Loved Macbeth. Sex, murder, suspense – it’s all there. I came to the sonnets later. I’d try and read ’ em every now and then and found some opened up very easily while others had meanings that were difficult to unpick. The ones I wanted to make songs out of were the ones that spoke directly to me. So I started memorising some of my favourites. I’m up to about 20 now – enough if they’re ever called for at a party.’’
This is not the first time Kelly has set poetry to music. On his 2013 album, Con
versations With Ghosts, he slid melodies under the words of Yeats, Robert Frost and Kenneth Slessor.
But capturing the “sound’’ of the Bard – Kelly wondered how that would happen. As he says: “There’s been a long tradition of putting music to Shakespeare’s plays. The sonnets, not so much.’’
Kelly began by probing every sonnet, immersing himself in their mysteries and fluctuations between joy and sorrow.
“Many are about decay and the passing of time. Sure, ‘Shall I compare thee’ is a beautiful love poem. It’s also about death destroying beauty.’’ Happy accidents informed Seven
Sonnets, too. Kelly has been taking piano lessons and rippling keyboards give Son
net 138 a bar-room vibe while Sonnet 73 has a Dylanesque quality, due partly to slide guitarist Lucky Oceans. Kelly also sourced a song from play Twelfth Night and invited Vika Bull to sing My True
Love Hath My Heart, by Elizabethan Sir Philip Sidney. “Shakespeare wasn’t the only person writing sonnets,’’ he says. “It was a very popular form back in the day.’’
Inspired by Seven Sonnets, Kelly says setting poems to music is “going to be part of the way I write songs from now on. It got me thinking, why haven’t I done this before?”
Paul Kelly’s Seven Sonnets & A Song is released today digitally and on 10-inch vinyl.