New songs from sa­cred sources

Paul Kelly has worked his fas­ci­na­tion with re­li­gious be­lief into his latest album, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Iain Shed­den

PAUL Kelly has a crav­ing for the Bi­ble, which may seem odd in some­one who re­nounced his Catholic faith more than 35 years ago, be­fore his mu­sic ca­reer be­gan. The good book has in­formed and in­spired the great Aus­tralian song­writer re­peat­edly through the years. Lines and themes from scrip­ture pep­per his lyrics.

Old Tes­ta­ment, New Tes­ta­ment, proverbs, para­bles and po­etry, sex and death, love and cricket: th­ese are some of the touch­stones the 52- year- old song­writer and singer has come to rely on when­ever he puts pen to pa­per, whether at home, back­stage at a show or in some far- flung ho­tel room. ‘‘ Thank God for the Gideons,’’ Kelly says of the lat­ter, with a wry grin.

He’s sit­ting on a tiny stage in an up­stairs Melbourne bar, do­ing his best to ex­plain, in front of a small in­vited au­di­ence of mu­sos, friends and jour­nal­ists, just what it is that makes him tick. Never the most will­ing in­ter­vie­wee, he’s strug­gling a lit­tle. If some­one were to ask him where he was on the night of May 12, you get the im­pres­sion he’d try to make a bolt for it.

Only when he picks up his gui­tar, places his har­mon­ica bri­dle around his neck and be­gins singing a few songs from his latest album, Stolen Ap­ples , does Kelly look and sound as if he’s to­tally re­laxed.

If the album ti­tle reeks of an­other Bi­ble tale, then it is in­deed, al­though Adam and Eve form only part of this par­tic­u­lar song. There are other re­li­gious ref­er­ences on Kelly’s latest col­lec­tion. The Lion and the Lamb is one, the prodi­gal son theme on the gen­tle clos­ing track Please Leave Your Light On is an­other, but the most strik­ing is God Told Me To , in which the singer quite ve­he­mently turns the Bi­ble — or at least the or­gan­ised teach­ing of its prin­ci­ples — on it­self.

This Kelly adap­ta­tion of the apoca­lyp­tic vi­sions in the Book of Reve­la­tion is, on one level, a veiled swipe at the re­li­gious Right. More than that, how­ever, the song, sung from the per­spec­tive of a ter­ror­ist, is the ar­tic­u­la­tion of what has been ab­sorb­ing Kelly — and what has been the cause of much de­bate in­ter­na­tion­ally — in re­cent times: namely, the ques­tion of whether re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism and the be­lief in a sin­gle God are a threat to mankind.

Sit­ting in his record com­pany’s of­fices in Prahran ear­lier in the day, Kelly, a shy but af­fa­ble man, warms to this fiery topic. He doesn’t be­lieve in God, he says, but he’s in­ter­ested in why so many peo­ple do. He has been read­ing the athe­ists lately, com­men­ta­tors such as English evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Richard Dawkins and jour­nal­ist Christo­pher Hitchens, whose re­spec­tive books The God Delu­sion and God is Not Great: How Re­li­gion Poi­sons Ev­ery­thing have laid much of the world’s ills at the door of the church.

Kelly be­lieves there is as much evan­gel­i­cal fer­vour in th­ese writ­ers’ ar­gu­ments as there is com­ing from the pul­pit, but he is drawn to their views, some­what iron­i­cally, be­cause he is fas­ci­nated by the idea of or­gan­ised re­li­gion.

‘‘ God Told Me To is an end- of- the- world song,’’ he says. ‘‘ The Book of Reve­la­tion is un­der­ly­ing that whole song. In fact the last verse is just para­phras­ing var­i­ous bits of the text. It has been a big in­flu­ence on a lot of fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tians, in­clud­ing Ge­orge Bush.’’

The track is not tar­get­ing any­one in par­tic­u­lar. Like many of Kelly’s songs it is open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. This one even changed course while he wrote it. ‘‘ It started off in my head, think­ing of the char­ac­ter as a kind of psy­cho­pathic killer who hears voices, but then I started writ­ing it and it be­came some­thing else,’’ he says.

Kelly is no stranger to big themes. In a record­ing ca­reer span­ning 26 years, is­sues such as hu­man rights, so­cial in­jus­tice and the en­vi­ron­ment have sat side by side with songs that were ro­man­tic, funny and sad, some­times oblique, but just as of­ten with a solid nar­ra­tive strain puls­ing through them. More than any other Aus­tralian song­writer, he has built a cat­a­logue of ma­te­rial that in­ci­sively and po­et­i­cally un­rav­els the com­plex­i­ties and the sim­ple plea­sures of Aus­tralia’s cul­tural land­scape. Never has he been quite so out­spo­ken on the mat­ter of God, how­ever.

‘‘ You can’t help but be struck th­ese days by the rise of re­li­gion,’’ he says. ‘‘[ But] the ra­tio­nal­ists, the athe­ists, are fight­ing back. For so long re­li­gion has al­ways claimed to have a cer­tain amount of pro­tec­tion and de­mand for re­spect, but with the ex­treme edges of re­li­gion do­ing what they do, I think the so- called mod­er­ate cen­tre has a ques­tion to an­swer.

‘‘ That’s what Dawkins says. Nor­mally most peo­ple, in­clud­ing my­self, would say: ‘ Live and let live, let me be­lieve what I be­lieve.’ Dawkins ups the ante by say­ing you can’t just say ex­trem­ism is a prob­lem. He says that re­li­gion it­self is a prob­lem; that re­li­gion is an aban­don­ment of ra­tio­nal­ity and once you do that you’re in trou­ble. That’s pretty in­ter­est­ing.’’

* * * IF God or the lack thereof is a con­cern for Kelly, it’s only one as­pect of Stolen Ap­ples, the first album un­der his own name since 2004’ s dou­ble album Ways and Means. There are love songs here, too. The bal­lad You’re 39, You’re Beau­ti­ful and You’re Mine, for in­stance, was writ­ten for his girl­friend of five years, Sian Prior.

Else­where on the album the bawdy rock romp Out of My Head tells of a de­cid­edly bloke- ish recipe for get­ting over a bro­ken love af­fair. The Bal­lad of Quee­nie and Rover is Kelly’s ode to Abo­rig­i­nal artists Quee­nie McKen­zie and Rover Thomas, while Sweet­est Thing is an­other love song that al­lows the band to ex­er­cise their rootsy, funky chops.

A variety of styles — coun­try, rock and folk, to name a few — un­der­pin the album, cre­ated by a band that has been in place for a variety of projects dur­ing the past five years or so. That lineup in­cludes his nephew Dan Kelly, who has his own record­ing ca­reer, plus familiar faces from the Melbourne muso mafia such as Peter ( drums) and Dan ( gui­tar, key­boards) Lus­combe, and bassist Bill McDon­ald.

In the past Kelly has opted to record quickly with his mates, but Stolen Ap­ples was stretched through many months last year, with bits added when the re­spec­tive play­ers, in­clud­ing Kelly, were free from other com­mit­ments. The shed at the bot­tom Kelly’s gar­den has had a piv­otal role in his record­ing ca­reer for the past 10 years or so, es­pe­cially since record­ing equip­ment be­came por­ta­ble. Much of the early song­writ­ing process and the later fi­ness­ing of Stolen Ap­ples took place there, with Kelly putting down prim­i­tive ver­sions of the songs be­fore play­ing them to his col­leagues. His prin­ci­ple method of writ­ing, how­ever, re­mains un­changed since he penned his first album, Talk, in 1981.

In his early for­ays into song­writ­ing he jot­ted down ideas from all man­ner of sources in nu­mer­ous sit­u­a­tions. That’s still his modus operandi, as is singing into a cas­sette recorder when a tune comes to him.

‘‘ I’m not very good with the [ record­ing] gear so I tend still to write songs the old way,’’ he says. ‘‘ I go to the com­puter and move the mouse around a bit . . . but I just have no brain for work­ing things with com­put­ers. The cas­sette player gets them down, so I don’t for­get stuff.’’

Kelly’s ca­reer has gone through a variety of in­car­na­tions since he made that first album. To date he has been a solo artist, a band leader, a band mem­ber, col­lab­o­ra­tor, con­trib­u­tor, film com­poser, song­writer and more.

He moved from his home city of Ade­laide to Melbourne in the ’ 80s, which is where his ca­reer re­ally took off. Al­bums such as Gos­sip ( 1986) and Un­der the Sun ( 1987) put him in the charts with his band the Coloured Girls ( later the Mes­sen­gers), as did a hand­ful of pop songs, in­clud­ing Dumb Things, Dar­ling It Hurts and To Her Door. Since the Mes­sen­gers dis­banded 15 years ago, Kelly has been pro­lific in the ex­treme.

Aside from solo al­bums such as Deeper Wa­ter ( 1995), Words and Mu­sic ( 1998) and Noth­ing But a Dream ( 2001), he has con­sis­tently broad­ened his reper­toire. He col­lab­o­rated with blue­grass mu­si­cians on two al­bums, Smoke ( 1999) and Foggy High­way ( 2005); wrote film scores for Ray Lawrence’s Lan­tana and Jind­abyne , among other film projects; made al­bums with more ex­per­i­men­tal ve­hi­cles such as Pro­fes­sor Rat­baggy and Star­dust Five; and col­lab­o­rated on record­ing and con­cert projects with more mu­si­cians than it

would be pos­si­ble to name here. He has gone on tour with al­most all of his band in­car­na­tions.

He will per­form at the Syd­ney Live Earth con­cert on July 7 and an ex­ten­sive Aus­tralian tour, tak­ing in re­gional as well as cap­i­tal city venues, is planned to pro­mote the new album, but if some of those des­ti­na­tions are off the beaten rock n’ roll track, they are the norm com­pared with some of Kelly’s other en­gage­ments in the past few weeks.

* * * THE day af­ter his Melbourne grilling and short per­for­mance, we’re in a taxi head­ing out to Moonee Val­ley race track. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing us is Kelly’s man­ager Bill Cullen and a man with whom the singer has had a long and fruit­ful as­so­ci­a­tion, singer and like- minded song­writer Kev Car­mody.

Ear­lier this year Kelly brought to­gether some of Aus­tralia’s rock lu­mi­nar­ies, in­clud­ing Bernard Fan­ning, Augie March and the John But­ler Trio, to record some of Car­mody’s best known work. The album, , put the spot­light on a song­writer tal­ents are per­haps un­der- recog­nised. Car­mody wrote one of his best- known songs,

with Kelly in 1991 and it’s that song, which tells the story of Vin­cent Lin­giari’s fa­mous Wave Hill walk- off in 1966, that they have come to per­form at the an­nual Com­mu­ni­ties in Con­trol Con­fer­ence.

This two- day event at­tracts rep­re­sen­ta­tives from thou­sands of com­mu­nity groups across the coun­try. A Com­mu­nity Idol com­pe­ti­tion to find the best com­mu­nity project of the year has taken place, and Kelly and Car­mody will present a cheque to the win­ners.

Terms such as peo­ple’s poet’’ and voice of Aus­tralia’’ get bandied about in Kelly’s ( and Car­mody’s) pres­ence, al­though they are not ones with which the singer feels com­fort­able. Nev­er­the­less, see­ing him stand­ing in front of 1500 peo­ple, for whom his ap­pear­ance is of only sec­ondary im­por­tance, demon­strates what Kelly means to the or­di­nary Aus­tralian. The duo’s per­for­mance is met with rap­tur­ous ap­plause — a

Can­not Buy My Soul

From Lit­tle Things, Big Things Grow,

‘‘

whose

‘‘ stand­ing ova­tion — which pro­vokes each of them into do­ing a song of their own be­fore they leave the stage, then take a cab back to the city for their per­for­mance ( along with Missy Hig­gins) of Car­mody’s song at the APRA Mu­sic Awards later in the evening.

Kelly’s shows on Mon­day and Tues­day this week were even more un­usual. Since last year the song­writer’s col­lected lyrics, more than 200 songs, have been on the Vic­to­rian ed­u­ca­tion syl­labus, stud­ied by Year 12 stu­dents as raw text or in song for­mat. Last year he con­ducted work­shops with stu­dents at Melbourne’s Fo­rum theatre and this week he did it again. He per­forms for an hour, then con­ducts a ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion with the stu­dents.

Mak­ing it on to the school cur­ricu­lum is some­thing of which he is quite proud, he says, even if he feels a bit sorry for the kids’’ who have to study his words. It’s a tough gig, he says, but one he finds stim­u­lat­ing.

Many of Kelly’s lyrics are an amal­gam of source ma­te­rial, from other lyrics, or from an­other song, a line of po­etry, lines from the Bi­ble, Shake­speare. So if you get asked a ques­tion about the lyrics you can con­nect them up, so that you end up not talk­ing about your own stuff all the time but the other stuff that con­nects it as a whole.’’ In other words, he can op­er­ate in a com­fort zone where he doesn’t have to talk too much about him­self and more about what he does. That’s about the mea­sure of Kelly; a quiet man with a big voice and one that, af­ter al­most 30 years of shar­ing it, is as po­tent, po­etic and Aus­tralian as it has al­ways been.

Drov­ing Wo­man

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Pic­ture: Andrew Hen­shaw

Quiet man with a big voice: Paul Kelly sings about what con­cerns him most

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