New songs from sacred sources
Paul Kelly has worked his fascination with religious belief into his latest album, writes
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,
‘‘ 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.
Quiet man with a big voice: Paul Kelly sings about what concerns him most