Collaborations with singers and wordsmiths have opened up avenues for singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, writes Iain Shedden
Paul Kelly, nursing a cup of tea in the kitchen of his record company’s offices in Sydney, is waxing lyrical about the trials of being a musician. “Hanging around and trying to get work and being put off or not paid and always struggling for money,” he says by way of explanation. Kelly can’t be short of a few bob, but then he’s not talking about himself. He’s retelling the onthe-road travails of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for whom he has great admiration and whose letters, written as a struggling young muso, he has been poring over in the past few months.
“That has been very interesting in lots of ways,” he says of Mozart: A Life in Letters. “Generally he is writing when he is travelling; writing about being a travelling musician for hire, trying to get work at various courts of barons, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses.”
It was ever thus for young musicians — the struggle at least, if not being at the mercy of nobility. Certainly Kelly, one of our most revered songwriters and performers for the past 30 or so years, did it tough early on, first in his home city of Adelaide, then in Melbourne and Sydney, as he found his feet as a songwriter, releasing albums such as Talk (1981) and Manila (1982) that did little to keep the wolf from the door.
In 2017, however, things are good for the 62year-old, Melbourne-based singer. Kelly’s output over the past 10 years, whether on record, in print or on stage, has been multifaceted, prolific and generally well received. His 2010 “mongrel memoir” How to Make Gravy set a new benchmark for Australian rock autobiographies, while in 2012 Ian Darling’s documentary Paul Kelly: Stories of Me provided further insight into the songwriter’s life and craft. In the same year Kelly released the stripped-back album Spring and Fall, a rewarding song cycle built around a love affair.
Since then there has been a national tour with likeminded tunesmith Neil Finn, a semiclassical album featuring the poetry of Les Murray and others, an album of Shakespeare sonnets set to music, a collection of songs to be played at funerals (recorded with guitarist Charlie Owen) and The Merri Soul Sessions, an album and tour of soul-based material featuring Kelly alongside the likes of Dan Sultan, Clairy Browne, Kira Puru and Vika and Linda Bull.
One might think Kelly had a fear of being idle, but he does find time to relax, whether it’s by reading a book, riding his bike or watching cricket. Yet all of those things also have a pivotal role to play in his life as a songwriter.
“I always think of (Go-Between) Grant McLennan in that way,” he says. “You’d go and visit Grant and he’d be lying in bed reading a book. Not many people lie in bed in the middle of the day and read a book without feeling a bit guilty. To him that was what he was — ‘ This is what I do. I’m a reader and I’m a songwriter.’
“I’m often lying in bed reading a book on socalled writing days. To me that’s part of writing.”
This is partly how Kelly arrived at his latest venture, the new album Life is Fine. After his recent diversions into terrain esoteric and philosophical, this record, a decidedly chirpy affair by comparison, sees him return to the pop/rock stylings of his groundbreaking 80s albums Gossip, Under the Sun and So Much Water So Close to Home. There’s a warmth and easy chemistry