Col­lab­o­ra­tions with singers and word­smiths have opened up av­enues for singer-song­writer Paul Kelly, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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