STO­RIES OF HIM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Paul Kelly’s Life is Fine

Kelly with his band the Coloured Girls, above; with Neil Finn, with whom he did a na­tional tour, right on songs such as Fire­wood and Can­dles, Fi­nally Some­thing Good and Josephina, al­though a hint of Kelly melan­choly creeps into Let­ter in the Rain and the ti­tle song.

“For one rea­son or an­other,” he says, “the last few records have been a bit ob­scure. I knew I wanted to make an up­beat record. I’d been putting songs aside un­til I had enough of them.”

Putting songs in com­part­ments for use later has be­come an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of Kelly’s op­er­a­tions in his ever-ex­pand­ing oeu­vre — po­ems over there, short songs in there, band songs, as the ones on Life is Fine were la­belled, over here. One can imag­ine a batch marked “happy” and an­other one “sad”, with “conflicted” some­where in the mid­dle, but it doesn’t work quite like that.

“I don’t sit down and write a bunch of happy songs or a bunch of sad songs,” he says. “They seem to just come out in dif­fer­ent ways and then I sort them. That’s what’s dif­fer­ent now. I jump around. I have a bunch of songs that are com­pletely dif­fer­ent to each other, so I just sort them. You get three or four and you think that’s the be­gin­ning of some­thing and it gives you the im­pe­tus to add more. Then you get a stronger pic­ture of what it’s go­ing to be.” Long be­fore he put on a mu­si­cian’s hat, the baggy green was the ob­ject of Kelly’s am­bi­tions. Cap­tain of the first Xl at Rostrevor Col­lege, a Chris­tian Brothers school in Ade­laide, he dreamed of one day hav­ing a Test ca­reer, or per­haps one in AFL, at which he also ex­celled. While that didn’t ma­te­ri­alise, his love of cricket and foot­ball has never wa­vered. Watch­ing cricket has also been in­stru­men­tal in his mu­sic ca­reer, not least on his lat­est work.

Four of the songs on Life is Fine — Ris­ing Moon, Fire­wood and Can­dles, Rock Out on the Sea and Leah: The Se­quel — were co-writ­ten by Kelly and his mate Billy Miller, a Mel­bourne all­rounder muso (once of the Fer­rets) who also cowrote Don’t Let a Good Thing Go on The Merri Soul Ses­sions al­bum. The two men like to hang out to watch cricket to­gether on TV. Dur­ing tea and lunch, they pick up gui­tars.

The first time, says Kelly, “he came over to watch a South Africa se­ries. The day was rained out so we ended up just play­ing gui­tar. We started on a few songs and one of them was Don’t Let a Good Thing Go. We re­alised we had a good knack of writ­ing to­gether. He’s one of those guys who know ev­ery pop song ever writ­ten, just about. He’s re­ally fun to play with and I I’M OF­TEN LY­ING IN BED READ­ING A BOOK ON SO-CALLED WRIT­ING DAYS. TO ME THAT’S PART OF WRIT­ING ON­LINE: Ex­clu­sive video of Paul Kelly in the stu­dio as he records Fire­wood and Can­dles. think you can hear his in­flu­ence. He pushed me to be a bit more poppy.”

Kelly has worked with a lot of mu­si­cians over the past 40 years. Af­ter mak­ing his band de­but in Mel­bourne’s High Rise Bombers in the late 70s, his own bands in the for­ma­tive parts of his ca­reer in­cluded the Dots and the Coloured Girls, later known as the Mes­sen­gers — and since that group was dis­banded in 1991, a float­ing ros­ter of gun play­ers un­der var­i­ous col­lec­tive names or un­der Kelly’s, largely from Mel­bourne, has passed in and out of the ranks.

Life is Fine was recorded in two blocks, in Fe­bru­ary 2016 and Fe­bru­ary this year. Each time Kelly as­sem­bled the core band from The Merri Soul Ses­sions al­bum and tour in Mel­bourne’s Sound­park stu­dios to work on new ma­te­rial. The rhythm sec­tion, drum­mer Peter Lus­combe and bassist Bill McDon­ald, have been the most con­sis­tent Kelly side­kicks over the past 25 years, since they played on his first post-Mes­sen­gers al­bum, Wanted Man (1994). Gui­tarist Ash Nay­lor has been a reg­u­lar in the tour­ing line-up since 2006, along­side key­boards player Cameron Bruce.

The Bull sis­ters com­pleted the Life is Fine line-up, while The Merri Soul Ses­sions en­gi­neer/ pro­ducer Steve Schram was once again in the con­trol room. The plan, as their leader ex­plains, was to record a happy al­bum, or one that his record com­pany, EMI, might con­sider nor­mal af­ter his run of more es­o­teric ex­pe­di­tions.

“Shake­speare is con­sid­ered se­ri­ous, a bit high­brow, al­though I don’t think so,” he says. “Spring and Fall had again been a con­sciously mel­low record, a pas­toral record, with no bass and drums. I def­i­nitely felt I was due to make a loud record. Merri Souls did that but it had a cast of dif­fer­ent singers, it didn’t fit the mould of this one.”

Yet there are other singers on Life is Fine too. Kelly has worked with Vika and Linda Bull reg­u­larly over the past 25 years and had a cou­ple of songs he felt would suit their voices more than his own. My Man’s Got a Cold is an old­school, bawdy blues romp (“he’s off his wine and bread / he even said no to head”) that suits per­fectly Vika Bull’s rich and pow­er­ful gospel tone, while Linda gives a sweeter read­ing of the sprightly coun­try-ish tune Don’t Ex­plain, an old song that Kelly has been try­ing to get a woman to sing for 25 years.

“I’m kick­ing my­self that I didn’t think of it 30 years ear­lier,” he says of giv­ing the lead vo­cal to other peo­ple.

“Lots of bands that I like have other singers sing a song, like the Vel­vet Un­der­ground or the Rolling Stones. It makes sense to me. They’re my songs and I like hav­ing an­other voice or two on the record. It’s a good lit­tle blue­print for other records down the track.” The al­bum ti­tle Life is Fine is a de­lib­er­ately am­bigu­ous one: on the one hand af­fir­ma­tive and on the other an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of “fine” as a nar­row thread, or, as Kelly puts it, “never know­ing what’s around the cor­ner”. What’s sur­pris­ing is that the lyric to that song and its ti­tle aren’t Kelly’s. Life is Fine is a poem by Amer­i­can writer Langston Hughes, who died in 1967. I went down to the river I set down on the bank I tried to think but I couldn’t So I jumped in and sank. I came up once and hollered! I came up twice and cried! If that wa­ter hadn’t a been so cold I might’ve sunk and died.

A friend of the singer’s sent it to him a few years ago and he felt in­tu­itively that it was a song lyric. It’s this em­ploy­ment of other peo­ple’s words, from the Bard to WB Yeats, that has be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to Kelly’s mu­sic, ex­pand­ing his method of song­writ­ing, which for the bulk of his ca­reer has in­volved writ­ing the tunes first.

“What’s hap­pened in the past four or five years is that I’ve got in the habit of putting po­etry to mu­sic,” Kelly says, “so that’s like hav­ing an­other way to write songs.”

This modus operandi be­gan with Con­ver­sa­tions with Ghosts (2013), when Kelly and Perth com­poser James Ledger col­lab­o­rated on mu­si­cal set­tings for po­ems by Mur­ray, Yeats, Ten­nyson and oth­ers. With mu­si­cal as­sis­tance from recorder vir­tu­oso Genevieve Lacey, the project opened up Kelly to a new way of work­ing.

“Be­fore that I’d never even thought about putting mu­sic to po­etry,” he says. “My own way of writ­ing is to start with mu­sic, with bits of words at­tached. I thought do­ing it with po­etry would make it stiff or lim­ited, but I was wrong about that.”

Kelly ad­mits that this dis­cov­ery has made his work a lit­tle easier. He may have writ­ten many a great lyric — How to Make Gravy, When I First Met Your Ma, They Thought I was Asleep — but he has al­ways said that craft­ing great lines is the most dif­fi­cult part of the job.

“Words are the slow part of writ­ing songs for me, and the hard­est,” he says. “So when you have the words, the job’s al­most half done.”

So taken is he with this less ar­du­ous ap­proach to songcraft that an­other project em­ploy­ing po­etry is in the pipe­line, al­though it won’t see the light un­til 2019. Last year Kelly was ap­proached by Aus­tralian writer and pi­anist Anna Goldswor­thy with the idea of cre­at­ing a new work em­ploy­ing po­etry.

“We’ve kicked some ideas around and nar­rowed it down to po­ems about birds, or fly­ing things,” he says. “So we’re gath­er­ing po­ems about birds. There are lots of great ones.” Work will com­mence on that one next year.

Be­fore then, start­ing in Septem­ber, Kelly and his tight-knit ensem­ble set off on an ex­ten­sive world tour, tak­ing in Bri­tain, Ire­land, Europe, the US and Canada be­fore a trip across Aus­tralia in Novem­ber.

Maybe af­ter that he’ll find some time to read a book, or go for a long walk and come up with a great idea for his next project.

“A song­writer needs to have free time,” he says. “That’s the only way to get songs.

“I don’t think I think big thoughts on walks, but I think go­ing on walks or swims, or rid­ing my bike … it’s about get­ting away from writ­ing or work­ing. It’ll jog things loose that might not oth­er­wise get jogged.” al­bum

PAUL KELLY

is out through EMI.

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