Al­bums from Paul Kelly, MC Tali and The Up­beats Mu­sic

Paul Kelly has found song in­spi­ra­tion in the works of po­ets, in­clud­ing one of ours.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By RUS­SELL BAILLIE

As he straps on his gui­tar, Paul Kelly pon­ders the tricky bits of his new song. “There’s fresh paint on this one,” he says with a grin. “I’ve just got to get all the kwar­dles and the oo­dles and the ar­dles and the dar­d­les and the doo­dles right.” And then he’s off, singing about Tom and El­iz­a­beth and the farm and that avian cho­rus of The Mag­pies, the touch­stone New Zealand poem by De­nis Glover.

Aptly, Kelly has ren­dered the ru­ral tale into a toe-tapping coun­try tune. It’s all part of a phase the vet­eran Aussie is go­ing through – turn­ing po­ems into songs. Kelly started a few years back with a project of song-ify­ing Shake­speare’s son­nets. Now, with his new and 24th stu­dio al­bum, Na­ture, he’s put tunes be­hind works by Dy­lan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Walt Whit­man and Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins, plus songs de­rived from his own po­ems.

The ono­matopoeic Glover poem, though, is for a fes­ti­val show where Kelly adapts po­ems fea­tur­ing birds into songs to be per­formed with a clas­si­cal trio. There’ll be Aussie black cock­a­toos rub­bing feath­ers with English finches. And, it’s hoped Glover’s (es­tate per­mis­sion pend­ing), “be­cause it will be good to have a New Zealand poem”.

He didn’t re­alise The Mag­pies was that well known here: “Oh, no. Now I will be in trou­ble,” he says, laugh­ing, while talk­ing to the Lis­tener be­fore that evening’s show­case at Neil Finn’s Round­head Stu­dios in Auck­land. Prob­a­bly not. Af­ter all, those mag­pies were in­tro­duced from Oz.

Kelly, who is 63, has been re­garded as Aus­tralian mu­sic’s poet lau­re­ate since the early 80s. He’s added to a wide and deep song­book with ev­ery al­bum, even if half of Na­ture’s songs have bor­rowed words.

“If I am go­ing to put a poem to mu­sic, it’s go­ing to sound like me any­way.”

He agrees there’s an art to turn­ing words with their own rhymes and rhythms into a song, but he doesn’t find it that hard. The ex­er­cise, he says, has af­fected his own song­writ­ing. Those son­nets – just 14 lines and a struc­ture that lends it­self to cho­ruses and bridges, he says – were a good warm-up.

“I find it less of a chal­lenge than writ­ing my own songs. I’ve found it sur­pris­ingly easy. If I’m look­ing at a poem and think­ing, ‘Can I put this to mu­sic?’, then it usu­ally jumps up and sings, and it’s there, or it doesn’t at all and I just move on.”

So Plath’s Mush­rooms be­came a del­i­cate bal­lad (“the band just sort of made mush­room noises”) while Thomas’ funeral-favourite And Death Shall Have No Do­min­ion stri­dently folk-rocks its way

Kelly has been re­garded as Aus­tralian mu­sic’s poet lau­re­ate since the early 80s.

through its wordi­ness.

Yes, he’s had qualms about adap­ta­tions. Po­ems can be pre­cious to peo­ple. “I sort of have to have this lit­tle de­bate with my­self. Some peo­ple might think you are ru­in­ing the poem.

“It’s sim­i­lar to the ar­gu­ment peo­ple have about, ‘Oh, I love the book but the film ru­ined it’. If some­one loves a poem, they’ll hear it in their head, and then to hear some­one put mu­sic to it can be kind of jar­ring or just not feel right.

“Well, you still have the poem. You don’t have to like my ver­sion, but me do­ing it, in a way, is point­ing peo­ple to­wards that poem or that poet.”

The al­bum has a no­table non-po­etic ex­cep­tion. A Bas­tard Like Me takes its ti­tle and story from the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Char­lie Perkins, who, in 1966 was the first abo­rig­i­nal man to grad­u­ate from univer­sity, hav­ing re­turned from Eng­land, where he tried out for premier foot­ball clubs. His fire­brand ac­tivism led him to high-pow­ered fed­eral and lo­cal gov­ern­ment roles.

The song sprang from a col­lab­o­ra­tive the­atre piece by drama­tist-film-maker daugh­ter Rachel Perkins about the Alice Springs or­phan­age where he grew up. Kelly loved the book ti­tle (“this is a song beg­ging to be writ­ten”) but Bas­tard didn’t get used be­cause she didn’t want the play to be too much about her fa­ther.

She, her sis­ter, prom­i­nent arts writer­cu­ra­tor Hetti Perkins, and other fam­ily were fine with Kelly telling their dad’s story. It adds to the Kelly hon­ours board – he’s sung of North­ern Ter­ri­tory land-rights ac­tivist Vin­cent Lin­giari ( From Lit­tle Things Big Things Grow) and South Aus­tralian anti-nu­clear and in­dige­nous­rights ad­vo­cate Yami Lester, who was blinded as a boy by fall­out from the 1950s Bri­tish atomic tests ( Mar­alinga). Kelly played the song at Lester’s out­back funeral last year.

Paul Kelly: Don’t startme squawk­ing.

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