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.
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.