First Published on T-Squat Mag
“I always thought that song writing was about paying attention.”
Words: Caz Pringle
There must be an immense feeling of vulnerability that comes with expressing failure and opening up your private thoughts and feelings with an international audience. There is an even greater power through catharsis that comes with having the courage and transparency to create something artistic from that vulnerability. There is no other Australian troubadour who transcends the title of poet, singer, songwriter, and artist like Paul Kelly.
Australians listen to his songs around the Christmas table. We play his music when we are searching for answers or are in need of guidance. I am fairly sure we have all at one point played a game of backyard cricket or beach Classic Catches with a Paul Kelly record as the soundtrack. Your Dad has probably tried to play From St Kilda to Kings Cross on the guitar after a few too many tins. Australians know that Paul has seen hard times, and can offer guidance and insight into all aspects of Australian culture with the characters he creates in his songs. His new album, the first in five years is called Spring and Fall and showcases the brilliance and musical intelligence that Paul has maintained whilst writing over 350 songs over almost four decades. We have missed his stories, and crikey it’s good to have him back.
Supporting social issues within our country, collaborating with indigenous artists, Paul has opened up his talent to communicate with every Australian of any age, gender or race – yet this year has been one of incredible honesty for the singer. His documentary Stories of me released last month, comes soon after the release of his autobiography How To Make Gravy – in short, Paul has been a very busy man of late.
On the 19th October 2012, upon the eagerly waiting ears of fans fell the release of Paul’s 19th album Spring and Fall, which only further reinforces the man’s status as an artist who creates music that continues to push the human race forward.
CP: Andrew Denton described you as “Australia’s Poet Laureate” – creating music that everybody can relate to, because, intrinsically your lyrics reflect something emotionally, or retrospectively in each listener. How has immersing yourself in other’s poetry / music affected your song writing this time around?
PK: I have always been influenced by poetry, I have read it consistently over the years. But I did dig deeper into poetry working on a project over the last two years on and off, with The Australian National Acadamy of Music, an orchestra of ten students, and modern classical composer James Ledger. ANAM asked me to write a song cycle a few years ago, with James and I said yes, I thought it was a really interesting idea. And then sorta panicked after I said yes, because I realised I needed to get back to writing songs for my own record. I know I am a slow writer so, I thought to myself I am not going to be able to write a song cycle AND write songs for my next record. So for the orchestra project I first turned to poetry I liked, that were my favourites and ended up making a song cycle out of this group of poems that connected, and also sort of kicked me along to write songs myself.
So, in a way I had written a book and had been doing shows which kind of taken up about four years – and I had only written one or two songs in that time so I was sort of rusty, because writing is a muscle – I wasn’t rusty writing prose, but I was rusty writing songs. So putting the poetry to music, it kickstarted my song writing again. So that’s a long way of saying, yes. [laughs] Some of the project with the orchestra did start to bleed into the songs I was writing for Spring and Fall – the main influence was that I took the idea of a song cycle and transferred it over to the record.
CP: You have spoken about your big brother Martin playing you records as a youngster, I know that my older brothers vetoed most of my music choices when I was a little squirt – tell me what role did your family play in crafting the musician you are today?
PK: Family was a big influence, from my parents back to my grandparents. My grandparents on my mother’s side sang opera – my mother sang and played piano, we all had piano lessons as kids. I did a couple of years of piano lessons when I was 10 or 11 and was quite taken with my sister’s boyfriend at the time who played trumpet. He brought around some Louis Armstrong records to the house, Kenny Ball and I just fell in love with Dixieland Jazz and I wanted to learn the trumpet so I started doing that in high school. I had four older brothers and sisters and in the 60’s they would all bring music into the house, early Beatles singles … My second eldest sister, called Sheila, listened to Sweet Little Shiela by Tommy Roe I remember, then my older brothers Martin and John, they were getting into the heavier stuff you know, like CREAM and Blind Faith, and then more prog-rock like King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues… I remember all of those records in the late 60’s early 70’s…
Funnily enough I work a lot now with my nephew, Dan Kelly who is Martin’s son, so he’s got that influence too – Martin had a reel to reel tape recorder that played lots of stuff like Van Morrison, JJ Cale, Dylan, Ritchie Havens, Supertramp – all the good stuff….
CP: Your new album has been recorded in a country hall – was it your sound engineer Greg Walker’s decision to get out of the more controlled environment in the studio? Can you shed some light on what you used in terms of mics and production gear to capture the space in the music?
PK: It was Greg Walker’s decision to get out of the studio, and he lives in Gippsland so it was convenient for him [laughs] and he had been trying out country halls around the area, and he hit upon this hall that he had got good results with – not too big, not too small – but I sort of had to be talked into it….because I really wanted to make a pretty closed mic’d record. I didn’t think we really needed a hall – so he had to patiently explain to me that, “yes of course we can close mic everything” – but the hall would just give us that extra little presence behind everything, and he was right.
The best thing about it for me was that the hall had its own natural reverb which made it really easy to sing, and because we were trying to get a lot of the songs live of the three of us playing together, we were doing lots and lots of takes of the songs – but when you have a good reverb to sing to, your voice doesn’t get tired nearly as much as it does singing in a deadened acoustic space or a normal studio. So singing in the hall, your voice just floats, you don’t push it, so for those technical reasons it was really good.
And in the end it was just really good to get out of town, it just gives you a good frame of mind, it’s a bit like camping, like off on an adventure – so it was all fun.
CP: What are you singing about in this record, what are the themes behind the expression?
PK: I probably haven’t changed it much since I started writing songs, I guess love is the main thing I write about; love, sex, friendship, memory and time – there was a more conscious effort in this record to make it more like a song cycle because I wanted to structure the record so each song would link to the next – and if you were to listen to the songs in order, it would tell a story. That wasn’t the intention at the start, but once I had a few songs I saw that they could fit in certain story parts and all I had to do was write more to work in.
So I had a song called When a Woman Loves a Man for early on in the record – I had a song called Sometimes My Baby (these are old songs that I had been sitting on for a while) and I knew they were both parts of a story. Once I started writing songs again after my break, about a year and a half ago, I sort of started focusing on the songs that would talk to each other – and once I had five or six songs I realised that it was becoming a story – that then helped me to write the next lot.
CP: That is interesting in terms of how you understand your direction once you get started in that process, and then naturally it will sort of unfold….
PK: Yeah if there was like clear cutters like “I am going to write a song, and this is going to be the theme, and then I will write the song” it’s never like that, you never know which is going to come first.
CP: “Every fucking city looks the same”, but which ones have hosted your most enjoyable shows? What is your live pièce de résistance?
PK: Ahhh it would have been one of the recent ones, this year, Edinburgh Festival at Queens Hall – it was one of those nights where, you know, everything sounded good onstage, the music floated out above the crowd, you could feel it landing, you could feel them gasping, you could feel them laughing…
CP: And finally, are you listening or waiting to talk?
PK: I much prefer listening to talking, so I hope I am listening, because I always thought that song writing was about paying attention, so listening… and a lot of my songs come out of conversations that I hear.