Paul Kelly – A Rogue-Scholar And A Gentleman
Written by Marc Zanotti on 5th December, 2012
Paul Kelly’s new record Spring And Fall is the first from the master storyteller since 2007's Stolen Apples. In the five-year gap between studio albums, Kelly has released an autobiography, How To Make Gravy, an extensive retrospective live record, The A to Z Recordings, and the new documentary, Stories Of Me.
Now with his past once again behind him, Kelly is back to crafting musical tales of fiction. Having written some of the most iconic songs in the history of Australian music, it’s striking how unaffected Kelly is by his accomplishments.
Spring And Fall brings Kelly one album away from 20 studio LPs and still the workman-like musician modestly speaks of his songwriting as though it were a vocation achievable by the average blue-collared commoner.
A rogue-scholar and a gentleman, Kelly discusses knocking off a half decade’s worth off rust, his enjoyment of modern day music consumption, and using wide open spaces to capture intimate sounds.
Given it’s been about five years since Stolen Apples and the series of retrospective material released, were you extra eager to record new songs for Spring And Fall?
Paul Kelly: Yeah, I was feeling pretty toey coz it’s just good to get back to new songs and fiction. The whole period of having the book [How To Make Gravy] come out and then the documentary [Stories Of Me], which sort of followed on from the book, went a bit longer than I thought, but that was all fine.
Writing the book took me nearly three years and I didn’t really write a song in that time, so I always knew it was going to be a while between records, coz it takes me a while to write songs.
But writing the book was sort of like flicking a switch. I didn’t write any songs in that time, I just didn’t have the brain space, I guess. So in my mind it didn’t feel like I’d been doing nothing for five years, it just felt like I had been doing other things.
After the book came out, Dan Kelly and I did a lot of A to Z shows, which related to the book. Again that sort of rolled out over a year and half, here and overseas. By the time I sort of looked up and looked around it’d been four years since I’d written a song.
So I felt a bit rusty at first, but once I started writing, once you kind of get three or four songs, they kind of help you get the next lot. So you just need to get started.
As you said you were eager to return to fiction. Spring And Fall came out at the same time as the documentary Stories Of Me. Were you more anxious about the doco coming out given that it’s a factual account of your life and career?
PK: No, not really. I guess I was more anxious when the book came out coz that was unusual for me that I would write so extensively about myself. Again that wasn’t intentional, I was writing about songs and telling stories through the song lyrics, but it turned into an autobiography. So I never thought I would write one, especially one so long, (chuckles).
I was anxious about all that when the book came out. So by the time the doco people came and said, ‘We want to do a doco’, I was softened up in a way and I said, ‘Yes’. And then once I said yes to them I understood that it was a matter of handing over control. It was their film, I was the subject, but it was their film.
So I was much more disconnected from that than I am from the book or when I put out a record. So I don’t feel anxious about that [Stories Of Me].
Is it a strange feeling having led a life that’s worthy of documentation?
PK: If it is, I must have got used to it (chuckles). The strangest things become normal if they happen to you often enough.
Musicians that write primarily about themselves tend to repeat themselves after a few albums. Has keeping your work steeped in fiction been a factor in your longevity?
PK: I don’t know, it might be. Yeah, I guess if you just wrote about yourself you’d run out of stuff pretty quickly. So yeah, it’s probably a good observation. It’s hard for me to make, but I feel repetitive… I always feel like I’m repeating myself (chuckles) either in my themes or in my music, you know, I’m fairly limited musically.
I do try to vary things as much as possible, but when I look back, to me it all looks the same (laughs).
On that regard, you’re often described as a gifted songwriter. But for you does your songwriting come from a natural talent or is it all from diligence and dedication?
PK: I think it might be a bit of knack. I wrote my first song when I was 21 and I’ve been playing guitar since I was 18, so I sort of started that a bit late as well… So I learnt guitar when I was 18, just off friends, and I learnt songs and folk songs, and then one day I just wrote my own song. And I remember it took me by surprise. I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this’ and it [was] something that I didn’t know whether I could do or not.
And it didn’t feel…no, I wouldn’t say it feels like diligence. Diligence won’t help you write a song. Hard work won’t help you write a song… To me it generally kind of feels like luck or a bit of a fluke.
It ‘s like fishing: you’ve just got to turn up. You’ve got to go to the piano or the guitar and muck around… You might go fishing for three days and nothing happens but the forth day you go and you catch something; songwriting’s a bit like that.
I was surprised to hear you say before that you feel you’re limited musically. In which ways do you think that you’re limited?
PK: I probably wouldn’t be a musician in someone else’s band. I’m a basic guitar player, I have basic skills (but) you wouldn’t want me in your band (chuckles), put it that way.
Spring And Fall is an LP designed to stand up for albums in a time when music grazing has become the norm. Is creating a cohesive album where the overall work is stronger than the individual parts a dwindling art from?
PK: I don’t know; it’s sort of hard to tell what’s dwindling these days coz there’s so much [music] put out there. I really like the way we have choices now listening to music. I’m a grazer just like everybody else. I like being able to have the choice: if I hear about a band to be able to go and stream it on Rdio, or whatever, and have a listen to it.
Generally if I really like something I’ll go and buy it or download it. I like being able to pick one or two songs from an album rather than buy the whole thing, if I don’t think the whole album’s worth it.
I remember when I was younger, if I liked a particular song and it wasn’t a single you’d have to go and buy the album. So I think that it’s great that we can fillet albums now and pick and choose.
I guess paradoxically it means that it’s a great time now for people who want to make album albums, or albums that really stand up as a whole thing. And I think that it’s a great opportunity now coz it’s a way to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. I think it just means that now certain artists can say, ‘Well I’ll just song-by-song or bundle-by-bundle, singles or an EP’.
But the way people listen now does give an opportunity for people that want to make albums to say, ‘Well, this is an album. Here it is.’
Do you think that the increased accessibility of music has hurt its potential longevity? Are songs more disposable now that they can be played, stopped and skipped at the press of a button as opposed to the ritual of setting up a record player?
PK: No, I think actually it’s probably more the other way. I actually think the ease with which people can access music has increased their appetite. I see it with my daughter’s generation, they’re across a huge range of music that I remember when I was their age I could not find; it was really hard.
I had to go around to find real nerdy blues collector guys and go around to their places and tape their records onto cassette. You know, it was hard work. Now when you hear about someone, you go and YouTube it… I think that’s only good.
Perhaps it’s romanticised by nostalgia, but there was a tradition in heading down to the record store with a friend and rifling through albums for hours.
PK: Yeah, I mean you can romanticise all that, but if given my time again, if I was living back thirty years ago, I would have loved to have been able just to go to YouTube and find a song rather than (laughs) go and catch a bus and then go down there and then take your cassette player. Yeah, forget about it.
I understand that Spring And Fall was recorded in a country hall. Where exactly was the album made?
PK: Not far from Leongatha, which is not far from Korumburra, which is east of Poowong and north of Mirboo North, somewhere in those rolling green hills.
It appeared to be a fairly unassuming recording space.
PK: Yeah, it’s an average medium-sized country hall. It has a good setup; it has a nice kitchen off the back. We were sort of not in any town or anything so we were up on a ridge in the hills. We just took supplies up and cooked. Dan Kelly’s a really good cook so…it was a bit like camping, really, but it was fun camping.
You were hesitant to record in the hall as you were after an intimate feel. How did the hall end up benefiting the overall sound?
PK: I was skeptical at first, but I was wrong about that. As (Greg) J Walker explained, we could always close mic things for that intimate sound, which we did. The real benefit for me was that the hall had a really nice natural reverb, so my voice didn’t get tired singing. So we could work for long periods of time, I could sing multiple numbers of takes and my voice not get tired. So that was probably the best thing about it.