Paul Kelly is an institution in his native Australia. His musical style transcends genre, and the beloved singer-guitarist has released nearly two dozen albums since his recorded debut in 1981. Kelly was the subject of an award-winning 2012 documentary, Paul Kelly: Stories of Me, and earlier this year he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, a ceremonial designation awarded to recognize his distinguished service to the performing arts in his native country.
Halfway around the word, he’s not nearly as well known. Those who have discovered Kelly’s works – critics among them – sing his praises, but he’s scored only one hit single on the U.S. charts, “1988’s “Dumb Things.” But Kelly loves touring the states, and has done so a few times. His current tour brings him to two dozen North American cities in September and October 2017.
Ahead of the tour, Kelly engaged in a telephone interview in which he discussed songwriting, his re-purposing of the poetry of William Shakespeare and Langston Hughes, and the band-focused approach of Life is Fine, his 23rd studio album, released August 11.
When you shift between musical styles, even on one record, it never feels like a musical travelogue; it always feels totally natural. When other people try that, sometimes they come off as dilettantes. How come you don’t?
“It might have to do with being limited in skill and not really that accomplished a musician. I love all kinds of music; my taste is very Catholic. So I listen to a wide range of music and then when I open my mouth and start singing, it ends up that I sound like me. I’ve always liked many kinds of music, so I’ve always liked mixing things up; I just follow the things that I love. My voice has got a fairly limited range and I’m not what I would call a singer singer. But I sing a lot; I talk-sing. I think talk-singing has always influenced what I do anyway, so I think that’s probably what makes it sound like I’m not jumping around too much.”
How has your approach to songwriting changed or evolved since the early days?
“I’d say it’s changed very little. I never call it a craft; it’s not a craft. A craft is when you make a pair of shoes or you’re a table maker. You get up in the morning, you follow certain steps and then you end up with a pair of shoes at the end of the day. Or a table. It’s not like that with a song; you can’t necessarily follow the steps and end up with a song. You’ve just got to turn up, scratch around and – like fishing – hope you get a bite.
“So it’s always felt very scrappy to me; songwriting always feels mainly like long periods of boring yourself. And then you can eventually surprise yourself; that’s when you’re on to something.
“There has been a change in my writing in the last five years or so; I’ve more and more used poems as a basis for songs. And that sort of did change my songwriting a bit. I had always sort of started with music and then gradually found words to fit the music, but I’d always felt I can’t stop the words; it would be too restricting, and it wouldn’t allow the music to go places it could go. So for some reason I had this block: ‘Alright, you can’t do the words,’ even with my own, you know.
“But I got involved in this project about five years ago for an orchestra, and I suddenly discovered that I could do it so then I got in the habit ever since. I could put a tune to a poem, so that led to the Sonnets record which I did a couple of years ago. Now it’s just another era in my songwriting, but I still write songs. I always did write my own words but now I’m very blessed to have this other way of writing songs, so it’s a pretty good thing to find after 30 years of songwriting. I knew I could do it. I think after while I get sick of my own words, so it’s been nice to play with someone else’s words for a change.”
Was Seven Sonnets and a Song a case of you making the album as an exercise, almost to see if you could?
“I write for fun. I had put just one sonnet to music a couple years previous to that record and that is on iTunes – the famous one, ‘Sonnet 18.’ I liked that one. Then I became aware that the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was coming up. I knew there were events being planned and celebrations underway for his 400th anniversary in 2016. And that was the impetus: ‘Oh well, that would be a good time to maybe do a few more of these sonnets. Maybe I could do a few more this time; I’ve only written one.’ And I put the record out on the anniversary, the day he died 400 years ago.
“And Rufus Wainwright had the same idea [laughs]. I think he put it out the day before and I put mine out the day of. We both had the same idea. It was really the convergence of the anniversary and just having written a sonnet a couple years ago, and I thought, ‘I’ll try this some more.’”
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