Paul Kelly: ‘I’ve always wanted to write songs that last’

With Life Is Fine, Paul Kelly has released his most ‘Paul Kelly’ album in a decade, filled with the buoyant choruses and twanging guitar breaks that helped fuse his best work to the national consciousness.

“I write things down,” Kelly drawls down the phoneline. “Otherwise I’d forget.”

Already deep into a long international tour, he’s giving us an unsurprisingly blunt look behind the curtain, picking apart the streams of sentence-long moments that comprise many of his best songs. Lines that feel lived in and familiar, recalling details that feel unremarkable and everyday right up until Kelly points them out over an acoustic guitar.

Now tapped or sung into his mobile phone instead of scrawled in a notebook, they’ve made an almighty comeback on Life Is Fine.

“It was always on my mind to come out with a noisy band record,” he explains. “The last few records have been quite a bit more meditative and philosophical, more concept records, so I just wanted to come up with a straight up band record that was playful and upbeat.”

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The more eclectic leanings of his last two releases aren’t entirely absent on Life Is Fine. One, 2014’s Merri Soul Sessions, saw him recruit a team of lead vocalists from Dan Sultan and Kira Puru to longtime foils Vika and Linda Bull, and the other Seven Sonnets and a Song saw him collaborate with William Shakespeare, albeit separated by a few centuries.

“[After] going down all the little sidetracks you come back to more of a main road and things have changed a little bit, so it all feeds in,” he says. “The Shakespeare record came about because I just got into the habit of putting poetry to music, which indirectly led to the Shakespeare record. There’s a little bleed of that kind of thing with setting the [1949 Langston Hughes] poem Life Is Fine.”

Like the Merri Soul Sessions, Kelly also steps back from the mic to allow the Bull sisters a crack at the lead, particularly on the stomping blues number My Man’s Got A Cold which laconically captures the mix of pity, contempt and too-much-information that the lurgy brings to a relationship. It sits well alongside full hearted, culinary-referencing love songs like Firewood & Candles and Josephina, and offhand references to “the rosy-fingered dawn changing colour in the east”.

With the album sailing to #1 and the November home leg of the tour already selling out, it seems they’ve already been heartily embraced as a new highpoint in a canon that’s still being reclaimed by successive generations of Australian musicians. Just take a look at the regularity with which Kelly becomes the focus of Triple J’s Like A Version segment. It’s the latest step in a tradition Kelly is happy to pass on.

“It’s very pleasing when other people pick up on the songs and do their own thing with it,” he says.  “I come from folk music where everything comes from somewhere else. I was influenced by the people who came before me, and I’ve always wanted to write songs that last. I try to build ‘em to last. And once you write them and make them and send them out into the world you hope they have a life outside of you.

“I’ve always been attracted to visual songwriters. The things in the song that you can see just as much as you can hear them. Chuck Berry’s a very cinematic songwriter, Lou Reed, you can see his songs are about a very small part of Manhattan — you know, up to Lexington, 125. Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive’ — and Ray Davies, those songwriters have always affected me.”

Like the peculiar universality of a Lou Reed song about New York, Kelly’s own songs also have a way of transcending their cultural touchstones and seemingly inexhaustible collection of rhymes for ‘veranda’. “People have different favourites, [and] I’ve forgotten about songs until someone starts talking to me about how much they like it. Sometimes that helps me go back to an old song and maybe re-learn it. I remember years ago playing in Sweden and a lot of people liked Bradman, and I still haven’t figured out what in the world the Swedes got out of Bradman,” he laughs.

They’re not renowned for their love of cricket, are they?

“No, they’re not — maybe the melancholy suited them”. Or, maybe, it’s just a song that’s built to last.

Paul Kelly
Wednesday November 22 & 23
Adelaide Entertainment Centre
Tickets via ticketek.com.au

Life Is Fine is out now

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