Paul Kelly is not just Australia’s greatest and most enduring songwriter.
There is something that goes even deeper than that. His songs have a way of digging into the country in a way that few artists can do, how it looks, feels, tastes, sounds. The joys and sorrows, achievements and follies. If you want to know something about Australia, how it feels to be Australian, you can find it in his songs.
He is one of those rare artists to spin a long career out of a hunger to explore new directions, from the tender songcraft of Post to the hard-edged rock’n’roll of Gossip, to country and folk, bluegrass (see Smoke, Foggy Highway), a soul revue album with guest singers including his long-time backing singers Vika and Linda Bull (Paul Kelly presents the Merri Soul Sessions). In 2014 Seven Sonnets & a Song set Shakespeare sonnets to music, released on the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It was followed by an album with Charlie Owen of songs they had performed at funerals, Death’s Dateless Night.
Kelly’s latest album, Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, released on August 30, brings musicians from broad-ranging backgrounds to interpret bird-inspired poems. The album is a unique marriage of electronics, acoustic instruments and the human voice and features collaborations with the Seraphim Trio, composer James Ledger and singer-songwriter Alice Keath.
Kelly gave his first live performance in 1974, released his first album in 1981, when he was 26, and last year delivered Nature, his 23rd studio set. His body of work also includes live albums (see the CD/DVD recording of an Australian tour with Neil Finn, Goin’ Your Way, and the 8-CD box set A-Z Recordings, revisiting his songs with acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice). To this add the film soundtracks, co-writes (he contributed to land rights anthem Treaty with Yothu Yindi), production work, the constant touring at home and abroad. Some of those shows were on stages where his maternal grandparents, founders of a touring opera company, performed in the ’20s. And he wrote perhaps the finest and most unflinching autobiography ever written by an Australian musician, How to Make Gravy.
Throughout Kelly’s career, the craft, the passion for getting up each day and working on the next thing, have been mostly under the surface. But there always is a next thing, creating a legacy which chronicles the full range of human experience. For that reason his work will live on, like the stories of Henry Lawson, the collected works of Slim Dusty, the poetry of Judith Wright.