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Paul Kelly: Life is Fine...Really!

Doug Collette By

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Paul Kelly has the soul of a poet, the heart of a rock and roller and the psyche of a renaissance man. How else to explain his last few records leading up to Life is Fine? There's The Merri Soul Sessions, an r&b tribute within which he was more conductor than featured performer. Goin' Your Way is the document of his live collaboration with Split Enz/Crowded House principle Neil Finn, where the two sound like no one so much as a latter-day John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Seven Sonnets and a Song finds Kelly setting to music the words of Shakespeare. And then there's Death's Dateless Night, a collection of songs performed at funerals, proffered as a duo with Charlie Owen.

In his conversation with Doug Collette, this national treasure of Australia covered a lot of ground too. But as with the aforementioned projects, he did so with as much healthy detachment as purpose and commitment. Whether speaking of his fruitful relationship with his record company, his opinionated bandmates or his own processes for songwriting—including taking a year off in 2014 to take piano lessons from a jazz player in order to open up new composing ideas—Paul Kelly offered well-considered perspectives congruent with the topic(s) at hand.

Which might also sum up the scrupulous eye for detail in Kelly's compositions. He can capture those significant moments in human relationships that define life. And his ear for nuance in recording ratifies Paul as a refined musician: he knows full well that the playing of the tune brings more fully to life that creative expression he humbly admits has a life of its very own. With an undercurrent of self-deprecating humor and an abundance of grace, Paul Kelly elucidates the ineffable so clearly because he knows there's only so much words can say. In its own way, that hard-earned wisdom was on display in this interview as fully as in the arrangements and production of his supremely well-crafted albums.

All About Jazz: I wanted to clarify some thoughts I had about your new album Life Is Fine, but first I wanted to how long it's been since you did an extended tour of America like the one set up from September to October this year? Seems like it's been a while...

Paul Kelly: A tour of that length has been awhile. I've toured pretty regularly, every couple of years, but usually it's been as a duo with my nephew Dan Kelly and the stints have been around three of four weeks. This is the first time with the whole band doing an extensive tour since 1998, so you're quite right it's been awhile: it's the seven- piece band the one that made the record, plus Vika and Linda who sang on the record, and we're all getting on the big bus, again like we haven't done since 1998. I'm sure it'll be cozy, but I know it'll be fun!

AAJ: Correct me if I'm wrong on this point too, but I don't recall so much publicity and promotion devoted to one of your records in recent memory?

PK: Well, this record is more widely accessible than some of my recent ones. I had two out last year: one is Shakespeare sonnets put to music, another is a collections of songs I've sung at funerals-an acoustic record I made with my friend Charlie Owen. And the record before that was a type of revue style record called The Merry Soul Sessions, with the band that's on this record but with six different singers including myself. Again not an easy record to tour behind, because I couldn't get all the personnel at the same time. You're right, they're all a bit off the beaten track, but this one's getting people to sit up and take notice and in the States getting radio play. It's not me putting any extra special effort into them: past a certain point it's out of your hands because once the songs come out, you don't know what they're going to do!

AAJ: You are right. They do have a life of their own. Is Life Is Fine a collection of songs you sat down to right for a new record or is it a collection written over a period of time which you saw come together as such?

PK: It's a bit of both. I'm not one of those who sets out to write a record, like writing for a year or two, then making an album that sums up that period of my writing. I write in a much more haphazard fashion: songs come to me at all angles, quite randomly, so I tend to write them as they come, then sort them like socks in a drawer; after a while, you get half a dozen or so that happen to work together, that talk to each other, and when that critical mass occurs, then I write more to go along with those. I did have a long-range plan with Life Is Fine: I was aware I'd done all these records going off in all these different directions over the last five years and I was joking with the record company; they've been great by the way they handle everything I'd throw at them, but they did say to me "When are you going to make a normal record? (laughs) and I said, "Don't worry, I've got a normal record coming and it's as normal as I'm going to get!" And I knew after last year, those two records being meditative and philosophical, that I wanted to come out with something noisy, upbeat, fun, joyous record. I was thinking that even as I did those records, for the sake of contrast.

AAJ: It's certainly that. Can I ask what the oldest song is on Life Is Fine?

PK: The one sung by Linda Bull, "Don't Explain," is twenty-five years old. I remember quite clearly because I'd done a live solo record in 1992 and I'd just written it. I'd passed it around to women singers over the years-I'd always wanted a female to sing it-but for one reason or another no one took me up on it and I'd forgotten about it, but as I was thinking about this record, I wanted to have a song for Vika and a song for Linda; I already had a song for Vika— "My Man's Got A Cold" always had her name on it—so I thought for Linda, I'd throw this one into the pot and see what happens. I took it to the band which came out with a sort of Fleetwood Mac approach to it that fit Linda like a glove, so we were up and running with that one. "My Man's" about three years old, waiting for its time while with "Josephine: " the tune is very old, a song that's been taking a long time (though I know it doesn't sound it!)(laughs)-but I've been tinkering with the words for many years and finally got it finished. All the rest are fairly recent.

AAJ: You touched on something that fascinates me about this record: these two songs that are sung by females (Vika and Linda Bull). Did you write those for females to sing?

PK: Over the years I've written many songs from a woman's point of view and sometimes I sing them myself, but I always try to get a woman to sing them as well, so in many cases there are two versions out there: my version and a woman's. And I've done that since I started writing: I came from folk music where there was no big deal to assume characters. In folk music you can go anywhere: you can sing as a mole in the ground or a nineteenth century ship's captain, as a ghost...I've always loved that fluidity. But when I write a song from a woman's point of view, I want a woman to sing it and with singers I've worked with over a long period of time in Australia-Vika and Linda (also another woman named Renee Geyer)-I have their voices in mind. "My Man's Got A Cold" comes out of having piano lessons in 2014. I took a year off and found myself a piano teacher and practiced as much as I could attempting to break my own habits. I tend to play the same chords, so I took lessons with a jazz pianist to learn some more theory, more colors and more chords. And I love the song "Gloomy Sunday" by Billie Holiday, which was one of the songs we worked on and that opening chord of the song "My Man's..." is different for me. And the voice I was thinking of was Billie Holiday, you know, ..."My man's treating me bad..." that's coming through too.

AAJ: Sounds like a pretty logical sequence of events (laughs)

PK: Right!? (laughs) So I was singing it myself, but I really wanted Vika to sing it because I knew she would eat it up.

AAJ: Indeed! I can't go much further into this conversation without asking about the cover to the new album. I stared at it the first time I looked at it and often since then; it looks absolutely beautiful with the blue water and you swimming, but after awhile I noticed there's no land in sight in the photo and suspected you're really not enjoying being in the water. I don't know if I'm reading too much into it, but I'd be interested to know who came up with the idea for this cover shot and how (and where) it was taken?

PK: (laughs) I'm glad you like the ambiguity in the picture: that's why I chose it. Again, it's a happy accident, there was no cover shoot planned for the record. The photo was taken three or for years ago by a photographer friend of mine, Steve Young, who's a professional photographer-he actually took the cover photo for Death's Dateless Night. He asked me a few years ago if he could take my portrait for a competition and he knew I like swimming, so he asked if he could take a photo of me in the water. We went down to the beach, which is about five minutes away from my home, the water was warm and I jumped in the water so he could snap for about twenty minutes. I had a few of them on file on my computer and when I came up with the title to this record Life Is Fine, I knew I wanted something that represented the ambiguity of that line. So when I saw that shot, I knew I had the cover. You didn't read too much into it at all!

AAJ: And I'm looking at it now, with your name and the title above your face, partially submerged in the water, seeing that quality even more striking.

PK: Another friend of mine designed the cover and he's really good with type; just the way the type gets progressively smaller, it gives you that kind of ambivalent feeling about the title phrase itself.

AAJ: That's a good segue to my next line of thought. As I read the song titles of Life Is Fine, I notice "Rock Out on the Sea," "Letter in the Rain," and "Petrichor." Then, looking at my collection, I notice water as a theme in much of your work ("Deeper Water" "So Much Water So Close to Home")—are you conscious of that or does it simply 'bubble up," so to speak, to the surface as part of your creative process?

PK: (laughs) I am aware of it as it's been pointed out to me before. I don't consciously write about it, but looking back, as you point out, it's definitely part of songs I've written. And not just in the titles, it's there in the lyrics too and I don't know why. Sometimes water is just water, but (laughs) sometimes I think of it as a powerful metaphor. I always loved the water, I live by the sea and whenever I go to a new city, or one I am visiting again, generally the first thing I do is walk towards the water, whether a river or the shore. It's a way of mapping...

AAJ: Sure! It must help tremendously to get your bearings and derive a sense of comfort knowing where you are.

PK: Unless you go to the city of Cork in Ireland where's there's two rivers and you get confused (laughs)...Pittsburgh's like that too isn't it?

AAJ: Yes: three rivers converge in Pittsburgh!—though I couldn't name them! (laughs).It occurred to me one day as I looked at the list of songs whether the tracks were sequenced in a song cycle of sorts?

PK: It's not meant to be, but I think a lot of these themes come through, as happens in art, without intention on my part: the subconscious makes choices we're not aware of. I love to make an album: it's more rewarding to listen to from start to finish and it's even more important these days when we've got so many choices to listen to the songs out of order or one at a time. Don't get me wrong: that's a great choice to have, but it only makes it more important to make those islands in the midst of the streaming. And of course, with the Shakespeare project and working with Charlie, that idea was more front and center: to be listened to in order, which is the way I'd listen to a lot of my records. This one wasn't conceived so tightly, even though I'm aware these things just tend to happen.

AAJ: That's the mystery and the mystical side of creativity. Did you decide on the actual sequence of songs for the album? PK: I decided in the end, but I am a collaborative sort, to an extent (laughs). I sent the songs around to the band for opinions, because they are an opinionated group of people-the kind of people I like to work with-but the final say was mine. AAJ: When I listen to Life Is Fine in the future, I will probably hear it as a short story in song.

Select Discography Life Is Fine (Cooking Vinyl, 2017) Death's Dateless Night (Gawd Aggie, 2016) Seven Sonnets and a Song (Gawd Aggie, 2016) Goin' Your Way (w/Neil Finn) (Omnivore, 2015) Paul Kelly Presents The Merri Soul Sessions (Gawd Aggie, 2014) Spring and Fall (Gawd Aggie, 2012) The A-Z Recordings (Gawd Aggie, 2010) Greatest Hits: Songs from the South Vol 1&2 (Gawd Aggie, 2008) Ways and Means (Cooking Vinyl, 2003) ...nothing but a dream (Cooking Vinyl, 2002) At The Continental and The Esplanade Live (Vanguard, 1996) Words and Music (Vanguard, 1998) Deeper Water (Vanguard, 1995) Wanted Man (Vanguard, 1994) So Much Water, So Close to Home (Mushroom, 1989)

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