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Paul Kelly: Life is Fine...Really!

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.

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