Paul Kelly is a big deal in his native Australia. He has won 10 ARIA Music Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Grammies, and was elected to the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame in 1997. He has had 16 top-20 albums in his homeland, and his songs have been recorded by Nick Cave, Kasey Chambers, the Divinyls’ Christine Amphlett and many more. Like other aging legends, the 62-year-old Kelly could easily have taken a well deserved victory lap, recording celebrity-duet versions of his past songs or five discs of Sinatra covers.
Instead, Kelly has found ways to keep writing fascinating songs, and just this past August Life Is Fine became his first-ever #1 Australian album. He’s done it by prodding his aging muse whatever way he can: by using new instruments, by penning the sequel to someone else’s song, by writing in the voice of a different gender, by grabbing hold of an unusual word or phrase, by digging up abandoned old songs, anything that will get the juices flowing. He knows you can’t just sit around and wait for the muse to do all the work for you.
“I don’t want to write the same kind of songs all the time,” Kelly says over the phone from his home in Melbourne. “I want to keep things fresh. If I don’t challenge myself, if I merely rely on my natural inclinations, things fall out in a certain way when I write. You always have to up-skill, whether you’re a songwriter or a doctor. You have to try anything that will give you a new kind of song: taking piano lessons, setting poems to music, collaborating with a new writer, tuning a guitar differently, jamming with a band and picking up on a riff that someone else plays. You can always use a fresh injection. You’ve got to surprise yourself.”
Life Is Fine provides examples of all these gambits. “I Smell Trouble” evokes an ominous sense of danger approaching from the other side of the hill by taking advantage of Kelly’s recent piano lessons. “My Man’s Got A Cold,” written by Kelly, is sung by Vika Bull as a woman’s sarcastic assessment of her man’s illness. “Don’t Explain,” sung by Vika’s sister Linda, is a song Kelly wrote 25 years earlier, abandoned, rediscovered and rewrote with his new command of jazz chords.
The album’s title track takes its text from a Langston Hughes poem with new music provided by Kelly. “Petrichor,” a gorgeous ballad remembering a former love, was inspired by the title word, a scientific name for the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. “Leah, The Sequel” is indeed a sequel to Roy Orbison’s “Leah.”
“Bill and I have known each other a long time,” Kelly says, “but only in the past few years have we discovered that we can write songs together. He’s a walking encyclopedia of pop music; he’s a huge fan of Roy Orbison, as I am. We were mucking around with ‘Leah’ for a couple hours, and one of us said, ‘What if we wrote a sequel?’ We left the chorus pretty much as it was and wrote new verses — lyrics and music. We had to contact the Orbison Estate to work things out, and we did. As you know, I do like to write with dead people.”
For example, he set eight William Shakespeare poems to music for the aptly titled 2016 album, Seven Sonnets & a Song. An out-of-the-closet atheist, Kelly has also adapted Biblical verses to song; “Love Is the Law” is based on St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, while “Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air” is based on the 23rd Psalm. He was drawn to the Langston Hughes poem, because it begins by wrestling with suicide but ends with a burst of joy.
“Finding the music for a poem either happens quickly or not at all,” Kelly reports. “I’ll noodle around on the guitar or the piano and if I find something that fits, great. If not, I’ll put it aside. The lyrics’ mood might suggest a melody, or the meter of the words might suggest a musical rhythm. With Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38, for example, there’s something sly about the lyric that suggests a late-night jazz club. Those sonnets rhyme, even though the language is very dense. As such, they remind me of folk music.”
Vika & Linda Bull have been collaborating with Kelly since they sang on his production of Archie Roach’s Charcoal Lane in 1990. Vika has the bigger, growling blues-soul voice, while Linda is the warmer, tenderer singer, though they overlap quite a bit.
“I’ve always written for the female voice,” Kelly points out. “I come out of folk music, where that fluidity is accepted: Men can sing as women; women can sing as men. I get a lot of songs from what people say to me, and a lot of women talk to me — more than men, actually — so it makes sense to turn what they say into song. Any strategy that helps me write a good song is a good strategy.”
This article appears in the January/February edition of American Songwriter, on newsstands January 10.