Paul Kelly has been called “the closest thing [Australians] have to a poet laureate” and “arguably Australia’s most celebrated singer-songwriter.” For three decades, he’s penned thoughtful, beautiful, often nuanced stories , and channeled them in a voice that’s both singular and soothing. His are songs of heartbreak, death, and social justice told from forgotten perspectives.
Kelly is now on the American leg of his “A to Z” tour, where he plays songs alphabetically over a number of nights in a particular city. He spoke with Arts Desk about how to keep musical ideas new after more than 30 years, the commonalities of international audiences, and the craft of songwriting.
Washington City Paper: You and your music are just so quintessentially Australian—-do you notice a difference between your American audiences and your Australian audiences?
Paul Kelly: Very minimal. I always think that the bigger differences between audiences are not to do with between countries, but between the kind of places you play. So I think an audience in a small bar is very similar all around the world. Compared to an audience in a theater, or an audience in a large club, or an audience at a festival. Audiences behave differently in those spaces. As far as differences between countries, they’re tiny compared to the other differences.
WCP: Do you prefer to play in those smaller bars, or do you prefer the larger venues?
PK: I like variety. So I think I like playing a mix of all the places. I’ve been playing songs for 25 years and so any variation that I can bring myself. I guess playing in intimate theaters could be my favorite cause you’ve got a very attentive audience. But a lot of the rooms we play in America which are not so much theaters but say, small clubs and small bars—-there is a sort of culture here of, you know that listening room culture. So that’s probably the best thing for a performer is to know that you’ve got the attention of the audience. Other times you’re playing and you’re sort of part of the ambiance of the whole thing, whether it’s a festival or a club and people there are drinking and talking and trying to pick each other up. That can be fun too.
WCP: So many of your songs are from really unique and interesting viewpoints. You sometimes take on a marginalized voice or one that isn’t always heard or talked about. Were there people or experiences in your life that allow you to do that?
PK: I’ve always seen songwriting as a form of play, and I think in play and in imagination you can go anywhere. I’m pretty limited musically, so probably with my lyrics, I’m trying to find fresh ways to say things. There’s not much more to write about than sex, death, memory, love, friendship. And those things have been written about for centuries. So I guess I’m always looking at fresh ways to write about those things. You know that song “Hello Walls”—-Willie Nelson. He’s writing a “somebody left me” song. Which is one of the staples of songwriting. But he starts and he says, “Hello walls.” He’s just found a new way to say the same thing. He’s talking to the walls and then he talks to the ceiling. That’s just brilliant. So to me that’s fresh songwriting and that’s what I aspire to.
WCP: Another thing that comes through in a lot of your songs is a theme of social justice. You’ve mentioned before that this is something that’s really important to you and your siblings, and that your mother helped instill these values in you. Can you talk a little bit about how?
PK: We were brought up Catholic. Our parents were sort of—-that life that had Catholic principles: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, basically. Just treat people with respect. That was just the way they acted. It was nothing. Not a big deal really. I wouldn’t say it was that special, I think. A lot of people get brought up that way.
WCP: Do you feel like a lot of people still have a strong commitment to it as they get older?
PK: [Laughs.] I think you find a lot of people actually come back to it. The idea of service or volunteering, or things like that. A lot of people in their twenties and thirties are pretty much just trying to keep their heads above water themselves and get a family going, and get themselves a house, get a little bit of security. And then they bring up a family and then maybe later in life they can get their head above—-come up for air and think, “Oh, well I can give something back.”
WCP: I know you’ve said that your songs are fiction, but how much of your life and your experiences are typically woven into your songs?
PK: I couldn’t tell—-it’s sort of hard to say. I’ve never been interested in writing autobiography and that’s not how I see songwriting. That’s not my intention. It’s more for me like trying to complete a puzzle. Often for me it starts off with a melody, some chords and some vague words, andoften I’m making up words to…fit sounds. So all kinds of accidents happen when you do that. You grab bits from everywhere. Something I’ve overheard in conversation, or a line of poetry, or something you write down yourself that you thought about. You put all those all together, they’re going to tell indirectly, or in a more subterranean manner, the story of the writer’s life. But it’s not always that apparent.
WCP: You’re such a brilliant storyteller. Is there someone in your life, or maybe growing up, who helped teach you that craft, or is that something that came to you?
PK: It’s sort of hard to say one or two people. I’ve got pretty wide-ranging musical tastes. I listen to all kinds of music, except heavy metal. And I like to read a lot, too. But I think one good tip for songwriters and storytellers comes from I think Muddy Waters, who said: Sing sad songs happy and happy songs sad. And related to that, I’d also make the observation that Hank Williams songs are so memorable. And some of his melodies—-actually if you whistle the melodies they’re quite cheerful, but the words are [anything] but. So I think that’s a good little clue for songwriters.
WCP: You mentioned Muddy Waters and Hank Williams—-is this storytelling something that you see continuing with younger generations of songwriters and musicians, or is it getting lost over the generations?
PK: I don’t think that’ll ever get lost. I think that’s a fundamental artistic activity of humans—-just telling stories. That’s never gonna go away. People who can tell a story well without boring people are always gonna be listened to.
WCP: You said that you do a number of things to try to keep your music and your perspective fresh. Is there any advice that you have to songwriters and musicians?
PK: I’m not very good at giving advice to others. But I’ve been lucky to find this A to Z format for my shows, which we’re doing on this tour. When I first conceived of an A to Z season eight years ago, I thought it would just be like a one off event, but I realized at the end of it that I found a new way of singing my music. So I ended up repeating those shows a couple times a year, and then writing a book, and then more shows, and here we are rolling it out in America eight years later. It’s been a slowly unfolding accident, the whole A to Z thing, and it’s put me in touch with a whole lot of my songs, ever since I first started writing. And so that’s been a big thing for me, cause it’s sort of been a way to keep the songs fresh. It’s sort of like having a set of tools. I can go to work and I’ve got a big range—-I can pull out any kind of tool I need at any particular time. I don’t know if that’s advice or not, but just try not to repeat yourself, I think. Being a performer is a lot of repetition, so you’ve just got to find ways to vary that.
Paul Kelly performs Sunday and Monday at 7:30 p.m. at Jammin’ Java, 227 Maple Ave. E in Vienna. Both shows are sold out.