21 Apr 2004
By Chris Hollow, Inpress Magazine
Paul Kelly discusses double albums, character writing, guitarists and pop songs…
Paul Kelly is Australia’s pop poet laureate. Over the past two decades, he’s has a string of literate pop hits that have combined strong storytelling with melodic, folk driven hooks.
A short time ago, Kelly released his first LP in three years. Ways And Means is an epic double album with 21 track spread over two discs full of Aboriginal myths, angels, summer songs, menage a trios, and love refrains to red haired girls. The highlights include the hard driving Heavy Thing, the soul ballad Beautiful Feeling and the first single Sure Got Me.
Also, in recent times, Kelly’s corner stone ‘80s album Gossip has been re-mastered and re-released and a tribute to his song writing called Stories Of Me has surfaced. He didn’t like it much.
You’ve written a lot of songs of a personal nature. How easy would it be to get to know you from these songs?
“People might get some clues. But I know from my own experiences of writing songs that even when you’re writing from your own life, by the time you put them into songs you’re changing them anyway. So I think it’s a bit of a wild goose chase.”
As a songwriter, do you ever find yourself creating drama in your life – putting yourself in situations, maybe against your better judgement, just to see what happens?
“Life is complicated enough without complicating it even more. But I’ve always been pretty curious about all kinds of experience – to see how people tick – and that curiosity is also there in what you read; you can experience other people‘s view of the world through books. Our time is very limited and our circumstances are very particular. We’re born into a particular culture, a particular time and a particular sex. So you have all these contingencies strapped upon you right away. If you’re interested in life generally, you’re always going to be looking at things outside your life experience anyway.”
How have you been influenced by, say, Aboriginal culture?
“Some of the people I’ve worked with – Archie Roach, Kev Carmody and Mandaway (Yunupingu of Yothu Yindi) – they’ve influenced me as a person just by they way they go about their lives. It would be hard for me to say what musical influence they’ve had. My interest in Aboriginal culture and history has obviously influenced the lyrics of some of my songs. It was through that influence that I wrote songs like Special Treatment and Maralinga or Bicentannial, from Little Things Big Things Grow.”
How do you approach writing from a woman’s point of view?
“It happens probably the way that other songs happen; by listening to people and what they say. There’s no great mystery, it’s just another form of play. I’ve written songs from the point of view of people a lot older then me, in different jobs to me and people who are a different sex.”
One of the hardest things to do in music is to keep re-selling yourself to the public with each record. What do you feel is the hook for Paul Kelly fans and heathens alike to check out Ways and Means?
“Well, the question for me is – “how you keep writing in ways that interest you?” I’ve noticed since I’ve gone on that I write more collaboratively. I’m fairly limited as a musician which limits my writing. But I think I do have the ability to put people together and write with them which has happened more over the past few years. Specifically with this record, if there’s a hook, it’s in the guitar players (Dan Kelly and Dan Luscombe). I think they give the record a really unique sound and much different to previous records. Dan Kelly is a real idiosyncratic guitar player but he’s got deep roots. For a young player, he’s got a lot of history in his playing and somehow filters it through himself in a strange way. And Dan Luscombe has a great classicism about his playing and the ability to write memorable parts and riffs. Plus, he plays fairly handy keyboard so it’s a good combination.”
Is Ways and Means a return to a more rootsy outlook after the past few years where you’ve been using samples and wiggy sounds?
“Not deliberately. As I said, Dan Kelly has got really strong roots in his playing but it’s kind of a bit mutant with him which I really like, I’m always trying to be traditional and experimental at the same time.”
Double albums – especially double albums on CD – are unwieldy beasts because there’s so much music. How did you come at releasing 90 minutes of music?
“To get rid of them, I guess (laughs), it was just that the tunes were piling up. We always had a plan for a record to come out in 2004 and that was more to do with record company schedule specifically in the UK. So we had to wait and as we did more tunes came along. All of a sudden, there was a whole pile of songs. I didn’t want to put out an overload on one CD. Having said that, I do think that records can be too long because I know from being at home that I’ll put on a CD and stuff happens and you never get to the end of it. You see a lot of CDs that have for 14, 16, 18 tracks and they’re 60 or 70 minutes. Part of splitting it was so that people could treat them as two separate records so they can be enjoyed like a normal record.”
One of the highlights of the LP is a song called Beautiful Feeling – complete with these fantastic falsetto vocals. How did that come about?
“We worked on that for quite a while. That song started with Peter Luscombe bringing in a drum beat and a dweeby little keyboard line that turned into a guitar line. The guitar players harmonized that and we just started playing around with that riff and that beat and it turned into a soul ballad type of tune with a 70s Rolling Stones feel which is where the falsetto and high harmonies came from.”
What do you feel is the closest you’ve come to crafting the perfect pop song?
“I thought Beautiful Feeling came close but it does get too long and it’s a long verse to get to the chorus. I guess you wouldn’t call it the perfect pop song – it became something else. I thought Before Too Long was the most classical sounding pop song – short and succinct. How To Make Gravy is one that had these gear changes in it but, then, it doesn’t have any sing-along chorus. I mean pop music is the music I love so that’s the area I try to work in the most. But I don’t think I’m that good at pop music. It ends up becoming something else.”
When was the last time you consciously tried to boil down a song to its essentials elements to make it as catchy a pop song as possible?
“I think that’s always part of the process. I think editing is part of writing, a part of pop music and poetry. Poetry is about being concise and saying as much as possible in as few words as possible, it’s also a driving force behind good shorts stories as well. The thing that operates against it sometimes is when the music has got a good groove and you want to sit with it and extended it. For some reason, over the past couple of records, my songs are becoming four or five minutes, which tends to take it outside of radio. It’s a good question because one part of me is always trying to make things shorter but just lately they’ve been coming out longer.”
You mentioned that on Ways and Means you were trying to write “happy” love songs. What is the happiest love song you’ve written?
“There are probably more happy love songs on this record than other records. Beautiful Feeling would have to be up there. There weren’t that many on the last record. They’re always been more “love-gone-wrong songs” then “love-gone right songs” and I think that’s because they’re easier to write. It’s been an ambition of mine for a long time to write more happy love songs but they’re really hard to write without being banal or smug or boasting or having the worse elements of modern R&B music.”
Ways And Means is available through EMI, Paul Kelly plays the Geelong Performing Arts Centre this Saturday, Melbourne Concert Hall this Tuesday and the Peninsula Lounge on Wednesday 28th.