01 Jun 2005
By Martin Jones, Rhythms Magazine
Paul Kelly has delivered the goods, yet again. Kelly has proved to be this country’s most consistent and prolific songwriter since beginning his career in the late ‘70s. Some 25 years later, his patch is as purple as ever, with this new bluegrass-influenced album Foggy Highway (with an all-star band The Stormwater Boys) coming hot on the heels of last year’s stunning double album Ways and Means.
And with each new release, we Kelly fans (hell, even his enemies, if such a breed, exists would have to concede this point) are again astonished at his seemingly bottomless well of creativity and ambition. And not economic ambition – no musician chasing album sales would follow a double album with a bluegrass album.
It may come as a surprise, then, to know that Kelly sometimes wonders whether people are sick to death of him and his music; whether he shouldn’t just chuck it all in!
“I get sick of myself,” he offers, over a cup of tea in EMI’s offices, “so I’d imagine that, even if someone thinks ‘oh that guy, he’s a good songwriter so I’ll go and check out his new record’ but at a certain point I think you’ve just got too many records out there. So I should either stop (laughs)… I don’t know, I think about this stuff! Should I just stop and do something else? But then it’s the only thing that I really like doing so I do try to make records different. I’ve always tried to make every record different from the last.”
This conversation is, of course, stimulated by the subject matter at hand, Foggy Highway, a very different album to Ways and Means, which was significantly different to Nothing But a Dream and 1999’s dub-soaked Professor Ratbaggy. Indeed, though his voice is one of the most instantly recognisable in the country, Kelly has always been a musical chameleon, his willingness to experiment and collaborate surely the secret to the longevity of his career.
“It’s hard to do that when you’ve got limited tools,” Kelly continues. “You know, my voice has got a certain range and I probably go for the same melodic patterns and my chords, when I pick up a guitar I always tend to play the same chords. So yeah, that’s the eternal kind of battle to try and find fresh ways to write songs – or to do songs. That’s why I do things like Professor Ratbaggy or records like this [Foggy Highway]. The last record Ways and Means was a lot of group-written songs, I tend to write different kinds of songs if I get with the band and jam or write songs where someone else brings in an idea. So I’m doing a lot more of that over the last five or six years – collaborating. It’s a way of writing different kinds of songs ‘cause you just get so sick of yourself.”
So what motivates Kelly to persist in the face of such self- ennui? Besides the fact that it’s the only thing he really likes doing? One only needs to come face to face with the man to see that, despite airing a few self-doubts, Kelly is showing no signs of slowing down. Dressed in a plain black T-shirt and blue jeans, he’s lean and lithe, his dark eyes alive and alert. He looks to be a man in the prime of his life. What is fuelling his drive?
“Oh probably I’m pretty competitive,” he grins. “A competitive family.”
What about the fear of mortality? Certainly Kelly was given a cold, sharp lesson in mortality, losing his father at age 13. Did that somehow ignite a greater appreciation for the preciousness of life and a consequent drive not to waste it?
“Yeah I mean who knows,” he shrugs off that theory. “I don’t think it’s one event that makes things happen like that, it’s usually a combination.
“You know, when I was into my forties I started to think ‘oh yeah’ – because that’s the age when, it happened to me and I think it happens to most people when you through your forties – you know ‘perhaps I’ll die’ or you start to get ill or start to get your aches and pains and so you think ‘well actually I haven’t got that long, I better try to make the most of it’. But I don’t know if I think that way anymore. I think work’s overrated… everybody’s working too hard. I’m trying to do less work in my life.”
Ahh, an inspiration in every way – though he has not exactly lead by example. Kelly has released roughly an album a year since the early ‘80s, collaborating with the cream of Australia’s musicians, contributing a stellar series of soundtrack albums including Lantana, One Night The Moonand Fireflies, and touring regularly, constantly reinventing his live show. Creative ambition is still a powerful force in Kelly’s life.
“Oh yeah, yeah,” he nods, “songs still… I hear a song on the radio and think ‘oh I wish I’d written that’ so I still get pleasure/pain from music. That thing that keeps stinging you. So that’s always been… well I guess if that stops, that’s when I should stop. But still music still hurts me and it soothes me.”
Indicative of Kelly’s musical obsession is his inclination to revisit and reinterpret his own songs. Foggy Highway sees him reworking a number of past compositions including ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Don’t Stand So Close To The Window’ and ‘Cities of Texas’.
“I’ve always said there’s more one way to do a song,” says Kelly. “My first band record Gossip had a few songs from Post on it. And I’ve just often redone songs over the years just because there was another way to do them. But probably the closest parallel to this record is another one I did six years ago called Smoke, pretty much a similar thing. I wrote some new songs for the record but I redid old songs.”
And if people think that Bluegrass is an odd genre for Kelly to be pursuing on Smoke and Foggy Highway, well perhaps they haven’t listened closely enough to his past work. Kelly asserts that most of his songs begin by sounding more like country songs than anything else in their early stages. As he explains in the “Letter From Paul Kelly” that accompanies Foggy Highway’s release, bluegrass music was one his earliest musical loves.
“Yeah well that was pretty much the first music I got into when I was learning guitar,” he elaborates. “You know when you’re young you hear all kinds of music, I mean the first music I really loved was the trumpet, was Herb Alpert and Louis Armstrong because I was playing the trumpet. But when I started playing guitar with friends in Adelaide when I was 18, there was a lot of country rock around, like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Commander Cody, there was, uh, maybe a bit later there was Gram Parsons and people like that. But I also remember my older brothers playing Bob Dylan records so I started to get into Bob Dylan and read about him and I think it was through reading about Dylan that I got into American folk blues and people like Mance Lipscomb and Sleepy John Estes and Robert Johnson and then hearing the Stanley Brothers and Bill Munroe, the bluegrass pioneers.”