01 Apr 2002
By Geoffrey Himes, No Depression Magazine (April 2002)
Paul Kelly’s “Deeper Water” begins with a folkish, nostalgic arpeggio on an electric guitar, setting up a vocal that evokes a childhood memory of being carried in his father’s arms above the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. To this point, as the verse gives way to the hymn-like chorus, “Deeper water, deeper water, calling him on,” the song has the well crafted, country-folk feel of a John Hiatt family number.
But then it falls apart. The pretty folk arrangement is overtaken by a disorienting, Lou Reed-ish guitar riff as if the singer had dropped into a bottomless sea. Kelly describes how falling in love is like falling into deeper water; then he describes how watching your lover waste away from disease is like falling into deeper water still. After each verse, he returns to the chorus's fetching melody in the same deadpan tone, but each time it has a different, more disorienting effect.
It would seem impossible to capture Hiatt’s tuneful domesticity and Reed’s droning nightmares on the same album–much less the same song–but Australia’s Paul Kelly is an exceptional artist. This 1995 song is symptomatic of his remarkable career—rooted in tradition and craft but also pushing pop music's boundaries, capable of any style but loyal to none, marrying seductive tunes to subversive narratives.
At home, Kelly has had a Bonnie Raitt kind of career. For years, he had a devoted cult following of fans and immense respect from critics and fellow musicians, but his albums never rose above the high teens in the charts. But just as Raitt suddenly transformed the reservoir of good will into stardom with 1989's "Nick of Time” and her subsequent Grammy sweep, so did Kelly break through with 1997's "Paul Kelly's Greatest Hits." The 20-song anthology shoved Hanson and the Spice Girls aside and rose to the top of the Australian charts.
If Kasey Chambers is Australia's equivalent of Beth Orton or Alison Moorer—a young woman with two solo albums, a special voice and much promise—then Paul Kelly is the smallest continent's equivalent of Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Bruce Springsteen or Dave Alvin—one of the major singer-songwriters of his generation.
If Kelly doesn’t have the same sort of reputation on this continent, the fault lies more with America’s music journalists than with him. For Kelly made a good-faith effort to crack the American market. He released eight albums in the U.S.—on the Vanguard, A&M and Dr. Dream labels—and toured here almost every year from 1987 through 1998.
Then he stayed home. He released two albums in 1999, "Smoke,” a collaboration with the Australian bluegrass band Uncle Bill, and “Professor Ratbaggy," a partnership with a techno-groove band of the same name. In 2000 he released only the four-song "Roll on Summer EP." But he released four CDs in 2001: the folk-rock studio effort "…Nothing But a Dream,” the soundtrack for “Lantana” (the Ray Lawrence feature that has finally made it to the U.S.), the soundtrack for “One Night the Moon” (which also featured Kelly in the role of the villain), and the soundtrack for “Silent Partner."
None of these seven albums was released in North America at the time. But now Cooking Vinyl Records has combined the "Roll on Summer EP” and "…Nothing But a Dream” into a 15-song single disc, also called “…Nothing But a Dream." Kelly will support the release with a U.S. tour in March and April. It was dinnertime in Baltimore when we called him, but he was just waking up at a beach house on Queensland's Pacific Coast, the East Coast.
ND: You sing a duet with Kasey Chambers on her new album. How did that come about?
PK: I’ve always liked Kasey. I remember the first time I saw her at the Byron Bay Blues Festival. She was dressed in black lace and a nose ring, and she was singing her own songs. I thought it was fantastic, because she had this hardcore country voice, but she also had this modern sensibility.
So when her first solo album, “The Captain,” came out, I invited her along as the support act for my summer tour with Uncle Bill. I always try to incorporate the support into our set in some way, and so I wrote a song that I could sing as a duet with her. It's called “Heartbreak Heartmend,” and it will be on my next album with Uncle Bill.
That went really well, so when we had a day off in Perth, we went in to record it. I asked her if she had a song that would fit Uncle Bill, and she pulled out “I Still Pray." We recorded both of them as duets, released them as a single, and country radio jumped all over “I Still Pray.” So when she recorded her new album, she called me back in to sing it again with her band.
ND: Has her success had a spillover effect in the Australian roots-music scene?
PK: It’s a funny thing. Whenever someone in the roots-music scene has some success, everyone says this is going to help all of us. But it never does. It just helps the person who has the success.
ND: How did your own success with the greatest-hits package come about.
PK: What happened I think is that everyone who had heard of me but had never bought one of my records said, “Well, I’ll get this one." It sold 250,000 copies, which is triple platinum in Australia and more than double any of my previous albums. But it didn’t carry over. The Uncle Bill and Professor Ratbaggy albums each sold less than 20,000. We tried to release them in the States, but we never got much interest.
ND: What made you want to do a bluegrass album?
PK: I had always wanted to do a country album, but I had never gotten around to it. Then I heard Tim O’Brien's album of Dylan songs done bluegrass-style, and I thought I’ve got a bunch of songs that would do well with that kind of treatment. I’d been friends for a long time with this Melbourne bluegrass band called Uncle Bill, so I set up this thing where I jammed with them every Friday around a kitchen table.
The hard part was the technical demands that bluegrass puts on your singing and guitar playing. I had to work on my guitar parts more than I ever had. Picking which songs of mine to learn was the easy part; I could do another bluegrass album tomorrow and probably will before too long. A lot of my songs lend themselves to bluegrass, because like Dylan, a lot of my roots are in hillbilly music. I grew up learning songs by Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.
ND: Is bluegrass very well known in Australia?
PK: Not really. There’s a strong country music tradition in Australia, but bluegrass is not a big part of it. I was just one of those freaks who doesn’t want to hear what's put out on the radio. You go to folk clubs and hear a song that you really like. Then, if you looked hard enough, you could find someone who had the song on an import record, and you could tape that.
It was all so exotic. Bluegrass still sounds otherworldly to me. It was always the singing rather than the dazzling playing that got me. When I first heard those high, lonesome voices, my first response was, “What planet does this come from?”
So I chipped away at this bluegrass record for a year, and right in the middle of it, along comes Steve Earle with Del McCoury. I said, “Fuck me.” But I kept on chipping away at it just the same.
ND: But at the same time you were working with Professor Ratbaggy on an electronic-groove, R&B record.
PK: Right. Just as much as I’ve always loved country, folk and bluegrass, I’ve always loved funk, reggae, R&B dance music, the Meters, War, Augustus Pablo, Curtis Mayfield and Booker T. & the MGs. I like to dance; I like music that makes you move and makes you feel good. That's always been another stream of my songwriting. In addition to the story songs, I’ve always written dance numbers.
ND: So who is Professor Ratbaggy?
PK: Peter Luscombe is the drummer; Steve Hadley is the bassist, and Bruce Haymes is the keyboardist. They all played on my “Deeper Water” and “Words and Music” albums, and they had this little trio on the side called the Casuals that played instrumental dance music at this Melbourne club called the Night Cat every Sunday night. I love that kind of music, and I used to go down there a lot.
They were writing their own instrumental tunes and talking about making a record, and I said, “Can I get involved? Let's get together on Wednesdays and jam and see what comes out of it.” Someone would bring in a riff, and we’d all start playing music to it. We’d tape that and take it home to try to think of something to put over the top of the track. My natural tendency is to turn things into songs, and some of the tracks turned out that way. But because there were four of us, a lot of influences came out—drums’n’bass, modern groove music, old-fashioned R&B.
It was the first time I had recorded on Pro Tools, where you record into a computer and you can cut and paste and move things around. We recorded the tunes over just a few days, but we spent a much longer time rearranging the sounds. We didn’t add sounds, but we treated the sounds the four of us had made. A lot of the drumming sounds like loops, but that's just the way Peter plays.
ND: Why did that collaborative approach appeal to you?
PK: I find it very hard to write songs. It’s a combination of laziness and a lack of flexibility. So any jumpstart I can get, I’ll use. I’m always looking for new ways to write. The very act of getting together with three other musicians stirs up a lot of music.
After jamming with the band for a while, we’ll come up with a structure for a song. And the other guys will say, “Come on, we want to play the song next week—go write some lyrics.” That’s a lot different than sitting at home waiting for the music to come. If I write the lyrics first, then it’s hard to come up with an interesting melody; it becomes too bogged down, too rigid.
I’ve come to realize over the years that I work better collaboratively. I’m not a Prince type who writes the bass lines and the keyboard riffs and who tells the drummer what to do. My songs are fairly open, and I need help to arrange them. So this was a continuation of something I’ve always done.
ND: Was it weird going back and forth between the bluegrass band and the groove band?
PK: Well, one Sunday I had to do a session with Uncle Bill in the afternoon and then play with the Casuals that night. Peter told me, “Be sure you purge your mind of that bluegrass stuff before you come down to the Night Cat.” But I enjoy the contrast. Bluegrass doesn’t have drums, while groove music starts with the drums. Bluegrass has a lot of harmony singing; groove music has almost no harmonies. Bluegrass is built from the top down, groove music from the bottom up.
I consider myself a roots musician because I steal from everywhere. But there seems to be a narrower definition of roots music in the States.
The old stuff is nourishment; it's how you learn to write. You can’t make a table out of air; you need some wood. You fall in love with a Meters riff, and you sit down and try to figure out how they do it. You learn a Howlin’ Wolf song because you love its power and you want some of that for yourself. You don’t try to replicate it; you throw it into the pot with everything else you love and see what bubbles up.
ND: Your most recent album, "…Nothing But a Dream,” is a more conventional Paul Kelly album, the kind of folk-rock that you’re best known for.
PK: I had a group of songs I’d written in the last four or five years. They had been sitting in the drawer for a while, because they didn’t fit on the bluegrass or the groove records. I was waiting till I had enough of those introspective, singer-songwriter kind of songs. When I had six or seven of them, that tipped the balance.
ND: But in the middle of all those introspective songs, you have a soaring anthem, “Love Is the Law."
PK: Yeah, I originally thought it would be a stripped-down Nick Drake kind of album, but some other songs crept in there. “Love is the Law” was commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, a rather well known festival in my hometown. They wanted something joyful and hopeful that lots of people could sing on. I haven’t written many songs like that, so I turned to the Bible, as one always does in these instances. I adapted St. Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians and nicked a groove from the Chemical Brothers.
I didn’t think it would fit on this album at all. Most of the songs are intimate, this one is anthemic; most are melancholy, this is hopeful. But when I put it right in the middle of the record, it provided a useful counterpoint to the rest of the record. It gives you a place to climb up to and climb down from. “Just About To Break," the song before it, comes out of the Professor Ratbaggy sessions, so that helps you climb up, and “Pretty Place," the song after, helps you down gently, so you’re not dropped down suddenly. Finally you get to “Smoke Under the Bridge,” which is just voice and organ, like the first song.
ND: The more understated songs that open and close the album include several about time slipping through your fingers. You sing about “Wasted Time”; you dream of what might happen “If I Could Start Today Again." Then there’s another group of songs about missing a woman who’s left, who’s no longer there.
PK: Yeah, looking back on them, quite a few were written from the point of view of someone towards the end of their life. In my mind, “Pretty Place” is about someone close to death and remembering their vanished youth. “I Close My Eyes and Think of You” could be someone at the end of their life thinking of a loved one.
As you get older, more significant people in your life start dying. Parents, uncles, aunts, friends from the older generation, people you’ve known quite a while, they die. After a while, it’s, “Who's next—you or them?” But the songs aren’t about any specific incident; it's more that time of life than any specific incident. I just turned 47.
I’ve always had the feeling that life is always slipping away. Maybe it’s because I don’t have that good a memory. When you don’t have that good a memory, you have a tenuous hold on life. That’s one of the reasons I became interested in writing, because writing is a way of holding onto things; it’s like putting out a net and holding on to a few traces. Writing is a form of remembrance for me, in a fractured, fictionalized way, but at least it captures something.
ND: So we shouldn’t hear these songs as autobiographical?
PK: No. I’m not interested in songwriting as confession or therapy. The goal is not to tell my story but to write a good song. I’ll scavenge material from my own life to make a song, but my life serves the song, not the other way around. In “How To Make Gravy,” for example, the recipe comes from my first father-in-law, but all that stuff about being in prison is made up. I’ve never been to prison.
I’ve always wanted to have a big range as a songwriter. My favorite writer is Shakespeare, and he always wrote for multiple voices, so that’s always been an aim of mine. I’m not interested in self-expression or writing about my situation. That never appealed to me. I’m interested in writing from different points of view, someone 20 years older than me or 20 years younger, or a different gender, or in a different situation.
I love being able to write for women. I really enjoyed writing and producing records for Renee Geyer and Vika & Linda. Renee was a star in the ‘70s in Australia, but unlike most people from that era who are singing their old hits in a rather bland way, she keeps taking risks, and her voice keeps getting more and more interesting. And Vika & Linda blend country, gospel and Pacific Island influences like no one else.
Now Mushroom Records is putting together an album of different female singers doing my songs. It will be about half old recordings and half new recordings. Kasey is singing “Everything Turns To White," that song I wrote from the perspective of that woman in the Raymond Carver story. Finally. I’ve been waiting a long time for a woman to record that song.