15 Nov 2008

Lyricist Voices the Heart of Our Nation

Lyricist Voices the Heart of Our Nation

By Kathy McCabe, The Daily Telegraph


Fans and contemporaries agree, if any musician has tapped into the Australian psyche, it is Paul Kelly.


There are hundreds of thousands of Australians who have a Paul Kelly moment. It may stretch back almost three decades to Paul Kelly and The Dots’ earliest pub rock days.


Others would have fond memories of singing 'To Her Door' or 'Before Too Long' arm-in-arm with their mates at a backyard barbecue.


Many revere Kelly for penning 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' with indigenous folk hero Kev Carmody. The musical narrative tells the story of the Gurindji Strike and Vincent Lingiari’s fight for land rights and reconciliation.


Another Kelly moment that still stirs goosbumps comes from the album So Much Water, So Close To Home, the title inspired by a Raymond Carver short story of the same name. That yarn informed the song 'Everything’s Turning To White' – and later the film Jindabyne, which Kelly scored – about mates on a fishing trip who discover the body of a young woman in the river.


Told from the perspective of the wife of one of the fishermen, who chose to continue their expedition and report the woman’s death at the end of their trip, the song evokes a powerful melancholy.


It is next to impossible to find a living Australian songwriter who does not have a favourite Kelly song or moment.


To celebrate the release of Songs From The South Vol 1 & 2, a collection of hits work, some of them share their thoughts on why he is a national treasure.


Missy Higgins credits the “honour” of performing 'From Little Things Big Things Grow' with Kelly on several occasions in recent years as “some of the most powerful and memorable moments of my career”.


“Some songs cut right to the heart of what needs to be said and I think that song will remain relevant and important for many years to come”, she says.


“In my mind, Paul Kelly is one of, if not the, finest songwriter in Australian history. He takes everyday occurences and articulates them in such a way that they become extraordinary.


“That’s what makes him such a great storyteller. He’s a poet for the everyday Australian.”


Powderfinger frontman Bernard Fanning, who shares Kelly’s devotion to sport – in particular, cricket – hearlds Kelly’s ability to give character to Australian places and identities without resorting to jingoism.


“The most remarkable thing about Paul’s songwriting is that he is able to take uniquely Australian situations like 'From St. Kilda To Kings Cross' and 'Bradman', and turns them into stories that are free of the parochial sentiment that most of the rest of us mere mortals would be tempted to lean on”, he says.


Kelly’s passion for sport is legendary. He has organised cricket and football matches between music and media and his bands, as well as penning songs in tribute to sporting heroes and events.


His most ardent trainspotting fans could not help but laugh out loud at the secret track revealed at the end of his 1991 Comedy album. A few mintes after the final track, Kelly comes in singing “There’s only one David Gower” to the tune of Cuban anthem 'Guantanamera'.


ARIA award-winning artist Claire Bowditch occasionally aided and abetted Kelly’s insaitable craving for cricket.


“In life, there is nothing I like better than standing side of stage at a Paul Kelly concert with an AM radio in one ear, so that when the cricket scores come in I can write them down in fat black texta and hold them up for Paul to see”, Bowditch says.


“Only if the scores are good, mind you. If they’re bad, I sit there chewing gum, acting like nothing happened.


“Me, I’m not so big on cricket, but Paul, mad for it. So I consider this small task a part of my national duty because if Paul is happy, he will play another song, and if Paul plays another song, Australia is happy, because they are songs about us.


“So if Paul’s happy, Australia’s happy, we’re all happy: simple.”


There is no doubt that Kelly’s songs have given much joy to people both in the recorded form and in performance.


He is exuberant on stage, bouncing away in front of one superior collection of musicians or another.


But there are plenty of men in Australia who aren’t afraid to say a Kelly song has made them cry.


You Am I frontman Tim Rogers for one. Rogers credits Kelly – who had his own battles with the rock ‘n’ roll demons many years ago – with watching out for those heading for the skids.


“I toured with Paul, Renee Geyer, Vika and Linda Bull as part of a ramble. Words And Music had just come out. I loved 'I’d Rather Go Blind' and the title track”, Rogers says. “I started scramblng for his songs”.


“Heard a version of 'Other People’s Houses' on that tour had me glistening up my velvet with tears and less charmings ablutions.


“We play in a footy team now, just training. He’s svelte and dedicated. A difficult and unique mix. First on, last off.


“He picked me up to go on my first training when I planned on spending the year on things real bad. Never told him but he kinda saved my britches.”


For all of his masterful poetry, infectious melodies that fuse themselves to your DNA and all-round good guyness, one Kelly attribute always seems to miss its due.


Bernard Fanning comes out in defence of Kelly’s voice; distinctive, emotive and not quite right in that way that makes even the most tone-deaf fan feel empowered to sing along.


Kelly himself remains resigned to its qualities and refuses to correct any understatement of it.


“The focus tends to be on his songwriting and poetic turn of phrase but I think his voice is very underrated. It takes a genuine depth of expression to be able to give life to those lyrics and make them hummable as well as meaningful”, Fanning says.


For Kevin Mitchell, Jebediah frontman and a troubadour in his own right as Bob Evans, Kelly’s voice has a sensory power that is all its own.


And he’s another grown man who, like Rogers, isn’t afraid to admit that the singer can move him to tears.


“The first time I saw Paul Kelly perform was at a Melbourne theatre when he was in a play called Funerals And Circuses. I was about 16 years old”, Mitchell says.


“I remember this man whose voice sounded so familiar to me, strolling out on stage with a guitar and singing songs that helped tie the narrative together. It was an excellent play and he was brilliant in it.


“Some years later I was driving home from my parents’ house one evening when a song called 'How To Make Gravy' came on the radio and I found myself unsuccessfully fighting back tears.


“Years later still, I would put my headphones on each nght and fall asleep to 'From St Kilda To Kings Cross', while I contemplated my wonderful new life of Taragos and hotel rooms”.


Kelly neither courts nor welcomes praise or worship. He has described songwriting as hard rock and he works hard at it. But he no doubt appreciates the fact that his music has woven itself into the fabric of Australian culture.


Perhaps another of his collaborators, Kasey Chambers, best sums up the feelings of so many about Paul Kelly.


“If I was only allowed to listen to one artist for the rest of my life, I would choose Paul Kelly”, she says.