10 Jul 2007
By Jeff Apter, Rave Magazine
Paul Kelly obviously likes the look of the road less travelled. Who else would consider fusing the poetry of lower-case American ee cummings with an earthy, rootsy rock growl rarely heard this side of Sun Studios, circa 1955, or writing a post 9/11 meditation from a terrorist’s viewpoint? But it’s just another day in the office for the legendary Oz singer / strummer, the voice behind such homegrown classics as ‘Before Too Long’, ‘To Her Door’, ‘Dumb Things’ and dozens of other wise, tuneful snapshots of real life.
The first song in question, ‘Foggy Fields of France’, is one of numerous highlights of Stolen Apples, Kelly’s first solo outing — at least under his own name — in three years. It’s also one of many tracks on Stolen Apples that Kelly uses to plot the album’s narrative course; a thread, of sorts, connects many of the dozen tracks. But as always he’s doing things in his own unique manner. ‘I’ve gone the other way [than the norm],’ he figures, ‘starting the record with songs of experience, moving backwards to songs of innocence like “Keep On Driving” and “Foggy Fields of France”, then back to experience again for “Please Leave Your Lights On”,’ the stirring, piano-powered confession that closes the album. Experience is one thing that’s definitely on Paul Kelly’s side these days; the renowned troubadour, humanist and barstool philosopher has rarely stood still since the day in 1977 when he joined the High Rise Bombers, the first of many groups he’s worked with, in gritty inner-city Melbourne. The Coloured Girls, the Messengers, Uncle Bill, Professor Ratbaggy and numerous groundbreaking solo efforts would eventually follow.
Stolen Apples is proof positive that his songwriting mojo is in fine working order, as is his distinctive, lived-in voice, now as familiar as family. His radar for great stories is as strong as ever, too, as proved by ‘The Ballad of Queenie and Rover’, a typically Kelly-esque piece about revered Aboriginal artists Queenie McKenzie and Rover Thomas. Kelly gravitated to their story when he heard how Queenie had saved Rover’s life after he was stomped by a horse. Queenie sprung to the rescue, stitching Rover up with a needle and thread, ‘and when the doctor arrived he said, “I don’t need to do anything else, it’s been beautifully done”.’ I mean, how could Kelly resist? And although he’s a devout non-believer, religion also gets a look in during the album. As Kelly explains, the almost-title track, ‘Stolen Apples Taste the Sweetest’, is ‘the oldest story in the book’. Again, it’s fodder for this songwriter whose restless, inquisitive intelligence hasn’t slowed down.
Kelly has also ‘reclaimed’ one of his own tunes for the record, a tongue-in-cheek meditation on mid life lust entitled ‘You’re 39, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine’. The song was first heard on All Is Forgiven, the most recent set from Tex, Don and Charlie (as in Perkins, Walker and Owens). Their version was so potent, in fact, that Kelly found himself in an odd position: how do you ‘rebirth’ a song that’s strayed from the fold? ‘They did it with such authority,’ he says. ‘It sounded like Tex wrote it. We tried an Al Green version, amongst other things, but it seemed like we were copying them — badly.’ After a few more attempts — Tex, Don and Charlie had raised the bar pretty damned high — Kelly and band gave it a complete makeover, transforming it into a waltz. Mission accomplished. But in an admirable effort to ‘serve the song’, Kelly hung onto some words that Perkins had added himself, something that a less humble man may have sniffed at. ‘Now my favourite line in the song is the one where Tex changed the lyric to improve on what I had written,’ he laughs.
So where’s Kelly been since 2004’s Ways and Means? Over the past few years, he’s been the king of ‘side projects’, having worked on film soundtracks and jammed with bluegrass masters the Stormwater Boys. He also produced the sterling Kev Carmody tribute, Cannot Buy My Soul. ‘That had been on my mind for a few years,’ says Kelly. ‘I compiled my version of what I thought were Kev’s greatest hits and in an effort to really get it heard I targeted people who I thought would be right, and who had also sold a lot of records.’ The tribute really gained traction when Kelly bumped into the aforementioned Tex Perkins. Kelly had barely finished talking up the record when Perkins claimed a song for himself, simply saying two words: ‘Dark Side’. ‘He was the first brick in the wall,’ says Kelly. Others, such as John Butler, Bernard Fanning and Missy Higgins soon signed on to pay their respects to our finest indigenous songwriter.
For his next tour, beginning in August, the Kelly gang includes guitarist Ash Naylor, of Even, and nephew Dan Kelly, both acclaimed songwriters and performers in their own right. And in an effort to keep it fresh, Kelly plans to begin the night with Stolen Apples in its entirety, before moving onto the ‘greatest hits’ segment of the show, where there’s every chance he’ll dust off some rarely-heard yet much-loved classics. His A to Z events, where he revisited his back catalogue in an alphabetical format, most recently witnessed at the stately Sydney Opera House, were a huge hit, and something that Kelly plans to revisit again soon. The idea, he admits, was one of those ‘crazy, middle of the night things’, but he quickly discovered that it was an effective way for a man who’d just turned 50 to ‘take stock’ of both his life and his music. ‘I got the chance to move songs from the back of the warehouse into the front of the shop,’ he half jokes.
But it’s not all about serious re-evaluation for Paul Kelly these days. During the sessions for Stolen Apples, which mainly took place in his garden shed, Kelly took time out to document the life and times of Australian cricketing icon and recent retiree, Shane Warne, basing his valentine on an old calypso tune. (The end result can be found on YouTube.) So, given Warney’s love of groping and googlies, is it as reverential a eulogy as Kelly’s own ‘Don Bradman’? Well, Kelly does take the chance to rhyme ‘text’ with ‘sex’. ‘Let’s just say it’s a celebration of Shane,’ Kelly says laughing, before heading back to his shed.