As a New Zealander, I didn’t grow up with Paul Kelly songs the same way many of my Australian friends did. But in the 15 years I’ve been coming to this country there has been no Australian musician (you guys can’t have Neil Finn) I’ve come across who seems as universally loved. Be it a metal head or a shirtless bro at Stereo Sonic, it appears everyone adores Paul Kelly.
According to the man himself, it’s the lessons he learned from those he describes as “visual songwriters” that have helped him connect so deeply with his audiences.
Kelly says icons such as Lou Reed, Chuck Berry and Ray Davies of the Kinks “wrote storytelling songs that you could see.”
Citing a lyric about “Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground” from Davies’s song Waterloo Sunset, he says the key is “really strong imagery that hits you right between the eyes.”
“Of course, my imagery comes from my places, so I think that explains why Australians feel my songs. Because it’s about their places, too.”
I suggest Kelly’s international fans romanticise his Australian landscapes the same way he did with Lou Reed’s Manhattan, missing the finer cultural commentary.
“What people lose in nuance, they gain in mystery,” says Kelly.
“When I hear the music and don't know the language, I love the music. I might lack a deep understanding of it, but there is also a mystery to it because I don't quite understand it.”
“Music translates across borders,” he says. “My songs aren’t about Australia. They are about what people do; and can say … they are about the people in that place.”
And there it is again. That word “place”, an idea Kelly returns to more than once. One of the sad and beautiful things about choosing to be away from your own place is the inevitability of comparing your new and old homes. I can’t escape the different ways in which New Zealand and Australia grapple with their colonial histories. Although relations between Māori and Pakeha (non-Māori) are far from perfect back home, the various Māori iwi (tribes) have considerably more visibility, and agency over their own destinies than Australia’s first peoples do.
And because as an outsider I view Paul Kelly as "the quintessential Australian", and because he has written stories about the effects of colonisation on Indigenous Australians, I ask him for his insights into these aspects of this country that I find difficult.
“In New Zealand it was different. There was a treaty [the Treaty of Waitangi], and it was disputed and not completely honoured, but it still holds and it has had practical ramifications,” Kelly says. “There were wars, and they were recorded and written about, the Māori Wars. Australia never acknowledged that there was a war with the Indigenous people,” he says. “I think that silence or denial is still playing out today.”
Despite these views, Kelly insists he is not a political person. Perhaps that comes from a working-class desire to remain separate from the political elite.
“I’m probably the least politically engaged person in my family; they call me the ‘fence sitter’ because I always argue both sides,” he says, citing the ongoing debate surrounding Australia Day as an issue he’s still undecided on. Although perhaps his convictions are stronger than he’s willing to admit.
“I understand the push to change it, but I also think it is a very important day because it is a day that cannot be denied, it's a day when ships landed in Sydney cove and Governor Phillip planted the flag and claimed the country for Australia.
“Maybe we need to find a way to change the way we commemorate that day. I use that word ‘commemorate’, which is to remember, not [just] celebrate. Commemoration holds both things. Commemoration can hold both celebration and mourning,” suggests Kelly.
Despite this inseparable connection to place, Kelly’s songs have taken him around the world in his more than 40-year career.
“I remember playing Malmö in Sweden in the ’90s and Bradman [Kelly’s song about the cricketing great] was really popular there, and I don't know why.”
After four decades of writing songs, Kelly doesn’t feel that much has changed about his creative process since his early days.
“I want to be surprised – songwriting is mostly being bored. Like all writers I have my own habits and grooves and patterns and fight to break them. Most of the time writing for me is boring myself until I surprise myself,” says Kelly.
“You can’t force it, you have to turn up and do the work and play your instrument and make a sound with your mouth. But then the best songs come at you completely sideways, when you are working on something else, and then you just chase it and chase it until you get it, you hunt it down.”
All those hours of boredom seem to have paid off. Kelly’s excellent new record, Life is Fine, went to the top of the Australian charts earlier in the year (surprisingly, the first number-one album of his career). It appears life is fine indeed.
Paul Kelly tours nationally in November and December. Life is Fine is out now.
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