Paul Kelly talks inspiration, memories and mentoring ahead of Tamworth stop on 2017 Life is Fine tour

Paul Kelly has recently had his 23rd studio album hit the no. 1 spot on the ARIA charts - a first for him.
Paul Kelly has recently had his 23rd studio album hit the no. 1 spot on the ARIA charts - a first for him.

As Tamworth prepares to welcome back Paul Kelly, Carolyn Millet talks to the musical storyteller about ambiguous feedback, his childhood love of 'fighting' songs, and following his characters around.

OFFERED a 15-minute interview with Paul Kelly, how does a reporter prepare? This is a man whose music has been woven into Australian life – road trips, barbecues, political events, films, TV ads. A man whose songs even I have been known to sing when bullied into karaoke. A man who’s been making music longer than I’ve been alive.

Well, this is how I prepare: quiet room – check. Research, notes, questions – check. Recording device, notebook, pen, back-up pen – check. Water and tissues – check. Nervous wee – check. My colleagues are laughing at me by now, but eh, I reckon if you can’t get excited about interviewing someone like Paul Kelly, you might as well hand in your media ID.

The third-party telephone meeting service rings in and connects Kelly through to me. I start by thanking him for putting Tamworth on his tour map again after having performed in the city several times now. He’ll hit TRECC with support artists Steve Earle, and the Middle Kids, on November 14.

Kelly’s just released his 23rd studio album, Life is Fine, described as “one of his strongest and most evocative albums”, and it debuted on the ARIA charts at no.1. 

Incredibly, this is the first time Kelly – a 10-time ARIA award winner – has reached that top spot in the chart’s roughly 35-year history.

I ask what keeps him coming back to our city, and his answer is simple. No need to falsely over-enthuse here: “I just like it, like visiting, like the country around it; good people, good town,” he says.

Kelly tells me people can expect a show that’s pretty long, fairly upbeat, fun, and with some “sweet and sour” mixed in.

“We’ve put a really strong bill together with Steve Earle, and the Middle Kids, so I think it’s going to make it a really good night,” he says.

Steve Earle will support Kelly. Photo: Rob Gunstone

Steve Earle will support Kelly. Photo: Rob Gunstone

“We’ll have the band that played on the record, plus Linda and Vika, and they’ll sing lots of harmonies and they’ll also take lead on a couple of tunes.

“I love them, I love their voices. They get a sound, that kind of sound that only siblings get when they sing together. Kind of sweet and sour. Their voices are rich and warm, but they’ve also got this great ‘cut’ in them.”

Not many shortcuts

Kelly has earlier mentioned the Tamworth Country Music Festival, so we talk about that for a sec, and how it has been known to launch careers. I ask him how a young person can succeed – or even get a start – in today’s music industry.

Is it through reality TV? Being discovered in a side-show at a festival? Busking? Are there any shortcuts?

“I think it’s just perseverance, really. There’s not really very many shortcuts. You’ve just got to keep at it, play wherever you can whenever you can, and the more you do it, the better you get,” he says.

“I don’t think there’s any definite pathway, and I think there’s a fair amount of luck involved in anything you do. Sometimes you can not be playing long and you’ve got something that's unusual about you and you’re playing at a festival and someone notices it, or you’re playing on a TV show and someone notices it, and you get a helping hand.

The Middle Kids - Tim Fitz, Hannah Joy and Harry Day - will be one of the support acts at Paul Kelly's gig at TRECC. Photo: Maclay Heriot

The Middle Kids - Tim Fitz, Hannah Joy and Harry Day - will be one of the support acts at Paul Kelly's gig at TRECC. Photo: Maclay Heriot

“Everyone needs a helping hand and a little bit of luck along the way, and that can come in any form. The more you put yourself out there, the harder you work, the more luck falls your way.”

All you need’s a boost

Speaking of helping hands, I ask Kelly about his involvement in mentoring developing artists. What qualities does he want to see in someone before investing his time in them? A good mentoring relationship can’t consist solely of the mentor one-sidedly pouring out their time, knowledge and resources, surely.

All that kind of thing usually happens fairly informally and you’re right, it’s always an exchange,” he says.

“I worked with Dan Sultan early on – but he didn’t need to learn anything from me.

“I think sometimes just a little bit of encouragement is really all you need.

“I remember when I first came to Sydney in 1984 and met Don Walker from Cold Chisel. I played him some songs and he didn’t say much at all. He’s a guy that doesn’t say much. He said, ‘Mmmm. Keep writing’.

“But you know, Don Walker said to me, ‘Keep writing’ and I thought, ‘I’ll keep writing’. I mean, it was the best advice I could have got.”

I think that sounds an awful lot like a way of saying ‘Don’t give up your day job’, and I have the hide to propose that idea to Kelly.

“Well, he could have said, ‘Maybe you should try something else’,” Kelly says, chuckling.

“But he didn’t, he said, ‘Keep writing’, so I took that as encouragement. But, you know, I’m probably reasonably optimistic in my temperament, so that’s just the way I took it.”

‘Fighting’ songs

I ask Kelly what his earliest memory is of a song that made him feel something.

“I can remember The Battle of New Orleans by Johnny Horton on the radio. I must have been five. I just thought, ‘What on Earth is this?’, you know?

“‘They fired their guns and the British kept a-comin’

“‘There wasn't quite as many as there was a while ago

“‘They ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch 'em

“‘Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico’.

“I had no clue what it was about, but there were alligators getting blown up and hound dogs [Kelly pronounces this in a decidedly Southern way, to my ear: ‘dawgs’] and armies and fighting; Johnny Horton had this great voice and banjo. I just loved it.

“He also had a song around that time called We Have to Sink the Bismarck, which again sort of caught my ear on the radio. I think maybe I just liked ‘fighting’ songs, war songs.” 

He stops and reconsiders.

“But come to think of it, they were songs that told stories; and they were songs that had really vivid imagery.

“So I probably got attracted to those kind of visual songs; songs that had something cinematic about them.”

Kelly also mentions Chuck Berry’s songs: “You could see them as well as hear them; they were like little movies. I think songwriters like that have been an influence on me.”

Inside out or outside in?

I ask Kelly if writing lyrics is an ‘outside in’ or ‘inside out’ process for him. That is, does he start with a chosen theme and explore it through characters? Or does he start with an image of a person in a certain situation and work outwards from there?

I specifically mention Deeper Water as an example, confessing that I can barely even think about the song without tearing up. Did he aim to write a song about “the circle of life” or was it prompted by the “vivid imagery” he’s mentioned?

“I start with something small first, but you’re right, it often starts with an image or a picture, not so much the subject,” he says.

“I don’t know the story of a song, usually, when I’m starting it. I sort of find it in the middle; I often don’t know what’s going on ‘till I’m in the middle of it.

“So, Deeper Water, that just started with an image of a child on the beach holding his father’s hand. And I didn’t know where the song was going to go after that. 

“I just sort of thought, ‘I’ll just follow this child as the child grows up and see what happens’.”

  • Paul Kelly, Steve Earle and the Middle Kids will perform at TRECC on November 14. Tickets: http://trecc.com.au/events/856/Paul_Kelly