Paul Kelly is arguably Australia’s foremost singer-songwriter. With his expansive and respected catalogue of over twenty studio albums (not to mention his live releases and soundtrack credits) a career spanning over forty years would be the envy of any young muso – so it’s refreshing to hear the humble word-smith still has moments of creative self-doubt when he puts pen to paper.
“I’ve always loved reading and I like to write fiction, and of course poetry has always been a part of my life, but I never thought of putting poetry to music until six years ago when I was involved in a project called Conversations With Ghosts (2013),” he says. “Before that I never thought it was possible – for me anyway.
“In the past my way of writing was to start with the music and just try to get the words to fit,” he adds matter-of-factly. “I always had this fear that if I started with the lyrics or verses and I got them wrong it would be too constrictive but working on Conversations With Ghosts seemed to turn a lock in me and open a door. I started to put some of my favourite poetry to music just for fun,” he smiles. “That’s what lead to the release of Seven Sonnets and a Song a couple of years ago. Now ideas just pop up from time to time, it”s been a real joy.”
Kelly’s latest release Nature, is a celebration of his poetry-related revelation. Five of the songs from the album are poems written by others – Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin. Four others – ‘A Bastard Like Me’, ‘Little Wolf’, ‘Seagulls of Seattle’ and ‘The River Song’ – are poems Kelly wrote and later put to music.
“I experimented with the last song on Life Is Fine (2016),” he says. “That song is a poem by Langston Hughes and Nature is a real extension of the idea of using someone else’s words to tell a story.”
Inspired by his new creative endeavour, Kelly got to work but he needed to find the right voices for his stories and it turns out they were very close to home. “My daughters Memphis and Madeleine sing on this record,” he smiles. “Yes, it was a real family affair because Vika and Linda Bull are also on this album and they are sort of like aunties and mentors to my girls.
“Vika and Linda have been a big part of my family for a long time,” he says. “My daughters really looked up to them as siblings singing together and watching me work with them over the years. Vika and Linda have always kept that aunty-like eye on them.”
Also returning on Nature is Kelly’s nephew, guitarist Dan Kelly, and his trusted band of exceptional musicians; Peter Luscombe on drums, Bill McDonald on bass, Ash Naylor and Cameron Bruce on keyboards. “They’ve been my main crew for the last five years of recording and playing together so much we have a good understanding of each other. I can take any song to them and know that they’re going to surprise me – which is always good.”
Kelly is a man determined never to become stagnant creatively, constantly throwing himself into one project after the next. So what does he consider to be his career highlights?
“The tribute record that I curated for Kev Carmody in 2006,” he says. “Also the album I worked on in 2010 for Maurice Frawley called Long Gone Whistle. Maurice is a really great songwriter that’s probably not that widely known but should be. Having that distance and objectivity from the process is something I find a lot of joy in because you never know with your own work – I’m too close to my own songs. Some days you’re really proud of what you do and other days you’re full of doubt. But it’s those kind of projects I feel unadulterated pride in.”
Forte favourites Kate Miller-Heidke and Alice Keath also appear on Nature, out now via Universal Records.
Written by Natalie Rogers