Paul Kelly is not just Australia’s greatest and most enduring songwriter.
There is something that goes even deeper than that. His songs have a way of digging into the country in a way that few artists do, how it looks, feels, tastes, sounds. The joys and sorrows, achievements and follies. If you want to know something about Australia, how it feels to be Australian, you can find it in his songs.
He is one of those rare artists to spin a long career out of a hunger to explore new directions, from the tender songcraft of Post to the hard-edged rock’n’roll of Gossip, to country and folk, bluegrass (see Smoke, Foggy Highway), a dub reggae-funk record with Professor Ratbaggy, a soul revue album with guest singers including his long-time backing singers Vika and Linda Bull (Paul Kelly presents the Merri Soul Sessions). In 2014 there was Seven Sonnets & a Song, setting Shakespearean sonnets to music and released on the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. Followed by an album with Charlie Owen of songs they had sung at funerals, Death’s Dateless Night.
Kelly gave his first live performance in 1974, released his first album in 1981, when he was 26, and this year delivers Nature, his 23rd studio set. His body of work also includes live albums (see the CD/DVD recording of an Australian tour with Neil Finn, Goin’ Your Way, and the 8-CD box set A-Z Recordings, revisiting his songs with acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice). To this add the film soundtracks, co-writes (he contributed to land rights anthem Treaty with Yothu Yindi), production work, the constant touring at home and abroad. Some of those shows were on stages where his maternal grandparents, founders of a touring opera company, performed in the ’20s. And he has written perhaps the finest and most unflinching autobiography ever written by an Australian musician, How to Make Gravy.
In a career like this the craft, the resilience, the diligent attention to detail, the sheer passion for getting up in the morning and working on the next thing, are mostly unseen. But there always is a next thing, and that has created a legacy which chronicles not just the Australian experience but the human experience. For that reason his work will live on, like the stories of Henry Lawson, the collected works of Slim Dusty, the poetry of Judith Wright.
For Kelly, the crucial element is not the chart placings (although his first No 1 album with 2017’s Life Is Fine was the kind of affirmation rarely given to artists so far into their career). Or the numerous ARIA Awards and induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997. Or even those markers along the way like being invited to tour with Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
His Order of Australia in 2017 acknowledged distinguished service to the performing arts and the promotion of the national identity through his contributions as singer, songwriter and musician. At the heart of the matter, the foundation, is the songs.
Sometimes we recognise ourselves in them, or are drawn in by the concrete details, the shining vision of Sydney Harbour from a plane; the bus ride through the cane of To Her Door; the child lifted up and over the waves in Deeper Water, the wisteria blooming on the veranda in Adelaide, the crisp Melbourne chill in the air and the clock on the silo in Leaps and Bounds. Loss, failure, renewal. Spring and Fall, as he described it in his song cycle about the seasons of love.
There are songs about some of the most famous Australians, like Ned Kelly in Our Sunshine, and Bradman, who Paul’s father knew when Paul was a boy in Adelaide. But he writes just as well about simple pleasures, of leaving the troubles behind at the cricket in Behind the Bowler’s Arm, or the sensations of time spent with a lover in Randwick Bells and Firewood and Candles.
He writes with acute insight about the concerns of indigenous Australians. From Little Things Big Things Grow, about the 1966 strike by stockmen on Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory and subsequent land rights battle, co-written with Kev Carmody. And Maralinga (Rainy Land), about those devastated by nuclear testing in the desert. Big stories, ones we should know and many of us first heard about in a song.
But just as telling are those small and vivid details, and these people we feel like we know. A song about a child pretending to be asleep in the back of the car and hearing the quiet sobs from the front. The characters in How to Make Gravy, Dan and Joe and Stella and Rita and the rest, the finest Christmas song ever written about not being able to be there for Christmas. Where does greatness begin? There is no recipe for that. But you could do worse than start as Kelly did by listening to the great songwriters, then singing their songs. The first two songs Kelly sang at that 1974 gig were Dylan’s Girl from the North Country and Streets of Forbes, the folk tale about bushranger Ben Hall, as sound a place to begin as any.
Then getting out into the country to see things worth writing about. To experience the way it tastes, smells, to feel it, live it, the way Paul Kelly did even before he set pen to paper. Like Joe says in How to Make Gravy, you need that dollop from the sauce to get the extra tang.