paul kelly main art for online
paul kelly main art for online

Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The Life In-Between

Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The Life In-Between examines the revered musician's evolution as the sixth of nine children in Adelaide through to chart-topping chronicler of Australian stories and the human condition. Author Stuart Coupe, his former manager in the 1980s, examines his struggles and triumphs with Kelly's blessing and access to friends, family and bandmates, from fine-honing his songwriting and playing skills as a late starter to the craft through to his relationships and struggles with drugs and the music business.

 

In 2016, after knowing each other for many years, Paul agreed to produce an album, Dragonfly, for Kasey Chambers which was released early the following year. As expected, Paul brought his own production stamp to the record.

"I'd asked Paul a few times before this record if he'd produce something for me one day," Chambers says.

"We work together every now and then. He'd never said no to doing something with me, to producing something - but he also never really committed to it. So I kept asking and asking until I think he realised that the only way I was going to stop asking was if he agreed to do something. Honestly, I think I wore him down.

 

Paul Kelly’s former manager and author Stuart Coupe. Picture: Dylan Robinson
Paul Kelly’s former manager and author Stuart Coupe. Picture: Dylan Robinson

"I've always been influenced by Paul's music. I'm inspired by the way he handles his career and the way he approaches making records. He's really different from me personality wise. But we really click in the studio. Watching him bring my songs to life and his flavour to them was great. He brought different musicians and an engineer in.

Paul doing more than just producing the album was something Chambers didn't assume was a given.

"I didn't want to ask and I didn't want to push my luck but then he suggested it. He sent me a message one day saying that he'd been listening to all the songs and was it okay if he tried a few of the harmonies and some of the music on it. I thought that was awesome - and he didn't charge me any extra for it."

Even with Chambers' long and highly regarded history as a songwriter she still found it completely confronting sending songs to Paul to see what he thought of them. Such is the sense of awe that Paul engenders among even the most experienced songwriters.

"It was honestly one of the most nerve-racking things I've ever had to do in my life. I mean, I'd wanted Paul to produce something for ages and he'd finally said yes, and he'd heard a couple of the songs that I'd played live - Behind The Eyes of Henri Young and Ain't No Little Girl - and then he asked if I'd send him some more songs, and that's when I went, 'Oh my God, I have to send these songs that no one has heard to one of my favourite songwriters in the whole world and get his opinion on them and he's actually going to go through them with a fine tooth comb, going, 'No, this is crap, oh, this one's okay, okay, this one needs work'.

"I was thinking that this was both the best and worst moment of my life."

 

Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The Life In-Between examines the revered musician’s evolution. Picture: Martin Philbey
Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The Life In-Between examines the revered musician’s evolution. Picture: Martin Philbey

Paul persuaded Chambers to record a Woody Guthrie/ Bob Dylan blues - inspired song, Talkin' Baby Blues.

"That was one of the songs I thought wasn't going to make the record. I played it live a lot for a few years, and it was one of the songs I sent to Paul when he asked me for more.

"At the end of the session when we'd sort of finished the record and everything seemed done, and we were sitting around with a bottle of Glenlivet Scotch and after we all had one or two or three Paul said he wanted us to go in and do a live version of Talkin' Baby Blues, and we did and that's how it ended up on the record."

Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke is quick to dismiss any suggestion that Paul still dreams of 'making it' on a global stage. He thinks that has already been accomplished.

"Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell - all of the archetypes are what you could say Paul is in the lineage of - but that group is the anomaly, it is not the norm, and it's the wrong recognition to strive for.

"What you want to strive for is to be heard - and to be heard consistently and in a way where other artists who are your peers respect you, and you can come into (another country) and the people coming to the shows are both old friends, and people who are bringing new friends, or people coming because they've just heard something.

 

Kelly with Kasey Chambers who picked up Best Female Artist Award at the Arias in 2000. Picture: Dean Lewins
Kelly with Kasey Chambers who picked up Best Female Artist Award at the Arias in 2000. Picture: Dean Lewins

"Paul is Australia's Slim Dusty, Dylan, Springsteen and Neil Young combined. He can be all Australian and still have a connection with people outside of Australia.

"Paul is a survivor. I'm not just listening to songs from Gossip or songs from Under the Sun or songs from Hidden Things, or even Deeper Water. I'm listening to the new things where he's singing Shakespeare or collaborating with other artists.

'"How to Make Gravy may possibly be my favourite Paul Kelly song.

"It's not so much a song about Christmas as it is a song about longing. It transcends holiday. It transcends setting. And what he does is narrow all those big things down into simple interactions.

"You have Gravy Day in Australia. Springsteen can't do that - he had to borrow July 4. With Dylan no one goes 'Happy Like a Rolling Stone' day.

"It shows he's connecting with people in a very intimate way but on a large scale."

Indeed, Paul's public profile has grown and grown to the point where he's now a more significant live drawcard than he's ever been before. He's done that while becoming a hip and cool figure who appeals to an extremely broad range of people.

Unlike so many other artists of his age Paul's audience keeps rejuvenating. While he has many longstanding fans who keep attending his concerts, they're likely to be standing next to a bunch of kids who weren't even born when Gossip was released.

 

Kelly with fellow artist Neil Finn at The Adelaide Festival.
Kelly with fellow artist Neil Finn at The Adelaide Festival.

Part of what has kept Paul's currency appealing and relevant to a younger audience is astute

positioning. Paul has transferred his endlessly inquisitive interest in new music into his concert bills. He is the guy who supports and encourages new, up-and-coming contemporary

Australian music.

For the How to Make Gravy 2019 tour the opening acts were Thelma Plum, Marlon Williams, Courtney Barnett and Kate Miller-Heidke. He keeps promoting and surrounding himself with new and relevant music and artists.

There was a key moment when this seismic audience change occurred, particularly in Victoria,

but its impact spread quickly.

"I can pinpoint when I felt a noticeable escalation in the crowd response and crowd numbers," Ash Naylor (who plays in his current band) says.

"It was around when we played Splendour in the Grass in 2007, which was around the time that Paul's lyric book was part of the VCE curriculum reading list.

"So a lot of the songs were in the consciousness of a lot of younger people whose parents probably had the records.

 

Kelly with his EMI Life Is Fine plaque.
Kelly with his EMI Life Is Fine plaque.

"I remember George Negus introducing us at a festival. He said, 'The Yanks have got Bob Dylan and we've got Paul Kelly,' and the place erupted. It was something akin to Beatlemania, like an aeroplane's jet engine noise. It was phenomenal.

"At the heart of it is the calibre of the material. People want something with substance, and they get it. Throughout it all, Paul has never been a nostalgia act. I suspect there's a portion of Paul's current audience who still buy records but he's also got the kids who are into streaming too.

"And the songs are relatable. People obviously have to be able to relate to the lyrics in some way to get into the shows and songs. He has this way of getting to the point without being too prosaic, and still evocative. It's a skill and it's what he does. He's a writer and he works on it."

 

Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The LifeIn-Between is published by Hachette on July 28.

 

Originally published as Paul Kelly: The Man, The Music and The Life In-Between

Kelly performing with Vicka and Linda Bull. Picture: Mike Dugdale
Kelly performing with Vicka and Linda Bull. Picture: Mike Dugdale

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