Paul Kelly plays Newcastle Entertainment Centre on November 15 with support acts US country-blues legend Steve Earle and indie-rock trio Middle Kids.
THERE is something unsettling about the cover art for Paul Kelly’s latest offering Life is Fine.
Kelly is photographed in the water at St Kilda beach, not far from the legendary musician’s home. In the picture he is neck deep in water. One hand is rising. He might be waving, but perhaps it’s a distress signal.
He looks like he wants to say something, but his mouth is filled with seawater.
“A lot of people have commented on the cover. It’s accidental really,” Kelly says.
“It was a photo taken three or four years ago by a photographer friend of mine, Steve Young.
“He wanted to take a portrait of me to enter into a competition.
“He knew I liked swimming and the water. I live near the sea. We went down to St Kilda beach … it was February, late in the afternoon.
“He got in the water with his camera and took a few snaps.”
The photograph is an out-take which the photographer had sent to Kelly. After deciding on the Life is Fine title, for the album Kelly went on the hunt for artwork.
“I was just trawling through images on my computer, looking for anything really that might fit that title,” he says.
“I like the ambiguity of the title. And I saw that and thought straight away there’s the cover.”
Of the image itself, Kelly agrees it has a multiplicity of meaning.
“You don’t know whether I am in trouble or not, or if I am actually just having a good time,” he says.
“The beauty of the photo is it’s open to interpretation.”
The ambiguity of the image picks up on the themes of the album: the varied unravelling of life, the “joy and the “tragedy.”
The 12 songs on Life is Fine were written over the past “few years” but a couple are “quite a lot older.”
“I was just saving up songs that I thought would make a good band record,” Kelly says.
“The last few records I have done have been a bit off the beaten track. Last year I did a record of Shakespearean sonnets; songs I have sung at funerals, an acoustic record.
“I intended to come out and make a record that contrasted sharply to those ones. I wanted a big band record. I wanted it to be upbeat and playful.”
Kelly has delivered what he intended. Life is Fine is a rocking band album. It is so trademark Kelly that it almost sounds like a greatest hits album. The songs are both familiar but fresh.
“The song Firewood and Candles sounded to me like an old song, like something I could have written in the ’80s,” he says.
“I was aware of that, and the way it jumps around in style is like my older records.
“I was trying to write short, more poppy songs.”
Stand out tracks are Firewood and Candles, Rising Moon, Finally Something Good, Life is Fine and the humorous My Man’s Got a Cold, performed by Vika Bull.
“I had been hanging on to that one for a little while, it just needed a good set of songs around it,” Kelly says of the track.
“It had to be sung by Vika Bull. I wanted someone to be able to bring that ‘one hand on the hip, lay down the law and don’t take no prisoners’ attitude and she bought it.
“It goes way back to Bessie Smith.”
Among the overall upbeat feel of the album there are tiny glimmers of darkness running through. The sense of them culminate at the final song, the title track Life is Fine. The lyrics of which are the Langston Hughes’ poem of the same name.
“I always like mixing light and dark together,” Kelly says.
“Shakespeare has always done that, he is number one. Next to a scene of horror he will put a scene of comedy.
“The Langston Hughes poem - it’s probably why it appealed to me. On one hand it’s about suicide, but it ends with this great burst of joy and reaffirming of life.
“For me it was this great coda to the record, it summed up the record for me.
“It’s a pretty colourful record with big-band sounds and lots of harmony singing, but in all the joy there is always despair or tragedy waiting in the wings – the come down.
“Life is never really constant and joy doesn't mean anything without despair.”
The songs on Life is Fine hold many images and allusions to the natural world.
“It wasn’t until after that I realised there was so much rain and nature in the record. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but that’s how it often happens,” he says.
“You start to assemble a group of songs you think suit each other and after the fact you realise there is a whole lot of reoccurring imagery of themes that keep running through it.
“I like that kind of thing, but they are not intentional”.
Kelly brings his Life is Fine Tour to the Newcastle Entertainment Centre on November 15.
He says he has always enjoyed Newcastle shows.
“They have always been good. It’s one of our favourite places to play. We have played a few shows at the Civic now, which is one of my favourite theatres in the country,” he says.
“It will be a bigger show. We wanted to put a really strong bill together and make it a great show.”