WHEN you’ve established a reputation as one of Australia’s most revered songwriters like Paul Kelly has, it would be easy to fall back on proven formulas.
Stick to what you know best and keep pumping out the hits for your legions of fans. But even at 63 and with 23 studio albums behind him, Kelly continues to challenge himself. To search for new inspiration.
The greatest source of inspiration on album No.24, Nature, was Kelly’s life-long love of poetry. Five of Nature’s 12 tracks came from poems by Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Phillip Larkin, while four were initially Kelly’s own poems and the other three were written as conventional songs.
“Up until six years ago I thought it wouldn’t be possible,” Kelly tells Weekender. “I always thought if you had the words first it would be too restrictive with the music.”
That was until Kelly was asked to work on Conversations With Ghosts, a classical music project written to poetry, in 2013.
“That opened a door for me,” he says. “I thought it wasn’t possible, but then I thought you can actually do this. It was quite liberating and in some ways, I found it easier than writing my own words.
“Words are the hardest part for me in writing songs and the slowest part. I get melodies and music much more quickly.”
It would surprise many people that Kelly struggles with lyrics. This is a man after all who is renown for articulating the most Australian of stories. Songs like How To Make Gravy and From Little Things Big Things Grow (co-written with Kev Carmody) are ingrained in our cultural consciousness.
While Nature features classic works from Dylan Thomas (And Death Shall Have No Dominion) and Walt Whitman (With Animals), the lyrics which carry the most weight come from Kelly’s own pen.
Bastard Like Me, written about Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, began as a poem by Kelly. Perkins died in 2000 aged 64 from renal failure without meeting Kelly.
“I’ve worked with his daughter Rachel Perkins on a film called One Night The Moon,” Kelly says. “She’s a film-maker I greatly admire.
“I knew the story of her dad who was at the forefront of fighting for justice for Aboriginals from the mid-60s until his death in 2000. That was the title of his autobiography, A Bastard Like Me. I thought what a great title for a song.”
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Besides the lead single With The One I Love, Nature is a more mellow affair than Kelly’s celebrated comeback album Life Is Fine, released last year.
Life Is Fine amazingly scored Kelly his first No.1 album and ARIA Awards for Best Male Artist and Best Adult Contemporary Album.
“I thought it was a pretty accessible record,” Kelly says. “It felt like a more poppy record than what I’ve made for a while, so I thought it might be more widely appealing.
“You never know. I wouldn’t have predicted it. You don’t know what songs are going to be popular. I’m the worst judge of that.”