Australia's best singer-songwriter has heart and soul
"I LIKE writing prose better than songs," Paul Kelly says matter-of-factly. There is a long silence. "At the moment," he adds, with appropriately dramatic effect.
Australian music's poet laureate was talking heresy.
After all, it's Kelly's music and words that have found places in the hearts of millions of Australians over the past 35 years.
We have grown up with him, listening to his songs he has spread like Vegemite from inner-Sydney Randwick, to the streets of St Kilda and out to Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory.
Kelly's music always has a warm familiarity.
"I don't really write about places, though," Kelly says.
"It's the people ..." Kelly's people are flesh and blood.
"There is something unique and powerful about the way Paul mixes up everyday detail with the big issues of life, death, love and struggle," Crowded House's Neil Finn mused. "Not a trace of pretence or fakery in there."
Kelly, whose 21 albums since 1978 barely scratch the surface of his contribution to Australian music, about 18 months ago released his latest album, Spring and Fall.
It is his sole recorded offering in seven years, most unusual for such a prolific talent. So why the hiatus?
"There really hasn't been one - I've been busy," he says.
Between writing his critically acclaimed memoir, How to Make Gravy, he has been playing and, of course, writing "a few songs".
"Well, I was invited to tour with Neil (Finn) - that was an opportunity I couldn't miss," he says. And he has been playing gigs in the US.
But the 58-year-old's concentration had been resting with the book, which had its genesis, appropriately enough, in a series of his concerts.
Never one for doing the ordinary, over four nights in 2004 Kelly performed, in alphabetical order, one hundred of his songs from the previous three decades.
In between songs he told stories about them, and the book took shape from those little tales.
"I really enjoyed writing the book," Kelly says.
"Prose is so much more direct. It's easier and for that matter quicker to say exactly what you mean."
Kelly's 550-page book, for example, took four or so years to write. To Your Door - one of his best-known and loved songs - took seven.
"I found the tune, worked on it and put it away, then worked on it some more ... the lyrics came last," he says.
But he has always agonised over songs.
Kelly is famous for working and re-working songs, forever looking for a nuance he may have missed the first or second time.
It keeps his live shows fresh, but it is also a chore for him.
In fact, Kelly describes his songwriting as "a scavenging art, a desperate act".
"For me it's a bit from here, a bit from there, fumbling around, never quite knowing what you're doing," he says.
"Songwriting is like a way of feeling connected to mystery."
While bands like Midnight Oil were about power and passion, Kelly is about the agony and the ecstasy.
Paul Maurice Kelly was born the sixth of nine children in Adelaide, shortly after the new year in 1955.
His mother, Josephine, was the daughter of an Argentinean opera singer, and dad, John, a solicitor.
His grandfather had started the family law firm in Adelaide in 1917.
Kelly was a good student. Schooled at the Catholic college, Rostrevor, he played trumpet and studied piano, and was a keen, and not untalented, sportsman.
He still has "a bit of a kick around" with mates near his home in Melbourne, and every now and again they go down to the nets to have a hit.
At school, Kelly was a "reasonable" opening batsman and a leg-break bowler.
His love of cricket was inspired, to some extent, by a neighbour, though. Sir Donald Bradman.
"Dad knew Bradman," Kelly says, " ... as an acquaintance.
"He lived just down the street from us."
According to legend, Kelly met the incomparable batsman some time in the early 1990s.
Kelly had only recently written, recorded and released Bradman, an epic retelling of how Sir Donald dealt with the bodyline series.
A starry-eyed Kelly is supposed to have asked the Don during a short conversation what he thought of the song.
"A good effort, son," Sir Don was supposed to have said, giving him a conciliatory pat on the shoulder.
"It didn't happen. I never met him," Kelly says.
"But Bradman had a reputation for answering all his mail, and I did send him a letter and a video of the song.
"He wrote back saying he didn't have a video player, but thanks.
"I don't think the song would really have been his cup of tea, anyway."
There's a fleeting smile in Kelly's voice.
"Bradman was a very good musician, you know," he says, ending the over with a deflection to long leg. "Played the piano."
From school, Kelly went straight into an arts course at Flinders University, but after a term in 1973, left.
Over the next three years, he picked up guitar, and by 1976 began playing around venues in Melbourne.
Music writer Glenn A. Baker once said the reason Kelly had not achieved international success was because of his "Australian-ness".
It's a badge of sacrifice Kelly isn't willing to wear, though his Australian fans no doubt bask in his unique talent.
"Oh, I don't know ... we can still pull crowds in the United States," he says, laconically.
Rolling Stone's David Fricke said Kelly was "one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise".
He is generous, too. Eight years ago, he was involved in rare shows put together for his friend Kev Carmody.
Dozens of Australian stars came together for only two shows to celebrate Carmody's extraordinary songs and career.
Kelly, who wrote From Little Things Big Things Grow with Carmody, sat quietly playing guitar watching performance after stunning performance roll by.
It was not a show, it was an experience. It was life, and Kelly, as usual, was playing his part.
- Paul Kelly and Urthboy will play the Sunshine Coast, as part of his Spring and Fall Australian tour, on July 31
- They will be at the Lake Kawana Community Centre.
Paul Kelly - Spring And Fall Australian tour dates - with special guest Urthboy
- Tuesday 23 July - Civic Theatre, Cairns QLD
- Wednesday 24 July - Civic Theatre, Townsville QLD
- Friday 26 July - Pilbeam Theatre, Rockhampton QLD
- Saturday 27 July - Moncrieff Entertainment Centre, Bundaberg QLD
- Sunday 28 July - Brolga Theatre, Maryborough QLD
- Tuesday 30 July - Arts Theatre, Gold Coast QLD
- Wednesday 31 July - Community Centre, Lake Kawana QLD
- Thursday 1 August - QPAC, Brisbane QLD
- Saturday 3 August - Glasshouse Theatre, Port Macquarie NSW
- Monday 5 August - Civic Theatre, Newcastle NSW
- Tuesday 13 August - City Recital Hall, Sydney NSW
- Wednesday 14 August - City Recital Hall, Sydney NSW
- Saturday 17 August - Anita's Theatre, Wollongong NSW
- Sunday 18 August - Llewellyn Hall, Canberra ACT
- Wednesday 28 August - Memorial Hall, Leongatha