Paul Kelly: “One day that song might not come.”
The Melbournian has in the second half of his career developed a reputation for balancing prolificacy with consistency, releasing no less than eight studio albums between 1998 and 2007, as well as a clutch of film scores and other projects.
So when July marked five years since the last Paul Kelly release, Australian music fans had a right to be concerned. He was hardly cooling his heels, though: Kelly had been hard at work on his 2010 memoir, How to Make Gravy, as well as being involved in the documentary, Stories of Me – which is currently on a staggered limited release around the country – and continuing to tour with nephew Dan Kelly both here and overseas for the A – Z Recordings.
So what does a return from Paul Kelly sound like? Spring and Fall is a fantastic record – perhaps the best Kelly release in over a decade – marked by restraint and a renewed sense of purpose. It’s a concept album, turning around the rise and fall of a romantic relationship, and each song carefully hews to this greater purpose.
TheVine recently took some time out to talk to Kelly about the new record, as well as discuss documentaries, biographies and what it feels like to not write a song for four years.
Congratulations on Spring and Fall – are you happy with the way it came together in the end?
There’s always that feeling when a record’s just come out, and you feel good about it. And then you look back in a couple of years’ time and think, “Oh God.” [laughs] It was the best we could do – I really like playing with Dan [Kelly] and J. Walker [Kelly’s collaborators on the album] – we had a good time making it – and more than usual got close to how I imagined the record to be.
I was surprised to learn that the time from recording to release was very brief – just a few months. Was that the case from the start? Once you had the songs written, did the whole project come together quickly?
The writing of it was probably over the last year and a half to two years. I was aware that I hadn’t had a record out for a while because things had gotten stalled by writing the book, and then doing shows related to the book – I looked up after four years and I’d hardly written a song. I did think in my mind, “You don’t want to go more than five years without making a record.” [laughs] Six years would be too long, but somehow five seemed okay.
I was keen to get the record out this year, and then making the time to do it: I definitely wanted to do it with Dan, and then once we both decided we wanted to approach J. Walker, it was a matter of [lining up] schedules and also giving myself enough time to write it. So we just picked June, and it was always going to be tight – three weeks in June, had a week off, mixed it in two weeks, mid-July we could start the artwork – although I’d started to think about that before then. But being on my own label now, we can turn things around a lot quicker. It was always going to be a quick turnaround, but once we [had] the figure we just kept going.
Coming off the back of a four-year break as being a primary songwriter: Spring and Fall is a very gentle record in a sense – stripped back – it feels like you’re working yourself back into the groove. Is that a fair way to look at it?
I consciously wanted to do a stripped-back, singer-songwriter record. I had been doing a lot of work as a duo with Dan – that’s the way we normally tour overseas – and we were doing these A – Z shows, which were just the two of us. And I wanted to do a record that started with the sound the two of us had together. That was always the intention. Bringing in J. Walker, he started playing double bass in the rehearsals, and right away we thought, “This sounds like a groovy sound for the record.” And that sort of become our aesthetic, I guess. We started thinking of this idea of the record being one long song or telling a story from start to finish. And being a storytelling record, that fitted in with the idea of keeping things sparse and not sounding big and epic or rock in any way. I think there’s only one song with any distorted guitars on it [laughs] – ‘Gonna Be Good’ – so we found that Dan and I would often play two acoustic guitars that were tuned differently; one of us might pick and the other do something else. So we did kinda hone in on a sound.
That treatment really works, though. On a song like ‘Someone New’: that idea of wanting to "sleep with someone different, someone new" – it’s such a simple thing, such a primal thing. You’ve delivered it in a way that frames that but the strings at the end also captures the kind of damage such actions can have.
Yeah, that was the real hinge song for me of the record. Once we had settled on this idea of a story of a relationship, that was always going to be the song in the middle. Again, that was a song that was written five or six years ago – not long before I started the book – so I hadn’t really had a chance to record it. But I thought, “Oh well. Keep that one. It’s gonna be good somewhere, if I find the right record to put it on.” And I’d written what I’d call a spring song, ‘When a Woman Loves a Man’. Again, that had been around for a while and I knew that was a good song for early on the record. Break-up songs, they’re a dime a dozen – us songwriters have got lots of them: love gone wrong, love falling apart, lost love – that’s our staple [laughs]. That’s our daily bread; you always have them. So I thought, “I’ve got a spring song, I’ve got fall songs, I’ve got a hinge song. If I can just fill in the gaps, I can make a little story out of this.”
I think a lot of people were surprised by your admission on the 7:30 Report around the time of How to Make Gravy in 2010 that you weren’t all that sure you had more songs to come. That’s lasted four years, more or less. You seemed comfortable with it at the time of the O’Brien interview. You’d been head down in the book, of course, but was there a time where you perhaps thought, “I’m done. I’m done with songwriting”?
It’s sort of a normal state for a songwriter. I’m not writing songs nine-to-five. Writing a book or writing prose is much more like a job: you get up everyday, go to the desk and try to write 500 words. Songwriting’s not that graspable, and [songs] don’t come along that often. I’m never quite sure if there’s another one there. I’ve always felt that you just write them one at a time, but one day that song you’re hoping for might not come. But you get used to that state. That’s what being a songwriter is, most of the time – nothing’s happening, and then something happened [laughs].
We’ve just discussed Spring and Fall as being a song cycle. You’ve talked recently about trying to recapture those conceptual albums of your Joni Mitchells, your Neil Youngs – of that late 60s, early 70s period. People talk about the demand for albums being ruined by the digital realm, but do you think there was a problem on the supply side after 40 or 50 years of making albums – around the turn of the millennium – that artists and labels weren’t treating the format with enough respect?
There’s more than one question in that, but it’s a good point. First of all, the way we listen to music now, the choices we have, the way we’re able to graze and pick and choose songs – I think that’s leading to a revival of the idea of an album as being a thought-out thing. I think you’re right: the album became this thing. I think Frank Sinatra started it with the idea of, “I won’t just put together a collection of singles and call it an album. I’m gonna think themes and build albums around themes.” And then rock ‘n’ roll and pop music in the '60s really took that idea of the album as being a real statement. And then albums became the norm, and then everyone who was writing songs was thinking, “We have to do an album.”
But not all artists are album artists; some people are probably better off doing singles or EPs or one song at a time. Then CDs came along and suddenly you could put 70 minutes on a record, and I did it too – I made long records – and I thought that the format was there, so we may as well use it. But I’ve retreated from that now, and I’m heading back to the idea of a more succinct, shorter album. To answer your question in a roundabout way, I think now there are real opportunities to make the album a coherent thing. And in the same way, because music now is so easy to download, if you want to make an object, you need to make a beautiful object – you can’t just slap something together with a bit of plastic, a song list and trot something out. You’ve got to try to invest in beautiful artwork and make the record feel good in the listener’s hands.
You’ve talked about getting a cluster of songs together and that driving you forward. Do you think you’d find it a lot harder to write songs that weren’t for an entire project?
I still tend to write songs randomly, because I read newspapers and I read poetry and I read books and I talk to people. So songs do come at you from anywhere – something strikes you, you write it down and you think that it could be a line in a song. So songs do come along, without rhyme or reason and without one being connected to the next. What I noticed I am doing more now: as they come along, I sort them. And it’s like I might get odd socks – I’ll wait until I get a matching pair of socks and maybe put the Holeproof Explorers together in one bunch, and the thin cotton socks over there. I do tend to write songs randomly, and then I sort them. And once you have three or four that are talking to each other, they stimulate you to write songs related to them, and that’s what happened with this record. I had three or four songs and then I thought, “Ahhh, I’ve got a little storyline here. If I could just write some more, I’d have a whole record.” I’ve still got those odd socks kicking around – I’ve just got to wait until I get a few more of those and see if I can make them into something.
So, the plans for the summer and 2013: you’re going to be touring the record, yes?
Yeah, touring starts next year, late February through March.
You’ve also got the documentary – Stories of Me – coming out at the same time as the album: was that planned at all? Would you have preferred it a little differently?
Initially, the documentary was supposed to come out much earlier, but they got held up with the editing and they found a lot of archival footage. So they got delayed and wanted to put it out in October, and I wanted to put the record out in October, so at some point we thought, “Let’s just put them out together, and hopefully they’ll help each other.” That’s the theory [laughs].
And talking about that touring: are you looking forward to presenting these songs to a live audience?
Yeah, they’re good songs to play. Dan and I were touring earlier this year and playing four or five of the songs live – they’re easy to play, they’re simple chords, and there aren’t any tricks to playing them. You just lay them down.
Spring and Fall is out now.
PAUL KELLY, NEIL FINN & LISA MITCHELL - AUSTRALIAN TOUR 2013
Saturday, February 16 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Monday, February 18 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Wednesday, February 27 – Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre
Friday, March 1 – Elder Park, Adelaide
Sunday, March 10 – Opera House, Sydney
Monday, March 11 – Opera House, Sydney
Tuesday, March 12 – Opera House, Sydney
Thursday, March 14 – Kings Park, Perth