Interview: Paul Kelly

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Undoubtedly one of Down Under’s most cherished songwriters over the last 30 years, Paul Kelly’s tunes – by turns brutally honest and poetic – have resonated powerfully with the hurt and unheard. As he returns for a sold-out show, he tells Gerard Ward about meeting his idols, his views on DJs and those prized guitars

First published on 7 Feb 2012. Updated on 7 Feb 2012.

You’ve got an extensive repertoire, to say the least. Have you ever had issues with requests and not being able to remember the songs?
I don’t have issues with requests. It’s a simple thing to say ‘I don’t want to do that’ or ‘I don’t remember it’. Doing the A-Z shows over the past few years [in which Kelly performs his songs in alphabetical order] has been very useful in cementing most of my songs in my memory. I can play around 150 of my songs at a moment’s notice now. Once in a while my mind goes blank onstage. Last night in Manchester I forgot a line and someone from the audience supplied it. So it’s not usually a problem.

What is it that got you into music when you were young?
I had piano lessons for two years at the age of 10-11. There was always music around the house, classical music on the radio. My sister had a boyfriend who played trumpet. He brought over some Dixieland jazz – Louis Armstrong, Kenny Ball. They blew my head open. Everyone playing free but somehow all with each other at the same time. I asked my parents if I could switch to trumpet after that and studied it all through high school. I picked up a guitar at the age of 18 and wrote my first song when I was 21.

When you were starting out you travelled a lot. Did you always have a guitar by your side?
Except for my first year after school, when I was 17, I’ve always travelled with a guitar.

When you first started performing songs with aspects of political commentary, how did those first moments with audiences turn out? Did you have much backlash with any particular songs?
The songs that people call political songs – ‘Maralinga’, ‘From Little Things’, ‘Bicentennial’ – are story songs. They don’t tell people what to think. People can hear them and then chew them over. I’ve never felt a backlash but generally as a performer you’re getting approval. Who knows what people say when they get home.

I heard that you were a fan of artists like Bob Dylan, and you got to support him in 2001.
Dylan was a big influence on me when I first started writing songs. I’ve enjoyed the times I’ve played with him. His audience has always been generous to me, and he and his crew friendly and courteous. I played with him again last year. He’s always interesting to watch, the way he changes the feel and melody of his songs. Some things work better than others.

Have you ever been able to meet any of your musical idols?
Well, I have quite a few. My biggest highlight was meeting and playing with Allen Toussaint, the New Orleans piano player and songwriter, 20 years ago in New York. He’s the kind of songwriter I aspire to be, writing songs for lots of people. He has a playful touch. He’s 73 now, and still playing and arranging. You can see him in the HBO series Treme, set in New Orleans. It’s a great show.

Do you ever have new musicians rush up to you asking for advice?
Hmm…they generally don’t rush up but approach in a more diffident manner. My main advice would be to trust your instincts and never sign anything without checking with a lawyer. Oh, and try to avoid rushing up to a performer straight after a gig.

Is this your first time playing in Singapore?
No. I once played at a film festival function. In an atrium with people talking. Not one of my greatest performances.

I was at the SLAM [Save Live Australian Music] Day rally in Melbourne 2008 when you spoke about public concerts being attacked. How do you see the future of live music?
Live music seems to be increasing in popularity. As recorded music becomes cheaper, musicians need to earn a living from playing live more than ever. And the wide availability of music seems to be increasing demand for people to hear it live. All the young people I know are hungry to go and see bands all the time – at festivals, little pubs and so on.

Do you think live music is being undermined by the rise of DJs and electronic music?
Not at all. Electronic music and DJs continue to push music in new directions and in our increasingly eclectic culture all forms of music are finding ways to meet and make new combinations. That’s how music and art evolve. Someone makes a connection between two things that no one else has been able to see before.

Do you feel that your tastes in music are changing over the years?
My tastes have always been pretty wide so I suppose that hasn’t changed. I’m always interested in what’s new but I also have old favourites I keep going back to.

Do you have a particular guitar that you always have with you?
I have a 1938 Martin D18 that I love and play at home. I also record with it. It doesn’t go on the road. I have two Matons for touring, Australian-made guitars. They sound great and are sturdy travellers. I also have a little Maton that I take on holidays.

I’m not a big guitar collector. I tend to stick with things a long time. For electric guitar I have a Les Paul Signature, made in 1971. I bought it with my first royalty cheque in 1987. I walked into the store and picked it out for its colour – gold. I make all guitars sound the same, so I’m not too fussed what I play.

What are you hoping to do next?
Write some really good songs. Songs that surprise me.

Paul Kelly plays at the Esplanade Recital Studio at 8pm on 8 Feb.

By Gerard Ward
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