Life is Fine, Paul Kelly

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Undoubtably one of Australia’s most highly respected and prolific musical artists, Paul Kelly is taking his band on the road for a special regional tour, stopping off at the Coffs Harbour Botanical Gardens. FOCUS was lucky enough to pin him down for a chat …

Hi Paul. With a successful career spanning over 43 years, how has your writing style or topics changed over the years?

I don’t think it’s changed that much. You never know what you’re doing when you’re writing a song – well, I don’t anyway. I sort of figure out what’s happening somewhere in the middle of it. So for me, songwriting’s always been a bit like fishing; you don’t know when you’re going to get a song, but you’ve gotta turn up if you wanna get a bite.

You’ve collaborated with a myriad of talented artists over the years. Who has been the most memorable?

There have been lots of good ones, and one I’ve done recently was with A.B Original doing a version of Dumb Things with them … Way back to working with Kev Carmody writing From Little Things Big Things Grow around a campfire at the Wivenhoe Dam in 1998; writing Treaty, working with Yothu Yindi on his second record, going up to Arnhem Land and staying up there for a while getting to know other members of his band and spending time on their country. Lots of highlights.

Having written songs and collaborated with indigenous artists vocalising about Aboriginal Social Injustices, what is it that is so prevalent and makes you so passionate about this issue within society?

When I left school and started travelling around, I started to realise I hadn’t learnt anything at school about Aboriginal history or culture, so I started digging around for myself and realised that there was a huge silence or gap in Australian culture about our history. I think it’s still playing out today; it’s never been fully acknowledged that there was a war going on when Australia was settled by Europeans, and I think that’s had its ramifications right through to today.

Let’s talk about the new album. Not only has it topped the Aria Album charts, your shows are selling out fast. You haven’t really had much of a gap over the years in terms of album production; what do you think it is about Life is Fine that has been so well received?

I thought it might do OK, but it’s done better than I expected. You never know which records are going to be popular and which aren’t. I wanted to make a playful, upbeat record with the whole band; I released two records last year that were more philosophical and meditative – a record of Shakespeare sonnets and a record of songs I’ve sung at funerals. So I think it was just coming out with a record that was in such contrast to those that people have responded to.

It really is a different record, where you’ve taken the back seat on a couple of tracks, employing the amazingly talented Vika and Linda Bull …

A lot of my favourite bands always have another singer take a song on a record. I think it gives variety to the record; I wish I’d thought of it 30 years ago! I’ll probably keep on doing it, making records like this, always having someone else sing at least one or two songs.

The title track’s lyrics were written by American writer Langston Hughes. Where did you read this poem, and what drove you to use it as the lyrics to this album’s title track?

A friend of mine sent me The Time a couple of years ago and said, “Why don’t you try putting some music to it?” The beauty of the poem by Langston Hughes is that it actually reads like a song lyric. I didn’t change his words at all or adapt them; I used his words exactly as they were written, and they just naturally formed into a song pattern.

It’s a beautiful poem; it’s a poem about suicide, but it ends up being about the will to live, ending with a burst of joy, life is fine, fine as wine. It’s the appeal of it, the combination of dark and light in the song, and I thought that would point to the record as a whole.

On the Australian leg of the tour you’re bringing some special guests along with you, including Steve Earle, an amazing artist and writer. Have you guys played alongside each other previously?

I first met Steve Earle when I was in America in ’87, so I’ve known him for many years and caught up with him when he visits Australia and seen him over there. We both like each other’s music, but we’ve never actually done a show together. We’ve been at some different festivals together, including Blues Fest in Australia and also festivals in America, so we’ve crossed paths quite a few times. I wanted to put a good strong bill together for the show, and I knew he was keen to come out to Australia again – so we started talking.

Thanks Paul.

THE PLUG

Tickets are selling fast for Paul Kelly’s Coffs Harbour Show; don’t miss out on your chance to see this amazing artist in action.

Paul Kelly @ Botanical Gardens. Sunday, 12 November, 7pm. www.frontiertouring.com/paulkelly

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