The true history of Paul Kelly

The true history of Paul Kelly

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The true history of Paul Kelly

Iain Shedden From: The Australian September 18, 2010

AN idea for a concert led to a highly unusual memoir from one of the country's favourite and most enduring artists.
THERE are cobwebs in Paul Kelly's shed. Normally, spiders wouldn't get much of a chance to be so industrious in this environment because at every available opportunity the prolific Kelly would be in there doing what he does best: writing songs. But for more than two years the little work station out the back of Kelly's St Kilda home has lain dormant. He hasn't written one song in that time. The singer has had other things on his mind.

Despite Kelly having had the longest lay-off in his songwriting career, songs are very much at the forefront of his latest project. What began six years ago as a new way to play some of his material in concert -- presenting it alphabetically from A to Z across four nights -- has evolved into something quite different: his memoirs.

How to Make Gravy is an offshoot of the A-Z idea, with each of the 100 songs from his 300-plus catalogue inspiring or linking in some way to the essay, historical tract or musing on anything from cricket to bad coffee that accompanies it. It's not a typical memoir, not chronological and not always about the writer, although we do learn more about him than he has revealed before.

Kelly's initial idea was to write something to accompany the material when recordings of the A-Z series, mainly acoustic versions of his songs, were released on CD (an eight-CD A-Z boxed set is being released alongside the book). It became clear to him that what he was writing would be more than liner notes for an album. Once he began writing, he says, he was unable to stop. Each song became a stepping point to an idea.

"I had some notes from the scripts from the shows," he says, sitting drinking coffee in a Fitzroy Street restaurant, not far from his home of many years. Appropriately, perhaps, the germ of the book was born out of his song Adelaide, also his birthplace and the city in which he took his first tentative steps as a musician.

"As soon as I started off with Adelaide, writing about ideas around Adelaide, I knew I had something," he says. "It was a little while before I thought: 'This could be a book.' Once you have that thought it changes the way you think about it and that allowed me room to be more expansive and to be able to take it anywhere."

There are few places he doesn't visit. There are loving and often humorous revelations concerning his family heritage going back to Italy and Ireland. He traces the Irish connection all the way back to Jeremiah and Mary Kelly, who migrated to South Australia in 1852.

His long association with indigenous culture and Aboriginal songwriters such as Kev Carmody and Mandawuy Yunupingu is another recurring feature.

Kelly gives us rare insight into the songwriter's craft and in particular his own methods. He writes passionately, too, about the music he loves, stretching from old American blues, bluegrass and country music, through to Frank Sinatra and contemporary hip-hop.

There are also diary entries stretching across most of his career, written on tour buses and in hotel rooms across the globe. He even addresses his longstanding, although only occasional, use of heroin, something he gave up years ago, the book reveals.

"I didn't set out to write a tell-all type of biography," he says. "In some ways I have, but that wasn't the intent that drove it. It's the writing I'm interested in, not the confession. My main rule was that it had to be an interesting piece of writing.

"[But] when I realised it was turning into an accidental memoir then I had to honour that. I didn't want to write something that was fudging in any way. If you are writing a memoir you do have to put a certain amount on the table.

"There are some really private things that if I could find a way to write about I probably would. It's something I can do with songwriting but it becomes filtered with disguise." The A-Z phenomenon has surprised Kelly. Initially he put it together as a one-off series of shows in Melbourne in 2004, but it blossomed into other performances, including in Brisbane and at the Sydney Festival. He'll be doing it again at that festival next January, towards the end of a two-month tour under the A-Z banner. During the past few years Kelly has released some of the recordings from the shows, starting with the As, online.

"There was something about these A-Z shows that surprised me every step of the way," he says. "Then I realised it worked as an idea. It gave me a whole other way to do shows. I'd seen some of [Men at Work co-founder] Colin Hay's solo shows and half the show was songs and half was storytelling. But you never once thought: 'Stop talking and sing the song.' It was another part of the performance."

Rather than performing with a band, Kelly did most of the A-Z performances solo or with his nephew, Dan Kelly, on guitar. His partner of 12 years, Sian Prior, plays clarinet on six of the recordings.

"Band shows are always quite tight in what you can and can't do with a balance of old and new songs," says Kelly. "With these shows, something I stumbled on gave me something continuous. That gave me the idea for the book. So the whole thing has stemmed from me waking up one night about six years ago with a silly idea."

If one were to draw a central theme that runs through the 500 or so pages of How to Make Gravy it would be how things, people and places connect. Kelly revels in linking the history of songs and songwriters as much as he does joining up the hundreds of relatives he has or has had in Australia and in various parts of the world. "I wanted to write something where people can make those connections," he says. "It becomes interesting when you can connect things up."

Some of that process involved research, he adds, "but a lot of things I did from memory. Then I would show chapters to people."

He continues: "There was a lot of consulting with other people. With the family stuff I had to go and check with family members. You're not sure if a lot of that stuff is right. Sections of the book that talk about travelling with the band or memories of shows, I would check with different members of the band. Having someone like [drummer] Peter Luscombe in the band . . . he has a memory like an elephant's. He can list the cities on an American tour in 1998. He can pretty much tell you what we had for dinner."

Indeed, Kelly goes into great detail about his touring adventures, particularly in the US, first with his band the Coloured Girls (hastily renamed the Messengers) during the peak of his pop-star fame in the mid to late 1980s, when songs such as Dumb Things, To Her Door and Darling it Hurts made him a household name. These chapters, some of them in diary form and including tours in recent years, unveil Kelly's ongoing fascination with American culture, geography and music.

"I had diaries, in the sense that I had written these descriptive letters home," he says. "When email came in that encouraged writing home all the more. I adapted those. I always have the feeling that I have a bad memory. I've thought that all my life. I probably just have an average memory, but you can bring memories back if you talk to people."

So, when he couldn't rely on his memory or his notes from the road, often it was his family he turned to for confirmation or advice. "My grandmother on my mother's side had written a memoir, which wasn't published, but which was passed around the family," he says. "I have a couple of cousins who are strong on archiving the family history. I also interviewed my mother a couple of years before she died, just to get some of the family stories. My siblings and I realised that we all had slightly different versions of these stories. It's good to have those on tape from Mum."

Kelly, 55, made his singing debut at an open-mic night at a folk club in Hobart 36 years ago, performing Bob Dylan's Girl from the North Country and the traditional ode to outlaw Ben Hall, Streets of Forbes. After moving to Melbourne at 21, the singer cut his musical teeth with local pub rock band the High Rise Bombers before going on to form his first band to bear his name, Paul Kelly and the Dots. From there a variety of band names and personnel have come and gone, along with a number of musical styles such as bluegrass and electronica that have served as a rewarding aside to the traditional folk-pop stylings of his solo output.

During the past 30 years he has come to be recognised and respected as one of our most accomplished songwriters and performers. Now he has added writer to his list of accomplishments.

"It was mostly enjoyable," he says in his quiet way. "It's a lot like with songs, too. The best bit is the bit that takes you by surprise. But I also enjoyed it because it was so different. The most enjoyable thing was not knowing what I was going to write. That's the best kind of writing. Writing this big long thing appealed to the nerd in me."

Kelly will be showing his nerdy side and a little bit of his musical prowess when he goes out on a three-week book tour in October. After that, and the A-Z tour that follows, he'll sit down to have a think about what he does next and whether it involves a trip down to the bottom of the garden, to the shed.

"It's like flicking a switch," he says. "Normally if I hadn't written a song for 2 1/2 years I'd be going up the walls, but I just haven't tried.

"I had about half a dozen songs floating around before I started doing this, so they're still there. Maybe I'll just retire."

How to Make Gravy is published on September 27.


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