Paul Kelly: The 13th Floor Interview 2017

With a brand new album, Life Is Fine, under his belt, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly makes his way across the Tasman for three shows in New Zealand, beginning November 29th in Christchurch.

Kelly’s visits are always welcome, and his previous tour, based on his Merri Soul album, was a cracker.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda rings up Paul Kelly just after Life Is Fine nails the number one spot on the Australian charts, a first for the veteran artist. 

Click here to listen to the interview:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: I guess congratulations are in order for you: Life is Fine, I read hit  number one in Australia; is that right?

PK: It did, yeah. That was quite a surprise for me; first time. I had number two a couple of times. The whole team is pretty excited.

MD: I was wondering if it actually means anything – it’s, like, your twenty third album, and you’ve been doing this for quite a while – it seems kinda a surprise that it’s taken this long….

PK: … of course it means something. No one knocks back a number one. It’s like when people say, “Oh, I don’t care about awards,” until they get one. It’s not something that I aim for, because that’s not the way I write, but when I put out a record, there’s a big team involved: there’s, obviously, the band, and then there’s the people I work with in the management company – they work very hard – and the record company and the publicist – they work very hard – and when it goes to number one, they’re very, very excited; and it’s contagious. I’m happy for that: being part of a team that’s done this thing.

MD: Speaking of excited: I was talking to a friend of mine – who’s a concert photographer – earlier today, and telling him I was going to talk to you, and he was reminiscing about the last time you were here in Auckland, when you were doing your Merri Soul tour a couple of years ago, and you played at the Powerstation; and he was going on about how it was the best concert he’d been to in years and years, and he was just thrilled. I was wondering if you had any thoughts or reminisces about that tour, or that show in particular.

PK: That was the record I did three years ago, and it was, pretty much, the same band as Life Is Fine; it just had a few extra singers…. The record’s similar in some ways; it just had, I guess, a narrower focus in the song writing – writing a bit more in a genre – but then it had… more spread out focus on the singers. Life Is Fine is probably a bit more ‘straight ahead’ with me singing most of the songs…. I wanted it to be a playful record. The last couple of records, last year, were more meditative and, I guess, philosophical with Shakespeare sonnets put to music, and then I did a record of songs I’ve sung at funerals; so, I always wanted to come out of the gates with something playful and upbeat and joyous. We’ve got Vicka and Linda on board for that too, who are also part of the Merri Soul; so, very much the same team.

MD: I was wondering – because you have each of them singing one particular song on Life Is Fine – if you prefer to hear other people singing your songs, or are you happy to hand over the reins, or, at this point, do you not care that much if it’s you singing or someone else?

PK: I think it’s really good to have a break in the record from just one singer, and I wish I’d realised that thirty years ago. For years, I made records [where] I was the only voice on it, droning away. A lot of my favourite bands have someone step up and sing a song: The Rolling Stones or The Beatles – I mean, big bands – and they had more than one singer; or The Velvet Underground or The Drifters; the list goes on. I should have thought of that years ago, and I think it’s probably something I’ll carry forward, now, in other records that I make: at least have one song sung by another voice.

MD: When you were writing My Man’s Got a Cold, for instance, did you imagine it being sung by Vicka rather than yourself at that point, or did that come later?

PK: I did, yes. I’ve always written songs from a woman’s point of view over the years, from time to time, and often I’ll sing them myself, but this one had to be sung by a woman, and had to be sung by Vicka, because I can’t think of anyone else who would do it with that ‘hand on the hip’, ‘lay down the law’, ‘take no prisoners’ attitude; she brought it.

MD: It seems like the kind of song where you might get some feedback from your audience at shows afterwards. Do they come up and talk to you about it?

PK: Well, we haven’t gone out and played this record yet…. We’ve done one show where we did play that song, and it gets a good reaction. We haven’t really taken it on tour yet – I can’t wait – but lots of people mention that song. It’s getting quite a reaction. Some of my male friends aren’t that pleased with me for writing it, but I’ll get over it.

MD: You’re going on the road with Steve Earle in Australia, right?

PK: Yes. Steve Earle and The Middle…. I think Busby Marou are doing the NZ date.

MD: Have you toured with Steve Earle before? Is he someone you’ve met or hung with before?

PK: Yeah, I’ve known him for quite a while. I met him on my first trip to America in 1987, and made in contact. When we were in Nashville, and he was there, and I saw him play at that tiny, little club at the back of the old Opry the Orchid Lounge, in the back of the Ryman.. So, yeah, we’ve kept in touch over the years, and I normally catch up with him when he comes out to Australia to play. I’ve known him for a long time; it’s a pretty loose, casual friendship. I think it’ll be a really good line.

MD: The two of you are both, obviously, noted for your song writing. Do you guys compare notes, or discuss anything to do with that when you get together, or do you just put that off to the side?

PK: No, we talk about other things…. What’s that famous quote? “When writers get together, they don’t usually talk about writing; they usually talk about money.”

MD: Or lack thereof.

PK: Yeah! In Melbourne, when song writers get together, they usually talk about football.

MD: Right, right! I know Steve Earle’s a big fishing fan. I think he comes over to New Zealand, every once in a while, to do trout fishing.

PK: Well, he better not go fishing with me, because I scare fish; fish run away from me.

MD: The album itself, Life Is Fine: the title track comes from a Langston Hughes poem; and I’m wondering if you can elaborate on how that happened, and why that is the case?

PK: A friend sent me the poem, and said, “I reckon you can put music to this.” I didn’t know his work, but I, pretty much, wrote a song to it straight away. I didn’t know what I was going to use it for, but right when we did this record, it seemed to fit in perfectly. It’s a dark, dark comic poem – it’s a poem about suicide – but it ends with this burst of joy, and this decision to live; so, it’s a playful poem, and it just seemed to be a nice full stop for this record.

MD: There’s also… a tribute, of sorts, to Roy Orbison and his song, Leah. What was the inspiration for that?

PK: I wrote that song with Bill Miller and with Roy – because, obviously, we had to negotiate with the estate, because we used the chorus. Bill and I are very pleased that we’ve written a song with Roy. Bill Miller co-wrote four songs with me on this record, and he’s a fun guy to write with, because he’s a walking encyclopaedia of pop music, and can play a whole lot of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, sing them and knows the chords and the words; and we often get together just to play music, play other people’s songs; every now and then, we write one out of that. That song came out of playing Leah and looking at the chords – of course, which Bill knew – and he taught me, and we had a little play of Leah. It’s a really interesting song to deconstruct and get to see how it works; it’s an unusual song, melodically, and the chords.

MD: Yes, it’s an interesting song. It’s not one of his biggest hits. It was kind of a medium sized hit, I guess, back in the day, and the construction of it must be different than most songs.

PK: Yeah! I remember that song when I was a child. I remember really taking notice of it. I didn’t realise until later, people said that it’s one of his more obscure songs. For me, it was one of the first songs I think of when I think of Roy Orbison; so, I’ve always loved the song. So, we just said, “Let’s see if we can write a sequel.”

MD: What would you think if somebody approached you, and wanted to write a sequel from one of your songs?

PK: I think it’d be great; I’d love it. I sometimes think I’m writing my own sequels anyway. It seems to me, sometimes, characters in my songs pop up, later on, in other songs, or it’s the same sort of character. The guy in To Her Door seems, to me, a bit like the guy in How to Make Gravy, and he could be the same guy in Love Never Runs on Time, and he maybe even could be the same guy in Josephina: a bit of a ‘ne’er do well’ – it’s a word I’ve always wanted to get into a song: ‘ne’er do well’…

MD: Do you worry about repeating yourself?

PK: Oh, life is repetition. The glory of life is repetition with slight variations; so, I don’t mind.

MD: Because it’s been four years since The Merri Soul Sessions – which is your other [album of] original songs – and in between, you mentioned the Shakespeare thing and Death’s Dateless Night. Did releasing those records cleanse the palette, and clear the way for making the set record?

PK: Yeah, it’s funny how you take little paths that might seem, to others, to be these strange side paths or cul-de-sacs – or call them what you will – but… for me, they tend to bleed into each other a bit, and blur the lines and affect other records…. I think things you do, that seem different, they feed back into everything you do.

MD: You mentioned you’re getting ready to hit the road: you’re going to be doing dates in Australia, and are coming over here to New Zealand…. You’ve been on the road many times before. Do you have a routine that you do to get ready to get into that mode of life? What do you do to prepare?

PK: … I can be a bit slack, sometimes; singing and playing around the house. A couple of weeks before we go on tour, or even before we start band rehearsals, I start playing some more and singing more; getting in shape, I guess.

MD: Do you worry about your voice? Is it, pretty much, the same instrument as it was ten, fifteen years ago?

PK: I think it’s better than it was ten, fifteen years ago. From my point of view, it feels like… I’m getting better at singing. I am not aware of a downward slope yet. I can still hit higher notes, as high as I could when I was younger, and I now can get lower ones as well; so, I’m still learning, and it’s on the up for me. I’ll never get to any great height, but it still feels like it’s working well. My voice holds up alright on a long tour. I don’t really shout or wear it out, really; I’m just a crooner at heart.

MD: And, of course, there’s more to singing than just what notes you can hit – high and low, and whatever. It’s the way that you approach the lyric and interpret it, I guess. Is that something you think about? Do you relook at your songs when you’re about to go on a new tour, and think about how to present them to the audience?

PK: No. I’m a bit of a torp singer; so, some of my songs are halfway between talking and singing, and it’s not that taxing, technically, on my voice. I know my range…. Sometimes, you make the record, and you do it in a fairly quick, intense burst, and then you leave it, because, after you’ve recorded it and finished everything, you don’t really want to listen to it for a while – so, the songs are left  untouched – so, the most practice I need to do, for this tour, is to play the new record, to play through the songs. It’s not like the other songs I’ve been travelling with for years, that I’ve played often enough that they’re programmed into me now – I’ll remember them when I can’t remember a name, probably. With the new songs, you’ve got to sing your songs a certain number of times before it starts to get into your muscles and bones, and under your fingers, and all that. It’s really working on the new songs, and then, if I’m picking a set list and doing a mix of old songs, I always pick some songs that I mightn’t have done for a while, and then I go and practice them; they can get a bit rusty.

MD: … When you do come to New Zealand, what kind of band are you bringing along with you? Who have you got lined up?

PK: The band that played on the record, and with Vicka and Linda. We’re going to play the album first, as a piece, and then move into a mix of old songs.

MD: Do you think of it, in terms of the album, as a whole thing that you want to present as a piece?

PK: Yes. I like doing that with a new record, and I think it’ll work with this record in particular.

MD: Why do you think that?

PK: Because it’s a band record; the songs are pretty upbeat – most of them – so, it’ll flow on, straight into the rest of the show. There are some obtuse songs that I’ll be singing after the show, that’ll fit with the first half; so, I’m excited for that.

Click here for more info and tickets for Paul Kelly’s NZ Tour.