There are any number of reasons why Paul Kelly is Australia's best-known and most celebrated singer-songwriter. Delve into The A-Z Recordings, an eight-CD box set of live tracks released here in the States last October, and you're captivated by the evocative reminiscences of "They Thought I Was Asleep," the wry humor of "Every Fucking City," the darkly gothic sentiments of "God Told Me To." Paired with a musical range that's no less expansive, Kelly's subtly poetic insights convey an emotional honesty rarely encountered in popular music.
Take, for instance, his latest album, Spring and Fall, a song-cycle that chronicles the trajectory of a long romantic relationship. The tipping point comes with the song "Someone New," which finds the male character becoming increasingly obsessed with the idea of random infidelity: "I just want to sleep with someone else," sings Kelly, "touch some different skin."
Kelly fondly recalls his bandmates' reaction when he first presented the song to them. "I remember playing it to the band, and five guys just stood there, looking at their shoes," he says with a laugh. "Finally one of them said, 'That's bad for blokes.'"
If Kelly has uncomfortably astute insight into the male psyche, he's also far from clueless in regard to its female counterpart. The Women at the Well: The Songs of Paul Kelly finds 16 prominent female singers rifling through the artist's songbook, from recently deceased Divinyls singer Chrissy Amphlett to Christine Anu, who won two Best Indigenous Release awards from the Australian Record Industry Association.
Kasey Chambers, who closes the 2002 album with the stark "Everything Goes White," sees Kelly as a profound influence. "If I was only allowed to listen to one artist for the rest of my life," she has said, "I would choose Paul Kelly." Amanda Palmer, who has often joined Kelly onstage, is also a fan, noting how "the bittersweet and hard-core honesty of his lyrics is the sort of thing you'll only see once in a lifetime, if you're lucky."
"From fairly early on I've written songs from the point of view of women, and naturally I'd try to get women to sing them," says Kelly, when asked about a tribute to which few, if any, other male artists can lay claim. "I come out of folk music, where that kind of cross-singing is much more common. It may seem a bit odd in the context of rock or pop, but people shape-shift all the time in folk music. You know, people swapping genders, or singing as ghosts or animals."
Or, perhaps, as psychopaths. While Nick Cave, with whom Kelly co-wrote "God's Hotel," has largely cornered the Australian market on twisted characters, Kelly has come up with a few of his own.
Consider his performance in the eerie video for 2002's trip-hopped-out "Just About to Break," which consists of one long take in which Kelly quietly loses it in a fluorescent-lit car park. Or in 2007's "God Told Me To," where director Natasha Pincus (of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" fame) drowns the singer-songwriter in blood.
Since Kelly sounds nice enough on the phone, I feel compelled to ask if this is all an extension of his foray into acting. He did, after all, star in director Rachel Perkins' 2001 One Night the Moon. Or if it's not that, is everything, um, OK?
"Well, I'm definitely not an actor," says Kelly, laughing. "But yeah, the two you picked out, 'Just About to Break' and 'God Told Me To,' they are practically the same character. I often find a voice to my songs by imagining a character in a particular situation and writing from there. So on quite a few of my songs, I don't sort of think it's me singing a song. I'm pretty easygoing in real life."
While Kelly already had a few releases down under, his music didn't find its way to the States until A&M released 1987's Gossip in North America. The double album found him recording with a full band, Paul Kelly & the Messengers, who had previously been performing back home as Paul Kelly & the Coloured Girls.
"Yeah, I was always having to explain that in Australia, too," says Kelly of the name, which references the "colored girls" line that leads into the chorus to Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." "Before the band was a band, we were an acoustic trio. It was me, Steve Connolly and Michael Barclay. And they did the high harmonies, so the band became the Coloured Girls. It was a band that was always male, so yeah, the name did sort of cause confusion."
Regardless of what they were called, the band's eclectic mix of rock, folk, country, and reggae proved to be a perfect match for Kelly favorites like "Last Train to Heaven," "Before Too Long," "Dumb Things" and "From Little Things Big Things Grow."
By comparison, Spring and Fall is a quieter, more stripped-down affair. Kelly credits the song-cycle idea to a four-year hiatus from studio recording, during which time he wrote a lengthy memoir and recorded the series of concerts from which A-Z's 105 songs were culled.
"The break made me want to come back with something that wasn't just another bunch of songs, but was maybe a bit more structured. So having two older songs ["When a Woman Loves a Man" and the aforementioned "Someone New"], I began writing new ones and it really started to take shape. Which is generally how making records works for me. I get a few songs, and then they start talking to each other. And that sort of helps you write the rest."
Whites of their eyes
So having collaborated with so many other Australian and New Zealand artists — including a recent tour on which he shared a band with Crowded House's Neil Finn — does Kelly find any commonality among musicians who hail from his part of the world? Maybe something to do with the idea of wide open spaces?
"I'm loath to generalize what it is," says Kelly. "The Triffids had that big space in their sound with the song 'Wide Open Road.' But I think that [explanation] is a bit simplistic. I mean, probably the best example I could give you is Bon Scott, the original singer in AC/DC. They were a hard rock band, but there was a lot of cheek and humor in the lyrics. And so, to me, that was very Australian. And Nick Cave, you know, he's called the Prince of Darkness and things like that, but there's always humor there. Well, to me anyway."
As for how that translates over here, Kelly says he's fine with playing venues that are tiny compared to the festivals, theaters and opera houses he headlines back home. "I've been coming over to the States for a while, and I like playing small venues to two or three hundred. I mean, there's nothing better than seeing the whites of an audience's eyes."
When asked to speculate on why it is that he's never really broken through in America — whether it's his accent, or his subject matter, or simply a matter of geography — Kelly says he really doesn't know. Does he care?
"Oh, I care. But it's not really in my control. So, in that sense, I don't care."
Kelly pauses a second to mull it over. "But, yeah, I obviously care, because I keep coming over here."