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Paul Kelly on trust, his new album and why he still likes being taken by surprise

5 August 2020 | 4:40 pm | Emma Jones

With nearly 30 albums under his belt, Paul Kelly remains a living legend. We talk to him about his new record, relevance and trust.

PAUL KELLY is one of Australia's finest and most beloved storytellers. The esteemed musician and songwriter is one of the country's most celebrated, and with decades in the game he can still sell out nationwide tours, whether they be at some of the biggest venues or small, intimate halls. He packs out tents at Splendour In The Grass and Groovin' The Moo, has won multiple ARIAs, been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, has an Order of Australia and won the Victorian Australian Of The Year in 2012. He's just as comfortable performing with A.B. Original on their cover of his song 'Dumb Things' as he is reimagining Shakespeare's work and putting poems to songs, and even has a dedicated meme account which kicks to life every year on the 21st of December which, thanks to the date's inclusion in 'How To Make Gravy', fans refer as Gravy Day.

Fast forward to 2020 and he's still very much kicking with the release of a collaborative new album with long term collaborator and friend, Paul Grabowsky titled Please Leave Your Light On. Together, they rearranged Paul Kelly songs (and one cover) to suit a very simplistic new setting of just one piano and one voice. The pair come from a place of great mutual respect for each other, having met some 25 years ago and have worked together on and off over the years. However, Please Leave Your Light On serves as a very special addition to their collaborative resume given just how remarkably intimate it really is.

Across twelve songs, the pair use not only their own talents but each others, creating so much space in each song that you almost feel like you're prying when listening. It's fearless in its intimacy, potent in its vulnerability and ultimately a marvel to listen to in just how respectful the pair are of each other's craft. Kelly puts complete trust in Grabowsky to take his songs to new places with his arresting piano performances, while Grabowsky trusts Kelly implicitly to listen and navigate the journey alongside him with his singing. Invoking the spirit of Frank Sinatra as the pair discussed with The Age, together they create what they refer to as a "sit down" record; one you can turn the lights down to and let it fill up the room, taking up as much space as it can so you can not only listen to Kelly's stories, but really feel them too.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="827"] Paul Grabowsky and Paul Kelly by Pia Johnson[/caption]

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This has always been a key aspect of Kelly's music: he tells stories that envelope you, wrapping you up in the many lives of his characters. Whether its the forlorn 'If I Could Start Today Again', or the quite funny 'Young Lovers', the rain-inspired 'Petrichor' or the reflective 'Winter Coat', each story that the pair chose to be included on Please Leave Your Light On does exactly this, only from a slightly new angle or new perspective. The fact that the two Paul's are able to still find new places to go with songs that have been with Kelly for years (some for decades) speaks not just to the open nature of their collaboration, but the longevity of a Paul Kelly song as well. Almost as a rite of passage for many Australians growing up across the country, his fanbase is far-reaching, diverse in age and background and ultimately unifying in the shared love of a bloody great story.

Speaking to Paul Kelly over Zoom, he remained just as he has been the countless times I've seen him: wise, unassuming, humble and frank. He talks of his songs and his records like they exist outside of him in their own lives, and the fondness and respect he has for Paul Grabowsky was clear from the very start. Touching on everything from what he's doing to cope in Victoria's current lockdown to why he's as relevant as ever to so many people, it was clear to me that not only is Paul Kelly a living legend for many, many people, he's also just an avid music fan who really loves creating music with his friends. And, with now nearly 30 albums to his name, he's nowhere near done yet.

Hi Paul! How are you today?

I'm good thanks. I'm in Victoria so we've had some bad news again, but apart from that I'm fine.

How are you coping? Are you going for your mandated one hour walk, are you creating more music at the moment?

I'm lucky because I live near the beach. I'm five minutes walk from St Kilda Beach and just a short bike ride to Elwood. There's a nice bike path down to the port down the coast. It's been great to have that. At home I've got my piano, my guitar and my books. So it's sort of like having an extended time away from touring and working on songs.

Is it strange to be releasing a record and not having touring on the cards, even in the distant future? 

Yeah! We had quite a few shows booked for this record. I was going through the calendar and I can see scrolling through the dates, it all says cancelled. It is a bit strange. We've had a few performances with streaming [like] on the tv show, The Sound. That's one silver lining out of all this is that there's a music show back on free-to-air TV. That's a good thing, we've done a song for that. I'm sure we'll be able to play sometime if not this year then hopefully next year.

It's quite interesting because the record rooted in the experience a fireside, sit down, intimate record. Were you creating it with the purpose of being able to play with audiences in mind? 

I think everybody who makes records usually imagines performing them as well. It's making them for people to listen to. You want to go out and have people respond to you and part of singing and performing is what's coming back at you from other people. The feeling in the room makes you sing your songs differently than if you were just singing by yourself.

It really is a very very beautiful record. For me, it kind of reminds me of rereading an old journal right and reconnecting with an old self. Did revisiting the songs ever give you any lightbulb moments from these times that you hadn't had previously?

I chose the songs because I thought they were songs that would suit this set up — one piano, one voice and a pianist like Paul Grabowsky who is endlessly fertile in his ideas. I've worked with him before so I knew that when he takes songs of mine and arranges them, they come back to me in a way that makes me discover them again. It's like rediscovering the songs, it makes me sing them differently. That's why I like working with him.

And he does create such beautiful arrangements. Some are very sparse, some are a bit more intense. Did any of the arrangements that he was creating take you by surprise in the way he'd interpreted the songs?

Yeah, a few. I like being taken by surprise. I think that's all an artist can ever ask for, or a performer or a writer, is to be taken by surprise. The best songs come at you by surprise, I think. Playing with Paul, he often surprises me. We've done some performances since recording the record and I know the song is not going to be exactly the same as it is on the record. It's just going to be in the moment. There's a certain structure that we have, but he still has this ability to surprise me with some little colouration he might throw in or a slightly different rhythm somewhere. You really have to be on your toes singing with him and I like that! It's a lot of trust we both have to have with each other because of that space between us.

Absolutely, and that would make for such an engaging thing to be apart of. These are songs that have been apart of your life for so long, you would probably get used to playing them and it would be a bit of the same thing over and over again. To have to listen and pay attention would probably be an interesting challenge for you now, I'm sure.

That's the beauty of it for me. I'm pretty limited as a musician so with a song like 'Winter Coat', I just play it the way I play it. It's great to just hand the song over to someone else and respond to him playing it and sing the song. Some of the songs came out quite differently to how they were first written. A song like 'Sonnet 138', I wrote that on piano so it has some jazz flavours in it. But Paul has this really heavy left-hand thing going which turns into more of a stomp, which makes you sing the song differently. It's kind of a sly, world-weary kind of song but he gives it this slightly extra swagger!

Listening to songs like 'Winter Coat' which is a personal favourite of mine — I remember listening to that song as a kid with my dad — or 'Petrichor', there really is nowhere to hide and they're already such heartfelt songs in their original form. Does it ever get unnerving anymore for you having such personal stories out in the world?

To me, they're songs. They're not personal stories. I don't write my songs as autobiography or some kind of therapy or self expression. To me, they're songs so for me to sing a song is to get inside a character and sing the song from their point of view. Even songs that might draw on parts of my life, once I make a song out of it, they have a distance from me.

It’s interesting that these songs still hold relevance all these years later, not just for you but for your fans as well. You also have such a broad fanbase and you mean just as much to the 18 year olds at Splendour or Groovin The Moo as you do to my dad and his brothers listening to the songs over and over again. Have you ever wondered what it is about your music that appeals to such a wide and constantly growing audience?

[Laughs] I don't know mate! Maybe it's people getting brainwashed as kids!

Maybe it is! It's definitely an Australian tradition of growing up and going to a Paul Kelly concert.

I've never really been in fashion. My songs weren't in fashion or out of fashion. A lot of them are storytelling songs and we all relate to the same stories. Humans are storytelling animals. The same stories keep coming around.

Your relationship with Paul has existed for many years, and you're someone that seems to have created almost like an ecosystem of long term collaborators like Paul, like Vika and Linda Bull, Dan Kelly, Peter Luscombe and many more. Do you think having the familiarity these long term partnerships bring allows you the space in which you can continue to explore and push your creativity to try new things like this record?

That's a good point. I have my band in which Peter Luscombe who plays drums [is apart of], I've been playing on and off for 25 years. All of that band, Ash Naylor, Bill McDonald, Cameron Bruce and then Dan Kelly floats in and out of that line up plus Dan Kelly and I do lots of duo shows together especially overseas. There's blueglass and country musicians I've worked with that I might revisit again. Paul and I have done projects together in the past and then come back together again. James Ledger in Perth, we've done a couple of things together. I do like having these long term relationships with people or particular ensembles you can come back to and revisit. I think what happens when you have these long term relationships is that you trust each other. Trust is the word that keeps coming back when I think about this record with Paul Grabowsky. You have to trust each other. The other thing that happens when you work with people over a long period of time is that you develop a language or a shorthand with each other so you don't always have to explain things. You've got similar reference points where you describe something with just a couple of words and people know what you're talking about. All of that is good in the long run and I like the balance of working with the same people but also stepping away and working with someone else and then coming back. They all tend to feed each other.

That space and the trust is so important and goes both ways. Paul has to trust you and know that you know where you want to go with these songs just as much as you trust him. It would be such a back and forth across all the [groups] as well. Do you think having different communities or groups of people you can go back to helps keep things fresh with the others as well?

I think a lot of the things bleed into or influence each other. I've worked with James Ledger on records and that's had an effect on how I write songs. I started putting poems to music and taking them to my band. A record like Nature, that's got five poems on it written by other people. That was an art project and I took them to the band and we played them sort of like band songs. All those things start to influence each other.

On the record, it is just you singing and Paul on piano, except for You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed - on which you play the harmonica which is a pretty iconic “Paul Kelly” instrument. Every time I've seen you play which is about ten times I think, the harmonica is such a prevalent moment in the show. Can you please tell me about the inclusion of the harmonica on this song and why not any others?

I think we did it on two, 'You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed' and 'If I Could Start Today Again'. It was actually Paul Grabowsky who was pushing and suggested that. I would say I play enough harmonica anyway [laughs], and he would say, "You should play harmonica on this one!" It was more his idea, and it gave us a chance on 'If I Could Start Today Again' to make up a little melody just to suit the song. It's nice to have that link to other work that I do.

This record is all about creating space not just in the music and not just for the lyrics, but for the listener to kind of insert themselves in as well. Your music always has that element, but it definitely felt palpable on this record. It’s a strange time we find ourselves in at the moment, and a very different world to the one in which you created this record. Looking back on it now, has the album taken on any new meaning given the world you've now released it into and how we're all looking for space and closeness?

I've just noticed in some of the people's responses to the record that it seems to be speaking to them strongly given what we're going through. We made it last August and we had this aesthetic to make it a real "turn your lamp down low" record, a close-listening record, so I think in times like these music is what people turn to. It's solace, it's comfort, it's reflection and it's a fairly meditative record in some ways. I think it's something people can turn to.

Paul Kelly's & Paul Grabowsky's Please Leave Your Light On is out now. Buy/stream here.

Interview by Emma Jones

Image by Cybele Malinowski