15 Minutes With Paul Kelly
Aussie “Boss” Paul Kelly has quite the tale to tell.
By Jim Caligiuri, 12:10PM, Wed. Feb. 22, 2012
Revered Australian songsmith Paul Kelly brings his inventive A-Z show (he says “A to Zed”) to the Cactus Cafe next Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 28-29. Excerpted for this week's print edition of the Chronicle, in Music Listings, is part of an interview we did last week. Here's the whole enchilada – on A-Z, the resulting box set, and his new biography.
Geezerville: Where are you today?
Paul Kelly: I’m calling from Perth. I’m doing some writing with a modern classical composer for a project we’ve got coming up later in the year with some music students. We’ve been going back and forth on this for about nine months. It’s sort of inching along.
G: It’s amazing the amount of projects you’ve been involved in lately. There’s the book, the box set, and now the tour. Have you always been this active?
PK: I get bored with my habits in songwriting, so I like to do some collaborations because they bring something out of you that you couldn’t bring out on your own. I’ve always been pretty active with the bands I’ve had. I like having bands where people come along with ideas, or songs come out of jamming. So that’s something I’ve always been up to, yeah.
G: Funny you mention the band because I wanted to ask if you remember playing with a band at Liberty Lunch in 1995 opening for Wilco. That show always stays with me as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I don’t think you’ve been back to Austin since with a band.
PK: That’s right.
G: Have you ever thought of doing that again?
PK: Traveling overseas it’s quite expensive to bring the band. I’ve been playing as a duo with my nephew Dan Kelly, and concentrating on doing the A-Z shows. Those don’t really fit into a band format so I’ve been in that mode for a few years. Dan knows a lot of my songs and he offers the perfect balance to what I do. He adds a lot of color to the music with his guitar rather than just me playing solo. Having a band and working up 100 songs, we never got that far advanced in the repertoire (laughs). Plus the shows are storytelling so a duo's the right format for those kinds of shows.
G: But you do play with a band in Australia.
PK: Mostly festival shows. We don’t really tour so much. It took me four years to write the book and I’ve been concentrating on doing that.
G: What’s the origin of doing your songs in the A-Z format?
PK: It was one of those stupid middle of the night ideas. The next morning I had put it in place before I had time to think about it too much. It came out of Spiegeltent, which is a cabaret tent that travels throughout Europe and made its way to Melbourne in 2004. They asked me to do some shows with them, maybe four they said, and do something different than what you normally do. I had that idea and I thought it would be a one-off.
But I found a new way to play my songs and it opened up a whole lot of other things for me including writing a book. It put me in touch with a whole lot of my old songs that had been neglected. It changed the audience’s expectations. They would come along knowing that they weren’t just going to get the well known songs necessarily. It’s been great and it’s something I can always return to.
G: When you play at the Cactus Cafe it’s just two nights. How will that work? You’ll truncated the show some, is that right?
PK: Most places in the States only wanted to do two nights. So we do A to L the first night and M to Z the second night. I think it gives the thing a little more punch, 50 songs over two night. It’s the speed-edited version.
G: I’m very curious about the book, How to Make Gravy. I understand it won the Australian Book Industry Award for best biography. Will you have copies for sale when you’re here? Although thinking about it, it’s more than 500 pages I can’t imagine you carrying them with you.
PK: We won’t have the book, but we'll have the information on how to get it.
G: The 8-CD box set. Did you put that together or did someone do it for you?
PK: I did it. It was done over a period of time actually. It’s all entwined and keeps getting bigger and bigger all the time. After I did the shows in 2004, I did it a couple of times a year around Australia and I recorded the shows with the plan to release “The A-Z Recordings.” That was my first idea.
I knew with a 100 songs, if divided up neatly it would be around eight discs. You can’t just put something like that out and expect people to buy it without making it a beautiful object, a beautiful package. Something that they actually want to hold in their hand. So I thought I’d do a really substantial booklet to go along with it. I’d written a script for the shows, so I thought I’d just expand out the script notes and put some pictures in and make it a pretty booklet.
I did the first song “Adelaide” which is my hometown, and it ended up a couple of pages. Then a light bulb went off in my head. I thought I should write a book. It was definitely more than a booklet.
G: And you ended up with more than 500 pages.
PK: There’s song lyrics for 105 songs. But it’s quite varied. Some of the chapters are quite short. Some is just family or personal history or just lists. But because of the A-Z structure, that rigid structure, it’s got some coherence.
G: Shifting gears a bit. In the Nineties you were responsible for bringing aboriginal songwriter Archie Roach deserved attention. Are you still in touch with him?
PK: I recorded with him last week. He’s making a new record. He’s had a rough couple of years. His wife died two years ago. They were an inseparable couple. She died of a heart attack out of the blue. That was a big blow. He’s had some health problems. But he’s got a band and written some songs. Hopefully we can get them released stateside.