Paul Kelly wanted to explore an entirely different format with his 19th studio record – a little trick he borrowed from Willie Nelson and Schubert...
What with a new feature-length documentary about his life – Stories of Me – being screened in November, an induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame, a Triple J tribute concert in his honour a couple of years back and his lyrics having been studied on school syllabuses, Paul Kelly is so beloved a people’s poet that he’s constantly being celebrated, posthumous-style. That someone hasn’t erected a statue outside the MCG is surely just a matter of time.
The appeal of Paul Kelly lies in his everyman lyricism; his paeans to normal blokes and women with all their flaws. He has an unnerving way of cutting through to the kernel of any human weakness and then building up a simple, modern-day folktale around it. You’ll find his songs on every jukebox, in every record collection, reducing whole pubs or fields of festival-goers to quivering wrecks of emotion.
With his first new album in five years, Spring and Fall – recorded with nephew and solo artist Dan Kelly on guitar and producer/multi-instrumentalist J. Walker of Machine Translations – Kelly consciously tries to put paid to people’s “grazing” listening habits. He’s made an album that needs to be heard in order, in full, rather than the odd track downloaded. “Each song contains the seed of the song that follows,” he explains on the way the tales unfurl. And if you’re going to get a lesson in listening etiquette from anybody, it might as well be a master storyteller – who says his iPod tends to contain entire albums, in contrast to the explosion of random tracks on those of his daughters.
Despite this “song-cycle” approach, the tracks remain short – some clocking in under three minutes – and retain his trademark no-fuss style. Like the short story greats – Carver, Hemingway; even Bukowski – Kelly’s genius is being economical with words while providing enough of a framework for the listener to fill in the rest of the story. While this means some fans have interpreted 1992's enduring classic ‘When I First Met Your Ma’ as Kelly going out with his girlfriend’s mother, the more thoughtful reader can get much more out of a song.
“I like those sparse folk songs like ‘In the Pines’ where there’s only a few verses and you can fill in the stories – and there are a whole lot of ways to read the story.” And as the reader develops in wisdom, so does the meaning of the song? “That way they don’t wear out when you can hear them,” he agrees. “You can listen to them for years.”
This time around, though, he’s traded the short story format for the novel. By track four of Spring and Fall – ‘Gonna Be Good’ – we pick up the first signs that things aren’t quite right. Track five, ‘Someone New’, features a classic Kelly protagonist with a self-destructive bent: “I just want to sleep with someone new / Someone I’ve never met / Knowing it’s a foolish thing to do / And sure to cause regret…” and the inevitable events roll on from there.
In his 2010 memoir, How to Make Gravy, Kelly offers some abstract insight into his most treasured songs, but resolutely holds back on telling the whole story. He’s equally tangential today about Spring and Fall, which has two, perhaps three narrators.
“A kind of model for a record like this was Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages in 1974,” he offers. “It’s the aftermath of a divorce, and side one is the man’s point of view, then side two is the woman’s story, and he kept a theme throughout the record. I mean, the song cycle idea’s been around for a long time... a pretty famous Schubert one is Winterreise, which is a series of short songs about a man rejected by his love, wandering in the winter through the snow.”
So the lines “Go and find another / Write a stupid song” in ‘None of Your Business Now’ wouldn’t be a complaint Kelly has had levelled at himself then? “I don’t write about myself,” he counters. “It could have just as easily been ‘Paint a stupid picture’. I think I stole it from someone else’s song anyway.”
Back to the recording sessions themselves, and J Walker had the same ideas for the sonics of the album as Kelly did for the lyrics. “My plan for the album was to record old-school – cutting live takes as much as possible at an isolated country hall I'd found, way out in the South Gippsland hills, which would give the songs a woody, stark sound and reinforce Paul and Dan's main parts. If we got good performances we'd need less overdubs and the stripped back arrangements would stand strong on their feet,” he says.
The exception to the rule is ‘Sometimes My Baby’, with its out-of-tune piano (Walker’s beloved ‘Betsy’) and cello accompaniment. While Walker is one of those infuriating types who can pick up any instrument and play it (including, says Kelly, the ‘jaw harp’), Kelly himself tends not to try. “I’m not one of those people that can get very far,” he admits. “I can play a bit of banjo, some basic piano and guitar, and I used to play the trumpet, but I’m not like Greg [Walker] or Dan.”
It’s the family connection of Kelly and his nephew that makes the recording special. “I’ve always liked a lot of sibling groups, whether it’s the Louvin Brothers or the Stanley Brothers… there’s something about family voices, they seem to meld together in a certain way that other duos can’t get. Dan understands old-time music, going back a hundred years, plus he’s got an experimental sensibility.”
The aim, he says, was to create a singer-songwriter record. "I know that sounds a bit strange seeing as I'm probably known as a singer-songwriter, but most of my records have been done with bands. The idea here was that we'd have a few songs in place, sort of like a spine, and then we'd just fill in the ribs."