First published on 13 May 2008. Updated on 26 May 2008.
You know you're being taken seriously as a lyricist when your songs
are being examined by English students as part of their final year of
high school. That's the esteem in which Paul Kelly is held, his lyrics
reflecting a uniquely Australian lyrical voice. He's understandably coy
about this, as befits a man whose musical career is still very much in
its prime; a fact demonstrated by the release of a DVD, Live Apples,
immortalising the tour in support of his universally acclaimed 2007
album, Stolen Apples.
What made you want to do a DVD? It was an unusual show [consisting of a complete play through of the
album followed by old favourites], and it was the first time in quite a
while that we'd gone out with a six-piece band. It was actually
[guitarist and nephew] Dan Kelly who said during rehearsals, ‘you know,
it'd be good to film this.'
Your lyrics are being studied in schools? Well, it wasn't really up to me: it was something that I found out was
going to happen, and I just thought ‘Well and good'. It's for the
Victorian VCE, final year. I certainly think some songs are OK on the
page and others really miss the music, so I decided to do school shows
where I hire a theatre in the city and invite all the schools to come,
because I thought it was important for people to realise that these
words wouldn't have come into being without melodies first. I would
hope it would lead them to other writers and to make connections: a lot
of my lines are borrowed lines, or you can see where the influences
That being the case, have you considered writing prose? I am at the moment, yes. It's just a beginning idea related to the A To
Z shows [in which Kelly played through his catalogue, solo, in
alphabetical order]. See, I'm making my songs available for free
download at a letter a month for the next two years, and then at the
end of that I want to release a series of book-albums, so I'm writing
text around the songs.
Explaining what the songs were about? No,
not really. When I started doing the A-to-Z shows I realised that I had
to do a little more talking, because one guy and a guitar singing 25
songs I thought was pretty boring - so I wrote a sort-of script for
those shows, you know, stories around the songs or something to set the
song up. So my plan is to go into those script notes and expand them
out. So it'll be kind of an impressionistic biography, not just of me
by on my times. It's still evolving, but I want to turn it into a
book/CD. Not a CD with a fancy booklet, more like a book with a CD.
It's a new thing! [laughs] Well, it's not that new.
Hear him: Live Apples DVD (EMI)
Read him: Don't Start Me Talking: Lyrics 1984-2004 (Allen & Unwin)
Robert Forster has an enviable worldwide reputation as one of Australia's finest lyricists, gaining plaudits from his earliest work with The Go-Betweens (officially disbanded since the 2006 death of Forster's long-time creative foil Grant McLennan) right through to his superb new solo album, The Evangelist. Aside from his musical activities, Forster is an award-winning critic (winning the 2006 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing) and a regular contributor to The Monthly.
The Evangelist contains the final songs you co-wrote with Grant: was it difficult incorporating them into the album? Well, Grant's songs are beautiful, but that's not really it. I'm not a writer who comes up with 30 songs and then whittles it down to ten: I tend to write ten songs for an album and edit them as I go. There might be a few that I drop because they don't fit the mood of the album, so there might actually be 12 or 13 songs, but generally I know an album's done because I've got the songs for it.
Is songwriting a different discipline to writing prose? Completely different. I mean, there's a connection I suppose, in that they're both works of imagination, but I think writing requires discipline and time - which isn't ideal with a life in rock music. I think they're very different things; and it takes some time to learn a new skill, which writing is, and I need to have some time to really sit down and try it out.
How directed are you with regards to what you write about at The Monthly? I have completely free rein. I think they think that it works best if I'm able to pursue my passions. It would be very difficult to write about, say, if there was a new Foo Fighters album, for example: something that I might like, but not really have anything to say about, or have any angle on, or any way to get into the story.
Have you considered writing a long-form work of prose? Actually, I'm going to give it a try next year. Last year I wrote a short story for [magazine] Meanjin called The Coronation of Normie Rowe, which I was very happy about. I've given myself over - very willingly - to The Evangelist this year, and I'm still writing for The Monthly of course, but next year I hope to sit down and try my hand at writing some short stories. Actually, not necessarily short stories - just stories.
Hear him: The Evangelist (Spunk!/EMI)
Read him: Regularly in The Monthly
As E from the Eels, Everett's way with a narrative has taken on many forms - whether the stream of consciousness neighbourhood wander of early hit ‘Susan's House' to the sprawling saga of love, loss and redemption that was the double-album Blinking Lights And Other Revelations. He's been doing a lot of looking-back of late, with the career-spanning compilation Meet The Eels, the award-winning documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives examining the life and work of his late father, the theoretical physicist Hugh Everett III, and the publication of his autobiography Things The Grandchildren Should Know.
Was it strange doing all this reminiscing in the one hit? Yeah, it's weird because I'm not someone who likes to look back, and I've done nothing but look back for the last couple of years. I have to say, now that I'm done with it I'm glad I did it: there is a value in it as far as a feeling of clearing the decks for the future. It all coincidentally came to fruition at the same time. It sort of worked out nicely that way - it would have been nice if we had planned it to turn out this way. But it's nice to get it all out of the way at once, all the looking back.
Given the amount of loss in the book - your father's heart attack, your sister's suicide, your mother's death from cancer, your cousin dying in the Pentagon planet crash on 9/11 - was it difficult to write, or cathartic? The book was a crazy idea: I don't know what I was thinking. I thought it would be easy for some reason and it was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was a couple of years of really exacting, excruciating work.
So was it a matter of just locking yourself in a shed with a typewriter? That's exactly what I did, and it took a looooooong time. And it's pretty thankless work.
And of course you then followed that with a documentary on your father, thanks to the BBC. Well that as such a rare opportunity, to get to know and understand my father - who was always a complete mystery to me. Everybody should be so lucky!
And yet, even with the doco and the book, you seem to be able to enjoy a level of anonymity that most artists at your level couldn't enjoy. And I really couldn't be happier with it. It's perfect for me. I would not be comfortable with being Paris Hilton-famous, and particularly with being famous for the sake of being famous, and that was kinda the whole point for me: to make something as good as I could and if people liked it and came along for the ride, great; and if not, I can take it.
Hear him: Meet The Eels (Dreamworks/Universal)
Read him: Things The Grandchildren Should Know (Little, Brown)
The Mountain Goats' frontman is no stranger to writing: aside from the short stories that run through his songs, he's a prolific blogger (regularly holding forth on whatever takes his fancy at his website, Last Plane To Jakarta) and a semi-regular music reviewer for various US publications. However, his novella Masters Of Reality - the latest in the music-themed 33 1/3 series of books, in which Darnielle takes Black Sabbath's thus-titled third album as a launching point for a story about an institutionalised teenager - marks his first foray into writing long-form prose.
With your columns, the blog and now the book, you seem to be writing more prose these days. Yeah, I guess. I don't really look at it that way, because I don't like to impose too much oh-now-I'm-doing-this on stuff. I try to just do things automatically without thinking about it. I'm just living my daily life and putting my creative energy in various places - but yeah, I've been doing more writing.
How long did it take to write? There was no real deadline. [The publishers'] whole deal was ‘when you're done you can send it to us and we'll talk about a release', but I said ‘no, I'd rather have a deadline': I work better when I set myself one. So I gave myself six months: I really think that with something that's going to be 30-40,000 words, if I'm taking longer than that then I'm going to be ending up second-guessing myself too much, and that it seemed like the strength of the book was going to be that it seemed like it was unwritten. I think the best parts of the book are the parts that sound like somebody talking, and the worst parts - which could probably have done with more polishing - were the parts that you can tell that it's me instead of my narrator.
There's a hell of a twist half-way through the story... Yeah! I don't know how much of the story you want to give away, but it was really the most exciting creative moment. When I'm writing a song, sometimes a rhyme will reveal a surprise turn of events, and that's kinda fun: you don't always know what's going to happen next but you need to rhyme something so you find a word and it changes the whole direction of the song. But to be surprised by something as momentous as the end of the first half [of the book]... I hate it when writers talk about how books are writing themselves, because I don't believe in that romantic garbage, but at the same time I was sitting there following this instinct and maybe half a step ahead of it, and it was thrilling. By the way, who else are you talking to for this?
Paul Kelly, Mark Everett, Robert Forster... [excited] Robert Forster? Man! I've read some of his Monthly stuff, but I sure can't wait to read a book by him. The world is not worthy of that guy's talent, I tell you.
Hear him: Heretic Pride (4AD/Remote Control)
Read him: Masters Of Reality (Continuum Intl Pub Group)