As he kicks off his North American tour this month and brings a full band for the first time in 13 years, Australian musical legend Paul Kelly believes he has satisfied his record label with his new album, Life is Fine.
The album, released last month on Gawd Aggie/Cooking Vinyl/The Orchard, recalls his sounds of yesteryear.
“My record company is good at dealing with all the different things I deal them, but they’ve been saying for a few years now, ‘When are you going to give us a normal record?’ Well, this is about as normal as I get. It harks back to some of my older albums—upbeat melodies and beats, rock-and-roll guitars, pop elements. Widescreen and full color. Enough of time, death, and philosophy for now.
“Ne’er-do-wells, wastrels, and glint-eyed women wander through the tunes,” Kelly says. “They fight, love, tease, get sick, and get well. They cook and drink and fuck and walk to quarries and rivers for solace and thrills.”
Life is Fine was named after a Langston Hughes poem, and it follows last year’s Death’s Dateless Night, an album of mostly cover songs Kelly recorded in collaboration with another Australian veteran musician, Charlie Owen.
“I’d had the idea of doing a record of other people’s songs for a while but had never got around to it,” Kelly tells me. “I mean, where do you start? You have to narrow the frame like k.d. Lang did on Hymns of the 49th Parallel or Joe Henry and Billy Bragg with their recent set of train songs Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. My conversation with Charlie in the car (en route to a friend’s funeral) instantly gave us a clear frame.
“For years, I’ve admired Charlie’s playing in bands such as the Beasts of Bourbon, the Divinyls, Maurice Frawley, and the Working Class Ringos and others. I even wrote a song about him— ‘Charlie Owen’s Slide Guitar.’ That was 20 years ago. We’ve crossed paths many times, played on the same bill and talked over the years of doing a record together. So this record kills a few birds with one stone. Death kills.”
The record includes covers of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live is to Fly,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” Hank Williams’s “Angel of Death” and the John Lennon/Paul McCartney classic “Let It Be.”
Kelly has released more than 20 studio albums, some movie soundtracks and two live albums. In Australia, he is known as one of the country’s greatest songwriters and musicians. He was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s Hall of Fame in 1997. Like so many top artists from abroad, though, fame in America has been elusive. So I ask him whether there is frustration because so many Americans don’t know his songs and albums.
“That’s show business,” he responds. “Risk and chance. I write songs and play ’em. The rest is out of my hands.”
Kelly describes the style of music in his vast catalog as “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”
Which album does he consider his best?
“When I make albums, I take care with the sequence and selection,” he answers. “I like the songs to talk to each other and the record to have a cumulative effect as it’s heard. Of course, I realize that most people don’t listen to music that way so much anymore. They just pick songs from here and there. Funny enough, that’s what happens to my records in my head as they sail further and further away into the past. They break up like a shipwreck, and the songs become flotsam and jetsam. Some float, some sink. In the end, it’s the songs I carry around, not the albums.”
I ask him about the prevailing theme of this column: What was the best concert that you ever attended as a spectator?
“I saw Christy Moore once in Melbourne about 30 years ago. It was a Friday night, and the hall was packed. He walked on stage by himself in a slightly rumpled suit. There were a lot of Irish expats in the crowd, and they’d had a few drinks in the pubs beforehand. They were rowdy, demanding, calling out for songs. He was uncomfortable and tetchy. He said, ‘Leave me alone for a bit. I have to find my way into this.’ And find his way he did. He wrangled that crowd like a bronco rider on a bull. When they got loud, he went soft and quietened them. He did all kinds of songs — love songs, folk songs, whimsical songs, historical songs, political songs, angry songs, funny songs. He sang with his guitar, sang a capella, sang as he beat the bodhran. Gradually, he relaxed and warmed into the show, and the crowd and he became one. He left that mob roaring.”
Kelly says the Moore concert also influenced him most as a musician. “You can push and pull your audience,” he says. “You’re not their servant, and they are not yours.”
Kelly also mentions another “best” concert — one with an entirely different vibe. He got a special dose of prog-rock with Yes playing Close To The Edge in their heyday at Apollo Stadium in Adelaide, Australia, in 1972. It was my first rock concert,” Kelly says. “Blew my 17-year-old mind.”