With Stuart Coupe’s new biography of Paul Kelly – called, for cunning reasons known only to the publishing business, Paul Kelly (see what they did there?) – now in stores, there’s a lot of storytelling in and around the singer/songwriter/flanker/middle order batsman.
Wind Back Wednesday is not shy in moving into Kelly Country, with this 2004 story finding that what you think you know and what you find out you didn’t know could, well, fill a book. Also there’s a Spice Girls reference, and how often do you get Paul Kelly and the Spice Girls in the same story? Exactly.
You think you know someone after you’ve been listening to their music for more than 20 years. Not just the patterns of their work but the personality.
Take Paul Kelly for example. You probably think he’s a man of traditions and steadfastness, with a love of songwriting that goes back beyond Dylan and an ear for history. From Little Things Big Things Grow, about the reclamation of land and pride by Aborigines wasn’t written by someone who thinks history is a bad Michael Jackson album after all.
We’d confidently say he’s a man who takes his sport seriously. He’s written songs about Bradman and the MCG; when Steve Waugh retired he wrote a column for a newspaper; he once told a Melbourne newspaper that he had harboured a desire to play league footy for the Melbourne Demons.
But disturbing news comes to hand when I question Kelly about the frustrations of being a Melbourne supporter (something I assume he shares with other musical Demon tragics such as David Bridie and Stephen Cummings).
“They seem to be one year hot and one year cold and they seem to be doing it again this year,” Kelly says agreeably, before dropping the confession. “But I follow Adelaide closely more than Melbourne.”
You did want to play for Melbourne, once didn’t you?
“Norwood,” he corrects me. “I grew up in Adelaide and when I moved to Melbourne in 1976 I naturally followed Melbourne because they had the same colours. But by the time I moved to Melbourne my ambitions [to play league footy] were pretty much over.”
He then adds, as if to bolster his waning reputation: “I still have a Melbourne football jumper.”
The thing about football teams is the allegiance usually can’t be broken. It’s a lifetime’s commitment, like being a Dylan fan. But here he is moving from Norwood to Melbourne to Adelaide. The tart.
“You know what it’s like in Victoria,” he sighs. “I still get friends saying ‘who are you barracking for this year?’ Norwood was the team I was born into, grew up with. I can’t support Adelaide with the same ability to be hurt. Norwood hurt me; Adelaide can’t.”
Speaking of football and pain, of one sort or another, Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham used to be his favourite Spice Girl.
“She was Sporty wasn’t she?” he asks. “I think later on I might have leaned towards Sporty.”
That tears it. So his Spice Girl allegiances fluctuate like his footy allegiances? There’s no constancy in your life Paul.
“No, I’m just an impressionable lad.”
Does he sit back and watch the shit that does down in those lives and say, yeah I don’t mind not being fabulously wealthy and famous?
“The thought did cross my mind,” he says drily.
You’ve got to wonder if kids in families like that think ‘the last thing I want to do is become famous at something’. If not for the pain of fame then at least the chance to be compared with the more famous family member. Which brings us to the Kelly family.
Paul’s nephew Dan, apart from having his own career also plays on and has co-written songs on Uncle Paul’s recent album Ways & Means. Dan lived with his uncle for a year, writing a lot at the time, and he occasionally would ask for advice. Would he be brutally honest with him and say that song’s not working?
“Yeah, have done,” Kelly senior says. “But they usually work. His songs are marvellous.”
Given at 48, with a quarter of a century in the industry behind him, he’s rapidly becoming the eminence grise of the local scene, advice has been sought occasionally from Kelly. Is he comfortable with that?
“No, not really,” he laughs sheepishly. “As far as songwriting goes you can’t give that much advice about that; you can’t go to school for it. I don’t know how to write songs myself. If I knew how to write a song I’d write one every day. I’m just not methodical.”
And there’s another surprise for people who assume by now songwriting had become a doddle for Kelly.
“People who can sit down and write a song a day, it’s part of them, a way of living. Some of them write as a way of thinking. I’m not one of those kinds of writers. I wish I was. I end up spending most of my life feeling useless because I’m not writing. My time gets taken up with all the things that writing generates: recording, touring, doing interviews, running a small business. I would love to have the time, but even when I have the time I’d rather read a book than write a song.
“So I have to set up conditions to make me write which is what I did with Dan and the rest of the Boon Companions [which is what the Kelly backing band that includes Dan is now called]. We’d meet and anyone could bring an idea in to jam on. More and more that’s the way I am writing these days.”
Is it to push himself or to generate a different way of thinking?
“Well I’d say both. They’re the same things. It’s something I’ve noticed over the past five years or so I’ve become more collaborative.”
After such a long time as a solo writer, the collaborative process really requires confidence to let go doesn’t it?
“Exactly. And a certain amount of trust,” Kelly says. “But it requires that from the others. They know they’re going to come into a rehearsal room with me with an idea they’ve been sitting on for a while and when it comes into the room it will be like a dog shaking a rag doll, that’s what going to happen to it. They’ve got to have the confidence that it’s going to mutate and turn into something they’d never imagined.
“That’s why we all do it; we’re trying to make something we couldn’t imagine by ourselves. We’re trying to surprise ourselves. That’s what all writers do, try to surprise themselves. It’s a little leap of faith and its scary.”
Paul Kelly, by Stuart Coupe, is out now, published by Hachette