Paul Kelly: “It’s hard to write happy songs about love”

Upon the release of his new album Spring and Fall Paul Kelly speaks to SARAH SMITH about the art of song cycles and finding inspiration in love lost.

At home in Melbourne Paul Kelly is shy, softly spoken and far more comfortable talking about work than himself. Despite this he has spent the last four years doing very little but talk about himself. First there was the “accidental memoir” How to Make Gravy, in which Kelly bared all – lovers, addictions, family – opening his life up to fans (and journalists) who had only ever been given fleeting glimpses of the man behind the songs. Then came Stories Of Me, a film which took up where Gravy left off. Coupled with an extensive touring schedule for the A-Z shows these various projects meant not only was the spotlight focused on Kelly: The Man, but that four years passed without him penning one new song. For a musician who released four albums in as many years between 2004 and 2007, this was uncharted territory.

Determined to get back to music, Kelly was asked to work on a song cycle with composer James Ledger for the Australian National Academy of Music, and turned to the classics for inspiration: Schubert and Shakespeare. Having spent a year in the company of composers and poets Kelly felt inspired to tackle a song cycle all of his own.The result is Spring and Fall, an album which finds moments of joy in the unraveling of lovers.

Did the fact that you’ve spent the last few years speaking about yourself, influence your decision to make an album that was telling a story – and more distinctly character based?

Yeah it’s good to get back to fiction again; the last five years felt like a period of retrospection, it wasn’t really planned that way but once I started writing the book – and realised that it was an autobiography – I knew it had to have a certain amount of truth telling and frankness about it. Otherwise it would be an autobiography without confession – which is a pretty boring book. And then the documentary pickled up on a lot of things out of the book. They actually approached me just as the book came out. So it does feel good to put a full stop to all that.

Do you think you have become more comfortable discussing yourself now?

I prefer talking about the music, I think there is a lot more interesting things to talk about there. I’m probably a lot more comfortable talking about work than my personal life.

A number of the songs on Spring and Fall had been kicking around for sometime, when did you decide you wanted to pull them together as a song cycle?

I guess the idea started brewing at the same time I was working on an orchestral song cycle with students from ANAM [Australian National Academy of Music]. I was asked two years ago to write a song cycle – that is exactly the words they came to me with: “Can you write a song cycle with a modern classical composer?” So I got together with [composer] James Ledger from Perth. I’d been doing the A-Z shows for about a year and half with Dan Kelly, my nephew. And I liked the idea of doing something new with an orchestra. At the same time I hadn’t written a song for four years.

Why not?

Because of writing the book – the book took two and a half years, and I just didn’t write a song while writing the book. I didn’t miss it, but it just didn’t happen – it was sort of like flicking a switch. I think writing prose took up all the brain space. And there was a fair bit of touring after the book came out, and I don’t really write songs on tour. I just needed to do nothing for a while to write songs and I hadn’t had any “do nothing” time [laughs].

“I hadn’t written a song for four years.”

So I’d said yes to this song cycle and immediately I thought “What have I done!” [Laughs] I thought, “I want to write songs for my own record, how am I going to write a song-cycle for this?” I ended up looking at poems and putting music to poems, and making a song-cycle out of these poems and then adding some lyrics of my own. But this was a project that was sort of going parallel with me getting back to writing songs of my own again.

So that project was evolving as I was writing songs for a new record and I had been thinking about song cycles. I was looking at song cycles back to Schubert – especially one called ‘Winterreise’ – which is a song cycle that is just piano and voice. A series of songs by a guy who is rejected by the one he loves and ends up wandering around in the snow. I think it translates as “winter songs.” So that was kind of a little model and I started thinking, “I wonder if I can write a set of songs that tells a story from start to finish.” The idea sort of snuck up on me gradually.

How different was it having to approach writing an album like this – were you always thinking one step ahead and one step behind?

It’s sort of a mix of conscious and unconscious thought really. Which I suppose most writing is really. But I had two or three songs [already]. An early song was ‘Cold As Canada,’ which was a break up song; so I had ‘When A Woman Loves A Man’ and ‘Cold As Canada’ and they were kind of like twin poles and I thought, “Maybe if I can get one to the other I might have something”. Then I remembered ‘Someone New’ which is, again, an old song that I wrote about five years ago that I had sort of written and put in the draw [laughs]. I thought I might leave this one for a while and then I realised that it could be a hinge song – a song sort of right in the middle of the record. Pretty early on I had the spine in place and I thought if I could just fill in the ribs I’d have a record that is more than just a collection of songs.

So that helped me, I had a little outline in my mind. I was sort of writing a few songs and as I wrote I’d think, “Oh, well that doesn’t fit.” So now I have a collection of really, well, odd socks. I’ll have to see if I can pair them up one day.

Spring and Fall’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of your last album Stolen Apples, was this intentional?

I definitely wanted to do a record based around the work I had been doing with Dan Kelly. As I mentioned, Dan and I had been doing these A-Z shows as a duo. So we had developed a sound and I worked with Dan quite a lot. He was in the Stolen Apples band, and in the band that played on Ways And Means, but I wanted to do something just based around the two of us. And that dove-tailed perfectly with the idea of a song cycle because, going back to those earlier models, song cycles worked best with sparse instrumentation so the story is paramount.

We did sort of go into this project thinking “Let’s make it a singer-songwriter” project; which I know sounds a bit strange because that is what people would describe me as [laughs]. But most of my records have been done with bands. But the idea for this one was just to start with me and Dan. And then we roped in J Walker to produce and then he became the third member of the band – so we did become “a little band”.

How involved was Dan then in the writing process of songs?

There are three co-writes. A lot of the time over those A-Z shows we would often jam at soundchecks. When we got onto something good, we’d yell out to our mixer Greg Weaver “Can you record this?” and he’d put his iPhone up and record it. So we had all these funny little jam song ideas on the iPhone. ‘I’m On Your Side’ was a soundcheck jam, and ‘For The Ages’. I write the words myself, but I send them off to Dan and he says “Oh yeah that’s ok, or change that.”

“I had the spine in place and I thought if I could just fill in the ribs I’d have a record”

You recorded the album in a town hall in South Gipsland – did you think that isolating yourselves would help draw out more emotion from the songs?

That was mainly J Walker’s idea as he lived down there. And he had been doing a couple of things in the hall where we recorded and was happy with the results. So he played them to us and we kind of like the idea of getting out of town, and hunkering down.

The idea of a couple of blokes escaping the city to write a love record is quite funny – did you balance things out by just talking footy after hours?

[Laughs] There was actually a whole lot of talking footy. That was also one of our best recreations. Recording was pretty intense – just three of us and we were going for live takes which takes a fair bit of concentration. So we kicked the footy around a lot in our breaks because we had a lot of empty paddocks around us. We had a good patch of grass out the front [laughs].

The album tracks a relationship from start to finish – but the “love” doesn’t last all that long, by song four there are already seeds of doubt being sown. Do you find the unravelling of a relationship more interesting than new love?

That is a good point. I think most song writes find it easier to write about love lost, love unrequited, love gone wrong, than love going right. It’s really hard to write about love going right, it’s hard to write happy songs about love – well for me anyway [laughs]. I think soul music has always done that well. What did I get – three out of 11? Maybe I’ll up the proportion next time.

You also end the album on a very sombre note with ‘Little Aches and Pains’

I guess I don’t see ‘Little Aches and Pains’ as a sad song, but I’m probably a little odd like that. Sad songs never make me sad.

There is the secret track too – why did you hide that song away?

I like the idea of going back to a classic singer-songwriter record and I thought, “It’s about time to bring back the secret track.” And there is a lyric by Shakespeare so it felt like a good one to keep as a secret. It also links back to the very first song. I had it in my mind [ that I wanted to write] 11 songs, so this is my way of being able to do that – when there is really 12. It’s like the 12th Man

Spring and Fall is out now through Universal. Read FL’s review of the album

Paul Kelly, Neil Finn, Lisa Mitchell tour

Saturday, February 16 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Monday, February 18 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Tuesday, February 19 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Wednesday, February 20 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Monday, March 4 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne

Wednesday, February 27 – Convention & Exhibition Centre, Brisbane

Friday, March 1 – Elder Park, Adelaide (No Lisa Mitchell, free show)

Saturday March 2 – A Day On The Green, All Saints Winery, Rutherglen

Saturday March 9 – A Day On The Green, Petersons Winery, Armidale

Sunday, March 10 – Opera House, Sydney (No Lisa Mitchell)

Monday, March 11 – Opera House, Sydney (No Lisa Mitchell)

Tuesday, March 12 – Opera House, Sydney (No Lisa Mitchell)

Sunday, March 17 – Opera House, Sydney (No Lisa Mitchell)

Monday, March 18 – Opera House, Sydney (No Lisa Mitchell)

Thursday, March 14 – Kings Park, Perth (No Lisa Mitchell)

Friday, March 15 – Kings Park, Perth (No Lisa Mitchell)