INTRODUCING PAUL KELLY by Graham Reid
When invited to host a Q&A and live performance session with Paul Kelly, I accepted quickly. But with trepidation.
Kelly had a new album being released – Nature, the 24th under his own name – but few in the audience of critics, writers and competition winners would have heard anything of it other than two singles. And both, I felt, were unrepresentative of a collection of sensitive original songs and musical settings of poems by Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin.
Explaining the creative process behind Nature, Kelly says, “I’ve been playing around with poems since 2012 and it’s now become another way for me to write songs. I think most writers get sick of themselves and their own habits so it’s a happy surprise, after 40 years of writing songs, to find a new way.
“What links them all is the natural world – trees, birds, animals, plants, dust, desert, water – and human nature’s small place in that world. Most of the pieces were written over the last four years in and around the recording sessions for ‘The Merri Soul Sessions’, ‘Seven Sonnets And A Song’ and ‘Life Is Fine’. I didn’t realise I had the makings of another album until I put the songs in a folder and saw the titles staring me in the face. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing until you look back.”
So, what could I concisely say about a man with a four-decade career, and whose songs have explored deep personal, political, social and cultural touchstones? And how could I invite comment on this unfamiliar new music exploring Nature, human nature and the nature of existence?
Before the session, Paul and I had a chat in a side room and loosely discussed what he might play.
He was relaxed, friendly and accommodating. He said sure, he’d play my favourite piece on the album, his gorgeous setting of Plath’s Mushrooms:
He talked about a new project of poems and songs about birds, was delighted when I mention RNZ National’s daily bird call and laughed approvingly about New Zealand’s Bird of the Year competition (which closes this Sunday*). He was considering a bird song by a New Zealand poet, he said, and sang me a few bars.
So I stepped up for the informal session, which you can see and hear below, and paid tribute to his status as a songwriter and his unique sensibilities. I also mentioned I’d been backstage with him and his band the Messengers in 1990 before they opened for Tracy Chapman and how I asked a dumb question.
You can hear that in what follows.
What I didn’t mention from that incident was also telling. Literally minutes before they were due on stage before a capacity crowd at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, Paul suggested to the band they get a set list together. They did, after some to-and-fro song suggestions, then headed towards the steps.
At the last minute, he turned and said, “I think I’ll do the first couple solo”.
And he did.
What struck me was how comfortable he was with performing, what a deep well of musical knowledge he could draw from, and how personable and engaging he was with me . . . and that huge audience.
He was just the same in this intimate Roundhead setting: One man and two guitars, songs of acute emotion delivered without artifice or showmanship, a quick and self-effacing humour in our conversation between songs and at ease when answering random questions from the gathering.
Half an hour later he was on a plane home to Melbourne.
He is a remarkable man, as singular as his songs . . . as you may hear.
Introductions, and a performance of the song With The One I Love
and ‘A Bastard Like Me’
Here, Graham and Paul have a chat, and Paul plays ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’
And Graham Reid’s special request: ‘Mushrooms’
The songs performed are from Paul Kelly’s new album Nature, which is available now.
RNZ Music is able to share this event thanks to Paul Kelly and his team. Video courtesy of Universal Music NZ, produced by Jordan Arts; Audio recording courtesy of Roundhead Studios.
The session was hosted by music writer Graham Reid.
*New Zealand’s Bird of the Year competition closes Sunday October 14, winner announced on Morning Report, 8.50am Monday 15 October.