Paul Kelly’s songs dig deep into Australia: how it feels, looks, tastes, sounds.
As a young man he left university and travelled the country, soaking it up. In the 40 years since releasing his first album, Australia and its people have been his special subject.
From St Kilda to King’s Cross, Adelaide, Leaps and Bounds, Incident on South Dowling, Maralinga (Rainy Land), Randwick Bells, Sydney from a 747. There’s the bus ride though the cane in To Her Door. A song about our greatest cricketer, Bradman. The Ballad of Queenie and Rover, about Aboriginal artists Queenie McKenzie and Rover Thomas. And Deeper Water is not just about the waves of childhood memory but the joys and sorrows of life itself.
How to Make Gravy, a message from a prisoner who can’t be home for Christmas, released in 1996, is now recognised as an Australian classic.
And From Little Things Big Things Grow, about the 1966 strike by Aboriginal stockmen on Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory, co-written with Kev Carmody, has taught more Australians about the history of the battle for land rights than newspaper headlines ever could.
His latest album, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train, continues his method of acknowledging and building on the past to find new ways of expression. The 22-song double album features a big cast of Christmas helpers and ranges from rousing rock songs to traditional hymns and carols and an Irish folk ballad set on Christmas morning. The album reflects the experience of Christmas in the southern hemisphere in new songs such as Swing Around the Sun and an Australian carol from the ’40s, Three Drovers. The album also contains a sparkling new recording of How to Make Gravy.
Variety is at the heart of Christmas Train, just as it has been with Kelly’s career, driven by an eagerness to explore fresh directions, from tender ballads to hard-edged rock’n’roll, country and bluegrass (Smoke and Foggy Highway) and funk and soul (Professor Ratbaggy, The Merri Soul Sessions).
In 2014, Seven Sonnets & a Song set Shakespeare sonnets to music. This was followed by an album with Charlie Owen of songs they had performed at funerals (Death’s Dateless Night), and an album with musicians from broad-ranging backgrounds interpreting bird-inspired poems (Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds).
In 2020 Kelly released an album in collaboration with jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky, Please Leave Your Light On, and a stand-alone single, Sleep Australia Sleep, an “old-time, new-time song” about Australia’s shameful response to environmental realities.
Kelly’s willingness to take the road less travelled has played an important part in keeping the flame burning in his own songs.
His 2017 set Life is Fine became his first No 1 album and that year Kelly won two ARIA Awards, for best male artist and best adult contemporary album. He returned to the awards in 2018, dedicating a poem to Kasey Chambers as he inducted her into the ARIA Hall of Fame, an honour Kelly received in 1997.
The natural world flowed through Kelly’s 2018 album Nature, which featured new Kelly songs as well as poems by Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas set to music by Kelly.
Kelly’s body of work includes live albums (see the CD/DVD recording of an Australian tour with Neil Finn, Goin’ Your Way, and the 8-CD box set A-Z Recordings, revisiting his songs with acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice). To this add the film soundtracks, co-writes (he contributed to land rights anthem Treaty with Yothu Yindi), production work and decades of touring, playing the kind of shows fans never forget. And he found time to write perhaps the finest and most unflinching autobiography ever written by an Australian musician, How to Make Gravy.
Kelly’s Order of Australia in 2017 acknowledged distinguished service to the performing arts and the promotion of the national identity through his contributions as singer, songwriter and musician.
In 1997, Kelly released greatest hits set Songs from the South. In 2019, Songs from the South 1985-2019 brought the story up to date. But not for long. Kelly’s mission to keep creating, keep exploring, keep moving, makes certain of that.