Life is Fine – 2017

Rising Moon
Finally Something Good

Firewood and Candles
My Man’s Got a Cold (feat. Vika Bull)

Rock Out On the Sea
Leah: The Sequel
Letter In the Rain
Don’t Explain (feat. Linda Bull)
I Smell Trouble

Life Is Fine

To everything there is a season. For Paul Kelly, it’s time to get the electric guitar out of the case again. And make one of the most powerful albums of his career.

That’s Life Is Fine, where Kelly fires up with a band of long-time musical friends, captures all the excitement of them playing live in the studio, and delivers a record that crackles with an energy reminiscent of his finest 80s recordings..

There are songs with an R&B groove like the sizzling opener, Rising Moon, jumping rockers like Firewood and Candles and Rock Out on the Sea and fun songs like Leah: The Sequel. The humorous tunes contrast with another of Kelly’s exquisite songs of regret, Letters in the Rain, and the rich imagery at the heart of Petrichor.

Kelly agrees about the comparison with those albums he made with The Messengers like Gossip and So Much Water So Close To Home.

“I was aware of that as we were making it,” Kelly says. “The guitar riff at the start of Firewood and Candles is like a Sunnyboys song. Those kind of guitar lines, nothing fancy but really strong, are like the ones Steve Connolly used to play with The Messengers. I can see a lot of parallels to those records I was making then.’’

Kelly’s recent albums have had a reflective or philosophical quality and his 2013 set Spring and Fall gently traced the arc of a relationship. With Life Is Fine, he’s back to spring again, musically at least.

“I knew I wanted it to be an upbeat record,” Kelly says. “We worked with Steve Schram, who engineered and co-produced. He likes to work really fast and get the performance of the band live in the studio, vocals and all at the same time. There are lots of different ways to make records but that’s the way I like to do it now.’’

The band is a similar cast of players to the one that made the 2014 Merri Soul Sessions album with Paul and guest singers. Vika and Linda Bull are on vocals, Ashley Naylor on guitar, Bill McDonald on bass, Cameron Bruce on keys and Peter Luscombe on drums.

“It’s a band with lots of strong opinions,’’ Kelly says. “I guess our one rule is to try every idea. By playing it you find out pretty quickly whether things are working or not.”

Vika and Linda step up to take lead vocals on one song each.

“I wonder why I hadn’t thought of it sooner, to have another voice on my records besides mine. A lot of my favourite bands have that. The Stones have got Keith Richards, The Triffids had Jill Birt, The Velvet Underground had Nico or Doug Yule. Vika sings My Man’s Got a Cold, which has a Bessie Smith attitude. Don’t Explain is sung by Linda. It’s at least 25 years old. I have been trying to get a woman to sing it for that long.”

One of the reasons behind Kelly’s enduring power as a songwriter is his continual drive to break old habits and find new ways to refresh his creativity.

“In 2014 I had most of the year off and I took piano lessons with Melbourne jazz musician Adam Rudegeair. I wanted to learn different chord voicings, some New Orleans-style piano. Finally Something Good is a direct line from those lessons.  My Man’s Got a Cold , too. On I Smell Trouble that’s me playing piano with Cameron on organ. Give The Necks some credit for that one. We took the approach of using a repetitive piano figure and building it up slowly. I knew where those lyrics had to go and the band built up a little storm around the rest.”

Leah: The Sequel also takes inspiration from a song of long ago.

“That’s one of four songs from the album written with Bill Miller who used to play in The Ferrets. We get together every now and then to watch test cricket and in the breaks or rain delays we play and write songs.  Like me, he loves Roy Orbison and one day we were fooling around with his song Leah. In the original song the character dreams he’s drowning but we wrote it with a new angle, that he almost did drown and was saved.”

One of the biggest songwriting breakthroughs for Kelly came after he devoted his creative energies to writing his autobiography How To Make Gravy.

“Five years ago I was asked by the Australian National Academy of Music to write a song cycle for their students with a modern classical composer. This was after I had spent a couple of years writing a book and in that time I had hardly written a song. I felt rusty. I started looking at poems with a linking theme, which is how the show and the album Conversations With Ghosts came about with James Ledger.

“That turned a little key for me. Until that point the music had always come first. I thought putting music to a lyric wouldn’t work, that it might be too stiff or control the music too much. I was wrong about that. Now, just for fun, I like to find a poem and have a go at putting music to it. It has given me another arrow in the quiver as a songwriter and it came along at a good time after writing songs for 30 years.

“When you have a beautiful set of words to begin with, whether it’s Shakespeare or Yeats or Les Murray, a lot of the hard work is done if you can write a good melody for it.”

The lyric for the album’s title tune and concluding track, with lines like “If that water hadn’t been so cold I might have sunk and died”, sounds exactly like something Kelly would have written. Yet it is by the American poet Langston Hughes, who died in 1967.

“A friend of mine sent me the poem 18 months ago and it looked like a song lyric. Recording it we took a more folky approach, without drums, so I wasn’t sure if it would fit on this record. It was the lyric that helped get it over the line. Songs like My Man’s Got a Cold, Leah: The Sequel and Firewood and Candles are more light-hearted. And Life Is Fine fits in with that mood.

“At first I worried about Life Is Fine as a title because life is not fine for everyone. But I like the original meaning of fine, as in life is a fine thread. We never know what is going to happen the very next minute, or what is just around the corner.’’

Fans of one of our greatest songwriters can be sure of this much, though: Life Is Fine is one of Kelly’s strongest and most evocative albums, another treasure to sit proudly on the shelf beside any of his earlier classics.

Life is Fine – 2017