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Australia’s punk poet: Paul Kelly

Bernard Zuel talks to the legend on playing the Forecourt and faking it ’til you make it

Bernard Zuel

Dapper as usual in a brown suit and open necked shirt, slightly stooped but hawkeyed, Paul Kelly declines the offer of his much-loved cabernet in favour of an ale as he looks out of Bennelong Restaurant and over Sydney Harbour.


He’s been speaking all day, there’s a flight in a few hours back home to Melbourne, but his working day is not yet over and that throat needs soothing.


Although something of an old hand at the Sydney Opera House, having begun in the Studio, with his career-spanning A-to-Z shows and then stepped up to the Concert Hall for his joint shows with Neil Finn – “Oh yeah. I’ve graduated,” he laughs – Kelly has some reason to be excited at his return.


Some 40 years into his career, the next time the Adelaide-born songwriter will be here it will be for his first shows on the steps of the House, under the stars and in the footsteps of some already famous concerts, including by his mate Neil Finn.


We talked about special spaces to play music, whether you can write songs for the outdoors and the indoors … and whether it matters if you can’t name that plant.

The most intimidating thing is when you suddenly get nervous on stage and you don’t know why.

Bernard Zuel: You will be playing outdoors, in the same spot where Crowded House played the first of their farewell shows in 1996. It’s under the stars, it’s got the bridge behind it, a whole lot of atmosphere that comes with it. Is that intimidating? Or is it something you play to?


Paul Kelly: No, I don’t find that intimidating. Maybe if it’s a huge crowd that might be intimidating but the most intimidating thing in a band is when you suddenly get nervous on stage and you don’t know why. Suddenly the ‘pretendies’ comes out of nowhere: ‘I’m a fake, what am I doing here? Why have all these people come to see me?’ You never know when that’s going to happen.

But as far as playing in beautiful places, with beautiful scenery, usually I find it quite comforting. It does add an extra intangible thing that is affecting the crowd as well … a whole other thing going on as well as the concert that adds to the concert. If there is a moon rising in the sky or the sun is setting, they really affect the mood of the concert.


BZ: This time, maybe more so than for some years, you have a new batch of songs which seem perfect for an ‘everyone relaxed, hanging out drinking a few beers’ show.


PK: We have been looking forward to touring this record because it’s pretty upbeat, it’s playful, nearly all the songs are a full band, lots of harmonies, Vika and Linda [Bull] singing. The general plan for the tour is to play the new record first and then move into old songs in the second half. But it’s not like the new record is going to be a solemn affair ... ‘Oh god, he’s playing the new record, when’s the old stuff?’ I know the new record will be fun to play.

BZ: Do you think in advance, ‘I’m going to make an upbeat, pop rock album and write songs to fit the bill’ or do those songs come and sit around waiting for the right moment, the right album?

PK: It’s a bit of both. I did have a plan a few years back that I was going to make this kind of record. The Merri Soul [Sessions] record in 2014 was in some ways similar to this record because it was played live in the studio, and a lot of upbeat songs, but it had a whole lot of different singers so it had a kind of focus. Then I did two more I guess, meditative, philosophical records, with the Shakespeare sonnets [Seven Sonnets And A Song] and songs gung at funerals [Death’s Dateless Night]They were planned at a certain time. For Shakespeare, it was the 400th anniversary of his death so that had to come out at that time. And the record before Merri Soul was an acoustic, pastoral song cycle [Spring And Fall].

I had in my mind for a long time that I wanted to come up with a straight-up band record and I was putting songs aside to fit it. Songs come along in a fairly haphazard way: every record I put out doesn’t reflect ‘this is what I’ve been thinking about the last year’. They’re more sorted. A few songs get sorted into little piles but sometimes after you get half a dozen songs you think they are talking to each other, there’s a nucleus of a record there and that then helps me write other songs to go with. So it’s a bit of both.

Songs are a lot more accidental than that.

BZ: You don’t have those moments when somebody comes and says Paul we need a single for the record and get home that night and write the single?

PK: I wish I could, I wish I could. I’d love to be able to do that but songs are a lot more accidental than that.

BZ: When was the last time somebody told you what to do?

PK: People make suggestions but I always feel like I employ the record company. I thought that for a long time, I thought that in my younger days. And I think it’s a useful thing to think.

BZ: On the new album, Life Is Fineyou refer in one song to petrichor, the smell of the earth after rain. How important as a songwriter is it to know the names of birds, the names of plants or the way nature works and what petrichor means?

PK: I know very little about nature. I have a scant knowledge of many things. I think for a writer often it’s a bit like fake it till you make it. I think a good rule is just to be interested in anything and see what comes your way.

Watch the full interview here, filmed at Bennelong Restaurant.

Paul Kelly will play the Opera House Forecourt on November 19 and 20, with special guests Steve Earle and Middle Kids. Tickets available here.

Celebrating 30 years since 'To Her Door', the legendary punk-poet makes his return to rock 'n' roll with new album for a special outdoor show on the Opera House Forecourt.

Find more about Contemporary Music at the Opera House