With his beetle brow, bald crown, big ears and gaunt cheekbones, Paul Kelly could play the heavy in a British gangster film, especially when he wears a shiny suit (on the first night of his current U.S. tour, in Austin, Texas it was maroon).
Instead – someone notify the Guinness Book of Records – the Australian singer-songwriter's current claim to fame might be creating the world's longest CD liner notes. Kelly's 568-page autobiography, How to Make Gravy, has just been published in the United States, in tandem with The A to Z Recordings, a 106-track, eight-CD boxed set culled from Kelly's now-trademark A to Z live performances.
For those shows, which traveled to 11 U.S. cities through March, Kelly takes the stage over one to four nights with an easel, 24 big white cards displaying letters of the alphabet (he doesn't have a "V" or "X" song) and a guitar, surveying his whole career in alphabetical order. "It's like a game really," Kelly says.
Something of a cross between Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt and Elvis Costello to his fellow countrymen, Kelly has been making music for 30 years, getting his start around the same time as such Australian post-punk greats as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the Go-Betweens. Rolling Stone's David Fricke has called him "one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise."
He was a college radio fave on A&M Records in the late 1980s (touring the U.S. with Crowded House), and his song "Blue Stranger" was covered by Keith Urban – but his true metier is as a witty, sparse roots and rock & roll-based storyteller.
His minimalism stems from the influence of short story writers like Raymond Carver, who could convey so much information and emotion in so few words (Kelly's song "Everything's Turning to White" retells Carver's story "So Much Water So Close to Home") but also the economy of classic pop music (i.e. the Beatles or Motown). "If I write a song that's two and a half minutes or three minutes, I feel pleased about it," Kelly says.
He first did an "A to Z" (which he pronounces "Zed," of course) in 2004, as something special for the Famous Spiegeltent (a travelling venue that makes regular stops around Australia and the United Kingdom). By the time those shows were over, "I realized that I'd found a new way to perform," Kelly says. "Audiences went to the shows with a different sort of expectation."
The sets are almost entirely acoustic, just Kelly on vocals, guitar, harmonica and occasionally piano, with his nephew Dan Kelly adding melody and color on guitar and backing vocals (and at least one time, ukulele).
"Some of it's predictable, some of it's not," Kelly says. "Some letters I have eight songs (one of which is "I") and other letters I might only have two or three. "Adelaide," about his hometown, always starts things off, and he wrote a song called "Zoe" especially for the first Spiegeltent show.
Named after his huge Australian Christmas hit (which is sung from the point of view of a prisoner calling his family during the holiday), Kelly's "mongrel memoir" really did start out as liner notes. But no sooner had he written a few pages about "Adelaide" then he realized he had something more. Two and a half years later he had a finished book.
Much more than an autobiography, How to Make Gravy includes everything from unfussy recollections of his time using heroin and an encomium for Aussie cricket great Don Bradman to how he came to lift parts of his song "Careless" from two different Go-Betweens song to an actual letter Kelly wrote in the late 1980s while on that first big U.S. tour. He also throws in plenty of his own takes on rock history - in one chapter he talks Australian music; in another, he lists his favorite-ever first lines of songs from the likes of Weezer, Bo Diddley, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen.
The book is also in alphabetical order, but Kelly found that having such a rigid structure also was quite freeing.
"I wasn't writing a novel or a nonfiction thing with a through line through it," he says. "I tried to treat each chapter as a standalone thing and then I would think, these songs go on an album. It was a very songwriterly kind of book in that way."
The U.S. release of A to Z comes on the heels of Kelly's recent best-of Songs of the South; his label Gawd Aggie is also preparing a comprehensive reissue program that will include U.S distribution. So has there ever been a moment with the boxed set and the memoir where Kelly tired of looking back?
"That moment is now," he says. "When I wrote the book I just didn't write any songs: writing prose was sort of like flicking a switch. So, definitely ready to do a new studio record now."
But even though it's been five years since his last full-band disc, Stolen Apples, Kelly thinks that he'll be sticking with the A-Z aesthetic for a while – the record that is in his head is still something simple and acoustic.
"I'll probably be in this sort of mode for a while," he says.