Paul Kelly is the top-selling artist in Australia this week, having scored his very first chart-topping album with the release of his 23rd record, Life is Fine.
As this week’s guest on Walking the Floor, he talks to podcast host Chris Shiflett about a long-running career that began in the pubs of Melbourne and grew into something international. It’s the story of an Aussie Renaissance Man who’s been everything from a Top 40 hitmaker to a cult favorite, and it premieres today on Rolling Stone Country, ending a month’s worth of radio silence from Shiflett and his Americana podcast. Listen to the episode below, after our list of highlights.
It’s been a busy decade for Kelly, who released two albums in 2016 alone.
Now in his fourth decade as an artist, Kelly still moves at a rapid clip, kicking off 2016 with the release of Seven Sonnets and a Song. Released on the 400-year anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the album found Kelly setting a string of Shakespearean sonnets to music. “He’s just my favorite writer,” he tells Shiflett.
Later that year, Kelly teamed up with fellow songwriter Charlie Owen for Death’s Dateless Night. “We’ve both sung at a lot of our friends’ funerals,” he explains, and Death’s Dateless Night takes its material from those gigs, rounding up songs that the two musicians have performed at various wakes.
Kelly’s ideal bandmate? The kind of guy who doesn’t pull punches.
“I think the art of being in a good band is being able to fight with each other, and not hurt each other,” says the frontman, whose discography includes nearly a dozen different bands, side projects and one-off collaborations. For Kelly, a little constructive conflict can go a long way. “The final say is mine,” he says, “but I need people throwing in ideas all the time.”
He doesn’t always crave the spotlight. . .or the microphone.
In 2002, 14 different female artists covered Kelly’s music on for the tribute album Women at the Well. 15 years later, Kelly still enjoys hearing his music performed by others. “I’ve always loved other singers doing my songs,” he says. “More of my records now have someone else singing the songs. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it 30 years ago. No matter how good a singer is, it’s always good to take a break. Like the Rolling Stones, where Keith would sing a lot. . .I think that’s probably how I’ll do my records from now on. It’s good to have a little break from my own voice.”
His parents forced him to take piano lessons. . . and, more than a half-century later, he’s glad they wouldn’t let him stop.
“We all had piano lessons as kids,” he says of his upbringing in Adelaide. “It was compulsory.” Now a father of three, Kelly supports the idea of mandatory lessons. “Too much choice is bad for kids, and boredom is good for kids,” he insists, claiming that boredom will compel a child to fire up his or her own imagination. “Let your kids be bored!”
His initial career path? Full-time writer.
A fan of Henry Miller and Jack Keruoac, Kelly initially studied to become a writer. “I was writing more prose,” he remembers. Things began to change when he learned his first guitar chords at age 18. From there, he began listening to Gram Parsons, the Byrds and Neil Young, learning how to cover those musicians’ songs along the way. “I was playing [cover] songs for two or three years,” he remembers, “and then one day, I wrote one. . .The other writing I was doing just fell away.”
Kelly is driven by one ambition: to continue writing good music.
“The next thing I wanna do is always write a good song,” he tells Shiflett. “Songs hit me really hard as a kid, and they still do. I still remember ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by the Kinks, and it just hit me between the eyes, and I’ve always wanted to grab some of that power. . . [I want to] chase that feeling of being connected to something bigger than ourselves.”