Tagged: Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly’s avian epiphany

Songwriter Paul Kelly spent most of his life “not noticing birds very much at all”. Then suddenly he opened his eyes and they were everywhere. To some extent, the songwriter’s eyes were opened for him. One influence was his partner of the past four years, Siân Darling.

Another connection was friend Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine and author of The Big Twitch. Kelly met Dooley kicking a footy around St Kilda with a bunch of other locals. (Dooley remembers Kelly’s prowess: “He’s very skilled – runs low to the ground, deceptively quick, and from memory a raking low, left-foot kick.”)

Then Anna Goldsworthy, from the Seraphim Trio, contacted Kelly suggesting they team up with classical composer James Ledger. Kelly had worked with Ledger on an earlier collaboration, Conversations With Ghosts, and the latest idea was to set poems about animals to music.

Kelly liked the idea and wanted to work with both the Seraphim Trio and Ledger (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath) but thought the subject too broad. Narrowing it down to the avian world, he began poring through hundreds of poems.

The end result is Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, which adapts works by Emily Dickinson (“Hope” is The Thing With Feathers), Judith Wright (Thornbills; Black Cockatoos), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats and others for musical performance. An album is due later this year.

Kelly says collaborators were all determined to include a song about a magpie. Dennis Glover’s The Magpies is the final song in the cycle: “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed / And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”

Ironically, Glover is a New Zealander, and across the Tasman, where magpies were artificially introduced, the bird has become a pest. “The things you learn,” Kelly says – to which the magpie might simply quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle in reply.

Kelly is conscious, at least in hindsight, of environmental themes beginning to filter through his work, even before last year’s album Nature. “The beauty of this project is that it’s opened up a whole other world to me and that’s a never-ending world,” he says.

For Ledger, the whole other world was musical. “I’m sort of being dragged over to his rock/pop world and he’s being dragged over to my classical world, for want of a better word, and the end result is somewhere in the middle,” he says.

Kelly has a different perspective. “Different genres of music are much closer together than people think,” he says, asked how his folk-rock chords and Ledger’s more baroque arrangements work together. “It’s voice and notes in the end.”

They both agree, though, that Ledger ended up more in Kelly’s world, as Ledger began to email songs with guide vocals and melodies through to Kelly. Previously, he had stuck to arranging and embellishing. “I don’t know if I moved that much towards him!” Kelly says.

Ledger, however, was tickled pink. “To hear Paul singing the songs I had sung back to me was quite a thrill, because Paul has got that incredibly distinctive voice that most Australians would recognise.”

And for Kelly the project continued to open his eyes not only to birds, but to a new way of writing songs after 40 years. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always insisted he found writing lyrics the hardest and that the music always came first.

Conversations With Ghosts was the first time Kelly had tried to put music to other people’s words; after that came his Shakespearean project Seven Sonnets And A Song. Before that, he felt writing lyrics first would force the music to “run on too rigid a rail”.

Since then, a key has turned. “In a way, it takes the pressure off. I come up with music much easier than I do words, so to know there’s this whole world of great lyrics and poems and words out there that can be tapped is exciting.”

Naturally, there is a conservation message in Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds. “In each program for the shows, we pick a bird that’s under threat and then put a link to an organisation where people can do something about it,” Kelly says.

More recently, he says, he’s been reading about the crashing numbers of insects. “People are starting to realise that the biomass of insects is dropping all over the world and people have started to realise that we’d better measure this.”

After all, without insects, there’ll be no more quardle oodle doodling, or much of anything else. “It’s impacting birds, along with all the things you know – the loss of habitat and climate change, pesticides and so on – it’s a calamity happening right in front of us.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2019

Robert Forster: Inferno

Here in Brisbane, the heat has finally broken. For 46 days in a row, the mercury exceeded 30C. The previous record was 27 days, in 2017. While the north has been awash, the wet season here has failed. I’m listening to the title track of the new Robert Forster album. It’s called Inferno (Brisbane In Summer). You might think it looks like paradise, he sings, but everyone here is screaming: “Let me, let me, let me, let me, let me out!”

Forster has written about the weather in Brisbane before. On his 2008 album The Evangelist, recorded during a similarly excruciating period of mind-melting heat, the first song was called If It Rains. At the time, we thought it might never rain here again. Not that Inferno is any kind of manifesto. This is not a climate change concept album. It’s a Robert Forster record, which means buckets of atmosphere, dry wit, subtle pleasures and unerring quality.

While Forster’s last album, Songs To Play, was recorded close to his home patch in the hills west of Brisbane, for Inferno he escaped to Berlin, where he recorded his first solo album, Danger In The Past, in 1990. And where Songs To Play featured a drier sound and coiled, latent energy, Inferno, produced by Victor Van Vugt, is lush and tropical, and it moves at a slightly more languid pace.

The first song on this record is called Crazy Jane On The Day Of Judgement. I have no idea what that refers to, and frankly couldn’t care less; it might be the best title since the Go-Betweens cut Liberty Belle And The Black Diamond Express in 1986. There’s a simple four-note progression, a ride cymbal, Forster’s wife Karin Baumler pulling insistently at the song’s edges on violin. Forster doesn’t sing much, but the melody is inferred and fleshed out by his players.

That’s how Forster’s albums get under your skin. He’s very much an acquired taste, but lyric-driven songs that seem tuneless on the surface are the ones you find yourself humming later. And the ones that seem most banal, like The Morning, have a wisdom that hits you later. “The morning is a friend,” he says. After all, you never know when you might not wake up. The world might be cooking, but Forster remains an eternal optimist.

He’s also a marathoner, not a sprinter. He’s 61 now, with seven solo albums under his belt around the nine he made with the Go-Betweens, and he is one of Australian music’s elders. He doesn’t sell remotely as many records as Nick Cave, a close peer and friend, or Paul Kelly. On the song Remain, he says, “I did my good work, knowing it wasn’t my time.” The groove of this song is totally relaxed as he speaks of being overlooked and forgotten.

Forster doesn’t care. Not only is he an optimist, he’s supremely self-assured. He knows what he does is good without needing the validation of others. No Fame contains the lines “I’m gonna write a novel that is set a hundred years ago / The custom and the carriage of the people, well, I don’t know.” While others overtake him, Forster is content to cruise and to observe, knowing that one day they’ll catch up with him – not the other way around.

After the big heat, listening to this album is like Spring Rain.

First published in The Guardian, 1 March 2019

Mea culpa: This review was spoiled by an embarrassingly careless error on my part; Crazy Jane On The Day Of Judgement is a WB Yeats poem, which I was ignorant of and had simply failed to look up.

Kev Carmody: Pillars Of Society at 30

Kev Carmody’s debut album, Pillars Of Society, recorded as a conceptual excoriation of the Australian bicentenary in 1988, is now 30 years old. On release, it was described by critic Bruce Elder as “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.

There have been many brilliant records made by Aboriginal musicians since but with the exception of AB Original, none of them has produced such a sustained polemic, and only Archie Roach rivals him for poetic eloquence.

Born in 1946, Carmody grew up on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane, born to an Aboriginal mother and Irish-Australian father. He is a member of the Stolen Generations, taken along with his brother from his parents when he was 10. Emerging from school illiterate, he now has a PhD in history and is a member of the Aria Hall of Fame.

His first public musical exposure was on the Murri Radio program of Brisbane community broadcaster 4ZZZ. His song Thou Shalt Not Steal, which brought him to national attention, contained the following portrait of black life in Brisbane:

Well Job and me and Jesus, sittin’ underneath that Indooroopilly bridge
Watching that blazin’ sun go down beneath the tall-treed mountain ridge
The land’s our heritage and spirit here, the rightful culture’s black
And we’re sitting here just wonderin’ – when we gonna get that land back?

What follows is a series of appreciations and reflections by other artists who have drawn inspiration from Carmody’s extraordinary debut, recorded when he was 42.

David Bridie

Not Drowning, Waving, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, solo artist

“I had to be reminded that Pillars Of Society was Kev Carmody’s debut album. It wasn’t like he was young when he made it. Here was a voice with oral history leanings and a street fighter attitude. It had as much to do with the Clash as Bob Dylan, but was way better, because this was an authentic Indigenous voice.

I was a young man when I heard it, and it schooled me. The lyrics are dense, the vocals passionate, he doesn’t waste a word. You can tell he was on a roll when he was writing it. It’d be very interesting to see the reaction if it was released today – it would have been lauded in the same way Briggs is; a refreshing voice that is not to be messed with.”

Briggs

AB Original, solo artist

“There were a few records around at the same time when I was researching, in my own way, what was going on in music in Australia. Kev Carmody was one, Archie Roach was another, Yothu Yindi. Pillars Of Society was part of the tapestry for me – one of the pillars of artistry that we could look to for how to share our stories. It’s like the foundation on which all these new and upcoming artists, and established artists like myself, get to live and breathe.”

Peter Garrett

Midnight Oil, former Labor Party minister

“This was a very powerful record by someone who’s the Aboriginal poet laureate of his time, and it’s as pungent and as stirring and as evocative and as absolutely ‘on’ today as it was when it was first written. The triumph is that Carmody could get it down in songs that were accessible, and the tragedy is that not enough of us have listened so far. It’s also about the power of art, even when the things that it’s writing about are still tearing people and communities apart.”

Almost everyone Guardian Australia spoke to, like Garrett, mentioned the ongoing relevance of the material. One song, Black Deaths In Custody, anticipated a royal commission into the issue – the findings of which have been largely ignored:

I say, show me the justice, to be had here in this land
Show us blacks the justice for every black human being
Show us blacks the justice, in this white democracy
When you can execute us without a trial while we’re held in custody

Paul Kelly was an early supporter of Carmody, with whom he later co-wrote From Little Things Big Things Grow, the story of the Gurindji uprising.

Paul Kelly

“Kev Carmody’s songs combine anger, humour, oral history, polemic, poetry and prayer. His body of work, spanning over 40 years, is one of Australia’s great cultural treasures. Cannot Buy My Soul [from Carmody’s second album, Eulogy (For A Black Person)] is a hymn that breathes with steely rage.”

Pillars Of Society has also inspired newer female artists, both white and Indigenous.

Missy Higgins

“Kev is one of the sweetest, most humble geniuses I know. Paul [Kelly] introduced me to his music years ago, and the first thing I thought when I listened to Pillars Of Society was “Whoa, how come I haven’t heard of this guy?” He’s one of the hidden treasures of the Australian music scene. Being a part of his tribute tour was a real career highlight for me.”

Caiti Baker

Sietta, solo artist, collaborator with AB Original

“I didn’t grow up on any Australian music, because my dad’s a hardcore blues fanatic, but I feel like if we were going to listen to any Australian music that album would have slotted in quite nicely, because it is really quite bluesy, and that genre really lends itself to the content that he’s talking about, which is sadly still on the forefront of this nation’s circumstances. It’s a great album that should be used in our school systems.”

Malcolm’s got a razor
And a jack-knife up his leg
He’s a friend of crooked Louis
Who can’t lay straight in bed
Life can be hard trackin’
When you’re runnin’ out on a twisted rail
I keep hoping that the mornin’ wind
Come blow my blues away
 – Twisted Rail

Emily Wurramara

“When I was in primary school [in Brisbane], I went to Zillmere state school, and our main theme song was From Little Things Big Things Grow. We sang that every Friday at assembly, which was awesome. Uncle Kev wrote a letter to the school, asking if we wanted to join him at Parliament House to sing it. And so the school choir went to the Parliament House and sang it. It was beautiful.

Then, when I was in grade nine, we were doing a project on Indigenous music, and we had to listen to that album because of the lyrics, [which were] gentle but confronting and powerful. To be able to capture that much authenticity in a song is so rare. It was beautiful to see an Aboriginal man capture that – it’s so inspiring as a young Indigenous woman to hear those songs and to be influenced in some way by the songwriter. His music is healing.”

First published in The Guardian, 15 September 2018

Spencer P Jones: Hellraiser among Australian rock greats

Spencer P Jones wasn’t a household name of Australian rock music. But he worked with many who were (Tex Perkins, in their band the Beasts of Bourbon, as well as Paul Kelly and Renée Geyer) and was held in high esteem by many beyond these shores, notably Neil Young.

His work as a guitarist and songwriter also influenced many, including the Drones, who covered one of his songs and whose principal members, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, recorded an album with him under the name the Nothing Butts in 2012.

The news of his passing from liver cancer on Tuesday, aged 61, was no surprise. He’d been forced into retirement from the stage (a place you otherwise couldn’t keep him from) a few years ago, and was advised of his terminal condition in June.

His rare appearances had been limited to guest spots, one of his last being for the Beasts of Bourbon’s bass player Brian Hooper in April. Hooper came out of hospital to perform, took the stage in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, and died days later, aged 55.

If this paints a familiarly grim picture of the rock musician’s fate, it might be worth mentioning that Jones’s first album with the Johnnys, recorded in 1986, was called Highlights Of A Dangerous Life. The highlights from Spencer’s could easily fill a book.

But unlike most rock stars, Jones didn’t look away from the consequences of his choices. One of his later songs, sadly never released, was called The Monkey Has Gone. A sad lament punctuated by clashing guitar chords in the chorus, it was about cleaning up, and owning it:

The monkey has gone
Time to move along
Get on with my life
Say sorry to my wife
But that’s a different song
Thankfully, the monkey has gone

Born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand in 1956, Jones arrived in Sydney in 1976. In his first week there, he saw Broderick Smith’s country rock band the Dingoes, Radio Birdman at French’s Tavern in Darlinghurst and a much-bootlegged show by AC/DC at the Haymarket.

Those three gigs and their respective influences – country, punk and hard rock – all informed his later work. The Johnnys, Jones’s first band of note, were dubbed “cowpunk”, and they played the image to the hilt, wearing Stetsons, chaps and Cuban heels.

They also kept bar fridges on stage, painted as black as their amplifiers, which they’d open between each number to take beers from – a gimmick that helped prevent their riders from being pilfered.

The beer poured in rivers from the bar taps, too, but other stunts made them a publican’s nightmare. At the end of shows, the band would cut the twine holding the hay bales on stage, scattering straw throughout the venue. (This back in the days when everyone smoked at gigs.)

The Beasts of Bourbon, a supergroup featuring Perkins and the Scientists’ Kim Salmon, were an even more lethal proposition. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded in a single eight-hour session, fuelled by three cases of beer and, well, who knows what else.

By the band’s fourth album, The Low Road – led by a song called Chase The Dragon – the band’s hard edge and habits were becoming obvious. They were ferocious live, Jones lurking in the shadows, puffing smoke from under the hat that obscured his receding hairline.

As a guitar player, he was highly rated, coming in 17th in a poll of Australian musicians that was topped by Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss. His Stratocaster chugged and wailed, always a bit behind the beat, and he held the history of rock ’n’ roll in his right hand.

At that stage, Jones wasn’t a prolific writer. The two Johnnys albums were padded with covers, and he contributed a minority of songs to the Beasts of Bourbon. But the quality control was high, and after his first solo album, Rumour Of Death in 1994, he blossomed.

For much of the 1990s, Jones played in Paul Kelly’s band. Jones once told me that Kelly taught him that songs didn’t just fall out of the sky: “You’ve got to do the work,” he said. After leaving the band, Jones hit a purple patch, recording a string of terrific albums through the 2000s.

Looking through his body of work – with the Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Hell to Pay (formed with another hellraiser, Ian Rilen) and his solo records, what stands out above all is the consistency. You’d be hard pressed to identify a bad song on any of them.

It’s easy to imagine Bleeding Heart, a single recorded with the Johnnys with a little help from Kelly, as being a big hit in the latter’s hands. In time, we may view Jones as a songwriter of Kelly’s equal, but Jones’s snarling delivery and reputation undoubtedly scared many off.

There’s another story to be told here, about the Australian music industry’s cowardice and ageism. Had Jones been based in Austin, Texas and started a little earlier, he might have been venerated and celebrated for both his songs and transgressions, in the way of other outlaw country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

But that’s a different song. Paraphrasing one of his best, The Day Marty Robbins Died, he’s with Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams now, in that Grand Ole Opry in the sky.

First published in The Guardian, 23 August 2018

Camp Cope: How To Socialise & Make Friends

In his “mongrel memoir” How To Make Gravy, Paul Kelly has a chapter on circle songs – songs that are built on a chord progression that cycles in the same order from beginning to end. The melody may vary, but there’s no bridge or change in the chorus to break the circle. Wide Open Road, by the Triffids, is a circle song; so too Kelly’s Careless. A lot of folk music, Kelly observes, is like this: “We just pick it up and pass it on.”

The Opener, by Camp Cope, is another circle song. With it, and their defiant gesture at the Falls festival – calling out the organisers in front of a jam-packed tent for their lowly placement on the bill, in keeping with the song’s theme – the Melbourne three-piece instantly stamped themselves as the Australian band of the moment and the #MeToo generation. They resonate because they are so real.

Even if not for singer and guitarist Georgia “Maq” McDonald’s pedigree (she is the daughter of the late Hugh McDonald, formerly of Australian folk-rock band Redgum), Camp Cope’s second album How To Socialise & Make Friends would sound like a baton being passed to a new generation. It couldn’t be in better hands. Everything about this endearing band and record is unvarnished, from the production to McDonald’s raw vocals.

Like the young Liz Phair, McDonald writes with insight into intimate gender and family relationships while always getting straight to the point. On the title track, you’re right in the action from the opening line: “He left a key in the back door but I never showed up / There was something sleazy about him that made me want to rob the place and run.”

The Face Of God is a clear-eyed story of the lonely aftermath of a sexual assault, full of self-doubt and the doubts of others who don’t want to believe that people we admire can behave in ways that reflect their own sense of entitlement: “Not you, no, they said your music is too good.” The music builds slowly but never quite resolves, because there is no resolution, only questions. The melody aches with hurt.

She’s hardly pitch-perfect, but that’s not the point: it’s impossible not to be drawn into the conversational style of the lyrics. McDonald’s singing, to quote Lester Bangs, is “a raw wail from the bottom of the guts”, a perfectly imperfect instrument for an unstable age. Bass player Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich and drummer Sarah Thompson provide a sturdy framework and, crucially, just enough colour to hold the songs aloft.

Musically, it’s Hellmrich’s bouncing bass hook that keeps The Opener stuck in your head and coming back for more, while Thompson’s drumming is as bold and splashy as her Twitter account – her sudden switch from cymbals to toms on UFO Lighter as McDonald sings: “I wasn’t the one that was unfaithful / But I can see why people thought I was / Sometimes making love is the only time I ever feel loved,” is one of this album’s highlights.

The album’s final song I’ve Got You is a tribute to McDonald’s father, who died in 2016. It’s another circle song, played on an acoustic guitar. “I’m so proud that half of me grew from you / Even all the broken parts, too,” she sings. If Hugh could hear his daughter singing it he’d be just as proud.

For a generation that’s grown up watching vocal talent quests, hearing the unrestrained gusto of McDonald singing these simple, direct songs will be empowering. In 20 years, young women especially will approach her and thank Camp Cope for encouraging them to pick up a guitar and tell their own stories. And so the baton will be passed, and picked up again.

First published in The Guardian, 2 March 2018

(I want my) music on TV back

For two hours on Sunday night, it felt like a good proportion of Australia was gathered around a gigantic campfire. That campfire was burning on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, where Paul Kelly and his band were holding court – not just for the tens of thousands of people lucky enough to be there, but for hundreds of thousands more tuning in around the country, watching the ABC livestream and tweeting simultaneously.

Some say it’s rude to talk at gigs, but for me, watching from home, the excited chatter about what we were seeing added to the communal feel as #PaulKellyLive became the top-trending hashtag in the country. There was a collective awareness that we were witnessing a celebrated songwriter at the top of his game, and at a peak of popularity – at the age of 62, Kelly’s most recent album Life Is Fine was his first No. 1, a richly deserved success for a recording that’s up there with his best work.

Then someone said on Twitter: “We should have live music on the ABC every Sunday night.” Funny he should mention it: only two hours earlier, the ABC had screened its latest instalment of Classic Countdown, a restored best-of the vintage program which has also been a big hit for the national broadcaster. Cannily, it screened in Countdown’s original time slot of 6pm Sunday, adding to the nostalgia of a sizeable audience who grew up on the show between 1974 and 1987.

Of course, the music on Countdown wasn’t strictly live, and the warm glow of nostalgia helps us forget the reality: at the time, great Countdown moments (last night’s highlight was Divine performing You Think You’re A Man) could sometimes be a bit like finding diamonds in dog turds. Such moments, though, were miracles of Australian television that probably wouldn’t be allowed to happen today.

So it’s reasonable to ask why we don’t have a dedicated live music program, the endless parade of canned karaoke quests aside. If we did, perhaps we wouldn’t be wallowing in nostalgia for shows like Countdown and Recovery, at least not to the same degree. Australia has a rich history of music on television going back to TV Disc Jockey in 1957, which evolved into Australia’s version of the American program Bandstand.

In other words, Australia has had rock & roll on television pretty much as long as we’ve had both television (which launched in this country in 1956) and rock & roll.

After Bandstand, we had Six O’Clock Rock hosted by Johnny O’Keefe, The Go!! Show, GTK (Get To Know), and the Seven network’s Sounds, on to Rock Arena, SBS’s Rock Around the World (whose host Basia Bonkowski was the subject of a memorable tribute by Melbourne’s Painters & Dockers), Beatbox, The Noise, Studio 22 and Nomad – the show which introduced us to a trio of teenagers called Silverchair.

Variety shows gave priceless additional exposure to Australian artists. Even Hey Hey It’s Saturday had its moments: other than that time Iggy Pop greeted Molly Meldrum with “Hiya Dogface!” before terrorising innocent teenagers with a microphone stand, not even Countdown threw up anything to match TISM’s performance of Saturday Night Palsy, the like of which has not been seen before or since.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Even mimed performances on live television carried that tantalising possibility of a few minutes of anarchy. All it took was a performer, or group of performers, willing to break the format’s fourth wall and strip the carefully constructed reality of television away – at which point things perhaps got a bit too real for executive producers to handle.

Which brings me to the events of 2 November 1988.

On that evening, a Sydney noise-rock group called Lubricated Goat, led by one Stu Spasm, performed the lead track from their just-released album Paddock Of Love on Andrew Denton’s program Blah Blah Blah. The song was called In The Raw, and in the raw was exactly how the group played it – much to the horror of sensitive viewers who jammed the ABC switchboard, not to mention tabloid editors and talkback radio hosts.

Eleven years after punk, it was Australia’s version of “The filth and the fury” – that Daily Mirror headline that followed the Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance on Bill Grundy’s Today program in December 1976. Tim Bowden, the genial host of the ABC’s popular feedback program Backchat, responded to the moral panic by appearing shirtless behind his desk while reading outraged letters to Aunty aloud.

An ABC spokesperson told Guardian Australia the network hoped to build on the success of the AusMusic Month broadcasts: Paul Kelly last night and Crowded House last year. They said music programming, including live concerts, “is something we continue to be very committed to … the upcoming reorganisation of our content teams will provide more opportunities for our music and entertainment teams to work closely together”.

I hope they’re right. It has been far too long since live music was a regular part of our Sunday evenings, not to mention our Monday water-cooler discussions. Sure, it carries an element of risk – but as Paul Kelly showed, it has the potential for joy as well. And without the risks, we’d have none of those classic moments that we continue to celebrate today.

First published in The Guardian, 20 November 2017