I’ve been told Paul Kelly doesn’t enjoy an interview. If pushed, the 62-year-old Melbourne muso is likely to talk about the music, but rarely about himself. If you look up the word uncomfortable, you’ll find a link to a YouTube video of interviewer Kerry O’Brien pushing Paul to open up about his decades of heroin use. Even his memoir skirts around the personal, structured instead as an alphabetical guide to his back catalogue.
For a storyteller who loves words, he can be remarkably taciturn.
When we meet, it’s in the wake of a week of good news. A new national tour has been announced and Paul’s new album Life Is Fine has launched straight into the top spot on the ARIA charts. Remarkably, it’s his first No.1 hit in a four-decade career.
You might expect Paul to be ebullient or, at the very least, somewhat upbeat. Instead, he seems only restless. Restless to be back on the road and to be getting back to work.
“It’s very nice,” Paul says of his chart triumph. “I’m very happy for everyone around me. That’s quite a large group and it means a lot to all those people.”
Almost as an afterthought, he adds: “I’m very happy, too.”
Few artists would have the staying power to wait until album 23 to hit the big time. Indeed, Paul’s been around so long (he released his first record in 1981) that it’s something of a surprise to realise that even his best-known hits such as To Her Door and Dumb Things didn’t crack the Top 10. But while he admits to being an ambitious muso, it seems that his hunger has never been for commercial success.
“I’m hungry for the next song. My favourite songwriters and artists, they weren’t No.1 in their day but their records are still listened to and still have an influence today. My hunger is to make music that lasts. A No.1 album is a temporary thing. It’s not why I write songs.”
Certainly, his recent musical efforts, including an album of Shakespearean sonnets and another of songs sung at funerals, haven’t exactly set the charts on fire.
It’s tempting to surmise that his new-found chart success might be an expression of relief from his many fans that he’s back to doing what he does best – writing pop songs.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love pop music,” Paul says. “Those are the kind of songs I like to write. It’s only a small percentage of my songs that will ever be played on mainstream radio, but there’s a much wider interest for me in the sort of songs I write.”
He says songwriting hasn’t become any harder as he’s got older, but his approach has changed in recent years. Whereas he used to start with a tune, he’s more interested these days in fitting poetry to music – sometimes his own, sometimes others. The title track of his new record is a poem by African American poet Langston Hughes.
He says this new approach began in 2013 when he was asked to write a song cycle for classical project Conversations With Ghosts, for which he employed the words of poets as diverse as Les Murray and W. B. Yeats.
“I like wordplays and puns. I fell in love with Shakespeare at an early age and he loved a pun. I read poetry as a teenager, I fell in love with Keats. But nobody’s going to listen to the words if the music isn’t any good.
“There are still songs I love that I’ve heard on the radio that I still couldn’t tell you what the words are. I don’t want to get too hung up on words. But I am! Too late.”
Talk of love (even if it’s simple logophilia) seems like a good moment to push the conversation towards more personal matters. While Paul has been at pains to separate the stories in his songs from those of his own life, there’s no doubting the importance of love in his work.
But despite (or perhaps because of) being married three times, it’s a subject he prefers to keep quiet about. The revelatory 2012 documentary Paul Kelly: Stories of Me notably features no mention of his decade-long relationship with the writer Sian Prior (once credited with breaking his 25-year heroin habit).
We don’t talk about that, but we do talk about love. “Love is everything,” he tells me. “That’s what we run on.
“There are all different kinds of love and I think we need most of them. The love of friendship, the love of family, the love of the beloved. Physical love. I think that’s what drives us all.”
Is there one kind of love that speaks to him most strongly? “I don’t know if I ever really ranked them. It’s good to have them all.”
Paul wouldn’t be the first chronicler of ordinary lives to find himself ill-suited for one of his own. The portrait that comes across in the aforementioned film is of a restless artist, hungry for new experiences to feed his creativity.
That might explain why he’s never tired of touring. His new tour will take him from coast to coast, including a sold-out Melbourne performance as part of A Weekend in the Gardens this week.
“It’s a bubble in a way,” Paul says life on the road touring. “It’s a holiday from humdrum life. You’re doing less shopping and cooking and taking out
He laughs. “I like singing for two hours at a stretch. I like how I feel after a concert. You sing that long and hard, you feel high afterwards. Endorphins are running around in your brain.”
I wonder if travelling the country gives him a sense of his place in the nation’s heart. Earlier this year, he was made Officer of the Order of Australia, an official recognition of the way his music has captured and shaped our national character.
“People come up and say thanks for the music, so you get a sense of having an audience. It’s not something that occupies my mind too much. There are much more interesting things to think about.”
Restless he may be, but there’s at least one way in which Paul is standing still. Born in Adelaide, he first settled in Melbourne in 1976. A short stint in Sydney aside, he hasn’t been tempted to leave.
“I’ve lived in the same house for 25 years and in
St Kilda for longer than that. It hasn’t changed that much. St Kilda is always going to be a bit of a mix and I like it that way.
“I can still walk up Carlisle Street and find a vegetable shop and a butcher and a two-dollar shop and a good coffee. I like being by the beach and by the bike path that runs both ways. I like swimming in the bay. I’m not going to be leaving here.”
LIFE IS FINE\ is out now paulkelly.com.au
A WEEKEND IN THE GARDENS \ November 17-19, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.