White Records release, June 1997
'From St Kilda to Kings Cross is thirteen hours on a
It was a wintry Melbourne day in 1984 when Paul Kelly wrote those lines, sketching a slightly melancholic lyric about life viewed from the margins. Kelly had reasons for his somewhat mixed feelings at the time, for after a decade of writing songs, touring and experiencing a roughly equal share of kudos and thwarted ambitions, he was largely unheralded outside a devoted coterie of Australian fans.
But From St Kilda To Kings Cross also contained a
grain of prophecy: by the end of 1984 Kelly had made one final
journey north to Sydney, booked himself into a recording studio
and put down a series of sparse acoustic songs that became
the haunting album POST. That record was the breakthrough
which opened Australian ears to Kelly's highly individual
lyrics and irresistible melodies. GOSSIP, the album
that followed, was a 24-song tour-de-force regarded by many
as the finest Australian record of 1986.
Since then Kelly has released nine more albums and channelled his talents towards theatre, film soundtracks, acting, record production and songwriting with and for other artists. American critics have been as effusive as their Australian counterparts. David Fricke, music editor of Rolling Stone magazine in the US, called Kelly 'one of the finest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise'. In a review of 'Lyrics', the 1993 collection of Kelly's song lyrics, Dr Imre Salusinszky of the Newcastle University English Department described Kelly as 'our best songwriter and one of our finest poets'.
'Lyrics' opens with a quote from Anton Chekhov: 'I don't have what you would call a philosophy or coherent world view so I shall have to limit myself to describing how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die and speak.' It's a viewpoint Kelly has stressed over the years. 'I'd like to make clear that my records aren't autobiography,' he once said. 'I'm not trying to tell my life and my experiences. The first thing I'm trying to do is write songs, rather than make confessions or bare my soul.'
The sixth of nine children, Paul Kelly was born in Adelaide in 1955 and attended a Christian Brothers School, where he played trumpet and captained the cricket team. After school he wandered around Australian for a few years, working odd-jobs and picking up a guitar along the way. He made his public debut singing the Australian folk song 'Streets Of Forbes' to a Hobart audience in 1974, and two years later moved to Melbourne, where the thriving pub-rock scene was being transformed by a surge of punk adrenaline. Paul Kelly and The Dots quickly became a local fixture, a hard-driving guitar band whose two albums, TALK and MANILA, reflected a talent still in gestation.
The break-up of the Dots in 1982 precipitated a fallow period during which Kelly was without a record contract. But moving to Sydney in 1984 helped break the spell; with a handful of cohorts such as guitarist Steve Connolly and bass player Ian Rilen, Kelly spent $3500 recording POST over a two week period at Clive Shakespeare's recording studio. The album was a loosely structured song-cycle which followed a character's transition from dissolution (White Train, Blues For Skip) through nostalgic longing (Adelaide, Standing On The Street Of Early Sorrows) to a final note of resolution (Little Decisions). The aching melodies and bittersweet tone of these 11 songs, along with their unapologetically Australian reference-points, marked a major leap in Kelly's songwriting. Australian Rolling Stone hailed POST as the best record of 1985.
By then Kelly was back in action with a full-time band consisting of Steve Connolly, drummer Michael Barclay, bass player Jon Schofield and keyboard player Peter Bull. Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls ('a joke name that stuck') went into the studio with producer Alan Thorne in March 1986, emerging a month later with the remarkable double album GOSSIP, a collection of 24 songs which cemented Kelly's reputation as a songwriter with few peers. The range of material was again extremely broad, from the undulating electric piano groove introducing Last Train To Heaven to the rock-out raunch of the single Darling It Hurts, in which the son's protagonist sees his girlfriend turning tricks on a Sydney street. Three tunes from POST were re-recorded with the full band, while Maralinga (Rainy Land) - a song recounting the effects of British atomic testing on South Australian Aborigines - was the first of several Kelly songs chronicling the stories of indigenous Australians.
Edited down to a 15 song single album, GOSSIP was also the record which introduced Kelly to American audiences when it was released by A&M Records in July 1987. Bill Flanagan of Musician magazine described it as 'striking' and commended the songwriter for his 'fresh ideas and startling images'. By now Kelly and the band were road-hardened and ready, having played 150 Australian gigs in on eight-month period. In May 1987 they returned to the studio with Alan Thorne to record UNDER THE SUN, a collection of 14 new Kelly originals. After changing their name to Paul Kelly and the Messengers, the band headed out on a maiden venture into the US which saw them traverse the continent twice in two months by bus. 'Mr Kelly sang one smart, catchy three minute song after another - dozens of them - and the band played with no frills directness,' wrote New York Times rock critic Jon Pareles after their performance at the Bottom Line Club in New York.
The 1989 album SO MUCH WATER, SO CLOSE TO HOME complete a transition that had been evident on UNDER THE SUN, as Kelly's writing on songs such as Sweet Guy and South of Germany moved towards a narrative style populated by more fully-realised characters. Both the album's title and the song Everything's Turning To White were based on a short story by the American author Raymond Carver, a master of pared-down prose. Produced by American Scott Litt, who had worked with R.E.M., SO MUCH WATER also had a more stripped-back musical sound.
Despite the critical acclaim they had earned and the camaraderie evident in their live performances, Kelly and the Messengers dissolved their partnership in 1991 after on final album, COMEDY. Again recorded by Alan Thorne in Sydney, the album was a 14 song collection which included the droll I Can't Believe We Were Married and a song co-written with Aboriginal songwriter Kev Carmody, From Little Things Big Things Grow, which recounted the eight-year struggle for land by the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory.
An Australian tour in 1991 marked the final appearances of Paul Kelly and the Messengers, whose swan-song was HIDDEN THINGS, a compilation of 18 rarities and B-sides recorded over the previous six years. The album included several cover versions - Reckless by James Reyne, Pastrure's Of Plenty by Woody Guthrie, Elly by Kev Carmody - and two new Kelly originals, When I First Met Your Ma and Rally Round The Drum, which was co-written with Aboriginal songwriter Archie Roach.
'The Messengers were the first band I'd had that became an entity,' recalls Kelly. 'We forged a style together. But I felt if we had kept going it would have got formulaic and that's why I broke it up. I wanted to try and start moving into other areas, start mixing things up.'
Kelly had made the first steps towards 'mixing things up' when he worked with Archie Roach and th Aboriginal band Yothu Yindi in 1991. An early fan of Roach's, he co-produced the singer-songwriter's acclaimed debut album 'Charcoal Lane' with Steve Connolly. The Yothu Yindi connection came on a trip to the Northern Territory when Kelly collaborated with the group on 'Treaty', the song that became a surprise pop hit when it was remixed as a dance single.
A flurry of diverse projects followed over the next two years. Kelly's songs began to appear more regularly on albums by other artists, both here and overseas. Having honed his skills as a solo performer, he recorded two concerts in Perth and Melbourne for the double-CD set of LIVE, MAY 1992, featuring 22 songs performed with the stark accompaniment of just his own guitar and piano. In early 1992 he was invited to write songs for 'Funerals and Circuses' a Roger Bennett play about racial tensions in small-town Australia. The play was acclaimed by critics when it was staged at the 1992 Adelaide Festival, and also marked Kelly's acting debut in the role of a petrol station attendant. Later that year he signed a contract with publishers Angus and Robertson for a book of his collected lyrics, contributed songs and vocals to the soundtrack of the television series 'The Seven Deadly Sins' and sang a duet with Mark Seymour - 'Hey Boys' - for the film 'Garbo'.
In 1993 Kelly moved to Los Angeles for nine months, where he began playing with an assorment of Australian and American musicians, including Detroit-born guitarist Randy Jacobs. In Los Angeles he also produced a new album for Australian singer Renee Geyer, 'Difficult Woman'. Returning to Australia later in the year, he collaborated with singer Christine Anu and Angelique Cooper on 'Last Train', the dance remix of his 1986 song Last Train To Heaven which was heard all summer long on Triple J.
The book 'Lyrics', which collected Kelly's song lyrics written from 1984-1993, was published in September. Reviewing it in the Melbourne Age, poet and critic John Forbes described the songs as 'passionate, direct and forceful'. Kelly subsequently went into the studio with former Black Sorrows singers Vika and Linda Bull to produce their debut album. He then completed work on his tenth WANTED MAN, which featured 14 songs recorded in Australia and the U.S. with co-producers Randy Jacobs and David Bridie. The album had a funkier feel reflected in both its earthy lyrics (Just Like Animals, She's Rare) and the more overtly black rhythms of songs like We've Started A Fire and the pop-soul single Song From The Sixteenth Floor.
In 1994, Kelly recorded the mainly instrumental soundtrack for 'Everynight....Everynight', a feature film directed by Alkinos Tsilimidos which is set in the notorious H Division of Pentridge Jail in the 1970s. The film made its debut in June 1994 at the Melbourne Film Festival. Later that year, Kelly began playing with a Melbourne-based group of musicians that included Randy Jacobs, guitarist Shane O'Mara, drummer Peter Luscombe, bassist Stephen Hadley, keyboard player Bruce Haymes and pedal steel player Graham Lee. Two live performances were taped in Melbourne and released as PAUL KELLY LIVE AT THE CONTINENTAL AND THE ESPLANADE, originally availabel on mail-order and later brought out on general release. Over a nine month period they also recorded the 12 songs released in early 1996 as DEEPER WATER, an album which explored the more mature concerns of a songwriter approaching his 40th birthday and wrestling with issues of fatherhood and mortality. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, critic Mark Mordue said the album secured Kelly's reputation as songwriter and evinced an 'unusual intensity and warmth.' Kelly dedicated the album to his old confrere Steve Connolly, who had died the year before from unexpected medical complications following an operation.
Throughout this period Kelly continued to tour as a live performer thorughout Europe, Canada, the US and Australia, playing solo or with musicians such as guitarists Spencer Jones and Shane O'Mara. By early 1996 a permanent band had coalesced around O'Mara, Haymes, Luscombe and Hadley (the latter two formerly with the Black Sorrows), with Spencer Jones a semi-permanent fixture. After a national tour to promote DEEPER WATER, the band recorded several songs which were released as the four-track EP How To Make Gravy in late 1996. In early 1997 they recorded a new single, Tease Me/It Started With A Kiss, and began rehearsals for Paul Kelly's twelfth album of new material, to be released later that year. A long-awaited retrospective compilation, the 20-song SONGS FROM THE SOUTH: PAUL KELLY'S GREATEST HITS, was released in June 1997.
Reflecting on more than two decades of songwriting and performing, kelly told an interviewer recently that songwriting remaind a painstaking process, and he often felt like sinking to his knees in thanks when a song came to him. 'Songwriting to me is mysterious,' he said. 'I still feel like a total beginner. I don't feel like I have got it nailed yet.'