top of page

To His Door: How Paul Kelly Found a Whole New Audience

By Maddison Connaughton

Originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald, November 13 2021

Photo by Michael Hili (2022)

While many assume Paul Kelly’s halcyon days were the 1980s and ’90s, his three No. 1 albums have all been released in the past four years. That’s thanks to a new generation of collaborators and audiences – including the children of his original fans.


Paul Kelly freely admits he’s become “one of those people”. One of those people who finds solace, even joy, plunging into the freezing winter waters of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay.

“It might be a getting older kind of thing,” he says, wryly, as we walk towards Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. “It makes you feel good if you get through the pain of the first few minutes. I think it’s because the body creates all these things to fight the pain, so you get your natural endorphin high. It makes you high. It’s the best drug.”

By all appearances, the water is working. Kelly is in good spirits when we meet for a walk on a grey Melbourne day that had promised sun. Save for a few weeks of touring squeezed in earlier this year, he’s passed the pandemic at his St Kilda home, content “with piano, books and guitar”, chipping away at a new album.

The euphoric swims may go some way towards explaining how he’s emerged from the world’s longest lockdown not with a new collection of melancholic meditations on isolation but with a Christmas record, the first he’s ever made, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train. Even behind the sunglasses and mask, the crease of a smile visible when I tell him, only half-joking, that my first thought when I heard he was releasing a Christmas album was, Does he owe someone money? He offers an assurance: “It was all my idea.”

By the numbers, Kelly’s career is in a time of plenty. In the 40 years since his now-disowned debut, Talk, was released with the Dots in 1981, he’s had three No. 1 albums. All of them – Life Is Fine, Nature and his greatest hits follow-up Songs from the South: 1985-2019 – have come in the past four years.

This fact tends to elicit surprise. Kelly’s songs are so stitched into Australia’s musical canon, into the country’s understanding of itself and its sound, that it’s hard to square such success as only a recent phenomenon. For the most part, Kelly is ambivalent about the charts.

“In a lot of ways, it’s mysterious how a record gets to No. 1,” he says. “That’s not how I write songs, and it’s not in my thinking as I write … It’s best to try and make records that last, that people still listen to in 20 years’ time.”

It’s striking, though, that this commercial success has come during a period of immense experimentation for Kelly, and of unexpected collaboration. Over the past decade, he’s released nine studio albums and worked with everyone from Yorta Yorta hip-hop star Adam Briggs (who performs as Briggs) to jazz legend Paul Grabowsky. He’s set to music the words of Shakespeare and made an album drawing lyrics from poetry inspired by birds. He’s started his own annual mini-music festival, Paul Kelly’s Making Gravy, which tours through Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and has featured many young music stars including Courtney Barnett, Thelma Plum and Marlon Williams.

At 66, Kelly remains prolific. And in the past few years, singer Linda Bull, who’s been working with Kelly for nearly three decades, says she’s noticed something curious happening. “His audiences aren’t getting older,” she says, “they’re getting younger.”

Photo by : Kristoffer Paulsen. Kelly and Queenie at Bakehouse Studios, Melbourne’s Richmond

How Kelly managed to draw this new generation of fans doesn’t have a simple answer. Even the head of his record label EMI, John O’Donnell, isn’t entirely sure. It may have started with the music festivals.

“I think what he did 10, maybe more like 15 years ago … [is that] he said, ‘I want to play to this next generation of people, the younger music fans coming through,’ ” says O’Donnell.

There’s a video of Kelly and his band from around that time, playing at Meredith Music Festival in Victoria in 2009. The sun is setting, and thousands are packed into the Supernatural Amphitheatre, hallowed ground for Australian music. Almost every person in the crowd is holding aloft one of their shoes. The scene is a sea of Blundstones, R. M. Williams and the odd muddy thong, swaying along to How to Make Gravy.

“We came offstage and someone told us, ‘You got The Boot!’ ” Kelly recalls. “I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ ”

The Boot is a Meredith tradition, the crowd’s pick for the best set of the festival. In 2010, at Falls Festival, Kelly was greeted with a similar reception. On stage, says Linda Bull, “we were hit by this wave of youthful energy.”

Filmmaker Ian Darling was there, too, shooting scenes for his documentary Paul Kelly: Stories of Me.

“It was one of the most exciting nights of our lives, from a filmmaking point of view, because we all realised that we captured something people hadn’t seen from Paul Kelly’s audiences before,” Darling says. “And that was this young generation literally singing every word of all his songs.”

Much like the No. 1 records, Kelly shrugs when asked about the crowds. “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe they just got brainwashed driving on long car trips with their parents on holidays.”

Nostalgia is likely one layer, but it feels too thin to explain the breadth of his appeal entirely. Once you start to listen for it, Kelly’s voice is everywhere. He’s in the supermarket, floating above the aisles as masked shoppers trace wide arcs around one another. He’s blasting from the Tesla idling at the lights, from the Bluetooth speaker tossed into the grass by the teenagers kicking the footy at the park. He’s drifting from the tinny headphones of the old guy on the tram.

“There are so few artists who’ve managed that sort of eternal relevance,” says Marlon Williams, a 30-year- old singer from New Zealand who’s worked with Kelly frequently in recent years. Is it intrinsic in him, or has he just slowly, piecemeal built this legacy? There is some sort of ... I call it mana in Maori. There’s this integrity to everything, the way he carries himself. It’s all that stuff, all those silences, all that ease of self. It’s how giving he is on the stage without doing anything – with the smallest of movements, you just are drawn to it ...”

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance talking to Kelly. In a black baseball cap, sunglasses and hoodie from the Sydney hip-hop label Elefant Traks, he really could be anyone. Yet it’s impossible to forget that you’re talking to Paul Kelly. This isn’t because of some visual cue – although the heavy brow, distinctive cleaved nose and wiry frame are all still there – it’s something harder to describe. Kelly has an ease about him, he listens intently and answers thoughtfully, but it’s clear a line exists between what he’s willing to show the world and what remains for him.

During our second interview, he mentions he’s been reading some Ernest Hemingway.

“He said his idea of writing is like an iceberg. You have the top, but seven-eighths of the iceberg is underneath. So, all that part you don’t see is part of their story as well, but it’s not on the page.”

With Kelly, there are glimpses of what’s below the surface – in the nervous tug of his sock as he shies away from a question, or the flush of excitement in his voice when he talks about working with his partner Siân Darling, or his daughter Memphis’s own music – but only glimpses.

Few musicians can sustain a decades-long career without reinventing themselves. Some do it with every new album. On the surface, Kelly is the exception to the rule. Look closer, though, and a process of renewal comes into view, one that has always been turning over in the background.

In the early days, this took a more brutal form. Kelly broke up bands with little explanation, other than his own surety it was time for something new. Those who knew him back then describe someone who was totally driven.

But it’s hard to argue with the results. The young musician clearly thrived in new environments. When the Adelaide boy from a sprawling Catholic family arrived in Melbourne in 1977, aged 22, he threw himself into the city’s heroin-soaked music scene in every way. Soon he was playing in bands with towering figures of the time, from Red Symons of Skyhooks to Martin Armiger of the Bleeding Hearts. This was only a few years after he first picked up a guitar at 18.

Kelly says his experience of using heroin in the ’70s and the decades that followed didn’t conform to the common narrative of hitting rock bottom before seeking redemption. Yet it couldn’t have gelled entirely with his ambitions.

When things stalled in Melbourne, after two critically acclaimed but commercially underwhelming records with the Dots, Kelly broke up the band and moved to Sydney in 1984 to be closer to his young son, Declan, whom he had in 1980 with his first wife, Hilary Brown. (Kelly also has two daughters, Madeleine and Memphis, with his second wife, actor/director Kaarin Fairfax). In the new city, the hits started pouring out of him: From St Kilda to Kings Cross, Dumb Things, To Her Door and scores of others came in just a few short years.

“There were, in fairly quick succession, four records – Post, Gossip, Under the Sun, So Much Water Close to Home – that was all while I was based in Sydney,” says Kelly. “It was a time in my life. It never felt like things were coming quickly. But looking back, I was writing songs more often than maybe I am now.”

These days, for Kelly, reinvention comes in a subtler form, more tinkering than demolition.

“Probably what’s happened over the past, say, 10 years is that I do get really bored with my own writing. I’m a limited musician. I don’t have a great chord knowledge or great fluency. I play guitar okay, rhythm guitar okay, my piano playing is really sort of clunky – but I can write on it. But like all writers, I fall into the same habits. I’m sort of stuck in my ways and I don’t think I can change much now. I was very aware of that, and that’s probably why I’ve done so much collaboration.”

Singer Vika Bull has noticed this, particularly with younger artists. “Paul’s an interesting guy because he’s always working with young people, to keep himself inspired, probably,” she says.

Young musicians who work with Kelly say he isn’t much of an advice-giver. “I wouldn’t even know what to ask!” says 26-year-old Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Alice Skye.

But he is someone who makes space for people he sees are talented. Late last year, after the release of her debut album Friends with Feelings, Skye was asked to join Kelly as a special guest during his New Year’s Eve concert for the ABC to perform her cover of Kev Carmody’s Blue You.

“I don’t think I really clocked that he was just going to play guitar and I was going to sing,” Skye says. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, I’m going to stand next to Paul Kelly and he’s just going to play guitar?’ ”

In the end, Kelly gave about a third of his NYE set at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl over to up-and-coming artists, including Skye. The night’s broadcast had an audience of more than two million people. “It’s not a performative thing for him,” says Skye. “It’s just genuinely what he enjoys doing and how he wants to use his platform.”

Working with young artists has its obvious benefits for Kelly, too, not least the exposure it gives him to new audiences. But these collaborations never seem shoehorned, instead reading as a natural extension of his body of work.

“The purest explanation is that the kind of songwriting Kelly is a master of doesn’t really date,” says Shaad D’Souza, music critic for The FADER and The Saturday Paper. “He’s kind of the closest thing we have to a Springsteen or a Dylan, and they have catalogues that have aged similarly: the songs are so beautiful and so evocative that they transcend the time they’re in. Take away the production style and you just have an incredible song.”

Kelly’s ability to remain relevant is something rapper Briggs has been considering.

“Relevancy is a funny thing,” he says. “Staying relevant is what influencers do. I don’t think Paul consciously stays relevant. I don’t think he’s going to release a trap record, or a drill record … He doesn’t chase relevancy as much as he chases his own story.”

In 2016, Briggs approached Kelly about a project. His hip-hop duo A.B. Original had been tapped for Triple J’s Like a Version and Briggs had an idea: “We should do Dumb Things and rap about all the dumb things Australia does.”

We got islands for the ones who seeking asylum / We got silence for the ones who died in confinement …

Kelly gave his blessing to the rework and offered to perform it with Briggs and his producer, Trials. Something clearly struck a chord. The Like a Version performance has racked up more than 3.2 million views on YouTube, and the song remains A.B. Original’s top track on Spotify.

“I’m surprised anything I do is popular,” Briggs says. “I’m honestly surprised anything goes well. When I made that record, I was like, ‘This is career suicide.’ Australia doesn’t want a bar of this. Look at how they treated Adam Goodes … That Paul was willing to join our suicide pact, I respected that ... I was like, ‘But people love you, Paul. Are you sure?’ ”

Briggs says that Kelly is “the great facilitator and supporter of blackfellas in the industry … But he’s not the oracle, he doesn’t speak for us.” The rapper points to Archie Roach’s 1990 debut album Charcoal Lane, which Kelly produced alongside his bandmate Steve Connolly. “[Paul] doesn’t think he owns Charcoal Lane … it’s not ‘Paul Kelly presents: Archie Roach’.”

Briggs recalls a moment from the 2017 APRA awards when Roach was being honoured.

“I don’t remember what award they gave him: probably best human of all time or something,” he says. “Anyway, Paul was there, tears streaming down his face backstage. You could see it wasn’t just a record for him, it was something more.”

Paul Kelly is one of those artists other artists love to talk about. Everyone has their own theory about how he’s managed to cultivate such perennial popularity in a notoriously fickle industry, about what drives him creatively. “My interpretation of that is that he’s just extremely curious,” says Courtney Barnett, who finds time amid back-to-back interviews about her own new album, Things Take Time, Take Time, to talk about working with him. “It’s like a cycle of knowledge. He wants to learn more so that he can kind of continue telling stories in different ways.”

For his part, Kelly isn’t really one for personal revelation.

“You’ll probably get a better answer from talking to someone else, rather than me,” he says at one point. “I really don’t think many people know themselves very well. The idea we have of ourselves is very different to what other people see.”

This certain opacity has earned Kelly a reputation as a tough interviewee. He’s trailed by a lengthy string of profiles that mention his short answers and long pauses. And his quietness can be unsettling, no doubt, but ask a question about songwriting and it’s as though a spring thaw has passed through.

“Songwriting is a lot of boredom, punctuated by moments of surprise,. There are moments of the sublime, too – like hearing another singer’s voice in his head as he writes for them. There’s also the thrill of pulling off a high-wire act. Hank Williams is the touchstone for me. I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry must be the saddest song ever written … but he doesn’t wallow in it. I always try to keep that mix in mind.”

The wrinkle is that songwriting isn’t easy for Kelly. Even after more than four decades writing them, the songs still prove difficult to wrest from the air. “You can’t see the next song coming,” he says. “They catch you by surprise, or by accident … you have to keep your ears open.”

The music isn’t the problem, he says, it’s the words that won’t come without struggle. And so a large part of his process is scavenging – for turns of phrase, fine descriptions – anything that might hold the seed of the next song.

“If I hear someone say something and I think, ‘Oh that could be good for a song,’ I write it down in my phone. Or if I’m reading something, I’ll write it down. I always write things down, otherwise I’ll forget them.”

Kelly has always been a collector. Guitarist Chris Langman, who lived with him in Melbourne in the 1970s and was a member of the Dots in the early days, told Kelly’s biographer Stuart Coupe that the young musician was “a sponge, a bowerbird”. Little has changed for Kelly: “I spend a lot of time just reading in bed in the middle of the day – I love it. And that’s my job, to read a book or read some poetry in the middle of the day if I want to. It’s research!”

Kelly also listens widely, scouring the work of other musicians for a spark. Melbourne singer Emma Donovan’s Pink Skirt warrants more than one mention during our interviews. “Hearing new music opens me up,” Kelly says, conceding he can “get very, very obsessive” about the minutiae – proofreading album covers in search of the mistake that must be there, punctuating his text messages.

A few of these perfectly punctuated text messages trickle in after our interviews, each animated by concern he hadn’t articulated his thoughts well on a subject. You get the sense Kelly is one of those people who turns things over in his mind in the small hours. “You have a certain level of anxiety or worry to care to make things,” he says.

“Sometimes we’re both awake in the middle of the night thinking about work,” says Siân Darling. “And we’re like, ‘Well f… it, let’s just get up and work on something.’ ”

In Darling, Kelly may have found a partner who cares as much about the details as he does. During lockdown, the couple laboured away on a vast array of projects from their St Kilda home: him releasing three albums since the pandemic began, her managing his career while also working as a filmmaker, curator and co-chair of the human rights media organisation Right Now.

They met in 2014, when Darling was dancing in a theatre show and Kelly was a guest musician for one of the performances. At first, she says, she was a “bit standoff-ish”.

There was just one dressing room and it was a female cast, but he was the guest, and I thought, ‘Why is that dude, that classic musician, standing out near the dressing room, strumming on his guitar, thinking we give a f…?’ ” she says, with a laugh. “But once I softened … there was an instant attraction, or gravity.”

Kelly with his partner, Siân Darling. Photo courtesy of Paul Kelly

They met up after the show for a walk on the beach.

“When I noticed there was this strong attraction, I thought, ‘Oh well, I could do it for a little bit,’ ” Darling says. “We’re in our eighth year now, we’ve just had our anniversary. So, I really wasn’t planning on being here for that long.”

In some ways, she says, they couldn’t be more different. But they do share a deep love of language.

“Sometimes we’ll go for days where we’ll only communicate in poems, in rhymes or in haikus,” she says. “We would write each other long letters and poems every day, really, of our relationship.“
“She’s great to bounce ideas off and discuss things,” says Kelly. “We’ve been together seven years and the longer it’s gone on, the more we’ve gotten involved in work together.”

Some have tried to label Darling “the muse”, the latest woman to enliven Kelly’s creativity. “I don’t find it the ultimate compliment, that’s for sure,” she says. But as the professional and the personal became more intertwined – Darling turning her director’s eye to Kelly’s music videos and offering feedback on strategy – they began considering “whether I had space to do it in a more regular and official way”. In 2018, Darling joined Kelly’s management team, working alongside his longtime manager Bill Cullen.

Mid-last year, Kelly turned his mind to a new project, which had been taking shape for more than a decade. Its genesis was a Christmas special he first did in 2007 for his son Declan’s show on Melbourne community radio station Triple R. “After the first one, we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, so we got more actively involved in hunting, in listening,” says Kelly.

Kelly’s friend Brian Nankervis, whose show RocKwiz had its own Christmas specials, threw in his suggestions. “He likes lists, like I do,” says Kelly. “So, we would send each other Christmas song lists like, ‘Oh have you heard this Christmas song? Have you heard this one?’ ”

In lockdown, Kelly started to trawl the huge collection of Christmas songs he’d amassed. Balance was front of mind; he was alive to the possible pitfalls of such a venture.

“The working title for the record was No Reindeer, No Mistletoe, No Holly. And then we decided that was a bit too negative. But that was the ethos.”
Photo by : Kristoffer Paulsen.

He knew he wanted to push the conventional bounds of a Christmas album. “When I heard the record, I was quite shocked by how deep he actually went,” says Vika Bull. “It’s about time that there wasn’t just all silver bells and Santa Claus coming down the chimney.”

The album includes a Jewish Shabbat song, Shalom Aleichem, suggested by Siân Darling and sung by the Melbourne-based Lior.

“It’s this beautiful melody and the lyrics translated to peace, kings and angels,” says Kelly. “I thought, ‘That’s perfect.’ I knew the Koran had a whole chapter about Jesus and Mary, so I really wanted to do something from that, too."

He reached out to Muslim broadcaster and academic Waleed Aly for advice. “It’s not every day that someone approaches you and says, ‘I really love these Koranic verses’,” Aly says. However, Aly had reservations. There are strict protocols around reciting the Koran in Arabic: considered the direct word of God, it cannot be backed by music. Eventually, after much back and forth, they landed on a solution – an English translation – which, after more discussion and consultation, Aly agreed to recite.

“There’s no way I would have done it if I felt it was some corporatised thing,” Aly says. “I think Paul is very sensitive to these very poetic points of connection, which in the end is my impression of what this project is about.”

Marlon Williams also makes an appearance on the album, singing a rendition of O Holy Night in te reo Maori. The track, Tapu te Po, is Kelly’s favourite. Listening to the song, you could never tell that owing to the pandemic it was stitched together from parts recorded either side of the Tasman: Kelly and his band in Melbourne playing along to a scratchy demo that Williams sent them, Williams’ vocals then recorded back in Auckland, melding seamlessly with celestial harmonies from the Dhungala Children’s Choir.

“You put faith in him when he does something like ‘I’m gonna make a Christmas album’ because he’s too serious to do anything silly, you know?” says Williams. “It all matters too much to him.”

I’ve seen Kelly play live only once, at Splendour in the Grass at Byron Bay in 2017. It was a hot day, and the tent was heaving with people, most in their teens or early 20s, there to watch A.B. Original’s set. A charge ran through everything as Briggs and Trials led the crowd in loud chants of, “No justice, no peace.” Nearing the end, they announced that one last guest would be joining them on stage. When Paul Kelly walked out, the audience just lost it. It’s hard to think of another 60-something white guy in Australia who could conjure the same kind of reverence from that crowd. And the energy of his performance met the moment.

Being able to build this connection was never a sure thing. There was another path, a safer path, which would have led Kelly to a familiar place for successful artists: playing the hits in big venues for big fees.

Never risking a crowd who doesn’t know you or doesn’t show up. Instead, Kelly said yes: to younger artists who wanted to collaborate with him, to offers for gigs that weren’t very lucrative. “Any time we got an opportunity to do Falls Festival or Splendour in the Grass, and maybe the fee wasn’t that much, but we’d say, ‘Yes, we’ll do that,’ ” he says.

He’s not motivated by money, says Siân Darling: “He drove a 26-year-old car, like a Toyota Camry, until it blew up.” For his part, Kelly puts it pragmatically.

“This is what I do,” he says. “I’m not really trained for anything else. I’m not good with my hands. I’m not someone who could have a trade. I lasted one day as a waiter.”

That said, you can tell he still loves it, “the fun of writing songs and the play of it” and the tantalising prospect the next song might be just around the corner.

For now, Kelly is ready for the world to get a little wider: to release Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train, get back to touring, enjoy a Kelly Christmas with the family and get back in the studio.

“The thing I missed most, being in lockdown, is actually playing with my friends, with the band … being able to get in a room together and make music with your friends. So much of these past few years you haven’t been able to do that.”

The afternoon is stretching on, and the sun is finally out, and Kelly needs to meet up with Darling to finish shooting a music video for the Christmas album. “Do you know parkour?” he asks. A moment of silence passes. As in the running and flipping? He nods. The plan had been to get a stunt double to do the parkour scenes, but the times have made compromise necessary. “We’re just going to end up with me running and jumping into the ocean.”

He doesn’t want to be late. Before the light is lost, he and Darling need to get the final shot: Kelly diving into the icy water at St Kilda Beach. The release, the absolution. This time of year, Port Phillip Bay can’t be very welcoming, no more than 10 degrees, but he doesn’t seem fazed by the prospect. No one ever said making art should be painless.







bottom of page