Paul Kelly — Forever learning

Paul Kelly (right) and Charlie Owen

With everything going on in the United States these days, some might assume that Paul Kelly is bringing his latest album, Death’s Dateless Night, to (Le) Poisson Rouge in NYC at just the perfect time. But before he steps on stage Tuesday night, he insists that’s not the case.

“People assume the songs we play at funerals are gloomy songs, but they’re often uplifting or maybe have a more philosophical bent,” he said of the 2016 release, which features a collection of “funeral songs.” “But it’s not really an end of times record or a gloomy record.”

He’s right. And while the idea of hearing songs meant to be played at a funeral could be misconstrued, in the hands of the Australian songwriting icon and his collaborator Charlie Owen, the album rightfully delivers the songs as celebrations of life. Then again, it does make one wonder what should be played at their own funeral, and that’s an interesting topic, to say the least.

“It’s always a topic of conversation,” Kelly agrees. “Some people have their funerals really mapped out — ‘I want this song and I want this reading’ — but I haven’t really done that. I think funerals are for the living and not for the dead, so I think the people I leave behind will know what to do. I don’t think they need instructions. There’s an American author, Thomas Lynch, he’s an undertaker, and he wrote a beautiful book about his profession, called ‘The Undertaking,’ and he writes beautifully about the whole business of dying and funerals. One of his lines was, ‘You want to be careful that you don’t have a concert in front of a corpse.’ He was just sending a word of warning.”

Kelly laughs, and while his current North American tour comes on the heels of Death’s Dateless Night, he will also be playing his classics, as well as selections from another 2016 release, Seven Sonnets and a Song, which saw him record his versions of William Shakespeare’s love sonnets. And he’ll be doing it all with Owen and his two daughters, Madeline and Memphis Kelly.

“They’re really relaxed and poised on stage and they certainly didn’t get that from me,” he said with a chuckle.

Funeral songs? Shakespeare? It’s the work of a man not playing it safe at 62, and his ability to follow his muse wherever it takes him should be music to the ears of his legion of fans.

“I’ve probably been doing that for quite a long time anyway,” he said. “It’s funny when you say I want to do what I want. We all do what we want, but we live in a world with other people and so they affect what you do. But I sort of follow my hunches, really, and that’s all you can do — follow the trails that interest you and be confident enough that there’s enough people interested in what you’re doing to follow along.”

Tuesday’s show in NYC is sold out, a testament to folks following along with Kelly, and while some see his recent work as taking risks and not traveling the conventional route, he just looks at it as a way to keep things fresh.

“In recent years I’ve got into putting poems that I like to music just for fun and I stumbled on it because I’ve never really done it up until about five years ago,” he said. “Since then, it’s just been another way for me to write songs. And in some ways it’s come at a good time because I’ve been writing my own songs and own words for over 30 years and I got sick of myself. (Laughs) There are so many great lyrics and poems out there, why not give them another chance with some music to it? I was also quite conscious with the Shakespeare not to get too serious about it. I wanted them to sound like my own songs, just maybe with a bit more highly elevated language. I wanted to make the record fun.”

And with the record coming out just like he wanted it to, he made it fun for listeners and for himself. You don’t see too many artists with his track record veering off course in a positive way. Kelly has pulled it off, and don’t be surprised to see some more left turns in the coming years.

“I think all writers have their own habits and I’m pretty limited as a musician,” he explains. “I pick up the guitar and the first think I’ll do is play the chord G. My melodies fall a certain way and I tend to use certain chord patterns without even knowing it. I look back on my old songs and I’ve been hammering away at the same things over and over again. So everyone’s got their habits, and I think, as a writer, I find it interesting to kick against those habits as much as possible and try and break them. Prior to doing that Shakespeare record, I had a fair bit of time off and I took piano lessons because I just wanted to learn some new voicings and new ways to play songs and I can see the influence of those piano lessons in some of the songs I’ve been writing. It’s like people in other jobs; in these times, they’re always having to re-skill or re-train and, for me, music’s like that too. There’s still so much to learn about it and explore. I don’t want to keep doing the same thing all the time.”

Paul Kelly plays (Le) Poisson Rouge in NYC on Tuesday, May 16. For more information, click here

For more information on Paul Kelly, click here

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