On his extraordinary new album Nature – imbued with the beauty of flora, fauna, celestial bodies and their effects on our microcosmic experiences – Paul Kelly utilises poetry of his own as well as that of major writers he admires. We spoke to the icon about four key tracks, and from where in the literary canon they got their inspiration.

MUSHROOMS

“Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.”

Kelly sets Sylvia Plath’s beautifully ominous 1960 poem Mushrooms – published as part of the only collection made available before the American poet’s suicide in ’63 – to keys that plume like soft bells. “We were going for that slightly menacing feel,” Kelly says. “We got some weird soundscape noises going on, with Dan Kelly on the guitar, and to me it sounds a bit spooky – you can hear them sort of slowly breaking through the earth. It’s a sweet poem. There’s humour in it – fairly typical of Sylvia Plath’s dark humour.”

WITH ANIMALS

“I think I could turn and live with animals,
I stand and look at them long and long…
Not one kneels to another”

In his late teens when he became interested in ‘50s Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Kelly was also drawn to the work of American humanist Walt Whitman. “He published one major book of works, Leaves Of Grass in 1855, which was a book of big long poems – he kept adding to it, putting out different editions with extra poems,” Kelly laughs.

“He was a complete break in tradition from previous poetry, so some people thought it was complete rubbish at the time. He really turned things upside down. The little section [used in With Animals] is from a really long poem called Song Of Myself, which I’ve read and re-read over the years, and I love the whole poem. But it’s slightly edited, because the line in that original section was, ‘I wish I could turn and live with animals; they are so placid and self-contained.’ And I thought, well, no, they’re not always placid and self-contained. I think it’s more a poem about humans than animals. He’s using his love of animals to have a go at humans – lying awake in the dark, weeping for their sins, discussing their duty to God, [with] a mania for owning things.”

Kelly says that although he doesn’t have pets (mainly due to touring constraints), he has found himself appreciating their kin recently. “I’m probably becoming more attuned and curious about nature as I’ve got older, I notice,” he says. “I never used to notice birds, until the last few years. And now I find I’m looking at them more and more.”

MORNING STORM

“Let the sky fall, we have it all… this room is the world, our bed is the earth”

The deep, oaky rumble of vibrations through the piano’s body – not notes, but the rolling death of a chord – accompany prose from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“A king of infinite space”) amongst Kelly’s own words on Morning Storm. “We put a few other things in there, but those low piano notes are just catching the sort of tail of it,” Kelly says. “We experimented with different bells – I wanted church bells, and they’ve gotta be sort of in tune, but not too much. Another thing was hitting an amp with your hand, with the reverb way up, so it does a springing thing. So, a bit of an ambient mix at the bottom of that track.”

BOUND TO FOLLOW (AISLING SONG)

“She kept just ahead of me no matter how I tried to gain on her; I knew I was bound to follow”

Feature vocalist Kate Miller-Heidke sounds like a siren luring her helpless victim, the narrator, on Bound To Follow – which is precisely the Celtic tradition of ‘aisling’ as a poetic genre. “It’s like a vision,” says Kelly. “The song’s actually been around for a long time; I used to sing the chorus in falsetto, but it didn’t really thrill me that much, so I tried a couple of other women singers doing it. But it wasn’t right. I realised I needed someone with some classical training – because it’s really high, the part – but someone who was also not too bound by it, who could improvise. And I knew Kate anyway, but I hadn’t thought of it – Alice [Keith, vocalist on Nature] suggested Kate. I sent it to her and… she loved it.

It’s funny: we recorded it in a small bedroom in a terrace house in Carlton; we just sort of squashed in together into this little room. She played the track through her headphones, and did her thing, and she got it straight away, what was needed. Then we put lots of reverb on it, and [on the record] it sounds like it was written in a huge space.”

Nature is out October 12 via Gawdaggie/EMI.

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