Although the photograph was snapped more than 50 years ago, the image on the front of Songs From The South: Hits 1985 – 2019 is clearly and undeniably a young Paul Kelly; gentle but intense brown eyes, pointy ears, dignified chin, and something both wise and cheeky behind the grin. However Kelly is quick to point out the biggest difference between his twelve-year-old mug and the one he wears today: “My nose was straight then, but after that it got broken playing cricket – and it’s still pretty crooked these days,” he smiles.
The tracks on the Songs From The South collection span a career filled with myriad hits, collaborations, and forays into the other arenas of art – including his album of this year, Nature, which debuted at #1 and is currently nominated for three awards at the ARIAs later this month. (The collection doesn’t include any tracks from Kelly’s other album of 2019, Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds – but it’s worth noting here that the record just won the early-announced 2019 ARIA Award for Best Classical Album, and employs a similar approach to lyrics). Nature’s lyrics utilise some of Kelly’s favourite poetry – a medium for which Kelly has held a great and abiding love for many years – and it’s an approach he’s employed before, most notably with his Shakespeare exploration Seven Sonnets and a Song (2016) and the theatre soundtrack Conversations With Ghosts (2013).
“I’ve read poetry since I was a teenager, and it’s always been something that has bled into my songs,” he says, attesting that he doesn’t see the disciplines (music and literature) as totally discrete. “I love it – I love finding connections between things,” he says. “And I think part of the thrill of writing songs is when you get maybe two ideas, or two images, or two lines that seem separate at first, but they suddenly connect and then jump into the same song. For me, writing is all about those kinds of connections.”
Kelly says putting other people’s words to music is a “risky business”. He describes a time he tried to adapt a poem by the celebrated American poet Robert Frost (1874 – 1963) to music, and was promptly kaiboshed by the writer’s estate: “The story goes he once went to a musical night of people putting his poems to music, and he hated it,” Kelly laughs. “As is often the case, the estate guards the flame more fiercely than perhaps the author in the first place. I found out the hard way!”
But he sees the arguments both for and against the practise of adapting prose to music.
“It’s probably in the ear of the listener whether it works or not,” he says. “It’s like when someone reads a novel and then they go see the film, and the novel is so strong in their mind that the film somehow fails the novel. Or, in certain cases… the [film] sheds light on the novel in a new way. But I’m not worried about ruining the poem – it’s just my go, just my version of it.” At the very least, he says, “it just might alert [the listener] to a poet they didn’t know, and off they go on their own voyage of discovery.”
The title of Kelly’s upcoming book of poems – not written by him, but selected from his favourites by writers including William Blake, Bertold Brecht, Judith Wright, Izumi Shikibu, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Gwen Harwood and many more – is Love Is Strong As Death. It’s a phrase from the Song Of Solomon, a book from the Bible which is “unlike any other book in the Bible”, says Kelly. “It’s a very forthright – you might almost say explicit – love poem, between King Solomon and Rose of Sharon,” he explains. “It’s always been a little bit hard for religious people to explain away, when you read it, because it’s full on. It’s quite ecstatic. When it was written, it may have been sung. I’m sure people have set parts of it to music, too… I don’t know. I must do some googling.”
Songs From The South: Hits 1985 – 2019 by Paul Kelly is out November 15 via EMI.
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