Paul Kelly On The Challenge Of Making “A Conscious, Intimate, Sit Down And Listen Kind Of Record”

In 2010, Paul Kelly united with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra on a national tour dubbed Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air. It was a big production that saw Kelly’s songs blown up to gospel proportions, with help from Vika and Linda Bull and the nine-piece Tina Harrod Vocal Ensemble.

Grabowsky, one of Australia’s finest jazz pianists, led the AAO through Dixieland, salsa and reggae-tinged reimaginings of various Kelly originals. It was all new territory for Kelly, but he’s never been one to shy away from a challenge. For more evidence, look no further than the pair’s new collaborative record, Please Leave Your Light On.

As with their previous collaboration, the record is built around new arrangements of existing Kelly originals. This time, however, the pair does away with bells and whistles. Please Leave Your Light On is watchfully intimate, consisting of little more than Grabowsky’s piano and Kelly’s vocals.

The tracklisting includes new versions of ten Paul Kelly songs, most of which were originally released over the last decade. There’s ‘Gods Grandeur’ from 2018’s Nature, ‘Petrichor’ from 2017’s Life is Fine, ‘Sonnet 138’ from 2016’s Shakespeare-infused Seven Sonnets & A Song, and two songs from 2012’s Spring and Rain (‘When a Woman Loves a Man’ and ‘Time and Tide’).

The record also stretches back to 1985 to retrieve ‘You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed’ (from Kelly’s solo debut Post) and premieres one previously unrecorded Kelly original, ‘True to You’. The only real deviation is Kelly and Grabowsky’s take on Cole Porter’s ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’, which has been performed by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Simply Red.

Kelly’s decision to partner with Grabowsky should come as no surprise. Despite the superficial impression of him as a folk troubadour with a new wave past, Kelly has been an eager collaborator throughout his career. This tendency has seen him work with artists in hip hop and bluegrass, make a dub record under the Professor Ratbaggy alias and produce albums for Vika & Linda and Archie Roach.

He’s also dabbled in art music, performing with classical composer James Ledger and working with Ledger and the Seraphim Trio on last year’s Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds LP. Grabowsky’s shown a comparable willingness to unite with rock and pop singers, having collaborated with Kate Ceberano on 2019’s ARIA winning album Tryst, and previously recording with Katie Noonan and Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach.

Music Feeds spoke to Kelly about his relationship with Grabowsky, his fondness for collaboration, and the song choices on Please Leave Your Light On.

Music Feeds: Most of the songs here are fairly recent, but there are a couple that go back 30 years or more. Is it strange to hear these songs, not just with Paul [Grabowsky’s] new piano arrangements, but also sung in the voice of someone who’s gained so much more life experience?

Paul Kelly: One of the reasons I like working with PG is that he helps me to sing the songs differently. And I think as an artist you’re always trying to find new things in the way that you work – whether it’s in the way that you write or the way you perform and sing. So stripping the songs back to this minimal arrangement with Paul’s distinctive flavour to what he does, that naturally makes me find something different in the songs.

I love the way Paul creates a lot of space in the way that he plays, not trying to fill up every second, and that also allows the voice room to float.

MF: Doing a project like this, which is really bare-bones – it’s just yourself and Paul’s piano playing – was there any intimidation involved?

PK: It’s definitely a challenge and one that I seek. But I’ve known Paul a long time and we’ve worked together at different points over the last 20 years. Working with him and the Art Orchestra, that was extra challenging because the arrangements changed the songs a lot – I had to find new ways to sing them and we had a gospel choir and a big orchestra.

I was used to that and it was my expectation coming in, that if I’m going to work with Paul, it’s going to give me new ways to sing the songs. So not intimidation – ‘challenge’ is the word, but a good one. And also, we’d known each other and worked together enough to trust each other. So I trust that we’re finding good ground to be on together.

MF: Some of your contemporaries have continued to work with the same group of three or four people for 30-40 years. Were you always interested in finding new collaborators?

PK: I’ve always been interested in all kinds of music so it’s fairly natural that I would try out different things. At the same time, I also like working with the same group of people over a long period of time, and that’s still ongoing. Peter Luscombe, I’ve been working with on and off with for 27 years, and Bill McDonald and my nephew Dan Kelly and Ash Naylor, Cameron Bruce – these are long-term relationships. I don’t do every record with them, but I do a lot of stuff with them.

And also Paul Grabowsky and I; we don’t work as regularly together, but it’s a relationship that feels like it’s grown over time. We’ve done various work together with the Art Orchestra and Meet Me in the Middle of the Air. Also going in a couple of years ago to sing on Archie’s record that went with his book – Tell Me Why – that he did with Paul.

MF: You’re a prodigious songwriter and more than capable of coming up with a batch of new songs every couple of years. What fed the decision to work with existing material for this album?

PK: Paul invited me to sing with him in Adelaide at a venue called Ukaria, which is an intimate, beautiful chamber music venue in the Adelaide Hills that only seats 230 people. We did two shows in two nights and that’s really where the song selection for the album came from. It was just a matter of finding songs that I thought would suit an intimate setting.

After we did those live shows then we thought, “Oh this’d make a nice record.” We just took it from there and added a couple more songs, but really the genesis of the song selection and the feel of the album came from doing those concerts. So the record is a conscious, intimate, sit down and listen kind of record.

MF: Is having a strong personal relationship essential for successfully collaborating with someone on a project?

PK: It helps, and of course there’s always a matter of degrees. James Ledger’s another that I’ve now worked with a couple of times. We did a project in 2013 with a youth orchestra called Conversations With Ghosts and then we came back together again for Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds (2019).

Anna Goldsworthy and her trio were part of that, and I’d known Anna for about 11 years. We first got to know each other when our books came out around the same time – we were invited by an online magazine to review each other’s books. I was a big fan of their music, the Seraphim Trio, so I’d see them quite often. So going into the Birds record, there was personal relationships.

Which comes first: the friendship or the project? Obviously, you work with someone fairly new to you and the friendship develops, but it all helps. It just comes down to trust, which I think is the big word for this record with Paul and I. Once you have a level of trust with someone, you feel OK to take risks because you feel that you’re in good hands.

‘Please Leave Your Light On’ is out this Friday, 31st July.

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