The Australian singer-songwriter on his new song cycle Conversations with Ghosts, that takes poetry as its inspiration
He might be hailed as one of Australia's greatest lyricists, but Paul Kelly is often relunctant to discuss his songs. He's downright rhapsodic, however, about Five Bells, the central piece of the song cycle Conversations with Ghosts, playing at the Brisbane festival on Saturday. "Oh yeah," he gasps. "What a poem! It's amazing."
It helps, of course, that the lyrics are not his: they're taken from Kenneth Slessor's 1937 poem of the same name. "I discovered it a long time ago, in my late teens, and it's lived with me ever since," Kelly explains. "I don't think I really understood it when I first read it, but I always remember phrases like 'deep and dissolving verticals of light' or 'These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.' It's just studded with these beautiful jewels of language."
Slessor's poem about death and loss, written for his friend Joe Lynch, who jumped off a ferry in Sydney harbour in 1927, sums up the larger theme of the cycle. "It was always a bit uncertain as to whether [Lynch] jumped or he fell. He was a big drinker and he had these big longneck bottles of beer in his greatcoat, which may have weighed him down," says Kelly. "But the story goes that they never did find his body. Slessor wrote the poem about ten years later – and didn't write much more poetry after that, actually."
The halting rhythms of the poem formed the unlikely backbone of a project constructed by Kelly and the Australian National Academy of Music's 2011 composer-in-residence, James Ledger. "ANAM approached me and said 'would you write a song cycle with a modern classical composer?' That was the brief, as broad as that." Kelly was just emerging from a period where he'd been working on his memoir How To Make Gravy instead of writing songs. "I thought it was very interesting, and also very scary – and I thought 'if it's scary, I should probably have a go at it'."
The thought of writing something fresh with a classical composer inspired him into action – but , it was a rusty start: "I thought 'how the hell am I going to write a song cycle when I can't even think of one song?' So I thought: 'I'll look at some poems and try singing them'."
Five Bells was the first piece he started toying with. "I just picked the guitar and started trying to sing it – well, chant it, really – and I got about a third of the way through and thought 'I'm never gonna make this work'." Kelly recorded the idea and sent it to Ledger anyway – Ledger lives in Perth, while Kelly is based in Melbourne – who thought it had possibilities. "That encouraged me to carry on."
The idea of a series of works based on poems was born from Ledger's response which looked at an extract of the Tennyson poem In Memorium. "James suggested the section that talks about the bells, Ring Out Wild Bells, and that really got us up and running: we had two poems, both eulogies to dead friends, both ringing the bells. So once we had those two I started choosing poems that fitted in with that."
Were there any pieces that seemed ideal but just couldn't be wrestled into a usable form? "I wanted to sing a birth poem for this thing, and I tried Morning Song by Sylvia Plath. It'd be great for a song – you know, 'Love set you going like a fat gold watch'," he recites, clearly relishing the rhythm of the syllables. Despite a strong start, Kelly was unable to make the song work. That thematic place was taken by Judith Wright's Woman to Man "which somewhat had the same counterpoints in the piece. I mean, a lot of it was 'here are my favourite poems. Do they fit? Eh, yeah'," he laughs.
The pair also wanted to use the Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, even working up the music – "we had a really good piece for it" – but unable to get permission from the Robert Frost. "The story goes that Frost had once gone to hear one of his poems set to music and absolutely hated it, so that's it for putting his work to music. They won't allow it."
That piece morphed into the show's closing piece, I'm Not Afraid of the Dark Anymore ("I kept the rhyme scheme of the poem, and the last line, 'miles to go before I sleep'"), but some of the other poems were welcome discoveries for Kelly.
"From very early on we knew Genevieve Lacey, the recorder virtuoso, was going to be a featured artist, and she's also a big reader of poetry. She brought in the Emily Dickinson: she said 'she's got plenty of poems about death'," he explains. Kelly, while familiar with much of Dickinson's work, didn't know Lacey's choice, One Need Not be a Chamber to be Haunted.
"Apart from being a meditation on death and absence of loved ones and friends, we really liked the ghost element. It fitted with a song, Bound to Follow, which I'd written just before this project came along. It was a bit of an odd one for me, but it slotted right in with this. It was all like fooling around with a little puzzle and gradually getting things to fit."
Having spent so much time focusing on the memoir, Conversations with Ghosts offered a welcome opportunity for Kelly to get outside of his own head and play with other people's words. "Even with my own songs I never start with the words, it's always the music and then I attach the words gradually," he says. "So to have a set of words was so much fun: I could just try things out. 'Can I sing this? What if we do this?' And to have these beautifully written words, which I didn't have to write – what fun!"
It's an unexpected sentiment to hear from such a fine lyricist – especially given last year's magnificent Spring and Fall, an album that is itself a song cycle with a strong narrative arc following the birth, stasis and death of a relationship.
"Oh, there's always snatches of words attached with any piece I'm writing," he clarifies, "and sometimes I might have a title – like with I'm On Your Side – and a rough idea of what the song is about. And the cycle emerges, and once you get a glimpse that it might be happening it starts to push you towards writing songs that fit. But the words are never easy. It's still a beast to wrestle."
• Paul Kelly plays Concert Hall, QPAC as part of Brisbane Festival on Saturday September 7, 8pm