Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly is a star in his own country; in 1997 his retrospective album Songs from the South: Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits, debuted at number one on the Australian music charts. Kelly was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame in 1997 and won ARIA Awards for Best Australian Male Artist in 1997 and 1998. He has continued to record and to tour, garnering critical acclaim in the process.
The sixth of nine children, Kelly was born on January 13, 1955, in Adelaide, Australia. His father, John, a lawyer, died of Parkinson’s disease when Kelly was 13 years old. Kelly told Doug Aiton in the Melbourne, Australia, newspaper the Age, “I have good memories. He was the kind of father that, well, I missed him when he died very much…. He was not well enough to play sport with me.”
Kelly’s mother, Josephine, raised the family on her own after her husband’s death. Kelly attended a school run by the Christian Brothers, where he was captain of the cricket team; he also played trumpet in the school band. After graduating he spent several years working odd jobs and traveling around the country. He had always listened to a wide variety of music, including
Born on January 13, 1955, in Adelaide, Australia; married twice; second wife, Kaarin Fairfax; children: one son (first marriage), two daughters (with Fairfax).
Debuted in Hobart, Australia, 1974; moved to Melbourne and performed in pubs, 1976; formed band the Dots, released albums Talk, 1981, and Manila, 1982; moved to Sydney, 1984; released Post with Steve Connolly and Ian Rilen, 1985; formed as Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, released Gossip, 1986; regrouped as Paul Kelly and the Messengers, released Gossip in the U.S., followed by Under the Sun, 1987; published collected writings volume Lyrics, 1993; formed new lineup with Shane O’Mara, Bruce Haymes, Peter Luscombe, Stephen Hadley, and Spencer Jones; released Deeper Water, 1996, Words & Music, 1998, and Nothing but a Dream, 2001.
Awards: Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Award, Best Australian Video, 1988; ARIA Hall of Fame, 1997; ARIA Awards, Best Australian Male Artist, 1997-98; Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), Songwriter of the Year, 1999; ARIA Awards, Best Adult Contemporary Album for Nothing but a Dream and Best Original Soundtrack Album for Lantana, both 2002.
Addresses: Website— Paul Kelly at EMI Records: http://www.emimusic.com.au/artist.asp?artistid=32.
Australian bands, but he learned to play guitar during his travels by listening to old Hank Williams tunes and honed his interest in country music by listening to George Jones, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard.
Kelly’s first public appearance was in 1974, when he sang the Australian folk song “Streets of Forbes” to an audience in Hobart; in 1976 he moved to Melbourne, where a lively circuit of pubs proved a fertile training ground for young musicians. Kelly and his new band, the Dots, soon became known for their hard-driving sound; their two albums, Talk and Manila reflected this hard edge, partly influenced by punk bands such as the Clash and the Ramones.
The Dots broke up in 1982. Kelly moved to Sydney in 1984, where he recorded Post with guitarist Steve Connolly and bass player Ian Rilen. The trio spent two weeks recording the album, which was a series of songs following a character’s journey from hitting bottom through nostalgic longing to growth and resolution.
Kelly began to play and record with a full-time band, which included Connolly, drummer Michael Barclay, bass player Jon Schofield, and keyboard player Peter Bull. Through a joke, the band became known as Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls; in 1986 they released the double album Gossip, a collection of 24 songs that showcased Kelly’s songwriting ability. The album included remakes of three songs from Post and also featured “Maralinga (Rainy Land),” a song about the effects of British atomic testing on the aboriginal people of South Australia, the first of many that Kelly would write about the lives of Aborigines.
An edited version of Gossip featuring 15 songs was released in the United States by A&M Records in July of 1987. In the interval between releases, the band changed its name to Paul Kelly and the Messengers and headed out on an American tour, traveling across the United States by bus. According to Kelly’s website, critic Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote that at an appearance at New York City’s Bottom Line club, “Mr. Kelly sang one smart, catchy three minute song after another—dozens of them—and the band played with no frills directness.”
Kelly and the Messengers’ second U.S. release, Under the Sun, was praised by Small, who wrote in People that the album’s 14 songs “become instant sing-along material.” Small also commented on Kelly’s “bright, catchy” melodies and his lyrics that made the album “fresh enough to outclass the usual junk on pop radio and simple enough to make the easy listeners smile.”
Despite their success, the Messengers broke up in 1991, allowing Kelly to pursue a solo career. As part of this movement in new musical directions, Kelly produced the work of Aborigine singer-songwriter Archie Roach and the aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, wrote music for films and theater, and acted in a play that was staged in Melbourne and Adelaide. In 1993 Kelly moved to Los Angeles for nine months, where he played with Australian and American musicians. Lyrics, a collection of his writings from 1984-93, was published in September of 1993 by Angus and Robertson.
Kelly continued to record his own work with a variety of other musicians, and toured throughout Europe, Canada, the United States, and Australia. By 1996 he was playing consistently with guitarist Shane O’Mara, keyboard player Bruce Haymes, drummer Peter Luscombe, and bassist Stephen Hadley; occasionally guitarist Spencer Jones joined them. This group released Deeper Water in 1996, Words & Music in 1998, and Nothing but a Dream in 2001.
In 1997 the group released Songs from the South: Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits, a retrospective of Kelly’s work up to that point featuring his best and most popular work. The album debuted at number one on the Australian music charts. That same year Kelly was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame and won the ARIA Award for Best Australian Male Artist. Kelly modestly discussed the album’s success with Rob Patterson of the Austin American-Statesman: “I think if you hang around long enough, people think, ‘Well, I haven’t got one of his records, maybe I should. I’ve heard of him.’” After his year in the spotlight, he said, “Now I can move on and get back to work.”
Kelly also told Patterson that in the beginning of his musical career he wanted attention, particularly from women, and fame. But as time went on, he began to care more about the quality of his work and the nuances that might escape some listeners. “It’s a way of connecting with mystery,” he said. “When you write a song, you don’t quite know how you got it or (how) it got there. But if it’s any good, it surprises you.”
For Words & Music, his 1998 album, Kelly brought in scraps of melodies and chords to see how the band developed them. As a group, he told Patterson, they came up with work that one person could never have devised by himself. “Working with a group, you’re working together on this thing, and making something you couldn’t have made by yourself. This thing has come into the room that wasn’t there before.” Kelly also won the ARIA Award for Best Australian Male Artist in 1998.
Although Kelly has been successful in Australia, stardom in the United States has eluded him, partly because it’s too expensive for him to take American tours very often and because the country is so large that a full tour would take six months. Kelly believes, however, that his music has much in common with that of American country singers, particularly those from Texas. He told Patterson, “I think there’s a general affinity between Australians and Texans in general—lots of flat country and open spaces.” Kelly has often been inspired by Texan singers and songwriters, and particularly enjoys their “wit and playfulness.” For example, Kelly wrote his song “Sydney from a 727” as a response to Texas songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s song, “Dallas from a DC-9 at Night.” In addition, Kelly’s songs have been performed by Gilmore and another Texan, Kelly Willis.
Kelly’s 2001 album Nothing but a Dream won high praise from critics. In Sing Out! Michael Tearson wrote that Kelly’s “knack for getting to the heart of things in his songs, forever clever and often brilliant wordplay and for strong melodies is undimmed here.” The album includes eleven songs exploring the ups and downs of relationships, from true love to friendship, portrayed with Kelly’s trademark honesty about his own faults. Tearson agreed with other critics who noted that Kelly should be better known in the United States, writing, “So far America has greeted Kelly’s classy work with massive indifference. He deserves better.”
Kelly won the Australasian Performing Right Association’s (APRA) Songwriter of the Year award in 1999, as well as the ARIA for Best Adult Contemporary Album for Nothing but a Dream and Best Original Soundtrack Album for Lantana in 2002.
Talk, Mushroom, 1986; reissued, 1990.
Manila, Mushroom, 1982; reissued, 1987.
Post, White, 1985; reissued, Mushroom, 1990.
Gossip, Mushroom, 1982; reissued, 1987.
Under the Sun, Mushroom, 1987
So Much Water, So Close to Home, Mushroom, 1989.
Comedy, Mushroom, 1991.
Hidden Things, Mushroom, 1992.
Live, May 1992, Mushroom, 1992.
Wanted Man, White, 1994.
Deeper Water, White, 1995.
Live at the Continental and the Esplanade, White, 1996.
Songs from the South: Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits, White, 1997.
Words & Music, White, 1998.
(With Uncle Bill Gawd) Smoke, Aggie/EMI, 1999.
Nothing but a Dream, EMI, 2001.
Lantana (soundtrack), EMI, 2002.
Age (Melbourne, Australia), May 10, 1998.
Austin American-Statesman, June 18, 1998.
Billboard, June 21, 1997.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), September 7, 1996.
People, January 18, 1988; November 21, 1988; October 9, 1989.
Sing Out!, Spring 2002.
Australian Recording Industry Association, http://www.aria.com.au (December 10, 2002).
“Paul Kelly,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 10, 2002).
"Kelly, Paul." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/kelly-paul
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