All Aboard the Gravy Train

1 October 2019 Lachlan Kanoniuk

All Aboard the Gravy Train

Cybele Malinowski

The spirit of Australia can be many things to many people, but if it were to take corporeal form it might be shaped a bit like Paul Kelly. His popular songs – tales of hardship, cries for justice, tender salves for self-inflicted wounds, and handy gravy-making tips – echo across generations. The breadth of resonance is difficult to pin down.
Yet none of Kelly’s singles have troubled the top 10 of the ARIA charts. His first number-one album, Life Is Fine, came in 2017. It’s been a healthy drizzle throughout eons rather than blunt-force saturation. The past decade of output began with the memoir How to Make Gravy, opening up into a wide range of collaborative projects and conceptual records beyond the scope of popular songcraft.
These facets of creativity are crystallised in Kelly’s new book Love Is Strong As Death, featuring curated works of various poets: “It’s definitely not a memoir, but your choices reveal you.” The textual compilation, along with a new greatest hits package and the now traditional end‑of-year shows cap off another prodigious year. The past 12 months also saw Kelly release conceptual record Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, again leaning on the works of poets, plus a duet with Dan Sultan inspired by Adam Goodes’ documentary The Final Quarter (Kelly is a longstanding champion of Indigenous rights), as well as a return to the AFL grand final stage as headline entertainment. As Christmas nears, it all comes back to gravy.
“My relationship with the song probably hasn’t changed that much, but I’ve certainly noticed it becoming more and more popular, which I didn’t really expect. It’s a song that doesn’t have a chorus and it’s set in prison,” Kelly muses about his 1996 sleeper hit ‘How to Make Gravy’. We’re in the office of a radio station, one of the big commercial ones – but he still makes appearances on local community radio in line with that malleable breadth that defines his reach. “I realised the song has these in-built gear changes in a way, musically. So, it ends up being a song that sort of plays us more than we play it. Just slowly, over the years, it got more and more well-known.”
With songs nestling into the national identity, and a journey informed by rock-star trappings of addiction, Kelly remains steadfastly himself.  There’s an air of understatement as he bows his head towards his suit jacket while answering questions, glancing upward to cue the next prompt.
How does a body of work that relates to so many, affect his own personal make-up? “I come from a big family, so I guess my identity’s more wrapped up with being one of eight siblings, and having my own children and grandkids, and my friends, and my partner. My songs, they’re things that go out from me, I don’t really tie myself to the songs in that way,” he says. “The songs are like tools in a toolkit. My job is going out and singing songs and playing music, I ended up with that job, and the songs are tools in the toolkit that I take to work. Playing at a festival I might use different songs or different tools than, say, playing in a small theatre.
“I’ve always thought every song comes from other songs. I’ve always felt myself part of a tradition. I learned from people like Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams. Other bands might get influenced by my songs as well. I pick things up from people that came before me, and then I hope that people coming along will pick things up from me as well. That’s what it’s about. Maybe it’s more of a river than a tower,” he says, referring to Cohen’s songwriter paean, ‘Tower of Song’.
Recent collaborative pursuits are indicative of an earned creative freedom, and 2020 will see Kelly continue on that path. An album with The Drones (“well not with The Drones, but most of The Drones”) is one of the main projects slated – Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin approached Kelly for a record that’s half-and-half, sharing the songs. “I do feel free like that. I feel fortunate that I’m my own boss and I can time things the way I want and choose to do what I want to do.”
As the 21st of December rolls around, the tale of Joe calling from jail on that day in ‘How to Make Gravy’ will be emanating from speakers around the country. But what’s he in the clink for? “I don’t think he’s in for anything,” Kelly surmises. “I think he’s more of a guy that fucked up rather than he’s a really bad guy.


> Paul Kelly’s album Songs from the South 1985-2019 and book Love Is Strong As Death are out now. He tours Australia 7 December-30 January.

> Article first published in Ed#602