The sixth of nine children, Paul Maurice Kelly was born in Adelaide in 1955, his father John was Irish and a lawyer, his mother Josephine was Italian, (together below) and her family were opera singers and performers, he remembers returning to his family home in the song Adelaide “ The wisteria on the back veranda is still blooming/ And all the great aunts are either insane or dead/ Kensington Road runs straight for a while before turning/ We lived on the bend, it was there I was raised and fed.” He attended a Christian Brothers school, where he played trumpet and captained the cricket team, after school he wandered around Australia working odd jobs, and picked up a guitar along the way.
His early musical influences were Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and Lou Reed, and later he would acknowledge the influence of such local groups as the Go-Betweens, the Triffids, the Hoodoo Gurus and the Saints. His first public appearance in 1974 was in Hobart’s Salamanca Place, he sang Streets Of Forbes and Dylan’s Girl From The North Country, and two years later he moved to Melbourne.
There he found a thriving pub rock scene being transformed by a surge of punk adrenaline, Paul Kelly and the Dots emerged, they were an abrasive, dangerous, hard-driving, drug-taking guitar band, whose first two albums Talk and Manila failed to chart, but afforded glimpses of a talent still in gestation. The Dots broke up in 1982, Kelly had no record contract for the next two years, in 1984 his marriage to Hilary Brown broke down, she moved to Sydney and Paul followed her three months later with their son Declan, they would divorce in 1984.
In Sydney Paul shared space with Don Walker (Cold Chisel) and Jenny Brown, Hilary’s elder sister, before he moved into an apartment with Dragon’s keyboard player and songwriter Paul Hewson (above), a serious heroin user, Ian Rilen (ex- Rose Tattoo, X, Sardine V) would also drop in to share drugs and inspiration. Kelly cleared his writer’s block, met future collaborator Steve Connolly, found his mojo, and with producer Clive Shakespeare (ex-Sherbet) recorded his best album to date, and in memory of Hewson who had died of a drug overdose in 1985, he called the album Post.
The aching melodies and bittersweet tone of Post was unapologetically Australian, both in terms of its sense of place and its use of colloquial language, Australian Rolling Stone magazine rated it the best album of 1985, in retrospect its hard to comprehend that neither the album, nor its lead single From St. Kilda to King’s Cross, never charted at the time.
In 1986 Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls would record the double album Gossip, which would cement Kelly’s reputation as a songwriter, and in the next five years the band, with only a name change to The Messengers, would deliver the albums Under The Sun, So Much Water So Close To Home, Comedy, and Hidden Things, before disbanding in 1991.
Paul Kelly is a deeply private person, if you want to understand who is, then listen to his music, but beware, because like all writers and poets he blurs the line between fact and fiction. He denies that his songs are autobiographical, and yet many are deeply personal and chronicle his personal struggles – he used heroin for many years, was twice divorced, and in the great tradition of the romantic poet, his pursuit of love has often taken him outside the boundaries of his marital relationships, and these pursuits have also inspired his songs.
His stories of love can be metaphorical “ love like a bird flies away, you’ll find out the only way” (When I First Met Your Ma), anthemic (To Her Door) where he talks about breakup and reconciliation in stark and unsentimental terms, I Can’t Believe We Were Married, a bittersweet reflection on his first marriage, and in Love Is The Law he paraphrases a text from Corinthians, where love is not boastful, proud, nor envious, but patient, kind and truthful. Pop songs about love are often disposable, but Kelly’s aren’t because they have a depth and complexity that belies their apparent simplicity. He rejected Catholicisim and struggled to deal with the loss of his father at the age of thirteen, the drug-related deaths of several close friends, and his marriage break-ups have all contributed to Kelly’s prolific outpouring over more than forty years.
He took his album Songs From the South- Paul Kelly’s Greatest Hits to #1 in 1997, the highest chart entry over his illustrious career, before this his highest chart success with an album of new songs, had been his 2001 album …Nothing but a Dream which hit #6. But good things come to those who persist, and in 2017 one of Australia’s living legends of music, scored his first national #1 hit with the album Life is Fine, and followed up with another #1 album in 2018 with Nature.
After 36 years and 24 albums, 14 ARIA awards, 3 APRA awards, an Order of Australia, and induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997, Paul Maurice Kelly could enjoy the sweet moment of long overdue public affection and respect, and a feeling that life was fine.