This song was the third in a trilogy of Kelly’s compositions about Joe and Rita, a young couple we first encountered in To Her Door in 1987, a bluesy ballad/country rock fusion piece that movingly depicted the couple’s estrangement and their brutal yet touching attempt at reconciliation. In Love Never Runs of On Time, Joe is still rootless, travelling aimlessly around, aching for a reconciliation with his wife and family, while in How To Make Gravy Joe has hit rock bottom, he is in prison at Christmas, but promising to reform and reclaim his marriage and family.
So How To Make Gravy is a uniquely realistic Christmas song, set in prison, with no chorus, and traditional yuletide homilies and tinsel-tree imagery are eschewed for a jailhouse blues ambience, and Joe’s mournful lament. Kelly had been inspired by Darlene Love’s version of Irving Berlin ‘s White Christmas, which is a track on the box set “bonus” album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. He realized that this famous song was sung from the perspective of a person who is not going to be with their loved ones at Christmas, this inspired the mood and ambience of Kelly’s song, a letter written from a man in prison to his brother.
Kelly had been asked by Lindsay Field, guitarist and backing singer for John Farnham, to contribute a song to The Spirit of Christmas charity record for the Salvation Army, and he originally selected Christmas Must Be Tonight by Robbie Roberson (The Band), but this song had already been performed by James Blundell on The Spirit of Christmas 1994 album. As Kelly didn’t want to cover a traditional song like Little Drummer Boy or Good King Wenceslas, he told Field that he would write one instead. Paul submitted How To Make Gravy, Field was deeply moved by the song, but he had to get permission from the Salvation Army for the inclusion of a Christmas song that had no chorus, was set in prison, and had the quirky title How To Make Gravy, they readily agreed.
Our protagonist, whose name is Joe, here revealed for the first time by Kelly, is now serving time for unspecified crimes, but is hopeful of getting parole in the near future, his partner Rita, whose identity is also revealed for the first time, will be at the Xmas dinner with his children and other family members and Joe feels desperately lonely and alienated from his loved ones, as he writes ”Hello Dan, its Joe here I hope you’re keeping well/ It’s the 21st December, and now they’re ringing the last bells/ If I get good behavior, I’ll be out of here by July/ Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas Day, please don’t let ‘em cry for me.’
As the lyrics are in the form of a letter from Joe to his brother they are spoken and sung at different points in the narrative, the mixed emotions of family factions meeting at Xmas and the traditions of good cheer, re-connecting with seldom- seen relatives, games, and making the gravy for the roast dinner are unerringly captured, the musical structure is simple – guitars, bass, drums, and keyboard, with a sinuous slide guitar line written and performed by Spencer P. Jones – while Kelly’s vocals are impassioned and bittersweet.
Joe may be at a low ebb in his life, his self-esteem and confidence eroded by incarceration, but he has not given up hope “You know one of these days I’ll be making gravy/I’ll be making plenty, I’m gonna pay “em all back.”
The sparse, elegant poetry of How To Make Gravy is a work of off-kilter genius, the family dynamic so honestly depicted, is both melancholy and uplifting at the same time, we are emotionally invested in the lives of Joe and Rita and their family, we hope that Joe can make the gravy next Xmas, it’s a good recipe, actually given to Kelly by his first wife Hilary’s father.
Recorded at Sing Sing Studios Melbourne, produced by Kelly and Simon Polinski, it was nominated for Song of the Year at the 1997 ARIA Awards but lost to Savage Garden’s Truly Madly Deeply. Chartwise it barely made the top 100 when released, but the Deeper Water album, from which it was lifted charted at #39, and How to Make Gravy would become a seasonal classic and a much-loved song. In 2018 Paul Kelly would reprise a performance of this song at Melbourne’s Sydney Myer Music Bowl accompanied by his two daughters Maddie and Memphis, with Ash Naylor on slide guitar, in a tribute to Spencer P. Jones who had passed away earlier that year. Below – Maddie and Memphis Kelly in performance.