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PAUL KELLY Merri Christmas

Paul Kelly Merri Soul Sessions with Linda and Vika Bull

“Calling it soul, soul is just like giving a framework to work in. What I end up making is kind of a mutant mongrel thing anyway. So it’s not us trying to make a soul record, it’s just a certain sensibility; a certain way of attacking the thing.”

Paul Kelly has just released The Merri Soul Sessions, a new album that also features contributions from the Bull Sisters, Dan Sultan, Clairy Browne and Kira Puru. They’ll perform the album at the Fremantle Arts Centre on Saturday, January 17, and at West Coast Blues N’ Roots on Sunday, March 29, at Fremantle Park. CHRIS MARTIN reports.

Paul Kelly is sitting in his Sydney hotel room, discussing his legacy as a songwriter and musician – something he’s no doubt asked to talk about quite a lot these days.

He’s often held up as Australia’s folk rock poet, our bard for the masses, whose lyrics and melodies sum up not only everything that’s beautiful and tragic about the human condition in these parts, but also the land upon which it’s all built. Unsurprisingly, Kelly’s own view on his artistic legacy is rather more straightforward – and even more humble than you might expect.

Those things are unmeasurable,” he says. “I don’t particularly like my music. Some people do, but there’s other things that I like a whole lot better. I know there are people that really like my music – some do, some don’t. So it’s all out of your hands. It’s not even anything you can really think about or consider. The main thing I do think about is writing another song.”

Kelly’s latest collection of songs has been translated into The Merri Soul Sessions, an album completed with an all-star cast of Australian musicians such as Dan Sultan, Clairy Browne and Kira Puru. The record fits snugly into Kelly’s perspective on his role as an individual in a long line of other talented artists. “Just like I’ve picked up stuff from other people and passed it on, people who like what I do will draw from it,” he says. “That’s being part of a line: pick it up and pass it on.”

In this case, Kelly stands in a line with his favourite soul artists. Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield are the names he mentions as we discuss the decorated history of soul music. It’s a different side to Kelly – one that fans mightn’t be familiar with, but that has emerged as naturally as ever.

Calling it soul, soul is just like giving a framework to work in,” he says. “What I end up making is kind of a mutant mongrel thing anyway. So it’s not us trying to make a soul record, it’s just a certain sensibility; a certain way of attacking the thing.”

Two other names involved heavily in the new record are Vika and Linda Bull, the sisterly duo who’ve sung in Kelly’s backing band for years now. It was Vika’s powerful interpretation of the iconic Kelly song, Sweet Guy, in their live sets that lit the fuse on The Merri Soul Sessions.

When I first heard the song,” says Vika, “I thought about, (sings)What makes such a sweet guy…’ And then when I actually got to sing it, it was like, ‘Oh, hell’s bells, okay’ – now I understood what I had to do to make it work. I suppose it got me a little bit when I understood what the song was about… I like singing it, though. I enjoy being able to give it the power and the oomph I think it needs to get the message across. I like belting it out.”

Certainly, Kelly was impressed by Vika’s delivery. “All of us kept saying, ‘We should record that version’, and we sort of had desk tapes, some live recordings and so on, but we wanted to go in and do it in a studio,” he says.

The initial thought was that it could be an EP. What happened also around that time – this is almost two years ago now – I had a songwriting session with Dan Sultan, and we wrote two songs in one day, and they were both songs that we thought, ‘Well that one’s a Vika song, and that one’s a Linda song’, so we thought that right off the bat. Then I started thinking of other singers, so that rolled on from there. It was a sort of snowball effect.”

Thus a new album emerged, with the help of Kelly’s backing band (including Cameron Bruce and Peter Luscombe) and some older Kelly songs that hadn’t yet found a home, like the Sultan-fronted Don’t Let A Good Thing Go. “I wasn’t quite convincing myself when I sang it,” says Kelly, “so I thought, ‘Oh, I should try someone else singing it’. That’s often how it happens – I have a voice in mind, my voice isn’t quite the right one, so I have to go and find other people to do it. That’s what this record is about: those kinds of songs that I thought other people could sing better.”

In the end, The Merri Soul Sessions came together surprisingly quickly, with time left over on the final day of the allocated two-week period to write and record a new gospel song, Hasn’t It Rained. Not bad going in a year that was “supposed to be my year off, actually,” Kelly laughs. The songwriter himself stepped into the background on most of the recordings, letting others do the singing – Linda Bull reports that even Kelly’s direction on album opener, Smells Like Rain, was quite relaxed.

He left me to it, pretty much,” she says. “I got the lyrics and the tune about six months before, and I just loved the imagery of it – a very visual song – and I thought, ‘That will suit me, he picked well’.”

Kelly will, however, be front and centre with the Merri Soul Sessions band on a series of tour and festival dates this summer. All the familiar faces from the album will be along for the ride. “That was the only time we could get everyone, in January,” he says. “I think we’ve cut short a few people’s holidays to do it. But it means we get to play some festivals, play the Mona Foma in Hobart, some cool gigs; opening the Sydney Festival, things like that.”

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