Discovering A New Performing Style For Paul Kelly

Singer Paul Kelly was asked to come up with something special when he was booked for a series of shows eight years ago in his native Australia. His idea changed his performing career.

Kelly, an Australian icon who’s written hundreds of songs during a career that stretches back into the 1980s, decided to explore much of his catalogue in alphabetical order, some 100 different songs over a four-night run.

“I thought it was going to be a one-off event,” the 57-year-old said. “At the end of it I realized I had discovered a new way to do shows, and a new way for the audience to approach the shows themselves.”

undated image released by Conqueroo.

In what Kelly jokes is a “slowly-unfolding accident,” there’s now a box set of live “A to Z” recordings and an accompanying memoir on his songwriting. He is on an “A to Z” tour in the United States, four nights in some cities, two compressed nights in others.

He remembers being mortified after those first shows when a fan asked him about a song or two he might consider doing next time.

Next time? This was a lot of work, going online to catalogue the songs and in some cases learn them again. But it was fun. It broke a familiar performing pattern that artists at his stage often find themselves in, playing recent material and a similar set of “greatest hits” to satisfy the fans, leaving a wide swath of material to lay fallow.

“You don’t want to go out and play the same old songs,” said Kelly, whose guitarist nephew Dan accompanies him on the shows. Kelly plays guitar, too, and occasional piano.

A four-night run will often begin with “Adelaide,” a song about his hometown. He’ll get through about six or seven letters each night and stick strictly to the pattern: even the show’s encores must come from that night’s letters. An onstage easel with flip cards tells audience members where in the alphabet is that night’s starting point. No songs are repeated in each city.

The richness and variety in Kelly’s writing, and the attention to detail that brings his characters alive, make it more than an exercise. It’s easy to construct a show with different moods and tempos no matter what set of letters he’s working with.

To whit, one stretch of a New York show included: “I Can’t Believe We Were Married,” a divorce story with vivid imagery from a man who sees the oddities in a polite, distanced relationship with the woman who was once his whole life; “If I Could Start Today Again,” an aching song from a man desperate to call back actions he regrets, although you never learn precisely what they are; “I’d Rather Go Blind,” about a man who knows he can’t stand seeing his old girlfriend with another man – he’d almost prefer another woman; and “I Was Hoping You’d Say That,” a whimsical tale of a first date’s progression.

That’s just “I.”

Standing by the bar at a recent Los Angeles show was songwriter Lucinda Williams, who had been unfamiliar with Kelly’s work. By the end of the night, she was in tears, her husband Tom Overby later wrote online. “I am humbled,” she said, calling Kelly “a great songwriter.”

“The stories in his songs are fantastic and in the ‘A to Z’ shows, the lyrics come through much more clearly,” said Richard Kantor of Wilton, Conn., a fan who learned about Kelly when he lived for three years in Australia. He traveled to Chicago and New York to catch recent shows.

After Kelly decided to put out a box set of recordings, he sat down to write some accompanying text. He wrote several pages on “Adelaide” alone, including the familial trouble caused by his decision – for writerly effect – to describe several aunts as “insane.”

Kelly realized there was a book there. Called “How to Make Gravy” after one of his best-known songs, it took him three years to write. As a tribute to his status back home, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman all read Kelly’s writing for the audio book version.

It offers insights into both Australia and an artist’s methods. The sense of being away from home in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” for instance, was a motivation for the song “How to Make Gravy,” sung in the voice of a man imprisoned at Christmas. He borrowed the title of Bruce Springsteen’s “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” for his own story about Aboriginal land rights, “From Little Things, Big Things Come.”

Kelly is careful, though, to leave much about his songs unsaid.

“To explain the song is to reduce it,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in expanding.”

He expects the “A to Z” shows is a format that will endure. “It adds another string to the bow, I guess,” he said.

He noted as the alphabet wound down in a New York show that he didn’t have a “V’’ song, unlike Elvis Costello (“Veronica”). But Kelly hesitated in a conversation when asked if he’d like to see other songwriters borrow the format.

“As long as they give me something off the top!” he said, laughing.