Paul Kelly’s Music into Words

Michael Nolan, editor at Penguin, recalls the birth of Paul Kelly's book, How to Make Gravy.

Michael Nolan, co-editor of Kelly's book

Michael Nolan, co-editor of Kelly's book

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture (as satirist Martin Mull’s regularly misattributed quip goes), then writing about a life in music, and accompanying it with a soundtrack recorded at the concerts that sparked the idea for the writing in the first place, is like… well, one way or another, it’s sure going to wear out some dancing shoes. Which is to say that when Paul Kelly came to Penguin with his ‘mongrel memoir’ and plans to release a box set of CDs of live solo or duo performances, it was obviously a great opportunity to build something beyond the pages of a simple book.

The genesis of How To Make Gravy was in Paul’s A–Z live shows, for which he performed just over a hundred of his songs alphabetically over four nights. His writing follows this format, touring his songbook and using the lyrics as a jump-off point for tales of friends, family, music and life. Numerous possibilities presented themselves for keeping the words and music entwined, as they unquestionably are for perhaps our best-loved songwriter and storyteller.

The book has a musical mirror in The A–Z Recordings box set – every chapter has its own unique soundtrack – and its discrete stories could be set free to live lives of their own (as a couple already have, having been published in The Monthly). There was also the opportunity to include a rich variety of illustrations, beyond the biographical photographs and memorabilia you’d expect; from an image of a 17th century painting, to a late-medieval fresco or other musicians whose careers were an inspiration. Paul really covers some ground – stabbing a finger in the index randomly finds you scrolling through Eastwood, Clint; Eco, Umberto; Eddy, Duane; Edison, Thomas; Edwards, Kutcha…

Pairing the hardback with The A–Z Recordings in a handsome slipcase was an irresistible proposition, making it possible to listen to the stripped-back versions of the songs as you read. The eBook edition offers digital portability. But the multimedia capabilities of the app are where the concept of ‘a book’ really expands, inviting you to happily lose yourself in Paul’s music, recollections and free-wheeling curiosities.

That penetrating gaze that stares out from the book cover comes to life as Paul greets you in a video to explain how the project’s ideas came about. Meanwhile, the app scans the reader’s device for versions of each song and makes them available to play as an accompaniment to the chapter. The first six songs from The A–Z Recordings are included and the rest are easily downloaded. (I won’t spoil the enjoyable surprise of a further app feature.)

And for an artist whose identity is founded on such a distinctive voice – so Australian and dry, like a crow calling on a still Sunday afternoon – it seemed unthinkable not to record him reading his book. Paul’s writing is very oral, so his readings have an easy, storyteller rhythm – before long you feel as though you’re sharing a window table at The Espy, spinning yarns.

A selection of audio narrations will soon be available for download, offering five or ten minutes in Paul’s candid and entertaining company. His self-effacing nature was later affirmed when we learned he’d also recruited several well-known Australians to record some chapters in their own idiosyncratic voices (I won’t reveal who just yet, though I’ll admit Paul declined my suggestion of having Bob Hawke recalling his campus gigs, or singing ‘Maralinga’ on a train with Tuvan throat singers.)

A conundrum in the audio recordings was what to do with the lyrics. What was written to be sung might not get across properly read as text, and Paul can’t help but feel for the missing melody. If he sang them a cappella, though, you’d have a hundred new Paul Kelly songs released simultaneously. We’re still thinking about this one – perhaps the answer is to have someone else read them as a form of poetry.

None of this would be much more than commerce – added extras – if not for the fact that all the elements act in the service of the storytelling. The words and the music gave Paul not only the structure of his project but the reason for it, so finding ways to present them together seemed an important part of the process.

Portrait of Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan is the production editor of the Saturday Paper and a founding member of the editorial team since its 2014 launch. He is the winner of the 2017 Walkley Award for headline writing. He joined the paper from Penguin Australia, where he was a senior book editor for many years.

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