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How To Make Gravy by Paul Kelly – Book Review

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Readers outside Australia may be less familiar with his work (although he’s spent plenty of time performing and writing in the USA), but to many of his compatriots, Paul Kelly is a national treasure, a balladeer who seems to have a direct line to the hearts of everyday people with his simple, infectious and personal songs. He’s a storyteller. It seems to be written into our genes that we engage with stories in ways that don’t happen when we are just told. Over the best part of thirty years Kelly’s stories in song have touched the hearts of people who see themselves in his everyman lyrics.

But, like a swan, there’s a lot of activity going on under the surface to make possible the apparently effortless grace of a good pop song. Pop and rock music are, in my opinion, at their best, among the more deceptive and elusive art forms, and it’s part of their trickery to appear so simple. To distill complex emotions into a song that can leap out of the hubbub and capture our attention without being overblown or preaching is one of the art’s mysteries. It’s more challenging to find just the right note and just the right word to tell your story succinctly, rather than throwing everything you can at it.

This book is a unique ramble through the mind of an artist – where he comes from, what inspires him, how he works. He dishes out his observations through childhood memories, stories of life on the road, quotes from poets, artists and writers, lyrics, lists and even puzzles, each one linked to one of a collection of a hundred significant songs from his extensive catalogue.

It’s wonderful to have the chance to witness what goes on in the head of a real songwriter – how the magic happens. A Paul Kelly song can feel like a conversation with a good friend over a beer, but it turns out that, a little like this book, it’s a much more chaotic, obtuse, random, uncertain process than the end result makes it look.

One of the best chapters is about one of Kelly’s finest songs, ‘Careless’. A ballad of great beauty triggers a revealing discussion about circle songs, in which the same few chords repeat through the entire song, verse and chorus. He confesses to borrowing from another Aussie classic, the Go-Betweens’ ‘Cattle and Cane’ (another all-time favorite of mine – Kelly’s description of his first experience of hearing it made me feel like I’d found a soul mate), but acknowledges that these chords really belong to everyone, and shares his wonder at how much can be made of such simple raw ingredients.

Another of his most touching songs, ‘When I First Met Your Ma’, becomes something to appreciate even more deeply when he explains ‘rough rhymes’, rhymes that don’t always rhyme strictly, but can be all the more telling for it. You look back on the lyrics to this humble tale and see how true that is.

Far more than an insight into the world of a busy musician (and composer, producer and actor, I might add), this book is a reflection on all the intangibles that a songwriter tries to reach – love, loss, relationships, a life worth living. Not that he claims answers or tries to explain everything – again, like a good pop song, he leaves us a little to fill in for ourselves.

Can you imagine a world where we all have some kind of opportunity to explore these questions through art? It’s hard not to see such a world as one more enlightened and illuminated. Kelly comes across in this book as a wise, reflective and eloquent guide, as though his creative life has contributed to his understanding of the world, including perhaps that none of us will ever really understand everything. He says “I’ve only ever wanted to be taken by surprise, to get to where I don’t know myself”. Beauty is mystery and mystery is beauty. I think I can say that this has become my favorite book about music, perhaps because it’s about so much more than music.

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