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Paul Kelly & Paul Grabowsky: An Exercise in Trust

Combined, they've been in the music game for well over 80 years, but now, Paul Kelly and Paul Grabowsky have teamed up to share the collaborative album, 'Please Leave Your Light On'.

For close to 40 years now, news of a new record from Paul Kelly has been met with jubilation from fans of all walks of life. When the living legend announced the release of the quarantine-inspired Forty Days back in June, this excitement was complemented by the details of another new record just one week later.

This album, titled Please Leave Your Light On, was a collaborative effort, made with fellow musical veteran and accolade magnet Paul Grabowsky. Together, the two Pauls (or, “PK” and “PG” as they prefer to be called in this situation) hit upon the idea of this musical pairing last year, when Grabowsky recruited Kelly to perform alongside him as part of a series of concerts in Mount Barker, South Australia.

Almost immediately, the collaboration bore creative fruit, with Kelly suggesting that their pair create a recorded document of their efforts together.

Check out Paul Kelly & Paul Grabowsky’s Please Leave Your Light On:

However, this wasn’t the first time they had crossed paths. In fact, their first time working together had occurred on the ABC program Access All Areas back in 1995, though it wasn’t until 2010 when they truly joined forces, teaming up together alongside the Australian Art Orchestra and other musicians for Meet Me in The Middle of The Air.

Fast-forward close to a full decade, and their latest efforts have resulted in a masterful 12-track release which reimagines Kelly’s work (along with one new song, and a Cole Porter cover) via Grabowsky’s minimal, yet expansive adaptations.

In the lead-up to the record’s release, the accomplished pair sat down for a chat about time in lockdown, working together, and what it takes to reimagine the music of one of Australia’s most beloved artists.

First of all, I want to ask how you’re both doing with everything in the world at the moment?

PK: Dealing okay. We were supposed to be doing shows – PG and I – at this time, but we were forced to postpone them. So that was frustrating, and it’s been a very hard time for a lot of our colleagues, band members, and people that we work with – because we both work with quite a few people in different situations.

So it’s been very tough. Personally, I’ve been okay, because I just treat this time as being off the road and staying at home, reading, writing, and doing what I would normally do when I have an extended break from touring. I try to make sure I get those breaks so I can write and read. So I’m okay!

PG: It’s been the same for me. I am in the fortunate position of not having to survive from live music income, because I work at Monash University. So, I’m very concerned about a lot of our colleagues, because I think they’re doing it pretty tough. We’re looking forward to a time when the scene can come together again.

PG, you had mentioned that you’d first crossed paths with PK back in the Nineties, and then began working with him in 2010. Why did it take close to a decade before you both worked on a project like this?

PG: I think that given the very varied nature of our careers, it was probably simply that the time was right. It actually happened that I was curating a series of concerts at a venue outside of Adelaide in the Adelaide Hills UKARIA, which is a very beautiful, purpose-built concert venue which seats about 230 people. So it’s an intimate venue, and I worked there with this series that I curated with a series of different singers. Paul and I had known each other for a long time, and we had worked together on other projects before.

So we know each other musically very well, so there was a lot of trust there that had been built up. You’ve got to have that trust to throw somebody into a situation where it’s just you and another person. There’s no band to lean on, there’s nothing except piano and voice, and for that to work, there has to be an understanding that it’s going to work. And I think that we managed to converge at just the right time in our respective lives that this kind of project, and particularly these songs, made a lot of sense.

When it comes to recordings like this, what is the goal that set out to achieve? What did you hope to bring out of these songs?

PK: For me, it’s finding new ways to do the songs; finding new things in the songs. We chose the songs based on what would suit a minimal-style performance with just piano and voice, and songs in the main that were open to being pushed around. I’ve worked with Paul before on a project before called Meet Me in The Middle of The Air where he took my songs and rearranged them…well more than rearranged them, I would describe it more as throwing them up in the air and then letting them fall into different combinations, and then I had to work out how to sing them.

So I knew that when you work with Paul, it’s going to be almost like walking a tightrope act, because you’re having to find that from moment to moment, you have to be responding and reacting to the other person. I really like that. It’s challenging, but it’s also great fun, and with just piano and voice, you’ve got lots and lots of space. Almost paradoxically, with the piano and the way Paul plays it, you’ve got this huge possibility of colouration and orchestration just with the one instrument. It’s almost like diving into a night swimming pool and just finding your stroke.

“I don’t want to ‘jazz’ the songs up, because I think that that’s corny and unnecessary when we’re in a situation like this.”

Going back to the song selection process, what made you realise that each song was a perfect fit for the performance? Or was there a little bit of trial and error in figuring that out?

PK: We’d done these shows before, so we had that sense to try out the songs live. But we came up with a list between us, and pretty much all of that list which we had done live, we ended up recording. Then in the time between the live shows and the recording, we thought of a couple of others and added them. Then Paul suggested “Every Time We Say Goodbye”, a Cole Porter song. A great, great choice, it was a song that I had known but not very well, and he had obviously thought it would suit me, so we did that one.

PG: There’s nothing much I can add to that except to say that in a piano and voice situation, you want to make sure that the songs suit it. Paul’s work covers a huge variety of genres, and he’s obviously been very careful to select songs that work from area to area, and there are certain classics which certainly wouldn’t suit a situation like this, and certainly some lesser-known songs which are absolutely perfect for it.

Also, latterly, Paul’s become very interested in poetry…well not recently, rather his long-lasting love of poetry has become more important in his live performances, so that’s also fed into this.

But I think for people who are familiar with his work, there’s a lot of love songs here; things like “Petrichor”… There’s a funny take on love with a song called “Young lovers”, “Please Leave Your Light On”, which is a classic love song and is the title track of the album. “You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed” is another one like that. “Winter Coat”, a wonderful song about a love lost long ago, and of course that beautiful “If I Could Start Today Again”, which I don’t know a person alive who can’t relate to that lyric.

Paul Kelly and Paul Grabowsky performing for episode two of 'The Sound'

Paul Kelly and Paul Grabowsky performing for episode two of The Sound. (Photo: Mushroom Creative House)

PG, when it came to the adaptation of PK’s songs, what went into the process or creating your own interpretation of the song? Speaking as someone who has studied composition in the past, I know you can go into it with the intention of focusing on the melody the general feeling of the song, or other facets. So what was the approach that you took?

PG: The first thing I would say is that, listening to the way a singer phrases their own lyrics is really important. I learnt a lot from working with Archie Roach, actually about that. When I first worked with Archie years ago, I was very careful to transcribe his songs in exactly his phrasing so that I could really understand how and where he placed his words.

And when you do that with him, you understand that he’s got an incredible and sophisticated musical intelligence, and constantly surprising. Paul is similar. You think you might know where the notes fall and how the melody goes, but it’s much more subtle than that. So I wrote all the songs out using his phrasing.

The next thing is the harmonies. In most of his songs, the harmonies are fairly…they’re guitar-based and built – more or less – around simple chord progressions which are there to support the message of the lyrics. But having said that, there’s some very interesting things to do with phrase length, so very often it won’t be an eight bar phrase; it’ll be a seven bar phrase or a nine bar phrase.

“That’s the big word for me about this record; trusting the other person while we’re having a musical conversation.”

There are really interesting structural elements to the songs. You know, the middle eight might come before or after you realise. So I was generally very true to the harmonics of the songs as well. Maybe I would change a bass note so that the bass movement was slightly different, but the harmonic structure of the song, rarely did I mess with that. Maybe a chord here or there, but very very little.

I think when you’re doing a thing like this, you want to make the songs keep their integrity, or otherwise you’re sort of forcing the singer into a kind of posture which doesn’t necessarily make them feel comfortable, and that’s doing both the singer and the song a disservice. There’s something about being able to retain my own personality as a pianist, and bringing my own language to it, while being very true to the song. I don’t want to “jazz” the songs up, because I think that that’s corny and unnecessary when we’re in a situation like this.

PK, The opening track, ’True to You’, is exclusive to this record. Was that one you had written some ago, or closer to its eventual recording?

PK: It’s a fairly recent song; a few years old. I have had a crack at recording it with my regular band, and we have recorded it, but it’s unreleased. So this is the first time that it’s been released, and it was written during a year that I had off. Actually, I had most of 2014 off and took piano lessons, and a few songs came out of that where I learnt a few more things about chords and different flavours and different ways to play, because I’m a fairly limited musician.

So those piano lessons opened me up a little bit, and I wrote songs that… Well “Petrichor” was written on piano, “True to You” was written on piano, and “Sonnet 134” was all written after those lessons. So that was definitely an influence on what we were doing.

So will we hear an “original” or “intended” version of that song down the line, or will it stay exclusive to this release?

PK: I wouldn’t really say there’s any “intended” version of it. The thing about recording songs is that when they’re recorded, they capture a moment in time. That was also the feeling that we wanted with this record, where we were just together for three days doing these songs. I mean, we’d played them live before, and we’d rehearsed them, but they just capture us in the moment, trusting each other. That’s the big word for me about this record; trusting the other person while we’re having a musical conversation.

To add to what Paul said, it’s true, he honoured the original…he listened to the original versions of the songs and honoured the way that I had sung them, and other parts of the songs that my band had played, and used musical elements from those recordings.

Then, he took it to another place and did challenge me, which is exactly what I wanted. It’s a bit like, in football terms, when a wingman – in Aussie rules football terms – is running and, you don’t kick to the forward, you kick in front of him, and make the forward run to the ball. That’s what it was like, Paul made me run to the mark.

Looking ahead, do you feel that this collaboration could lead to more work like this down the line, or is it too early to say at this stage?

PK: We’re definitely open to it. We’re always cooking, Paul’s always cooking things up, and me too. So I’m sure there’ll be another rendezvous down the line.

Paul Kelly and Paul Grabowsky’s Please Leave Your Light On is out today via EMI Recorded Music Australia.