Although the closest thing he has come to a “hit” is the memorable tune “Dumb Things” from 1987, Australian singer Paul Kelly has earned a loyal following among discerning music fans around the world. Last year saw Mr. Kelly releasing a collection of Shakespeare sonnets called, appropriately enough, “Seven Sonnets and a Song,” and a second album of funeral songs called “Death’s Dateless Night.”
For that seemingly sadness-soaked disc, Mr. Kelly teamed up with fellow Aussie Charlie Owen. The disc is easily one of the most beautiful and introspective CDs you’ll hear this year. In support of that release, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Owen are hitting the road, including a gig at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia, Saturday. I spoke to Mr. Kelly via phone from his home in Australia about the tour and what keeps him motivated to keep making music.
Question: What can people expect when they come out to see you live?
Answer: I’m playing with [guitarist] Charlie Owen [who] plays slide guitar and keyboards as well. And my daughters will be singing as well and playing keyboards from time to time.
It’s a stripped-back show. No bass and drums [and] pretty acoustic-based. It draws mainly on the two records I put out last year.
Q: How did you and Charlie Owen meet, and what made you want to record and tour with him?
A: I’ve known Charlie for a long time. We both lived in and played in bands around Melbourne. We had talked, as you do, that we should record sometime. But it was only when we were driving to a funeral together to play because a friend of ours had died, and we had both been asked to play, that a conversation sparked.
Q: Why do you get asked to play a lot of funerals?
A: It happens. If you play music or sing, when friends or family die, you often get asked to play the funeral. It’s your job. Some people organize the flowers [or] write the program. Someone else does the eulogy. Everyone has a job at a funeral, and when you’re a singer, often it’s your job to sing something.
[Charlie and I] have lived a fair while on this Earth. The funerals start to add up.
Q: The experience of playing funerals really inspired the album?
A: Charlie and I started to list the songs we’d sung at funerals, and he said, “Oh, that would make a good album, wouldn’t it?” Suddenly we had a frame on how to do it. And we knew it would be mostly covers. A covers record with a specific frame gave me the great chance to work with Charlie.
Q: When you do a CD of funeral songs like “Death’s Dateless Night,” does it make you think about your own mortality?
A: I’ve been thinking about mortality since I was young; I don’t think it’s made a particular difference. You could be here one day and gone the next. I’m very aware that life hangs by a very fine thread. You gotta live your days as well as you can because you don’t know how many you have left.
Q: What is the song you want played at your funeral?
A: I don’t really care. I love “Django” by the Modern Jazz Quartet, although it’s a bit long. Every now and then I hear a song and think, “Oh, that’ll be good at my funeral.” (Laughs)
I don’t really have a particular plan for my funeral. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. The ones who are left behind will know what to do.
Q: Do you always play your hit “Dumb Things” when you tour America?
A: It is the song that seems to be the most well known. It’s a song I like to play if people ask. But I have done shows where I don’t play it. We’ve got a version of “Dumb Things” in the set this run.
Q: How has touring changed. What is the one thing you need with you on the road?
A: I don’t think touring has changed that much. It’s a routine and I like it. And I like to come home. If you just get the right balance of touring and being at home, it’s very pleasurable. I like to travel and explore new cities. Or strange cities.
I don’t [get to know] them very well because I’m only there for a day or two each the time. There is always something exciting about that. I used to always carry my little coffee pot with me. Especially in the [United] States when it was harder to find good coffee. Coffee is better these days.
I think finding a good cup of coffee in the morning is probably the most important thing. I only need one.
Q: After 30 years, is songwriting still a mystery to you?
A: It’s not like you’re a shoemaker. You go to work in the morning, and if you follow the steps, then at the end of the day, you end up with a pair of shoes. Or a table, if you’re a carpenter.
As a songwriter you can get up for work and still have nothing at day’s end. It’s a bit like fishing. You have to show up, but you don’t always end up with anything. You’ve got to get lucky. You’ve got to turn up with a piano and guitar and bore yourself until something happens.
Songwriting for me is about being bored — boring myself, and very once in a while something comes up. That’s what you try to catch.
Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen play Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia, Saturday evening.