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Tree Songs: Paul Kelly and Siân Darling in conversation

Paul Kelly’s music is woven through the fabric of modern Australia. It’s played at weddings and funerals, in the inner city and the outback, by millennials and baby boomers alike. Forty years, hundreds of songs, thirty-seven albums. Comparisons and hyperbole are often employed – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, iconic, legendary. Not untrue. But what is perhaps truer is this: Paul Kelly is a poet, a quiet chronicler of people and place, and Australians are the very lucky beneficiaries of his art.

Siân Darling is a curator, artist manager, filmmaker and strategist. She’s also Paul’s manager and life partner. With fingers in many pies – managing songwriters Kev Carmody and Jess Hitchcock, co-chairing human rights media organisation Right Now Inc. and founding the Museum of Inherited Memories, an organisation that curates exhibitions and events responding to inherited memories of cultural survival – Siân’s work is underpinned by a commitment to social justice, and an understanding of the power of stories to document and celebrate survival and resistance. She’s a thoughtful woman with a deep love of the more-than-human world.

After spending a day on the river with Siân and Paul earlier this year, in which we picnicked amid mangroves, read Uncle Vanya (in very bad Russian accents), and talked of poetry and trees, I invited them to be guest poetry editors of this issue of Wonderground. We caught up again via Zoom to chat about poetry, petrichor and funerals.

Georgina Reid: Siân, you’ve said that trees brought you up. What do you mean by that?

Siân Darling: It’s kind of literal, but also not. I spent a lot of time as a child without adult supervision – just my dog and me exploring the bush. Building cubbies and being in the company of trees. Feeling that they were sheltering me and all the other species living with them, I felt protected by them.

GR: Do you still feel that now?

SD: I feel out of sorts when I’m not around trees. Like I’m very far from home. If I’m feeling lonely, being with a tree really mitigates that. It’s an abundance. After Mum died, I was desperate for a cuddle. Wrapping my arms around trees felt much like being a child with an adult. That was really the only thing that gave a sense of stability and reassurance, re-grounding in the chaos.

GR: Paul, tell me about growing up in suburban Adelaide. What’s the nature of your childhood?

Paul Kelly: The trees I remember most vividly are gum trees, and the sound of magpies in them. We had wisteria on the back porch, a jacaranda tree in the front yard. Every summer, we’d rent a house on Henley Beach or Brighton. I thought of it as being miles away, but it was actually just on the other side of town. Something must have started then, because I’ve always wanted to be near water. Every time I go to a new town, especially when I’m touring, I look for the water. Whether it’s a river, lake, sea or a pool.

SD: What about grass? Grass is pretty freaky because they knock all the trees down and put down grass because it’s a more usable habitat for humans. And you love playing sport. Do you have any memories of grass?

PK: Yeah, it’s one of my favourite smells. The smell of fresh cut grass. I still run around and kick the footy with friends. We turn up, and the grass has just been mowed and everyone says, ‘Ahh’.

GR: It’s a great smell. Apparently, it’s actually a chemical distress signal emitted by the grass plant after being cut. Every man wants a lawn. I’m not sure why. Some weird kind of domination and submission thing. Anyway, better not get waylaid there …

PK: Didn’t we evolve in the savanna? Evolution has made us like long views.

GR: Yes, the theory of prospect and refuge. We need to feel a sense of enclosure where we live, but also have an expansiveness of view.

PK: That’s something that comes up a lot between Siân and me, because she loves the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, all that abundance and fecundity, and I find it a bit claustrophobic. I feel more at ease either with desert or sea, somewhere with a long horizon.

GR: If you had to pick one place to live, where would it be, Siân?

SD: A subtropical rainforest.

GR: What about you, Paul?

SD: Highways [laughs]?

PK: Somewhere near the coast. We do trips sometimes to the west coast of Victoria. To Lorne, Anglesea, Fairhaven. I like that part of the world. We’ve been talking a lot about getting another place. Siân found this place that she really loved, and it backed on to a …

SD: … a national park with heath and rare orchids! Rare orchids and heath!

PK: And very fire prone … I’m not going to live in a house right in the path of a bushfire.

SD: Even if a fire comes through, as long as you’re not in the house, you’ve got the best view of watching things regenerate afterwards … I also love mountain ash. I could live in the High Country [of Victoria] if it wasn’t so fucking cold. The city has got human, engineering and ambition all through it. Even the trees have metal things around them. It’s very abrasive on the spirit.

GR: I agree. I find cities very stressful. Let’s talk about poetry instead. I’m interested in when poetry started showing itself to you.

SD: Poetry was something to fill a young brain that was scratching around for stimulation. I think I started making up poems before reading them. I imagine someone around me was reciting poetry, or nursery rhymes.

GR: Do you still write now?

SD: Not really, not so much.

PK: You write haikus sometimes…

SD: Well … yes. So, I met Paul and there was one incident where we had dinner. Not an incident, a date. Incident feels more like …

GR: An emergency [laughs]?

Photo: Tajette O’Halloran

SD: We met, and then we had a date, and then I said, ‘I’ll pick you up and I’ll take you down the west coast … I asked him what five albums he’d take in the car, and what book he’d travel with. I was sussing him out as a good driving companion. We both brought Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.

PK: On that first trip to the west coast, we read the whole ‘Song of Myself’, which, depending on which version you’re reading, is about sixty or seventy pages. We read it out loud, taking it in turns.

SD: Following the weekend of Walt Whitman, a friend gave me some birch sticks from Tasmania. I carved some of the words [from ‘Song of Myself’] into it, and put some hooks in the back so Paul could hang it.

PK: Walt Whitman came to me through my older brother, Martin, when I was seventeen or eighteen. Before that, in school, it was Shakespeare – I found it very thrilling and fun. It stuck with me straight away.

SD: You can’t get enough of it.

PK: The language just gives me a charge, you know. ‘O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!’ It’s full on. We also studied Gerard Manley Hopkins, a priest poet from the 19th century. He was a pioneer in lots of ways. Inimitable, really. I enjoyed that poetry too, because they were poems you could really chew the marrow out of. You could keep finding more things in them.

GR: Paul, do you write poetry for itself, or is it always in the form of a song?

PK: It’s changed. When I was in my late teens, before I was writing songs, I was writing poetry, free verse and prose. There’s a book by Baudelaire called Paris Spleen which was a prose poetry book. I was influenced by that book. Then I started writing songs and stopped writing poetry, until about nine years ago when I worked with composer James Ledger putting other people’s poems to music, for a project called Conversations with Ghosts.

That was an epiphany for me, the fact that you could actually start with the words and then put music to them. The way I wrote songs up until that point was that the music comes first – the chords, melody and sounds – and I’d put words to fit. Starting with a complete set of words, I didn’t think it was possible. I always thought it’d make the music too rigid. Conversations with Ghosts opened a door.

From that point on, I started putting other poems to music. And writing lyrics first. My recent songs have been written as poems, then put to music. Like ‘The River Song’, which I wrote as a poem to Siân, and ‘When We’re Both Old & Mad’ was also written as a poem.

GR: Was that song for you, too, Siân [laughs]?

SD: The joke is, we’re already both mad. [To Paul] You’ve written heaps of poems in birthday cards. I don’t know where they are. Do you keep them?

PK: Yeah, I keep them.

GR: Siân, you talk, in regard to the Museum of Inherited Memories, about activism driven by empathy. What does this mean to you?

SD: Many people want to be social justice warriors and advocates; to consider themselves, using that awful phrase, on the right side of history. When you’re feeling passionate about something, you’re angry. You want to change the system, right the wrongs. You can throw a punch or do something that isn’t considered but reactive, and it can actually do more harm than good. Understanding the motivation of the other, the orientation and origin of the other, you can speak more effectively. Even if you can’t change what they’re doing …

PK: Just thinking about what Siân’s saying … Activists usually want to change someone’s mind. You’re not going to do that unless you can talk to them and be empathetic with where they’re coming from. It’s about being prepared to have your mind changed. People get their blinkers on, because they’re so sure they’re right, and they can’t open themselves up to, ‘Well, I’m not as right as I thought I was’. You can’t go into a conversation with someone without being prepared to be changed by it.

GR: What about you, Paul? Where do you find the entry to the universal? Everyone in Australia has at least one Paul Kelly song tucked under their arm. Whether a tradie from central Queensland or a woman from inner Sydney, your music speaks so broadly. Is it empathy, curiosity, or something else?

PK: I’ve never sat down to write a song where I want to get a point of view across. That’s just not the way I write. It’s much more blind and fumbling.

For me, it starts with an image, or something that somebody said. ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ starts with the image of Gough Whitlam pouring dirt into Vincent Lingiari’s hands. The songs start sideways, rather than front on. Not, ‘I’ve got to write a song about this topic’. It comes more accidentally than that.

GR: I’m interested in the way your work connects to people, Paul. Not many people can say that of nearly forty years of songs. What do you think, Siân?

SD: I think he works more like a mathematician. He gets a formula and is clever with putting certain images and words together. It’s like you’re telling a story. [To Paul] It’s the same way you structure an essay, make a good argument. Sorry to take the romance out of it.

PK: It’s a bit like solving a puzzle.

SD: Like Wordle [laughs].

PK: Sometimes I might have a couple of lines or phrases … There’s a quote by John Updike where he said sometimes he just looks at two separate sentences, unrelated, and if he stares at them long enough he’ll find a story. So, for me it’s trying to get things to fit. I write images down, phrases, whole lines and, at some point, they start to join up.

GR: There’s a bit in The Beatles: Get Back documentary where they’re writing one of their really famous songs, I can’t remember which. They were bouncing words around, trying out all these rhymes. And it felt so meaningless. I was like, ‘Really, that’s how that song happened?’ It’s interesting how a song becomes a beacon for other people’s meanings and memories. I guess that’s any art, any literature in a way. You clear a patch of ground for other people to grow their own stories from the soil you’ve prepared.

PK: You don’t really know what you’re doing in the middle of writing a song. For me it’s trying to finish something that has a good melody, and the words seem to fit well with it, but a lot of that is not conscious. The meaning will come out, whatever people take from the song will come out. You don’t have to put it in there, or overplay it. Words and melodies have power beyond the person putting them together.

GR: Paul, did you write the song ‘Petrichor’ for Siân?

PK: She’s in it. Yes. It’s sort of mixed up, fictional.

SD: Who the hell else is in it? I taught you that word!

GR: It’s a lovely word, and after meeting you Siân, I can hear you in that song. You’re taking Paul to the trees …

PK: She is. Before I met Siân, I wouldn’t notice birds, wouldn’t know their name. I’m a little bit better now. Anything I know about birds and trees and plants …

SD: … and stars, and rocks …

PK: … comes from Siân. I’ve learnt a lot from her. I still don’t know much at all.

GR: Neither do I. But I do have a suggestion. You know how you did the album Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds? I think the natural progression is a new album titled Seventeen Ways to Look at Trees.

SD: Oh, I like that.

PK [Laughs] Noted.

Photo: Photo: Tajette O’Halloran

GR: Paul, I’ve heard you say in a documentary that sex and death are the two things everyone thinks about. Let’s think about both your funerals. What would be the poem or the song that you’d like played?

PK: For me it’s Section 52 of ‘Song of Myself’. The very last lines, that start with, ‘The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.’ It ends with ‘I stop somewhere waiting for you.’ Some of the lines from that section are written on the branch. [To Siân] Is it the same for you?

SD: Yeah, same for me.

GR: So you’ve had this conversation before?

PK: Yes.

SD: The murder/suicide pact.

PK: A good way to end [laughs].

GR: Can you have your own song played at your funeral? You probably would, Paul. Maybe not by your choice, though?

PK: We were at Archie Roach’s funeral yesterday and some of his music was played.

SD: [To Paul] Actually, I think we should do ‘Meet Me in the Middle of the Air’ at your funeral.

GR: That’s the song I’d have. I’m not saying that because I’m talking to you now. But Paul, what one of your 500 songs would you choose to be played at yours?

PK: I wouldn’t. I’ve sung at a lot of funerals. There’s a great Otis Redding song called ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’, which is the only song I’ve ever sung at both a wedding and a funeral. It works both ways. Siân, what song would you have at your funeral?

SD: I don’t know, I might not have a funeral. Maybe Joan Baez’s cover of ‘No Woman, No Cry’. I’d ask for a rabbi to sing a cappella. When Jewish people die, it’s serious. You’re not allowed to listen to music for a year, not allowed to shower for a week or look in the mirror. You really get into it.

PK: How’s the river going?

GR: River’s beautiful at the moment. But it’s been a hard year, all this flooding. River is waiting for your next visit.

PK: To read Chekhov …

GR: Yes. And to plan your new album Seventeen Ways to Look at Trees.

PK: Okay … [laughs]

SD: This is so exciting! Why don’t we include grass species too, and mangroves … It’s a great idea. [To Paul] Did you say thank you?

PK: Thank you.