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Paul Kelly takes on Shakespeare | Byron Writers Festival 2016

Paul Kelly has a new album out, Seven Sonnets and a Song, a collection of William Shakespeare’s works set to music. Coincidentally, or maybe not, this year also marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death in 1616, and we can’t stop talking about him. Paul Kelly, himself an author as well as a musician, was recently at the Byron Writers Festival to discuss the way that art can outlive the artist, and you’d hardly find a more fitting example of artistic longevity than the great playwright himself.

Kelly’s love affair with Shakespeare began in 1976 when he put down a $5 deposit on a collection of the bard’s comedies and tragedies at a bookstore in Melbourne.

It would eventually cost him $34, a hefty sum in those days, equivalent to around 20 percent of the average weekly wage.

Kelly has made a career of collecting words and stories, including poetry, and he encourages the audience to get into reading poems, saying it doesn’t have to be difficult.

“You only need one from a poet and you put it in your pocket, and it’s with you for life,” he says.

It’s not long before Kelly picks up his guitar and sings us a tune from his new album. As he sits down, the presenter, Sarah Kanowski, remarks how it sounds quite similar to his other, regular songs, and I can’t help but think what an obvious observation that is. Of course, it’s Paul Kelly’s interpretation of how a tune might accompany Shakespeare’s words, so, naturally, it sounds like a Paul Kelly tune. With his chords and his voice, and a talent for crafting poetic lyrics of his own, it’s not surprising that the result is oddly familiar.

It is certainly beautiful, though. Kelly defends his own style, arguing that he wanted to avoid the idea that setting poetry to music has to be ‘arty’. “I’m just gonna do it in the way I do it,” he says.

Kelly says he grew up on folk music, bluegrass and Appalachian music, so he’s comfortable with poetic style of language that is often found in old folk music. “There’s not that far a jump between Elizabethan music and the language in bluegrass.”

In some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Kelly explains, it’s hard to know whether the subject of affection is male or female, but it doesn’t matter too much.

“It’s really normal in folk music for people to take on a persona,” Kelly says.

He is used to a bit of role-playing; he’s one of the best at inhabiting a specific character and telling a story from their point of view.

Even the format of the Shakespearean sonnet, explains Kelly, “is really suited to the structure of pop songs.” 14 lines in total, with a shift after 8 lines, and ending with a rhyming couplet.

The presenter asks, rather predictably, what comes first for Kelly, the words or the music. Most of the time it’s the music, he answers, but there’s always a sound attached to it, like a sort of gibberish. His lyrics end up having to match those original sounds, because, he says, “I don’t ever get pure melody, because I get it with my voice.”

An audience member asks Kelly which song he would want to outlive him? “All of them, except the bad ones,” he replies, with a shift of his eyes.

Kelly stands up to close the session with another sonnet, and as soon as it ends he’s urged by the crowd to play another. He breaks into a bashful smile and lifts his hand above the strings again. He doesn’t take much convincing.

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