Dan Kelly (Conversations)
When I started this podcast, my mate Josh asked me who would be the dream guests, and Dan Kelly was at the top of the list. Whether it was serendipity or somehow subconsciously planned, I had scheduled a trip up to Darwin for the same weekend that Dan was in town for his Australian Dreamers show with Alex Gow of Oh Mercy and Emma Russack. In a moment of bravado, I sent him the following email:
Hope all is well. I think we’ve met before (I used to play in a band called YIS and I believe you rock one of our t-shirts now and again :D). I’m writing because I’ve just started a new podcast thing about songwriting and performance (https://soundcloud.com/cddlmn), and I’m going up to Darwin to cover the Barunga festival next week - It just so happens that I’ll be coming to your gig this weekend (already got tickets), and I was just wondering if you’d be willing to do an episode of the show with me if you have a spare 30 minutes.
I would love to interview both Alex and Emma as well, but I thought I’d get in touch with you first and hope that you could put in a good word for me!
The show format is part performance and part interview but I’d just be happy to do an interview about your songs as I’m a big fan.
Thanks for your time and let me know if you’d like to know any more about the show. I’ll be up there from Friday onwards - not sure when you get up there or if you’re there for any days other than the Sunday but I’m totally flexible with times over that weekend.
Hey Simon it sounds great
i think we get up late Saturday arvo to Darwin so we might even be able to do it then rather than show day
Simon: You were up here last year for Barunga Festival. Was that the last time you were up here?
Dan: Yeah, last year, playing with Paul Kelly.
Simon: You’re someone who likes warmer climates; I think you’re a big fan of Byron Bay.
Dan: Yeah, (laughs), well, I grew up just north of there, so, I’m kinda fascinated with that whole area; the shitness of it and the awesomeness of it. It’s like anywhere; it’s like a microcosm of Australian society.
Simon: I think I heard you’re planning to go up there to write you’re next record… well what I heard was you were going to Byron to write a record about Melbourne.
Dan: It was sort-of a joke, but yeah. I always tend to write songs about the north coast [of NSW] or Queensland, where I’m from, because I’ve been in Melbourne for years, probably sitting in a cold sharehouse somewhere; I kinda dream of this, y’know, shining coastline…
Simon: Do you like perhaps to get away from Melbourne to observe what it’s about?
Dan: It’s a funny thing, I mean, I’ve always just kind of run away for various reasons just to kind of clear my head. And Byron, well, not necessarily Byron but the hills behind Byron which is a place I’ve always gone since I was a kid. Maybe when I was a teenager to go to the beach and then to score weed when I was a late-[teen]… y’know, you drive down to Nimbin. It was a real epic adventure then from Brisbane because there wasn’t a highway… Well, there was a shitty highway, but it was a four hour drive in a combi van… now you can get there about an hour and twenty minutes. So, because of that it’s got a lot of sorta, more, fuckheads. It’s definitely easier to get to. Byron is essentially a big suburb of Sydney now; boutique stores… but the area still has this kind of fantastic feel about it… I’m living there because I had to move out of my house and I thought I’d just go up there. I’m staying in a friend’s shed, but it’s quite a nice shed; it’s got a bed.
Simon: So you’ve already set it up and decked it out for your arrival.
Dan: I’ve been living there for the last six weeks but because I’ve been touring I’ve only spent 12 days there. It got super heavily rained on over the last couple of days so I’m interested to see if my stuff is still there or if it’s in the river. (chuckles nervously)
Simon: Well, hopefully it’s… dry. We’re very dry here. How are you finding Darwin so far?
Dan: Yeah, I love Darwin. I’ve played with Paul Kelly up here, I’ve done one of my shows years ago, and I’ve played with Kacey Chambers last year; sometimes I play a bit of guitar for her. I went up to Broome last year… Barunga… Darwin… The top end and the dry, it’s like another world; it’s another country… but this feels great. There’s always a possibility in the tropics. Whether you actually get anything done or just end up sitting around eating and drinking; that’s the question I’m often asking myself.
Simon: Are you someone who can write on the road?
Dan: Not really. I can’t quite figure out whether I’m lazy or whether I need to grow some stories in my brain…
Simon: I feel like Emma [Russack] was saying the same thing; having to go home to take stock a little bit.
Simon: Well, a lot of your songs are pretty character driven… I think my favourite one [off the new record], at least melodically - I think you called it “the dumbest song [you’ve] ever written” when I saw you at NGV - ‘Gold Coast Man’.
Dan: I love it, thank you.
Simon: I’m a big Gold Coast Man fan - fantastic song. I was wondering when I was listening to it - do the characters in your songs have lives outside of the songs? Do you fill in the backstory before you approach it or is it just whatever comes out?
Dan: That one is a pretty silly short story. I mean, you flesh out the characters… You’ve only got four minutes so it’s like a little short story and it’s not like I go into this sorta Carveresque detail. It’s just whatever drives the story along, I suppose. Some characters… I had a song called ‘Pregnant Conversation’ and then that sorta turned into a song called ‘Baby Bonus’ years later. Even though it sorta wasn’t the same characters, but it sorta was. And they’re all sorta me as well, but they’re not. y’know? I put in my own stories into these other people’s stories because I don’t always want to sing about me all the time. It’s more boring if you just sing about you… I’d be lying to say I had this incredible life that the characters had, you know what I mean? But you can use the men and the women to either represent your relationships, or represent the feminine or the masculine in you. You can play with that shit… [you can] sing as a woman. It just give you more to work with rather than being this sort-of confessional songwriter, singing about relationships. Though I do sing about relationships a lot, but they’re part of a story.
Simon: I feel like some of the songs of yours that resonate with me emotionally - I don’t know why they do sometimes when I think about it logically. Like, a song like ‘Gap Year Blues’, which is such a beautiful song, but it’s also quite psychedelic when you think about “jetpack” and “moths in pashminas” and things like that. I think “this song means a lot to me, but I can’t decipher what it is about it”.
Dan: It’s interesting because… That’s a classic mashup of where my sister was in London, and there were something about her talking about going over for a “gap year”, and she just stayed; she met a dude and got married. I was thinking about that idea of when someone leaves… I was dating a girl in London as well, and we had a year where we tried to make it work from Melbourne to London, which didn’t work. Skype isn’t good for that stuff. But then I mashed it… you know, my ex-girlfriend, my great muse Amanda Roff who plays in Harmony and…
Simon: …Time For Dreams…
Dan: …Time For Dreams. When I first met her, she came in to clean the rehearsal room at Bakehouse [Studios] and they had a vacuum that you had on your back, and it looked like a jet pack… and so, it’s a mixture of my old relationship, my sister leaving her boyfriend to move overseas, a girl that I was seeing overseas, and just general feelings about… y’know… that stuff…
Simon: And it’s a credit to you that stuff translates, as some of those things are maybe a bit obtuse unless you told me that story about the jetpack… but that emotion comes through somehow?
Dan: That stuff shouldn’t have to necessarily all tie up. If it does, it does, but that’s the thing. If you can get a feeling across. And that’s probably one of my less gag-heavy songs. It’s just kind of a feeling that I wrote some words to. I probably should do that more. (laughs) But yeah, I gotta write some new songs.
Simon: I remember going to see you at Howler, maybe a year before Leisure Panic came out, and you were playing a lot of songs off that album then, ‘On The Run’ and things like that. What’s the process in putting together a record for you? It seemed like a while between writing… the songs were quite fully formed, but the record didn’t come out for a while.
Dan: Yeah, so, at that point, we’d gone in and pretty well recorded most of the songs - the band ones - but none of them had been mixed, and some of the lyrics weren’t written. That was the year before Leisure Panic came out. I spent the summer mixing it with Aaron. That gig was a single launch in September… the record was mixed by January, but nobody wanted to put it out. I spent about four months trying to find someone to put it out. I didn’t really want to put it out myself, because I’m not that good at…
Simon: …yeah, you don’t want to have to do that…
Dan: Eventually the ABC were interested, which was great. And then when you’re signed to a record label, you put in a three-to-five month plan in putting it out, because if you just dump it the next day it doesn’t really have any impact. So, a lot of the process after that show was getting the album out. If you’ve got something in place, say, someone like The Ocean Party who are on Spunk, with four guys who write songs, and they record their shit really quickly, and the record company is ready to go you can start pounding them out… but because I was in this period where I didn’t have a deal, I had to do all those things before the record came out. But, y’know, I was glad because… I wasn’t that happy with the record before it was finished, but that’s always the way with me. Sometimes they can come out a bit overthought and a bit overworked, and other times I think the waiting was worth it, you know what I mean? Because I had made a record, and I just thought it was a bit shit. It just wasn’t quite there. I mean, it was fine, it just wasn’t quite there, and that’s always the way for me - same thing happened with Dan Kelly’s Dream. I did it with Burke Reid, it wasn’t quite right. Went to London, finished it with Aaron… I don’t know what it is. There’s something [with me] that all of the sudden I go “Right, it’s done”… but by that stage, everybody is pulling out their hair. Managers who I’ve had before are like “Arghh, send me a demo…” and it’s like “I’m not going to send it to you until it’s finished” and that just drives people fucking spare because they don’t know what they’re working with… but it just seems to be what I do.
Simon: So, you’re on the road with Alex Gow - I guess you’re somewhat unique in that you learn a lot of other people’s songs…
Dan: As a guitar player, yeah… it’s something I do…
Simon: Is this the first time that you’ve had to explain your songs to someone who wasn’t in, say, The Dream Band or The Alpha Males?
Dan: Yeah! It’s been quite interesting… he knew the old songs pretty well. We don’t play on all of each other’s songs, but it’s a fair amount of time we’re on stage together… and I’m used to solo being quite loose. I’ll often just stop and talk… very much influenced by people like Jonathan Richman and Kev Carmody who’d talk… play… stop… talk… it’s like a big yarn. That’s a bit difficult for him [Alex] to be able to lock into that… When I do it solo I can get my cousins Maddy and Em to do it; they don’t play, they just sing and dance, and they’re pretty cued into what I do now. They know where I’m just going to go off on a tangent and they’re fine. But it’s working with Alex, and to his credit, he’s worked quite hard to sort-of slot in. It’s probably a bit easier for my to play on his stuff because it’s a bit more codified, what he’s going to do. I’ve tried to get him on songs that are not too confusing, where I’m probably not going to put the guitar down and just dance…
Simon: Jonathan Richman style.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. He’s much more natural at coming up with a lyric or a melody. He’s the sort of guy that if you did a songwriting workshop with, he could drive the process really quickly. Where as my stuff… I’ve almost deliberately kept it almost hidden to me. Most of the songs that I do know I can’t remember how the fuck I’ve did them.
Simon: I think those can be the best songs.
Dan: Yeah, so I think that’s interesting. So he’s a much more focused kind of guy. I mean, it’s not like I’m not focused, but I’ve tried to maintain some kind of mystery in the process… and not necessarily to my benefit… (laughs)… because I couldn’t go in and make a record tomorrow….
Dan: But, y’know what’s the fucking hurry? How many records are coming out every day? The world’s dying… Like, fuck… I’m just going to put them out when I put them out… But I know that financially… I’m painting myself into a corner here. (laughs)
Simon: Well, whenever it happens, I’m really looking forward to it.
Dan: Thank you.
Bonus bratty blog review for Dan Kelly's Dream that I wrote in 2010 and subsequently got quite embarrassed after finding out he had read it.
There was a time in my life that I probably listened to no Australian music, because, well, a lot of Australian music is utter crap (not that other countries don't produce crap music, it either just doesn't make it out of the country or ends up of MMMwhere nobody listens to it anyway). The few instances that I did listen to Australian music, it was always the type of music that didn't sound particularly Australian (I think my first favourite Australian band after my Skyhooks obsession at age 4 was probably Rocket Science). To my teenage ears, the problem was that most Australian recordings sounded pretty awful (the same way that some Australian films tend look dull and have this absence of vibrance in the colours of the picture that's feels uninspiring), and bands from overseas just sounded better and more interesting. There was one instance on my first day of Year 7 in a new school where I was asked if I listened to Triple J (I had never heard of it) to which I replied that I listened to "gangsta rap like N.W.A." (for which I was ridiculed until they all got into rap in Year 10, after which it reverted back just to fat jokes). I turned on JJJ one night for a half hour, ended up buying Regurgitator's Unit and chucked out the rest.
Anyway, as you would have realised from the last post, there are more and more Australian bands that I'm growing to love; The Drones being one of the more recent bands that can stand tall against the bombast of the best internationals while sounding distinctly Australian, as well as Eddy Current being one of the best things ever who never even think about apologising about where they're from or who they are. And, yeah, the new Dan Kelly album.
I wasn't really a massive fan of Dan up until this point; a few live performances with the Alpha Males and an enjoyable yet largely uninspiring slot with The Ukelaides at Meredith didn't really make me want to rush out and grab anything (and in addition, the "Drowning In The Fountain Of Youth" came out when I was toiling away in a Country Road stockroom, and it's twee-as-fuck bubbliness in contrast to my no-natural-light box of pain made me want to murder, but anyway...). After seeing a pretty great set with The Dream Band at the "last ever" Tote show started to change my mind ever so slightly, and then I found a copy of Dan Kelly's Dream on the coffee table on Saturday morning.
Why this album is not shit:
It sounds amazing. As in, it doesn't sound like shit that was made in a day on a shoestring budget. The mix is great. The instrumentation is really lush and bold. Whoever mastered it did a great job. The instruments all sit in the right spot, or pop out at the right moment. It's not a boring listen.
It's inviting. The lyrics can sound a bit obtuse or sometimes self-aware, but it in contrast to something like, say, Beach House (which tends to evoke similar warm, often aquatic feelings), it feels a lot more welcoming and personable and just plain fun. It's cool, but it doesn't feel too exclusive.
It flows. The song order is spot on, and it flows in a way that works so well; yes, it's very, er, dream-like in the way that it runs, with a lot of the songs segueing into each one another. Often this can lead to skippable filler or drone that, well, drones on for too long, and often means that some songs feel incomplete outside the context of the album due to an abrupt start and end. Not here.
The songs are great. The songs are great.
And there's more reasons, but you'll figure that out when you hear the album. I'm really enjoying it, and it's been one of the few experiences (along with the first time I watched Office Space) where I felt like putting it straight back after the first time round and actually did.
Kudos, Dan Kelly.