His smirk betrays delight at the surreal prospect. Thirty years ago, at Oakhills Catholic boys’ college in Sydney’s west, he was inscribing the hallowed name of Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls on his year 11 school diary.
Today the two friends are drinking tea in the amply glazed back room of Kelly’s house in Melbourne’s St Kilda. Under the painter’s elbow sits the songwriter’s new book, Love Is Strong As Death: a lovingly curated tome of poetry spanning centuries; its title adapted from the Song of Solomon.
It’s one of many Kelly projects on the go. This year’s ARIA judges have nominated his Nature album in the Best Adult Contemporary category and Live at the Sydney Opera House for Best Blues & Roots Album. Thirteen Ways to Look At Birds, his second with composer James Ledger, won Best Classical Album.
There’s a third update of his hits, Songs from the South, due in December, just as he kicks off his customary all-star Making Gravy Christmas tour. Later today, he’s off to sing an Archie Roach song on Courtney Barnett’s MTV Unplugged special.
Nor has Quilty been laying low. The celebrated Southern Highlands artist’s career survey that opened in Adelaide last March has since shifted to Brisbane and now Sydney. Last week’s Art Gallery of NSW opening precedes Quilty: Painting the Shadows, a documentary by Catherine Hunter with a bespoke soundtrack by Amanda Brown and Damien Lane.
Highwater high-jinx aside, the pair’s first recorded intersection is the 2018 portrait Quilty painted of Kelly for a Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy foundation fundraiser.
“What I like about Ben’s work is there is a restlessness to it and it’s always exploring,” Kelly says. On the river, “he was always sketching. That’s the thing you notice with Ben. We’d stop and after we’d done what we needed to do to set up and get cooking and stuff he’d be sketching”.
“Anything to get out of washing up,” Quilty says. But Kelly recognises the creative imperative at the heart of the daily tinker.
“That’s what I do, too. I’ve gotta keep playing my guitar otherwise my fingers get soft … It’s not always every day but I’ve got to make sure that I play something. Most of the time it’s just playing around with ideas or chords or playing other people’s songs.”
Quilty sees a parallel there, too. “I went to the Louvre with Kylie [Needham], my partner, the first time she took me to Paris and I spent days drawing in that museum, just drawing and looking and trying to look at construction and learning how to put a painting together, which I guess is the same as listening to music: being inspired to wonder, ‘How did that happen?'”
“You learn by studying other people,” says Kelly. “You learn, in a way, through worship, through stuff that you really love. You just wanna learn those songs. You learn the mechanics of it. A song you think might be simple, once you go to learn it you find these inner workings.”
You learn, in a way, through worship, through stuff that you really love.
Take Neil Finn’s songs. “The melodies sound like they just came straight from heaven. Then you go and work out the songs and there’s half a bar here and a slightly shorter chorus there and … it’s like going inside the mechanism of a clock when you start studying other peoples’ songs.”
The word “worship” strikes a chord. Both former Catholic school boys, they share a laugh at the implications. But for Quilty, the idea of devotion has as much to to do with the names he etched on his school diary – Hoodoo Gurus, Icehouse and Jimmy Barnes were there, too – as Michelangelo’s image of Adam reaching out to the almighty on the cover of Kelly’s book.
“I was definitely a fan; listening a lot,” he says of his formative years as an artist. “And I think that’s all part of the act of worship. You try to eat up everything you can to pull out an essence that you can then use to tell your own story.
“And it’s Australian. I mean I’ve always been interested in this identity idea: who we actually are. And I think I’ve followed PK’s lead, in particular in terms of indigenous Australia.”
Known, ironically, as a man of few words, the writer doesn’t rush to concur.
“To me it’s not been consciously Australian. I’m obviously drawn to storytelling songwriters. I probably don’t even know why, but I’m drawn to cinematic songwriters.” The ones he mentions are quintessentially American and English. “Chuck Berry. Lou Reed. Ray Davies. Waterloo Sunset or Waiting For My Man: they’re very visual songs so I probably was influenced by those more.”
There’s another name on Quilty’s worship list. “Didn’t you live with Don Walker in Sydney?” Kelly confirms the tangled family connection with the Cold Chisel songwriter and the typically terse encouragement that sustained him. “Keep writing,” Walker told him.
“That was the best advice I could’ve had. So I did. By that time [the early 1980s], I had nowhere else to go. Unless it was back to dishwashing.”
“Were you a kitchenhand?”
“Unskilled labouring, brickie’s labourer …”
Quilty feels his pain. “I worked in a seafood restaurant and they never finished the seafood platters so I was like -” he mimes a ravenous scoffing. “If they caught me they’d get mad but f—in’ hell, it was gonna go in the bin! I was starving.”
“What started you painting in the first place?” Kelly wants to know.
“My Mum. My Mum always drew and she ended up studying philosophy at university while her sons finished high school and she had books. Rodin and fabulous old books about these things that weren’t open to kids growing up in that part of Sydney. Definitely not. I mean, we’d never met an artist. So then to say you wanted to go to art school it was like – ‘What?'”
Kelly remembers a weirdly converse exchange with his mother. He’d only done a few months at Flinders Uni in 1973 (“that was the year I was born,” Quilty chuckles) when he faced the ominous task of telling her he was done. He did want to be a writer but he couldn’t worship someone else’s syllabus.
Love Is Strong As Death is explicitly not that. Its 350-odd poems veer madly from Christ’s sermon on the mount via Shakespeare, Rumi, Keats and Plath to the Uluru Statement From the Heart. Arranged alphabetically by title or first line, as opposed to the “textbooky” implications of grouping poets or themes, it’s more an invitation to free play than anything more instructive.
“I like to point towards things, I guess,” Kelly says. “I realised that when I wrote How To Make Gravy [his memoir of 2011]. How do you write a memoir without it being all ‘I, I, I’? The best way to reveal yourself is to talk about the things you love. I think the poetry book is the same. Even more so. There’s very little of me in there except the intro but then, there’s all of me in there because it’s the poems that I’ve chosen.”
The intro acknowledges the forbidding aura that poetry can spin: “obscure, full of insider information and private symbolism”. Kelly often cites W H Auden among his favourites “but 90 per cent of his poetry doesn’t speak to me” he says. “Same with Keats. There’s pages and pages of, like, flowery dells, then bang – there’s Ode to a Nightingale or Ode to Melancholy or Bright Star.
“You could say that about [Sidney] Nolan,” Quilty says. “Thirty thousand paintings but the best are just otherworldly. There’s a whole body of work which is really just about finding that high note.”
Is the painter aware that his field can suffer from similar apprehensions of impenetrability? “It shouldn’t be like that. If I’m involved in museums or galleries, I feel like my children need to understand it or else it’s not doing its job.
“But saying that, there’s a place for really esoteric music and art. There has to be because people really want to extend themselves in those directions and I think people deserve to have the opportunity to go to those otherworldly, magical places that are really hard to understand without study. But I think most artists, if they’re doing the job right, can talk to the broadest audience.”
I feel that sense of injustice is a very powerful thing to investigate making something about.
Kelly has to go. There’s a man patiently waiting in another room to “talk about a guitar”. Quilty has to visit his gallerist in Exhibition Street. As duties beckon, neither seems especially keen on conclusions about higher purpose. Was the act of “pointing” on Quilty’s mind, for example, when he agreed to be our official war artist in Afghanistan in 2011?
“I was just going to experience something that I didn’t understand,” he says, then he defers to Kelly. “There’s a deep vein through his work of standing up for injustice, almost making work about things that you dislike. Don’t you think, PK? You know, when you make a work and it’s a call to arms, or that’s about your anger with the world?”
Kelly’s silence rings for a moment. “Yeah. But again, the starting place for me is the story. From Little Things Big Things Grow, for me, that started with an image first, of Gough Whitlam pouring dirt into [Vincent Lingiari’s] hands.
“I very rarely sit down and think, ‘I need to write a song about this because this is unjust’. That’s not my way into a song. I know some songwriters can do that. Midnight Oil can do that. But I’m not like that. It has to come from another spark.”
“I go to the studio in the morning,” Quilty says, “and often there’s nothing there and you’ve got to find a way into it. But quite often I feel that sense of injustice is a very powerful thing to investigate making something about.
“But when I think about what PK said about worship, that’s the grandest thing, really. That’s bigger than you.”
Kelly nods. “Worship is a way of disappearing.”
Love Is Strong As Death: Poems Chosen by Paul Kelly will be released by Penguin Random House this week. Paul Kelly’s Songs From The South 1985-2019 is out now on EMI. His Making Gravy tour will play The Domain on December 14.
The documentary Quilty: Painting the Shadows screens on ABC TV on Tuesday (Nov 19). Ben Quilty’s first major survey exhibition, Quilty, is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales now.
Michael Dwyer is the Financial Review’s foreign editor.