Paul Kelly's back in town. I meet him at a King's Cross hotel where his daughter, Madeleine, is turning her slice of cheese into a jigsaw puzzle that makes sense only to her.
On his new album, Deeper Water, Kelly has named a song after her. The chorus? "Madeleine - you never let me sleep." Fathers everywhere will empathise.
While the four-year-old tugs persistently at his hand, Kelly's two-year-old daughter, Memphis, is in another room recovering from carpet burns to the face after she dived off a hotel lounge headfirst onto the floor.
Actor Kaarin Fairfax is, meanwhile, seeing an old friend, the portrait photographer Wendy McDougall, out the door. Kelly met Fairfax in 1988 when she starred in Sam Shepard's Lie Of The Mind. "We were just hanging at the bar," Kelly recalls, throwing the memory to Fairfax like an old joke.
The pair married in 1993. With two young children and stretches of time in Los Angeles - where Kelly has been based kick-starting an American career - Kaarin Fairfax hasn't had much time for acting. That's changing now the family is back in Australia.
"I did Correlli," Fairfax says, acting tough, pushing words out the side of her mouth, "playing a criminal's goil-friend."
At the centre of all this, Paul Kelly just hangs back quietly. Despite the hyperactivity, it's clear his family life protects him - that Kelly pulls it around him like a warm blanket. Seeing him on the couch with Madeleine when I arrive, he's oddly calm, oddly vulnerable.
As he will say later, when discussing his returns to Australia after overseas jaunts: "I like to come home. It's OK here."
Kelly's manager, Rob Barnham, starts ticking off the day's media itinerary with Kelly. I'm tagging along for the afternoon to get a closer look at one of Australia's favourite songmen.
Late last year Kelly toured Europe and America and he's playing at home this month. In typical Kelly fashion, the songs from Deeper Water have become part of our lives.
"That's why you write songs," Kelly says, as if it's nothing special and certainly obvious. "You want them to be in people's lives."
With the Helen Demidenko/Darville controversy still percolating, Kelly's eager to say The Hand That Signed The Paper “is good writing. But all the Jews in the book are communists. So it's bad history." It's a crucial distinction for Kelly, whose poet of the common man credentials are built on both good writing and accuracy - whether it be something as subtly textured and local as allusions to "a Silvertop" taxi (‘To Her Door’) or Randwick bells (‘Randwick Bells’), or a turning point in the history of the land rights movement (‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’).
"I've always liked concrete writing with pictures and details," says Kelly with relish. "Chuck Berry was a great example of that. I'm very conscious of it. I wanted to map where I came from the way Chuck Berry mapped out America."
Dressed in a brown bomber jacket with a blue T-shirt and jeans, Kelly's hair is close and short. I'm sure he has dressed this way for ages, rock 'n' roll basic, nothing too flash. As he says of writing: "Simple is always best."
But the 40-year-old seems slimmer than a year ago, somehow sharper than the sated, middle-aged bloke who last toured. Wanted Man, from 1994, was a critical low point for Kelly. Despite some great live shows, the album sounded like a songwriter falling off the face of American FM rock with a dull thud. Was the guy losing his touch, or getting soft because of family life and success?
Ask Kelly about Wanted Man's artistic failure, ask him about Deeper Water and its profound return to form - his best form ever - ask him if he sees Deeper Water as more coherent, more feeling on every front, and he just shrugs his shoulders.
"My friends like this record better," he finally admits, under pressure. "It's more of a band record I think." Then he laughs. "All my records feel like they're scraped together. Deeper Water is just what I did this year."
Rather than shy or aloof, Kelly's just a quiet guy. Stillness is one of his most potent qualities. It makes him easy company. Strong company, too.
Back when he was the socket-eyed, leather jacketed poet of the early '80s Melbourne music scene with his band The Dots, that stillness simmered with self-destructiveness.
Listen to Post, his stark account of heroin use, inner-city relationships and people dying, hear ‘From St Kilda To Kings Cross’, and you'll get something of the world he left behind when he came to Sydney to live for a few years.
Kelly prefaced his book of lyrics, (called Lyrics) with a quote from Chekov: "I don't have what you would call a philosophy or coherent world view, so I shall limit myself to describing how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die and speak."
On Deeper Water parenthood is Kelly's dominating theme. But Kelly's propensity for mawkishness is absent, and his spare eye never lets the colloquial slide into cliché. Deeper Water's take on family, growing older and love also has a dark edge to it, something in the territory around the songs, that gives the album an unusual intensity and warmth.
Kelly weighs up what I'm trying to say with that observation, weighs it quite considerably.
"I have a pretty good life now," he finally sighs. "But it ... feels like it's endangered. Or precious, or fragile - maybe that's what I'm trying to say. Maybe it's to do with having children or something but, as a parent, you have to be prepared for disaster."
He starts to talk about his song ‘Gathering Storm’. "It sounds like someone waiting for a lover. What was at the back of my mind when I wrote it was a parent worrying about a child. And how there's so much ... a lot of danger."
If Kelly deals with parenthood and the powerfully related theme of mortality in songs like ‘Deeper Water’ and ‘Gathering Storm’, he also deals with sex with unusual rawness and heart. His song ‘Blush’ exalts to the summer beach lyric: "When we kiss she tastes so salty/On her cheek and her neck/I can't wait till I get with her/So I can kiss her salty breasts."
"It's really hard to write about good sex or write straightforwardly about sex without being banal about it," he says. Citing Motown music, Kelly adds "the great thing about a lot of soul music is that they wrote about sex and joy really well. Whereas the singer-songwriter tradition is about things that went wrong, the complications and the unrequited."
He shakes his head. "When I was last in America I was listening to modern r'n'b, urban radio. They played rap, hip-hop and they'll have balladry, but horrible songs all about sex and "doing it', and always the singers doing vocal gymnastics that are very explicit and ... well, just horrible."
At Soundcom, an organisation responsible for Ansett's in-flight music as well as in-store sounds for the likes of Just Jeans and Woolworths, Kelly's asked to play a couple of songs, and it turns into a free concert for the staff, who file in smiling, waiting nervously for him to begin. The intimacy in the small conference room between Kelly's performance and this audience of 20 is absurdly reverent and close.
He chooses ‘Blush’, then ‘Queen Stone’, a thinly disguised paean to heroin, the dark muse, written by his old guitarist Maurice Frawley. Then he follows with ‘Difficult Woman’, which he wrote for Renee Geyer - "I got my hands full with a difficult woman."
Overall it's a sweet, gently intense effort. Everybody claps, absolutely beams appreciation. The love is palpable. Kelly puts his guitar down, embarrassed. "If I'd known you were all coming I'd have practised more."
Outside, in the daylight, Kelly says the experience was "a bit strange". He seems quite rattled, then he laughs. "During the last song I suddenly got a flash of one of those Elvis Presley movies." I tell him about a saying I heard at a party a few months ago. "Scratch an Adelaide person, find an Elvis." Kelly snorts, keeps laughing to himself, then finally says between fits of chuckling: "I'm from Adelaide, you know."
- Mark Mordue
* Story first published as ‘Poet of the Common Man’ in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro, January 12, 1996.