If you mention to most songwriters that their compositions seem to borrow heavily from other songs, they are likely to bristle, deny it and maybe hurl an insult--or a beer bottle--at you.
Not Paul Kelly. The Australian cheerfully admits that he often appropriates pieces of old songs in creating his new ones. It's a process he calls quotation.
"Songs come from other songs a lot of the time," said the singer-songwriter, who opens for Crowded House with his band the Messengers (a. k. a. the Coloured Girls in Australia) tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre and Saturday and Sunday at the Wiltern Theatre.
"Quotation's one way of trying to write a song. The interesting thing to do is try and maybe rewrite someone else's song--either take the idea of the lyrics and write another version, or do that with the musical style."
So just what do we have here--plunder Down Under?
Not exactly. The more you learn about Kelly and the way he operates, the more apt you'd be to dismiss charges of pop plagiarism.
For one thing, it's not as if the wiry musician sits around thinking of songs--or parts of songs--he can swipe. "(Quotation) is not really something that happens that consciously. It's more of a subconscious thing," Kelly said, sitting in the projection room at A&M Records' Hollywood lot.
"The writing is subconscious. Then the evaluation comes after you've written it. You can take a look at it and say, 'Ah, this comes from there and that comes from there,' and then you decide whether it's too much like another song."
For another thing, Kelly documented his influences and sources in a sort of musical bibliography he wrote for his latest LP--and American debut--"Gossip."
It includes such entries as "Van Dyke Parks' 'Clang of the Yankee Reaper' provides part of the melody . . . Stole first line from Elvis . . . Bob Dylan and Howling Wolf share honors on middle eight."
Culled from an Australian double album that was greeted by reviews favorably comparing Kelly to the likes of Costello, Dylan and Springsteen, "Gossip" boasts 15 tracks that scoot across all kinds of musical and lyric territory.
At one point, he sings, "But I fell in love with whispers / And I turned them into songs," which not only is a nice pair of lines, but pretty well reflects his songwriting sensibility. He composes the musical equivalents of "small films." Whispers are far more likely to become Paul Kelly songs than are screams or shrill, sweeping complaints.
"There are certain types of songs I don't like to write--slogan-type songs, or songs about big issues," he said. "I'd rather write about little things . . . than international things."
When he says little, he hardly means trivial. Much of "Gossip" addresses loss: losing a loved one to death, drugs or the disintegration of a relationship. Not that this is music to get depressed by. Although there are some mournful melodies, far more typical are sad lyrics married to cheerful, upbeat music.
"Yeah, that's definitely something I like to do--I like that counterpoint," Kelly, 32, said. "To write a sad song and to do it slow or in minor keys can be laying it on too thick.
"I like to play things against each other. . . . The other reason I write songs like that is from being in a band and playing a lot in Australia; playing in hotels where people are drinking and talking and dancing. You sort of write dance music. . . . It's something that was a matter of survival."
And there's no question that Kelly is a survivor. The fact that he emerged with the superb "Gossip" seems as much a product of his having been around the block a few times as his keen songwriting talents.
About a decade ago, he assembled his first band, the High Rise Bombers, which apparently didn't get too far off the ground. He then formed the Dots, which released a handful of records in the late '70s and early '80s. Later, Kelly recorded an album titled "Post," backed by guitarist Steve Connoly, drummer Michael Barclay and keyboardist Peter Bull.
Some reworked "Post" tunes ended up on "Gossip," as did those musicians, who along with bassist Jon Schofield are now the Messengers.
In Australia, the band has been--and still is--called the Coloured Girls. The name change came from a feeling that "Coloured Girls" is OK in Perth but wouldn't play in Peoria, so to speak. In true Paul Kelly form, that name is yet another instance of quotation.
"There's a song 'Adelaide' that has a part a bit like Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side' where he sings 'And the colored girls go'--and we were called the Coloured Girls from that."