Paul Kelly on William Shakespeare: 'He's my favourite writer by a long streak'

As the Australian troubadour interprets the Bard’s famed sonnets, he discusses how their peculiarly specific structure makes them ideal pop music fodder

It’s a heavy thing to lug around, but over his 30-year career the musician Paul Kelly has kept his three volumes of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, weighing 20kg, close by.

“He’s my favourite writer by a long streak,” says Kelly, one of Australia’s most literate of songwriters, who has drawn on writers such as Raymond Carver in his own work.

“In high school we studied Macbeth and it grabbed my attention straight away. It’s a good play for teenagers: death, blood, sex and betrayal, a lot of it set at night. It’s a world of extremes.”

As the world marks 400 years since Shakespeare died, Kelly has recorded a mini-album interpreting the playwright’s sonnets.

Seven Sonnets & A Song features him singing lead vocals on six of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a song from Twelfth Night. As is Kelly’s style, he has invited collaborators along for the ride, including the soul singer Vika Bull. She sings the only non-Shakespearean piece – a gorgeous ballad My True Love Hath My Heart, written by the Shakespeare contemporary Sir Philip Sidney.

It’s Kelly’s 21st studio release, and goes on sale from Saturday, on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Paul Kelly’s Seven Sonnets & A Song.
Paul Kelly’s Seven Sonnets & A Song. Photograph: Helga Leunig

After that first taste of Shakespeare, Kelly went to see another school’s production of Hamlet. “That rocked my head,” he recalls, speaking to Guardian Australia from his Melbourne home.

“Reading his plays, you can feel the excitement of the language and the invention. That time in the English language was a fertile time. There was not only Shakespeare but so many other writers and they felt free to coin words here and there.”

Kelly asks if I’d known that “aggravate” was a word made up by Shakespeare. “So many of his phrases are still in our language.”

He was drawn to Shakespeare’s dramas – Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Richard II and III – more than his comedies.

Kelly dived into the sonnets later. “The sonnets are daunting. There are 154 of them and the language is even more compressed, and syntax is even more compressed. Some are knottier and more dense than others.”

And each time he read them, the meaning would change.

Kelly found his best guide through the sonnets was an interpretation by the Scottish poet and author Don Paterson. “Every sonnet was laid out with his comments on each one – he was very funny, irreverent and knowledgeable.

“I didn’t start reading any sonnets until my 20s and then not even the whole cycle … it’s probably only about six years ago that I read through all the sonnets,” he says.

The sonnets work naturally as lyrics, he explains. “While some of [the sonnets] never suggested music to me, when they do suggest music, they are a natural song form.”

A sonnet has “a lot of parallels with the modern pop song”. It has a song meter (10 syllables per line), is 14 lines long and these lines rhyme. There is also an unwritten rule that sonnets should “turn” – provide a different point of view or something shifts in what is being said – not unlike a bridge in a song. Sonnets also end with a couplet that Kelly says can focus as a chorus.

Kelly started composing the album with Sonnet 18 (which famously opens with: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) two years ago. “I thought I’d try and sing a tune to it and it sounded folky and blue-grassy. I asked a friend of mine to sing on it. That was the first. Then I became aware of the 400th anniversary of his death and decided to write a few more and make a little record.”

Rufus Wainwright had the same idea as Kelly, and has also released an album of sonnets on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. “He’s chosen nine sonnets that are different to mine,” says Kelly. “He has a much more arty approach … there is a lot of classical and spoken word on his album.”

Kelly’s approach is, well, very Paul Kelly: full of collaborations, alternating between tender crooning and something harder, and that voice, so uniquely Australian, that has turned Shakespeare into something of our own.

  • Seven Sonnets & A Song is out from midnight 22 April. Paul Kelly performs at Sydney’s State Library of NSW and Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre on 23 April and at Sydney Writers’ festival on 16 May


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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