Byron Bay’s Charlie Keller threw caution to the wind last year and took himself on a three-month tour of the US. A finalist in the 2012 MusicOz singer/songwriter awards, Keller admits to being heavily influenced by the two great Pauls of contemporary music: Simon and Kelly. Seven caught up with this musical troubadour on the eve of his gig at Frankie Brown in Byron Bay.
Tell me what it is about the music of Paul Simon and Paul Kelly that influences your songwriting? I’ve always loved their music. It just seems so easy to listen to – even when the arrangements are complex, they seem simple, unforced and fluid. Their songs feel right, like they’ve always existed. I think they understand that the song is the master, not the artist – the song tells them what to do, not the other way round, which I think lends to their diversity.
Lyrically, they know how to draw you into their stories, almost to a point where you feel like you’re acting them out. And that, I think, is the point of songwriting: to evoke empathy for the characters in your story, to evoke an emotional response.
How do you actually go about writing a song? By trying to do as little as possible! I used to try to sit down and write a song, dedicate time and all the discipline stuff, but I gradually noticed that they were rubbish, and all of my best songs came quickly, in a flash, and they’d be written within 30 minutes. They usually come to me at the point when I’m just falling asleep, almost fully formed, with verse, chorus, harmonies. All I’ve gotta do is lie there and listen to the song, and try to make sure that I didn’t hear it on the radio or pub the night before! Then I wake myself up and grab a pen.
So I’m getting better at relaxing with my songwriting, and waiting for the good ones.
How do you progress as a songwriter – making the journey from mediocre to extraordinary? I have no idea! That’s what I’m hoping to find out. I was talking to a fella, forgotten his name, on my recent trip to the States, who wrote some huge songs for The Doors and John Denver, and he was saying the trick to writing a great song is to have everything on your back, and be able to leave wherever you are at a moment’s notice. You need to live on a whim – in the realm of the unknown – then those great songs just sometimes turn up. But I’m no expert on the subject.
What do you think are your songwriting strengths? I think I’ve got a pretty good knack for coming up with a good melody – those tunes you feel you’ve heard before. And I think my songs have some kind of unique element to them; a twist to the norm. I want to keep exploring and refining that twist.
What are your challenges? Finding that patience to wait for a great song – trying not to force it. When you think writing a good song is a hard process, it will be hard, but if you realise that it’s easy and natural, then it becomes that way.
Have you always felt music was your bag? When did you know? Not at all! I’ve certainly never been a great instrumentalist by any means, despite playing guitar and sax for years. And I’ve had to work hard with my voice. But I found I could write some songs when I was about 21, in a Costa Rican jungle where I was camping. I was falling asleep, and this fully formed song that I’d never heard before was going around in my head. Since then they’ve mostly come that way. The focus has been on sharing those songs with others, so I’ve needed to work on my guitaring and voice a hell of a lot to do that.
What do you believe is the essence of a good story? I think William Faulkner said: ‘The conflict of the human heart is the only thing worth writing about’. I tend to find myself writing in this vein recently. I mean, a good love song is a battle between the head and the heart, isn’t it? But I think also the character makes the story. So embodying those people (or insects, as the case may be in some of my songs) as much as possible, and letting them tell the story, is the key.
Do you find yourself looking for stories? Or uncovering narrative? Tell me one that has caught your attention recently? I try to observe what I can around me, reserve judgment, and see or imagine where these people or things have journeyed to arrive at where they are. It almost gets a bit too annoying for me at times to constantly observe and question! You know, walking down the street each day you’re asking ‘What’s his story?’, ‘What’s her story?’, ‘Why is that boy wearing red makeup?’ It can get a bit much.
You became a finalist in the Music Oz singer/songwriter awards with a song called The Girl From Kosovo – it was about the issue of asylum seekers. What were the messages you were trying to convey in that song? Is it something you feel strongly about? I once saw this turbaned Sikh standing by the side of the road waiting for a bus, and a car filled to the brim with hoons flew by, yelling racial abuse. Looking at the Sikh, my heart melted – he didn’t look angry, just cut to the bone and completely powerless to do anything. Then I read this firsthand account of an asylum-seeker from Kosovo, about her journey through the detention centres and her struggle to fit into and be accepted by Australian people, and I recognised that same alienation and powerlessness. It is her story that I wrote about. That song appeared on paper within 40 minutes – it just came so effortlessly. That’s what I mean about the good, important songs. It’s almost like they’re waiting to be written.
I’ve performed that song a couple of times at the Pinkenba detention centre in Brizzy and find it seems to strike a chord with people in that same plight, and I’m recording it with local legend Gyan. That should be out early next year.
How was USA for you? Did it change the way you play at all? Did you find more stories? Yeah, it did influence me for sure. I find the US tends to always have an insistent beat pushing the song, where Australian and European music tends to emphasise a lot more space in the song. I found myself playing with a bit more of a beat to some of my music, using a stompbox made out of an encyclopaedia, and a tambourine on the other foot. And the blues! I never really realised how fun that is to play. I really started to explore the old guys like Robert Johnson and Skip James – the founding fathers. Amazing music.
What should we expect for your local show? Stories. And a bit of give and take between the audience and myself! Music is about relating and sharing, not about just getting up and showing off. So bring your heckle… good heckle, that is.
Charlie Keller at Frankie Brown Cafe in Byron on Tuesday.
Find this and many other great gigs in Echonetdaily’s North Coast Gig Guide.