Taking his stories of growing up in inner-city working-class Sydney to the stage, Perry Keyes is a Redfern boy from the time before it was trendy.
His evocative songwriting captures time and place as effortlessly as a smooth-cornered orange-toned Kodak print, telling the story of Redfern how it used to be.
Perry reminisced back to his first guitar, laughing at the irony of the cliche. ‘It’s always how guitarists say they got their guitar!’
‘I would have been about 14 when I got a guitar from a pawn shop. It was a present from my grandmother – it’s archetypal, but it’s pretty much exactly what happened.
‘I learnt how to play it a bit and started making up songs and started to get good enough to get into bands; that didn’t happen. So I put my own bands together and started playing around the inner city of Sydney.’
Starting out Keyes mimicked what he loved. He wrote songs about trying to meet girls in secondhand versions of The Velvet Underground, or Elton John.
‘You start off mimicking all the stuff you like,’ says Keyes. ‘I was pretty eclectic as a kid. I actually remember when I found out what I wanted to write about. There is a council pool in Botany and I used to catch the bus out there when I was about 16. I hopped on the 309 for Circular Quay and I thought, I am going to write a song about everything I see between here and the city. I like movies by John Ford and Martin Scorcese, I love the shifts in perspective, but that it’s always told in the same place with different types of people.’
Keyes reflects on everyday stories of struggle and hardship of a faded Sydney, a Sydney a little less fabulous than it is now. ‘There is a song called 1982, which is pretty well word for word what happened and I was doing a show the other night and I laughed and realised that I am the only one of the three people in that song that are still alive. A song like that when you hear the voices of people that aren’t there to tell their stories. I like a song that I am able to tell that in – that is the story of this person, that album is the story of those people – the people who weren’t here to tell their story.’
While Keyes certainly tells the stories from his past he is careful not to become a nostalgia junkie. ‘I have to be careful with looking back; you don’t want it to be too sentimental or just nostalgic for the sake of it.’
Although he picked up the guitar at 14, Keyes didn’t make his first album until the ripe old age of 38. ‘It was surprising – I didn’t expect that to happen and I am still surprised that I have made albums. Songwriting was something I like to do; playing bands and shows was a social endeavour, so it was something I did anyhow. If I stopped making records now I would keep writing songs regardless just because it’s what I have always loved doing.’
Perry Keyes plays the Rails on Saturday.