Dan Kelly: ‘It’s like a puzzle, songwriting. You don’t want someone else to give you the answers’

Dan Kelly: ‘It’s like a puzzle, songwriting. You don’t want someone else to give you the answers’

Dan Kelly
Words by Lucas Radbourne

Dan Kelly describes his albums as "semi-fantastical adventures through the apocalypse". Darkness lies around every turn, but somehow his records find the light.

“I don’t think catharsis is for every musician. Some would say my process is a little debilitating because I do end up, kind of breaking down my whole personality in order to do an album. Other musicians would consider that a bit of a wank. I tend to have some form of crisis in every one. I sound a lot more morose than my albums actually are. They’re quite upbeat and adventurous, but I do put myself through the wringer. That’s a lifelong lack of self belief. It’s a series of triumphs and failures, my music.”

The last time Dan Kelly spoke to us, back in 2019, he was in Castlemaine, tending his garden, having just reformed The Alpha Males for a tour of his critically acclaimed 2004 full-length debut, Sing the Tabloid Blues.

It was an album conjured from kitchen table jokes that garnered three ARIA Award nominations, including Best Male Artist. Yet even he was a little surprised that 17 years after his debut, and nearly seven years after his most recent album, Leisure Panic, people “still give a shit”.

His enduring power as a songwriter will be on display once again when he takes to the stage for Play On Victoria, performing in two shows at the Dart and Marlin in Warrnambool on Saturday October 30, and the Barwon Club Hotel, Geelong, Sunday October 31.

Keep up with the latest music news, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

“I was a lot younger, but all my records have kind of dealt with similar issues,” he says. “Semi-fantastical adventures, through the apocalypse, geography and personal politics.

“I don’t think that’s changed. It took me quite a long time to write them, I didn’t put records out until my later 20s. I can see a thread. The ones I still play live do mutate though, when you’re in that headspace, maybe they are a little different. I feel a little older.

“We did the Drowning In The Fountain Of Youth record before that and it was really good to go back and revisit the things from that record as well. I can see a common thread and still feel where I was at when I was writing them.

“I’ve always written songs that were vignettes that were humorous. At first I think they were more heartfelt, then they got possibly…wackier. I’m in the middle of putting my fifth record together now and it’s not that humorous,” he laughs. “I’ve always tried to mix happy and sad and not be a comedy act, I’m still trying to write pop, or rock and folk songs – whatever you call them – that touch on real emotions but there’s often a punchline.

“I think my humour would have changed because I’m older and gags you find funny when you’re 27, probably just aren’t as funny now. It’s hard to know.

“Those last run of shows, which now seems a long time ago but was the last time we could play music, were really affirming and fantastic. People have a real emotional connection to that record. It was definitely a time and a place, but I had people coming up who were kids when their parents played it to them and they knew every word, which felt great.

“You are surprised, because you wonder if anyone gives a shit anymore, but they were all sold out shows and the band was really chuffed to be playing again. We played it with a different intensity to when it first happened.”

Dan came out of relative obscurity – performing in Melbourne under the moniker Dank Alley to avoid trading on his uncle, Paul Kelly’s name – to establish a long and celebrated career, full of “ebbs and flows”, that lands him squarely in the pantheon of Australia’s great songwriting, storytelling tradition.

“It was the early 2000s where I just started to write and find my voice,” he says. “It was a particularly inspiring time in Melbourne, making friends with The Drones who just moved here too, that’s when I started to really put down what I do.

“In terms of the amount of Paul Kelly I listened to, I learned a lot of my guitar playing from listening to those records, I would almost be his number one fan in terms of the breadth of knowledge I have of his stuff. I could have ended up sounding like a Paul Kelly lite, but he has a huge breadth of taste and has been sending me tapes since I was a kid, but as he used all of them to inform his own thing, it hit me in a different way.

“I reckon he was listening to a lot more hip-hop in the 90s then I was, whereas I was more into guitar. I did make a conscious effort not to sound like him, it would have been a losing game, it’s not like I craved fame, I really wanted to find my own voice.

“It’s like a puzzle, songwriting. You don’t want someone else to give you the answers. Clues are really good, but otherwise it would feel like you’re cheating.”

His success, especially in the long-run as a solo artist, has depended on his ability to inspire a mixture of joviality and sincerity in his audience.

“I’ve been playing solo shows a lot and I’ve tried to develop a joyous, connected experience with the crowd,” he continues. “Not in like a hands-in-the-air, Michael Franti thing, just to concentrate on the humanism and warmth, and there being no barrier between me and the crowd, which involves a lot of talking and stories and singalongs.

“It’s essentially like walking in and having a big conversation, making friends with the crowd. It really makes a difference when people aren’t there to see you for the first time, they’re ready to go from the start. That was a treat.”

Really connecting with an audience, especially as he grows older, doesn’t come easy though. He borrows heavily from lived experiences, even as he plays with artistic licence. As he prepares to release his fifth album, the experiences he can draw from now have mandated a darker, more cathartic response.

“It’s not like I want to write a pandemic record, but it’s in there,” he says. “The bushfires are in there, and other personal stuff. Living in a little country town at the end of the bush can do interesting things to your mind. That will all be in there. It’s not like I can sit down and read a newspaper article and pop one out like Paul McCartney. I’m not usually a confessional songwriter so it’s all still written in lemon juice a little, metaphorically speaking, but it’s a heavy record. It’s been a heavy time.

“It’s not like I’ve been gallivanting around Australia. The life experiences you draw from have definitely changed – it’s been one of solitude. I still go into my mind and construct more fantastical scenarios, but I used to base them on stuff that I’d been through and then amplify them. It’s tricky, it’s a different time. I don’t want to write a reminiscing record about another point in my life.

“I’ve been quite changed by events. There’s been a fair bit of grief and loss. I’m not one that likes to say ‘this changed my life’ – I think that phrase is bandied about a little too easily – but I do think I’m a changed person because of the events over the past couple of years.

“I haven’t quite figured out what the next iteration is because I’m still just sitting in my fucking house,” he laughs. “I’ll probably find that out soon. My hair’s a little greyer.

“I’m glad I’m still doing it. Having people to respond to it, is a key thing for feeling like what you’re doing is worthwhile.”

Check out the full Play On Victoria lineup:


Volta, Ballarat
Gareth Liddiard + Skyscraper Stan + Allara + Jess Ribeiro + Our Carlson

Dart and Marlin, Warrnambool
Dan Kelly + The Maes + Annie-Rose Maloney + Bec Goring

Archies Creek Hotel, Archies Creek
Afternoon show: Leah Senior + The Garden Age + Steve Cousins.
Evening show: Kutcha Edwards & Friends + Machine Translations (solo) + Tracey Miller & The Shaggy Town Boys

Fowles Wine, Avenel
Benny Walker + Dallas Frasca + Harry Hookey


Barwon Club Hotel, Geelong
Dan Kelly + The Maes + Annie-Rose Maloney + Bec Goring

Halls Gap Hotel
The Kite Machine + This Way North + Steve Cousins + Maddy May + Asha Bright

The Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine
Gareth Liddiard + Jess Ribeiro + Galaxy Hop + Hannah Blackburn

Handle Bar, Bendigo
Benny Walker + Dallas Frasca + Harry Hookey

You can purchase tickets here