Do the work, but don’t work too hard. Say “yes,” sometimes “no”. Jot it down. And relentlessly pursue the time to do absolutely nothing. These are just a handful of secrets to Paul Kelly’s songwriting rulebook, which the ARIA of Famer explored during a keynote interview Wednesday morning at Bigsound.

Kelly, a revered songsmith who has won every plaudit an Australian creator can rake-in, admitted his process for making the magic happen was counterintuitive and, to an outsider, boring.

“Songs take you by surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and thought, I’m going to write something about this. The good songs come at you sideways when you’re thinking of something else,” he told The Australian’s music writer Andrew McMillen during an hour-long session to start the day’s conference action.

Andrew McMillen and Paul Kelly at 2017 Bigsound
Andrew McMillen and Paul Kelly at 2017 Bigsound

“What all writers look for is to be surprised, astonished, something they didn’t foresee.
It’s not sitting around waiting for inspiration or some great power. You have to do the work.”

Forget the graft, Kelly is devout fan of playtime. To enter the elusive songwriting zone, Kelly admits he’ll flick through his notes, sometimes for days. “I say it’s fun, but it’s mostly boring. I’m mostly bored and then something happens and I get excited,” he quipped.

“I’m very conscious of trying to carve out time, do-nothing time…time to bore yourself until something happens.”