Kelly had worked with Ledger on an earlier collaboration, Conversations with Ghosts, and the latest idea was to set poems about animals to music.
Kelly liked the idea and wanted to work with both the Seraphim Trio and Ledger (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath) but thought the subject too broad.
Narrowing it down to the avian world, he began poring through hundreds of poems.
The end result is Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds, which adapts works by Emily Dickinson (“Hope” is the Thing With Feathers), Judith Wright (Thornbills; Black Cockatoos), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats and others for musical performance. An album is due later this year.
Kelly says collaborators were all determined to include a song about a magpie.
Dennis Glover’s The Magpies is the final song in the cycle: “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed / And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”
Ironically, Glover is a New Zealander, and across the Tasman, where magpies were artificially introduced, the bird has become a pest.
“The things you learn,” Kelly says – to which the magpie might simply quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle in reply.
Kelly is conscious, at least in hindsight, of environmental themes beginning to filter through his work, even before last year’s album Nature.
“The beauty of this project is that it’s opened up a whole other world to me and that’s a never-ending world,” he says.
For Ledger, the whole other world was musical. “I’m sort of being dragged over to his rock/pop world and he’s being dragged over to my classical world, for want of a better word, and the end result is somewhere in the middle,” he says.
Kelly has a different perspective. “Different genres of music are much closer together than people think,” he says, asked how his folk-rock chords and Ledger’s more baroque arrangements work together. “It’s voice and notes in the end.”
They both agree, though, that Ledger ended up more in Kelly’s world, as Ledger began to email songs with guide vocals and melodies through to Kelly.
Previously, he had stuck to arranging and embellishing. “I don’t know if I moved that much towards him!” Kelly says.
Ledger, however, was tickled pink. “To hear Paul singing the songs I had sung back to me was quite a thrill, because Paul has got that incredibly distinctive voice that most Australians would recognise.”
And for Kelly the project continued to open his eyes not only to birds, but to a new way of writing songs after 40 years. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always insisted he found writing lyrics the hardest and that the music always came first.
Conversations with Ghosts was the first time Kelly had tried to put music to other people’s words; after that came his Shakespearean project Seven Sonnets and a Song. Before that, he felt writing lyrics first would force the music to “run on too rigid a rail”.
Since then, a key has turned.
“In a way, it takes the pressure off. I come up with music much easier than I do words, so to know there’s this whole world of great lyrics and poems and words out there that can be tapped is exciting.”
Naturally, there is a conservation message in Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds. “In each program for the shows, we pick a bird that’s under threat and then put a link to an organisation where people can do something about it,” Kelly says.
More recently, he says, he’s been reading about the crashing numbers of insects. “People are starting to realise that the biomass of insects is dropping all over the world and people have started to realise that we’d better measure this.”
After all, without insects, there’ll be no more quardle oodle doodling, or much of anything else.
“It’s impacting birds, along with all the things you know – the loss of habitat and climate change, pesticides and so on – it’s a calamity happening right in front of us.”
Paul Kelly performs Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds with James Ledger, the Seraphim Trio and Alice Keath at City Recital Hall on Saturday.