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December 2012

  • Phil Kakulas

How To Make Gravy
Paul Kelly

Whether it’s as an accompaniment to the Christmas roast or as a metaphor for writing songs, for Paul Kelly the art of making gravy resides in taking a few simple ingredients and transforming them into something magical. In the song How To Make Gravy, Kelly uses little more than three chords and a storyteller’s eye for detail to express the anguish of a prisoner separated from his loved ones at Christmas time. The result is a secular Christmas carol about traditional Christian values.

In his recent memoir, also called How To Make Gravy, Kelly describes how he came to write the song after receiving an invitation to contribute a track to a charity Christmas record in 1996. Musing over what sort of Christmas song to write, Kelly turned to mad genius producer Phil Spector’s Christmas album for inspiration. The record opens with Darlene Love’s stunning version of White Christmas, leading Kelly to the realisation that it was in the feelings of loss and longing for Christmas that its true emotional value might be most readily expressed.                                  

The song’s prison setting, although unusual for a Christmas tune, was not without precedent with both Tom Waits’ Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis and John Prine’s Christmas In Prison having dealt with the subject before it. Like the Waits song, Kelly’s lyric is presented in letter form. It’s the 21st of December and inmate Joe is writing to his brother about the forthcoming celebrations:

I guess the brothers are driving down from Queensland
And Stella’s flying in from the coast 
They say it’s gonna be a hundred degrees, even more maybe
But that won’t stop the roast

The lyrics are more prose than poetry, half sung and half spoken in a casual manner that captures the cadence of the Australian vernacular. Accompanied at first by a lone electric guitar, they ramble along with the logic of someone thinking out aloud:

Who’s gonna make the gravy now? 
I bet it won’t taste the same 
Just add flour, salt, a little red wine
And don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce
For sweetness and that extra tang

The band kicks in as the tone becomes more anguished, the music building in intensity as Joe’s train of thought leads him into ever-darker places:

And you’ll dance with Rita, I know you really like her
Just don’t hold her too close, oh brother please don’t stab me in the back 
I didn’t mean to say that, it’s just my mind it plays up 
Multiplies each matter, turns imagination into fact

Paul Kelly’s long time drummer, Pete Luscombe, says that working up an arrangement for the song was relatively easy. ‘Paul had it more or less complete, we worked on it for a few days and then recorded it in the first or second take.’

With no chorus and an unchanging three-chord progression, the potent arrangement depends on a strong anchored feel and a powerful dynamic to bring drama to the song. Eventually melody gives way to agony, as Joe’s admission that he ‘really screwed up this time’ turns into a plea for forgiveness and a promise to put things right: 

Tell her that I’m sorry, yeah I love her badly, tell ‘em all I’m sorry, 
And kiss the sleepy children for me
You know one of these days, I’ll be making gravy, 
I’ll be making plenty, I’m gonna pay ‘em all back.

Paul Kelly has said that the character of Joe appears in a number of his songs, most notably To Her Door. He’s the sort of everyman we might recognise as our neighbour, husband or best mate. In How To Make Gravy, Kelly challenges us to embrace the character – flaws and all. Our sympathies are won over by Joe’s passage from sin to redemption through the power of love. Simple ingredients that once combined reveal the true spirit of Christmas.


Phil Kakulas is a songwriter and musician who plays double bass in The Blackeyed Susans.




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