Paul Kelly How To Make Gravy

How Paul Kelly's "How To Make Gravy" Became Australia's Christmas Anthem

We chat to the Aussie legend about how a song about an inmate became one of the nation's most enduring carols.
February 21, 2017, 3:57am

Lizzie Irwin is a Brisbane musician who plays in Bitchratch and runs the parody Twitter account @itsthegravyman, dedicated to Paul Kelly's greatest song about gravy.

The year is 2013 and I'm sitting in the Kawana Community Hall on the Sunshine Coast watching Paul Kelly perform his album Spring and Fall. As each song finishes Paul softly and politely thanks the audience and explains in a few simple sentences how it came to be.

I always wondered how someone who seemingly used his words so scarcely was able to convey so precisely how I pictured my Australia in each and every one of his songs. I also wondered if someone who was lauded and revered as Australia's vital storyteller ever felt like gloating about the fact that the opening riff to "How To Make Gravy" alone had the power to make venues full of people mutually holler in joy, cry or eagerly pinch the person next to them (but mostly cry).

I highly doubted that the immensely modest Paul Kelly would be the gloating type so I did that for him with my Twitter account @itsthegravyman. With opening tweet "Gravy" and a slew of tweets about royalty money (fuck yeah) I scarily garnered traction and was able to unleash Paul's profane, narcissistic, gravy loving alter-ego.

What happens when Paul Kelly and the Gravy Man finally meet? Good fucken shit, of course.

NOISEY: Hi Paul - I'm the Gravy Man – before we start I want to settle one thing up once and for all – are packet mix gravy users the ultimate cowards?
Paul Kelly: I've used Gravox in a pinch. Judge not lest ye shall be judged.

Who initially passed down the gravy recipe to you and why is it so special to you that you choose to include it in "How to Make Gravy"?
It was the recipe of the father of my first wife Hilary. His name was Alan. He died a while ago. I like carrying people I've known around in songs. A guitar line here, a recipe there. I'd made gravy for years but the tomato sauce was new to me. Hilary insists White Crow tomato sauce is the best. I specified White Crow in the recipe on the tea towel we sell sometimes at gigs. The best idea my manager Bill ever had, making a gravy tea towel.

The song has become quintessential Christmas listening. What does the typical Kelly Christmas feel/taste/sound like nowadays?
Our Christmases are pretty much like the song with varying numbers as we are geographically scattered these days. I have seven brothers and sisters and we like hanging out with each other. There are children, children's children, friends of children, in-laws, in-laws of in laws, strays, exes, extras, whoever's around. I had Christmas in India once away from the family and that was pretty good too. It was just another day in Rajasthan.

What is your favourite Christmas song?
"Silent Night". I also like "The Friendly Beasts" by The Louvin Brothers. CW Stoneking and his wife Kirsty do a down home, flirtatious duet called "On A Christmas Day" which I love. Good shit!

Listeners only spend five minutes with Dan, Rita, Frank, Dolly and the kids, yet the song is so deeply revered and loved that we all feel like we know them. Are the characters based on members of the Kelly family?
No, although the brothers have driven down from Queensland once or twice. I used some names from the family. Dan, Jo, Mary. I have a friend called Angas but I don't know anyone called Dolly. A couple of the firebrands in the family have been to prison after protesting during the reign of the Jo Bjelke Petersen government in Queensland but I don't think they spent the night in jail. My sister Mary-Jo made the front page of the Courier Mail though, getting dragged off, kicking and screaming, by the cops.

The Gravy Man on Twitter is aggressively boastful that he penned the 'gravy song' and will use no shortage of profanity to express this. Are you similarly aggressively proud of the song?
I'm fuckin' proud as!

I saw your show with Neil Finn and had to leave my seat during "Deeper Water" and "How To Make Gravy" to 'refresh myself' in the bathroom (MY EYES ARE RED BECAUSE MY ALLERGIES ARE PLAYING UP, I SWEAR). Has there been a particular moment where the songs emotional impact hit home?
The first time I sang it in front of some of the family I almost didn't get through it. But that happens sometimes in other songs when my brothers or sisters or children are at the show. It's weird. Doesn't happen often but when it does it always takes me by surprise. \

The inspiration for the song was Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and how he intensifies the feeling of Christmas by not being there, you tour a lot – has there been a particularly heinous Christmas that you've been away from home and been forced to consume sacrilegious, lumpy gravy? / experienced similar feelings of longing to be around family?
My friend John Kingsmill and I had a Christmas in Perth in 1976 on our way to the mines. We were 21 and 23. We went to a pub that put on a Christmas lunch and ate at a table with strangers. I don't remember much about it but we had each other. We are still good friends though we've never spent Christmas together since.

The Gravy Man has a pretty intense public beef with (parody) Peter Garrett because he's of the belief there can only be one songwriting giant with their finger on the pulse of the Australian experience, I'm guessing your relationship isn't as intense – could fans ever expect to see a PK/PG double header similar to what you did with Neil?
Fuck, it was hard supporting Midnight Oil in the 80s. I did that a few times and it was always the longest 40 minutes of my life. The crowd would chant "Oils, Oils, Oils", all through my down-beat bus-riding, mattress on the floor ballads. Their road crew were scary too. But I've always been friendly with Pete even though I teased him a little in my book. We cross paths quite often, usually in remote places and he's always good to sit and have a yarn with. I really admired his toughness and dignity when he got hung out to dry by the Rudd government. He stuck fast.

21 December is now unofficially 'Gravy Day' and people were celebrating this year by 'putting their gravy out' – how would you choose to celebrate 'Gravy Day'?
Counting my money!

Lastly, choose one: A bowls club $7 roast with watery gravy and mint sauce on the side or Red Rooster chips and gravy?
Bowls club every time. PS: I make a pretty fucking good corn beef too. With parsley white sauce and hot English mustard. Steamed beetroot on the side. Yeah.

Image by Ben Thomson