Australia, of course, has had more than its fair share of music that made it big overseas. AC/DC, INXS, Iggy Azalea, Kylie Minogue, Tame Impala, The Bee Gees … the list could go on and on. And yet some musicians that are absolutely iconic here in Australia have never quite broken through in the U.S.
Crowded House can pull in a fairly large audience in American venues, bolstered by the enduring success of their 1986 hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts in the U.S., though many Americans who are familiar with that song wouldn’t know that the band has continued to produce music to great success in Australia.
Nick Cave (who, admittedly, has not lived in Australia since 1980) holds a large cult following globally, which seems to be growing exponentially every year. But Paul Kelly, who is regularly (and only somewhat accurately) described as Australia’s Bob Dylan, has never gained a large foothold in the U.S. market, despite touring there regularly. His 1988 song, “Dumb Things,” which was on the soundtrack of the movie “Young Einstein,” was his most successful international hit.
I’ve seen Paul Kelly play in America roughly a dozen times, usually in tiny venues. I wonder why he does it, when he can easily fill arenas at home. Perhaps the experience of intimacy is as magical to him as it is to the audience — and it is magical, heartbreaking, transfixing. I’ve brought along American friends and family to his shows, hoping that by listening to this intensely Australian singer who has meant so much to me that they might understand something of my Australian soul.
They usually don’t get it. I’ve wondered aloud for decades why that is. My brother had the most poetic response: “Listening to Paul Kelly is Australian in the same way as the spooked feeling that grips you when you’re alone in the bush. Try telling someone about that — unless they’ve experienced it, unless they’ve lived here, they won’t get it.”