After growing up in Adelaide, Kelly travelled around Australia before settling in Melbourne in 1976. He became involved in the local music scene and recorded two albums with Paul Kelly and the Dots. Kelly moved to Sydney by 1985, where he formed Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, later changing the name of the band to Paul Kelly and The Messengers. At the end of the 1980s, Kelly returned to Melbourne, and in 1991 he disbanded the Messengers.Since 1992 Paul Kelly has had a solo career, fronting the Paul Kelly Band, and since then has worked in occasional collaborations with other songwriters and performers
Kelly has written numerous Top 40 singles include "Billy Baxter", "Before Too Long", "Darling It Hurts", "To Her Door" (his highest-charting local hit in 1987), "Dumb Things" (appeared on United States charts in 1988), and "Roll on Summer". Top-20 albums include Gossip, Under the Sun, Comedy, Songs from the South (1997compilation, his best-charting album), ...Nothing but a Dream, and Stolen Apples.
Kelly has won eight Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Music Awards, including his induction into their Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2001 the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) listed the Top 30 Australian songs of all time, including Kelly's "To Her Door", and "Treaty", written by Kelly and members of Yothu Yindi. Aside from "Treaty", Kelly has written or co-written several songs on Indigenous Australian social issues and historical events. He has provided songs for many other artists, tailoring them to their particular vocal range. The album Women at the Well from 2002 had 14 female artists record his songs in tribute.
He continues to cross musical boundaries. Recent albums include the bluegrass-inspired Foggy Highway, the wide ranging double set, Ways & Means and Stolen Apples. The Triple J tribute album Before Too Long, released earlier this year, featuring John Butler, Missy Higgins, Megan Washington, Paul Dempsey, Ozi Batla and many others is evidence of his influence on generations of musicians.
Paul Kelly has recorded seventeen studio albums as well as several film soundtracks (Lantana and the Cannes 2006 highlight, Jindabyne) and live albums, in an influential career spanning more than thirty years. He was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1997.