I WANTED TO EX­PAND — BY GET­TING WAY SMALLER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

Para­bles for Wooden Ears. Cracks had be­gun to emerge long be­fore that farewell, how­ever.

Fan­ning’s first solo ef­fort came dur­ing a Pow­derfin­ger hiatus, a much-needed break af­ter the con­sec­u­tive suc­cess of al­bums In­ter­na­tion­al­ist, Odyssey No 5 and Vul­ture Street, which had made them a house­hold name, at least in Aus­tralia. Over­seas suc­cess was mod­er­ate at best.

The al­bums that fol­lowed, Dream Days at the Ho­tel Ex­is­tence (2007) and Golden Rule (2009), both reached No 1 on the ARIA charts, but were not as uni­ver­sally ac­claimed as the ear­lier work. There was a sense, says Fan­ning, that if the band con­tin­ued ‘‘ we would have started do­ing sim­i­lar things [to ear­lier record­ings], which was creep­ing in over those last two records’’.

Pow­derfin­ger is­sued a state­ment in April 2010 that in­cluded the line: ‘‘ we feel that we have said all that we want to say as a mu­si­cal group’’. It was a dig­ni­fied exit that set the tone for their last and most suc­cess­ful Aus­tralian tour months af­ter­wards.

‘‘ I think we did the right thing at the right time,’’ says Fan­ning. ‘‘ It was time for us to move on. It had come to a nat­u­ral end. We’d fin­ished our record con­tract as well, so it made to­tal sense.’’

He says they could have ‘‘ hung around and been a live band and not re­ally a creative force’’. ‘‘ When you do that you im­me­di­ately be­come a her­itage act,’’ he says.

‘‘ That’s not a ter­ri­ble thing, but it’s just not what I wanted to do. I wanted to ex­pand — by get­ting way smaller. That for me was the first rea­son to end it. I thought it was time for me to move on so I could do things like this new al­bum.’’

He’s grate­ful that he and his col­leagues had such a good run and that the farewell tour pro­voked such an out­pour­ing of af­fec­tion. Yet he won’t be tap­ping into that when he goes on the road with De­par­tures. Pow­derfin­ger songs are not on the sched­ule for the Bernard Fan­ning tour.

‘‘ That’s not the plan,’’ he says, al­beit with slight hes­i­ta­tion.

‘‘ I’d say it smacks of no con­fi­dence. Not only that, but it would just be a bad cover of what Pow­derfin­ger did. I’ve no in­ten­tion of do­ing it, but I’ve had a lot of peo­ple en­cour­ag­ing me to do it. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. Cre­atively, it’s a mis­take to be go­ing back.’’

He’s look­ing for­ward, then, to a tour that will fea­ture the new work promi­nently while try­ing to in­cor­po­rate Tea & Sym­pa­thy, re­work­ing some of those songs into the style of its suc­ces­sor. ‘‘ It’ll be a bit of trial-and-er­ror with the older stuff,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t want to rein­vent stuff just for the sake of it.’

He’ll be joined for the De­par­tures tour by a band that in­cludes guitarists An­drew Mor­ris and Shan­non Car­roll, bassist Matt En­gel­brecht, drum­mer Mark Hen­man and key­boards player Lach­lan Do­ley.

‘‘ It’s a re­ally good band,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s re­ally ac­tive and with a lot of en­ergy com­ing from a lot of di­rec­tions.’’ FAN­NING was re-en­er­gised by his postPow­derfin­ger flight from Bris­bane to Madrid. Af­ter a few months there, meet­ing Span­ish fam­ily mem­bers for the first time and in­tro­duc­ing them to his daugh­ter, he en­rolled in Span­ish lan­guage classes. When he felt con­fi­dent enough, he be­gan go­ing shop­ping for the fam­ily at the lo­cal butcher. It was a way of im­mers­ing him­self in the cul­ture and the com­mu­nity.

‘‘ We’d talk about football,’’ he says of his vis­its to the shop. ‘‘ We lived in the neigh­bour­hood where An­drea grew up and where her mum and grand­mother and her aunty live and her cousin works.

‘‘ You go out a lot and you go out with the whole fam­ily for a walk. Once I’d got my han­dle on Span­ish I’d go to the butcher and buy some­thing for us. I’d be a bit ex­otic for them as well be­cause I’m from Aus­tralia.’’

This new way of life gave the song­writer time to work on songs in his new method, but it also al­lowed him to take stock and to ree­val­u­ate his life in terms of fam­ily and friends as well as ca­reer. Some­times those thoughts found their way into song.

The most strik­ing and poignant ex­am­ple of that on De­par­tures is the ti­tle track, an acous­tic bal­lad sub­ti­tled Blue Toowong Skies, a ref­er­ence to the Bris­bane sub­urb where Fan­ning grew up. The song is the most per­sonal on the al­bum, deal­ing as it does with his fa­ther’s death in 2011 and that of his brother from can­cer in 2002. The lat­ter tragedy was a re­cur­ring in­flu­ence on Tea & Sym­pa­thy.

‘‘ My fa­ther had had de­men­tia for a long time,’’ Fan­ning ex­plains. ‘‘ He died right when the floods were hap­pen­ing in Queens­land. The day of his fu­neral was when all that stuff hap­pened in Toowoomba.

‘‘ I didn’t write the song un­til I was in Madrid, but I was think­ing a lot about him and about my fam­ily.’’

He was in­flu­enced also by turn­ing 42 in Madrid, the age his brother was when he died.

‘‘ I talked to my older brother and my sis­ter about be­ing older than our older brother and how weird that was,’’ he says. ‘‘ I re­mem­ber them talk­ing about it at the time and it kind of struck me a lit­tle bit. So I thought about that and that’s where the lyrics at the front end of the song come from.

‘‘ Once I was the youngest now the mid­dle branch from the fam­ily tree / older than my first born brother never made it quite to 43 / let it rain/ l et the bell ring out for you.

‘‘ I was the youngest of my fam­ily and my fa­ther was of his, too,’’ Fan­ning says. ‘‘ Then I started think­ing about grow­ing up. My fa­ther grew up in Toowong, which is where we grew up as well.’’

His brother and his fa­ther are both buried in Toowong Ceme­tery, ‘‘ so there’s a very deep con­nec­tion there in that song’’.

‘‘ Toowong skies cut so deep in our bones / dad dy­ing, kids of your own.’’

Hav­ing chil­dren, Fan­ning says, is an­other sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture into un­charted ter­ri­tory, al­though he in­sists he will never write the ‘‘ my kids are so amaz­ing’’ song. ‘‘ That has been done so many times — and pretty badly most of the time.’’

He ad­mits that be­ing a fa­ther has changed him and made him re-eval­u­ate his ca­reer.

‘‘ You live a pretty self­ish ex­is­tence be­fore you have a child,’’ he says. ‘‘ You come to a re­al­i­sa­tion that writ­ing an amaz­ing song is a bonus. It’s not what life is. Up un­til that point, along with the re­la­tion­ships in my life, song­writ­ing has been the fo­cus of my life. With a kid you have to change your pri­or­i­ties; you have no choice.

‘‘ There’s a lot of ro­man­tic bull­shit that gets trot­ted out about hav­ing kids as well — all that stuff about it be­ing the great­est thing that ever hap­pened, which is true, but there’s no doubt that it’s a thou­sand times harder than any­thing I have ever done. All the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that are in­cum­bent on you start to rain down ... moral, eth­i­cal, how you speak to peo­ple. It gives you much stronger self-aware­ness.’’

As Fan­ning sets out on this next phase of his ca­reer, he’s aware also that not ev­ery­one will wel­come his mu­si­cal left-turn on the new al­bum. Now that he has done it, how­ever, he plans to keep do­ing it.

‘‘ Most peo­ple will un­der­stand what I’m try­ing to do, but there will be those who turn away from it,’’ he ac­knowl­edges.

And he has no con­cerns about try­ing to es­tab­lish him­self over­seas, some­thing that Pow­derfin­ger strug­gled to do.

‘‘ I have absolutely no air of des­per­a­tion around me any more,’’ he says. ‘‘ If the record and the tour work re­ally well in Aus­tralia, I’ll be happy. If there are other coun­tries that are into it, that’s a bonus. I don’t need to have recog­ni­tion any­where else. All I know is that I want to keep mak­ing records. You don’t get to make that many records in a life­time, so I want to make as many dif­fer­ent ones as I can.’’

Bernard Fan­ning, far left; the mem­bers of Pow­derfin­ger bid farewell at their fi­nal con­cert in Bris­bane in 2010, left; young Bernard, in red top, with his fam­ily at the din­ing ta­ble, be­low

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