I WANTED TO EXPAND — BY GETTING WAY SMALLER
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