BERNARD FANNING OPENS UP TO IAIN SHEDDEN
With his Powderfinger days long gone, Bernard Fanning is once again refining his already successful solo career, writes Iain Shedden
Bernard Fanning is comfortable with being asked all sorts of questions about his life and career. In most situations the former Powderfinger frontman is well equipped to answer, usually with eloquence and good humour, but he was stopped in his tracks by his five-year-old daughter Gabriella recently. “Why do you sing?” she asked. “How do you answer that?” says Fanning, who has had “singer” at the top of his CV for the past 25 years, just above songwriter and musician. “I ended up having to say ‘because it makes me feel good’.”
It’s by virtue of being able to spread that good feeling that Fanning is in fine voice and spirits today, talking about, among other topics, the new solo album that will drop in a couple of weeks, Civil Dusk, and another sister album that will follow early next year, Brutal Dawn.
Clearly Fanning has been busy recording in the past year. A lot of that industry has taken place in the room in which we are sitting, a large converted shed on the outskirts of Byron Bay, NSW, that has been his second home for the past nine months.
This is La Cueva (the cave in Spanish), the studio perched on a hill overlooking the ocean that Fanning and long-time Powderfinger producer Nick DiDia opened for business last September. Its previous life was as an appendage to the house Fanning and his family rented when they moved to Byron Bay after a year-long stint in Spain, where his wife Andrea is from.
Now the shed is awash with guitars, drums, microphones, sound-absorbing carpets and rugs, and a mixing desk of which DiDia is the master controller.
Both men are relaxed in this homely workplace and around each other. It’s a welcoming, cosy environment with a magnificent view of the coastline below, a space that Fanning considered perfect for his first recording venture since his aptly titled previous solo outing in 2013, Departures, which saw him working in Los Angeles with gun American producer Joe Chiccarelli. That diversion into a previously unexplored programmed, clinical recording process was indeed a departure from his solo debut, 2007’s award-winning Tea & Sympathy, but he has no regrets about abandoning, at least temporarily, that album’s country-ish, loose-limbed agenda for a more polished finish.
“With Departures I was just trying to get away from anything I had done before and I wanted to learn new stuff,” he says. “I had always written in a band environment with other collaborators so I wanted to know what it was like to put it all together myself and use programs and whatever else. I scratched that itch.”
It’s important, he says, to push oneself into uncharted waters once in a while. “It’s always worth it, even if it’s complete crap,” he says. “I’m really glad I did it. We used to talk about this in Powderfinger all the time. We always had this thing in Powderfinger that the way we worked on an album was always going to make the next album better. There’s no way I could have made this without having made Departures.”
And so we have Civil Dusk, a collection of 10 songs with an ambience more in union with Tea & Sympathy musically but with a new lyrical theme. Civil Dusk is built on the idea of decisions and consequences, actual and imagined, some of them personal, but almost all of them realised, like many of Fanning’s songs over the years, through the prism of relationships.
At 46 Fanning has had his fair share of decisions to make. He quit university in his native Brisbane, where he was studying journalism, to pursue a music career. The consequences of a 12-year relationship and its end and the death of his older brother informed the more sombre elements of Tea & Sympathy.
And then there’s Powderfinger, the awardwinning, much-lauded band that took up large chunks of Fanning’s adult life for 20 years but which, says the singer, had run its course even before its heroic farewell tour in 2010. There’s a new song about that, too, an achingly beautiful piano balled called Rush of Blood.
“In a rush of blood / I threw it all away / oh lord what was I thinking of that day / It lingered long upon my lips / then up and flew away.”
“There are a whole range of things that inform the album’s lyrics,” says Fanning, “and part of it is the end of Powderfinger — that idea that you do something for so long and then you make a decision that you are going to move on and do something else. So the references to Powderfinger and our decision to break up within Civil Dusk are within songs like Rush of Blood that talk about having made this enormous decision — enormous for the five of us and the people immediately around us — just from a really personal point of view.” The Bangalow Hall, the main venue in the Byron Shire town just 20 minutes’ drive from Byron Bay, has played host to a wide range of events in its 105-year tenure, including debutante balls and soldiers’ farewells, according to its official history. A recent refurbishment has maintained the structure’s old-world charm while providing a new home in the region for music that is a little left of the rock ’n’ roll mainstream. American roots heavyweights Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings are among the most recent visitors to have graced its modest stage.
Tonight it’s Fanning and his band who have filled the hall to capacity, an opportunity for the singer to try out his new material on an audience for the first time, as well as revisiting some of Tea & Sympathy’s most memorable moments, such as Wish You Well and Songbird.
The show, not surprisingly, is well received and well performed, with just the odd rusty moment. Most noticeable is how well the new songs sit with the old ones. This set list most likely will form the backbone for Fanning’s national tour to promote Civil Dusk later this year.
He is a naturally engaging performer, with an endearing stage manner that is never short of humour, but more than anything it is his voice that commands attention. At its most melancholy, as on his Bangalow solo encore reading of These Days, the song written for the film Two Hands, it is a truly mesmerising instrument. It’s a voice that flitted between those quiet, sombre moments and full-tilt, Robert Plant-esque rock assault during his Powderfinger tenure.
The ’Finger’s heyday, when albums such as Internationalist (1998), Odyssey No 5 (2000) and Vulture Street (2003) made the band a household name, seems a long time ago. This September marks the 20th anniversary of its second album, Double Allergic, and there are plans for a special anniversary edition of the album.
That may be enough to fuel speculation of a reunion, but it’s not happening. Fanning remains good friends with his former band mates, guitarists Ian Haug and Darren Middleton (who was La Cueva’s first customer), bassist John Collins and drummer Jon Coghill. Haug, now a member of the Church, plays on several songs on Civil Dusk, but that’s as close to a reunion as Powderfinger will get, Fanning says.
He has mixed memories about the band, mostly fond, but there were periods when the
strains of staying together as a unit were hard to endure. He remembers words of encouragement from Melbourne singer Clare Bowditch when they pulled the plug in 2010. “She said, ‘It’s really rare for people to make that choice now, before people have started to think that you suck.’
“That made me feel so much better about it,” says Fanning. “We stopped before we entered that mode of being a tired band just going through the motions. I’d been talking about it since 2002. We signed a new recording deal, just around the time Vulture Street was finished, and I was asking the question: ‘Are we sure we want to keep doing this? Are we making the right decision for ourselves? Clearly we are financially, but is that what we want to do?’
“We argued about that for a while, whether it was worth keeping on doing it.”
As with his Departures diversion, Powderfinger ended its run with DiDia on those three pivotal albums to work in LA with American producer Rob Schnapf. The resulting album,
Dream Days at the Hotel Existence, went to No 1, but the period around its creation and promotion was not the happiest in the band’s career.
“For the first few years after it I just didn’t want to think about it,” Fanning says of that time. “I didn’t want to have any mental connection to it. Now I can be a lot more honest about it. I am way more proud now of what we did than I was four or five years ago because I was just up to here with it.
“Everything in Powderfinger,” he says, “was incredibly hard-won. Even the decision to break up was hard-won, so going out and doing the big hullabaloo finish … that was for the fans. We’d done that kind of tour with Silverchair (the Across the Great Divide tour in 2007) so we knew we could do it.” Sitting side by side in La Cueva, Fanning and DiDia appear totally attuned to each other, an empathy built during those formative Powderfinger years and during the recording of its final album, Golden Rule (2009). Both men now live a short drive from their studio. While most of the work there so far has revolved around Fanning, the plan is to make it a fully operational, openfor-hire facility. The two men were reunited during the recording of Kasey Chambers’s album Bittersweet in 2014. Produced by DiDia, it features Fanning on acoustic guitar. He also cowrote and sings on the title track.
The American producer, whose credits include overseas acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, is full of praise for his friend and partner — and Fanning’s former band. “We’ve worked together since 1998,” he says. “We always all just connected. We didn’t talk about it, we just did it. There’s no getting to know each other. When we started working together it was with the whole band and it always felt like we knew each other. You just get on and do it.”
He says the main difference in Fanning in 2016 is his improved musicianship. “As a piano player and a guitar player he has improved,” he says. “The singing was always easy, from my perspective, pretty instant. He’s one of those guys who are always lyrical. There is nothing to fix. There might be a certain line that needs fixed, but it’s always of a certain level.”
Fanning’s line, for now, is that one about decisions and consequences. He’ll complete the second half of his musings on that, Brutal Dawn, at La Cueva in November. It’s a bold move to release two albums in quick succession, but Fanning feels the work as a whole demands it be done that way.
“There’s more of the story to tell,” he says. “We originally wanted to make a 10-song record, a concise album. Then as we were going we ended up finishing 10 songs, but we were working on 15.” He talked to his manager, Paul Piticco. A decision was made. The consequence was two albums.
“Some people will think it’s a total and utter wank and others will think it is a well-realised effort,” Fanning reasons. “Those opportunities where your manager is suggesting you make a double record don’t come up very often.”
THERE ARE A RANGE OF THINGS THAT INFORM THE ALBUM’S LYRICS … PART OF IT IS THE END OF POWDERFINGER BERNARD FANNING
Bernard Fanning has been busy recording, a lot of the time in a large converted shed on the outskirts of Byron Bay, NSW
Powderfinger — Bernard Fanning, Darren Middleton, John Collins, Ian Haug and Jon Coghill — after their final performance in 2010