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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Civil Dusk is re­leased by Dew Process/UMA on Au­gust 5.

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

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