Bernard Fanning: “A lot of people just want you to shut your mouth and sing”
Bernard Fanning’s last solo record, Departures, came as a bit of curveball. Released in the wake of Powderfinger’s split, along with the death of Fanning’s father, and a move to Spain, it did what it said on the tin – leaving behind his traditional singer-songwriter approach Fanning experimented with synths and soulful arrangements. Now having, in his own words “scratched that itch”, Fanning returns with Civil Dusk, an album that pares back the production and leans heavily on the former Powderfinger frontman’s strengths. “I just wanted to go back to being able to write things that felt complete just with a voice and an instrument,” he explains from his home in Byron Bay where, sitting on the verandah with his two children tucked up in bed, many of Civil Dusk’s song’s first began to take shape.
While it was written in two different corners of the world – a basement in Madrid and a studio on the NSW north coast – unlike his first two solo efforts Civil Dusk didn’t emerge following a period of hug upheaval. In fact, Fanning has never sounded more content. Now a married, father of two he is finding pleasure in the simpler things, and taking stock of the last few decades. The result is a record that explores decisions and consequences, both personal and political in nature. The first in a pair of records – Fanning plans to release the second half, titled Brutal Dawn, in 2017 – Civil Dusk is the first time that the singer has sounded truly unshackled from his past.
On the eve of Civil Dusk, we spoke with Fanning about letting go, the dire state of Australian politics and what it was like to perform every Aussie musician’s dream gig: a spot on Play School.
FL: Your last solo record Departures dealt with a very specific time in your life; You had left Powderfinger, moved away from Australia and the loss of your father. What kind of headspace were you in when writing Civil Dusk?
Bernard Fanning: Well, initially I had no idea [laughs]. I didn’t really set out to do anything in particular, I was kind of more looking for a sound. I wanted to return to writing in the traditional way that I always had – with acoustic guitar and piano and stuff like that. So that was the initial idea, I wanted to use lots of timbre. On Departures I had changed my method of writing by using a computer essentially to get the guts of the song going.
At the time of release for Departures you said you really didn’t want to make another singer-songwriter record, so why did you decide you wanted to come back to that method?
I guess I scratched the itch of what I was wanting to do last time, and I mean sometimes the songs that appear are just a matter of circumstance as well – what your actual living situation is. We had two small children so a lot of the time I was writing on the verandah after they had gone to bed. So it wasn’t a situation where I could have a blasting rock band thing going, so that sometimes determines it. You can work around that, anyhow, but I just wanted to go back to being able to write things that felt complete just with a voice and an instrument. And then work out how we wanted to kind of produce it. So that was the initial idea – just of being able to put a record together like that. And as I was writing I was probably aiming a little bit more for it to be a bit more singer-songwriter-y than it ended up being. Because there are a few rock songs on there and there is a country shuffle thing, so I was kind of in full finger-picking James Taylor mode.
You’ve said the record is about the shifting of feelings and the evolution of decisions and regrets. Are there any specific decisions or regrets that triggered this kind of self-analysis?
Not really. It’s no so much decision and regret, it’s more about decisions and consequences – which don’t have to be loaded with regret. I’m old enough now to look back at decisions I made in my 20s and to look at how they have kind of rolled through the years. So no decisions in particular, there was no kind of single moment that I can pinpoint that kicked off that idea, it was just more something that started to emerge as I was writing more and more songs. And I just thought it was an idea that was worth pursuing. It’s not a hard and fast rule with every song, either, like ‘Change Of Pace’ is just kind of a good, fun-time rock song. And made more so by my shitty piano playing [laughs]. If that song had been done in a big studio and really sort of super sonically produced it just would have sounded like a really generic rock song, but that is essentially the demo from Madrid on Garageband with some proper drums put over it and bass. All of the other stuff is pretty trashy and I think it’s probably even just a first time vocal that I threw down, and it just ended up being good.
There are elements of this album that feel quite nostalgic – with all the perspective of time, what do you see as the biggest thing about you as a person, not a musician, that has changed?
Well, I’ve had kids for six years – so that has been the biggest change in that time. I met my wife. And that has been the biggest change in terms of the way that I approach life and have been able to kind of look a bit more transparently at how so called “important” writing songs is and being in a band that is successful and all of that stuff. So that would be the biggest change. And I think happens to most people when they have kids; the things that you assumed were important and vital to your being tend to diminish once you realise you have the responsibility for actually bringing up another human being and trying to do that as well as you can and trying not to make them mental [laughs].
“It just goes to show how vulnerable anyone is about their identity. They can have a crisis of confidence really easily even though there is thousands of people telling them how great they are.”
Your last album always going to be viewed as “Bernard Fanning’s first record since Powderfinger broke up.” And musically Departures certainly sounded like you were really pushing against that narrative as hard as you could. Did you feel some relief making Civil Dusk because you finally had that monkey off your back?
Yeah I guess so. And that went through to the live arena as well, where people were saying, “Oh are you going to play Powderfinger songs?” And I was like “What would be the point?” Whereas now I have got a bit of distance from it and I’ve started to play Powderfinger songs that I wrote – presenting songs that were Powderfinger songs in the way I originally presented them to the band. So I’m not trying to do a Powderfinger song and try and mine that vein, I’m just presenting a song the way that I wrote it. Which is kind of what the rest of the songs I play live now are. So yeah you are absolutely right about that. I did steer deliberately away from that and it was kind of – and this is not a victimisation complex that I have – but I was little “on a hiding to nothing” if I did it or I didn’t do it. It was kind of “Well why wouldn’t you do that?” and then at the same time “Why would you do that?” you know?
It wasn’t a situation you could win – you just had to choose a side of the coin.
Yeah that’s right, and basically you just have to trust what your instincts are at the time. And that even could be part of what my mindset was with the decisions and consequences thing [on this record]. I decided five years ago that I wouldn’t go down that road playing Powderfinger songs and all that sort of stuff, and now I’ve changed my mind. And I think also, once you get a bit older and you do deal with the daily detail of family life and all that sort of stuff, you just start to care way less about what other people think.
When he was releasing his solo record last year, Daniel Johns talked in detail about the period in his life after Silvercahir broke up where he felt like he had no identity. Did you ever feel that with Powderfinger or did you feel like you’d established yourself as a person enough separate from the band that you didn’t need to go through that process?
I guess so – there was probably an element of that. I mean with Dan, his experience was so different to mine or any of the other guys because there was so much focus on him when he was so young– and they took a lot of shit those guys. That was one of the reasons why we were always friends because we really like them as people and we also thought they were a fucking good band. I didn’t really have those problems to be honest. I know that Darren [Middleton] struggled for a little while after the band broke up, just not really sure about what he wanted to do. He was lost for a little while, and he has openly talked about it. So it’s a real thing. But it’s amazing isn’t when you think about it? This is Dan, somebody who is just adored by millions of people. It just goes to show how vulnerable anyone is about their identity. They can have a crisis of confidence really easily even though there is thousands of people telling them how great they are.
You also got a little bit political on this album, notably with the track ‘Belly of the Beast’. Writing political songs can always be a bit risky. Why did you feel the need to do that?
Well, like with any song it just depends on how I’m feeling at the time. I’ve written heaps of political songs that I’ve never released and it’s just a matter of whether the song is good enough as to whether it goes on the record, rather than having to make some definitive, earth-shattering observation about the world. And I do understand that there is a risk in that and a lot of people just want you to shut your mouth and sing. Or shut your mouth and sing about love songs, or whatever it is. But at the same time, why is it particularly more of a risk for a songwriter to put that out there than a painter or a playwright, director or whatever? It’s more philosophical than anything. The song is saying, we have this tendency in Australia and in the wider western world to have this culture of blame where we go, “Oh well the politicians are all so useless, they’re all fucking hopeless and whatever.” Whereas we are actually charged with putting them there, so it is actually up to every individual to consider what they want and the political future they will be living in.
‘Belly of the Beast’ seems particularly poignant given that Australia has just essentially voted for no-one. We ended up with a situation where, while we now have a prime minister, we didn’t for quite a number of days there. How do you feel about that current political climate?
I think what happened in the election totally supports what the song was talking about, and saying people aren’t satisfied with what our two-party system is offering us at the moment and that is why people tend to vote for independents now; so that they can drag those parties apart. As the media spouts constantly, it makes for “instability” but it is so short term that idea, the thing is realistically neither of those major parties are looking to tackle issues on a generational scale. They will only look at them within the election cycle, and that is just a massive weakness that we have in our system and something that it will probably take another generation to work out how to make it better.
“You don’t usually get the opportunity six months later to revise, unless you’re Kanye.”
Did you feel like when you were in Europe you were able to escape that bubble or were you totally in touch with what was happening here, during your time in Spain?
I always read the press or whatever online. I think there are really big similarities between the countries in the “Western World” – I keep doing parenthesis here which you can’t see – but whether you’re in touch with the real miniature of it or not, is not that important in the context of what ‘Belly of the Beast’ is talking about. And that feeds right into that decisions and consequences thing, but it is not necessarily a personal decision that affects your heart or personal relationships, it affects your place in society. So it is kind of still running along the same track, but a parallel track I guess. You could read the paper today and then read it in 12 months and it would say the same fucking same thing [laughs]. That’s what I mean, the puerile nature of it – the people that are actually supposed to be in charge, there is a lot of really teenage behaviour – hissy fit throwing.
Why did you decide to release two records? What is Brutal Dawn going to be to your Civil Dusk?
Well, Brutal Dawn is still coming. I’ve written some of it and recorded a little bit of it. There is still some work to do. And we kind of deliberately did that, where I wanted to be able to have a little break from Civil Dusk and see what it was like. You don’t usually get the opportunity six months later to revise, unless you’re Kanye [laughs]. So it’s not like I’m going to be changing songs that are on Civil Dusk and putting them onto Brutal Dawn or anything, but it’s just a kind of chance to respond to that. And also, it just didn’t feel like the story was fully told. At the beginning we said lets make a 10-song record – and when I say we I mean [producer] Nick DiDia and I. It’s only a 10-song record and there was just lots more stuff and it was all jig-sawing nicely together and we thought “let’s keep going.” It wasn’t like “the album is done, that box is ticked let’s get out on the road and play it and do the whole treadmill again.” It was more that we had the opportunity to do a bigger project and have a bigger idea, so we just kind of chased it. And we are still chasing it, we are still pulling the thread on it, there are still a couple of – I probably have to do two more sessions in the studio, a couple of weeks long to finish the other record as well.
I need to know what it was like to perform on Play School?
It was awesome! I was there the day that You Am I were doing ‘One Potato, Two Potato’, and Dan Sultan was doing ‘Wheels on the Bus’, so it was just really fun, it was a really fun thing to do. I think probably 10 or 15 years ago I would have been like, “No way man am I doing that!” But I have kids now and one of my kids was kind of hugging the TV when it was on, so it was a great thing to do for them too.
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Civil Dusk is out now through Dew Process. Bernard Fanning will tour the album nationally. Dates below:
Tuesday, October 18 – The Arts Centre, Gold Coast
Friday, October 21 – Civic Theatre, Newcastle
Saturday, October 22 – State Theatre, Sydney
Wednesday, October 26 – Norwood Concert Hall, Adelaide
Friday, October 28 – Queens Park Theatre, Geraldton
Saturday, October 29 – Fremantle Festival, Fremantle
Monday, October 31 – Palais Theatre, St Kilda
Friday, November 4 – Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns
Saturday, November 5 – Entertainment Centre, Darwin
Thursday, November 10 – The Tivoli, Brisbane
Saturday, November 12 – The Northern, Byron Bay