Bernard Fanning: Life after Powderfinger

Ahead of his first tour in three years BERNARD FANNING speaks to SARAH SMITH about the making of his new album Departures and life after Powderfinger.

In 2010, after 21 years, seven albums and a pool room’s worth of ARIA awards Powderfinger called it quits. They embarked on an epic 30-date farewell tour and on November 13 took their final bow in front of a 10000-odd strong hometown crowd at the Riverstage in Brisbane. What happened next? “I just sat around doing not very much for a while” admits Bernard Fanning, who after two decades fronting Australia’s biggest band says that, more than anything, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief when Powderfinger’s extended goodbye tour finally wound up.

After six months of going to the beach and hanging out with family, Fanning and his partner relocated to Spain where, holed up in a tiny room in their Madrid apartment, his new album Departures started to take shape. The follow-up to 2005’s Tea and Sympathy, Fanning’s second solo outing is a decidedly upbeat affair. It is a record full of energy and defined – even in its few quieter moments – by rhythm, infectious synth-lines and soulful arrangements. From the falsetto on first single ‘Battleships’ to the hymn-like backing vocals on the album’s painfully heartfelt title track, Fanning has injected Departures with a sense of adventure. Where Tea & Sympathy was written under a cloud of deep melancholy, as Fanning dealt with the death of his brother and the end of a long-term relationship, Departures was written in a time of transition. And the result is a record that sounds free of expectation, and free of Powderfinger.

Was there any kind of point during those “bumming around months” before you moved to Spain when you thought, “Shit, what have I done?”

No, not really. The first point that that came into my mind at all was when I was in the studio [recording Departures ], and it was just me and the producer. It was like, “Geez I wouldn’t mind hanging out with Haugy [Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug] for a while [laughs].

You wrote Departures while living in Spain, but at what point after the end of Powderfinger did you first pick up a guitar and feel like writing something. Did it take a while?

No, not really, because it had been a while since I’d been writing anyway. And that’s what I really love doing. I mean, because there was all of the hullabaloo around the Powderfinger tour and split, and all that sort of stuff, there hadn’t been much time to do any writing. So I was pretty keen to get back into it. And also I knew that I was going to Madrid, so I knew that I was going to be pretty cramped for space over there. In the house in Brisbane I had a studio downstairs, so I just went down there and started mucking around when I could. I didn’t really do anything too serious; I really got into it when I was in Spain. I’ve kind approached it with a bit of a new method.

What was the new method?

Well, I wanted to make a record that was more rhythmic and more energetic than what I had with Tea and Sympathy.

Why was that, where did that come from?

I don’t know. It’s just kind of what I felt like doing. I was conscious of not writing a similar record to Tea and Sympathy, because I didn’t want to just get stuck in that singer-songwriter kind of mode.

Did you feel like you had a Tea and Sympathy Mark II in you?

Probably. That record came at a time which was emotionally pretty heavy for me. I’d split up from a long term relationship so I was emotionally not in great shape – which makes for great material usually, for me for writing. But I was probably too happy to write a record like that this time [laughs].

That’s probably a good thing.

Yeah, but I just wanted to write something that felt like it was a bit more fun for the purposes of having fun, and also for the purposes of doing something different.

How much did being in Spain effect that? Or could you have written Departures anywhere in the world?

I probably could have written it anywhere, but there wouldn’t have been as much clapping on it [laughs]. I was going and seeing a fair bit of Flamenco [in Spain], it’s a pretty big part of it. In fact a friend of mine who’s a dancer there gave me some lessons on clapping, and the rhythms of the Flamenco. None of it ended up on the record – the flamenco rhythms are really complicated and kind of weird. But I at least knew how to make them sound good [laughs].

“I was probably too happy to write a record like ‘Tea and Sympathy’ again”

That sounds quite perfect, given you wanted to make a more rhythmic sounding album.

Yeah, it was good. And I think just being in a different environment – that influenced me for sure. I mean, in Brisbane when I wrote Tea and Sympathy – and whenever I’d been writing Powderfinger records from 2000 onwards – I had a big Queenslander with a veranda, and I lived in the bush and there was nobody around. I could just sit there and do my thing. Whereas in Madrid we were in an apartment that had this tiny little room that was allocated to me, for my work.

Sounds like a bit of a regression, back to writing songs like a teenager holed up in their bedroom.

Yeah exactly. Also, there was different circumstances – having kids and having only certain times of the day when you can make noise. And being surrounded by neighbours as well. And construction – the apartment below us was being renovated for the first nine months that I was there. So it was just like “chuga chuga chuga”, just drills going the whole time [laughs].

Your first single ‘Batteships’ is sonically very different to what you’ve done in the past with your solo work. Where did the influence come from for this kind of synth-y element present throughout the record?

Well I listened to a fair bit of soul – especially that mid-’70s plastic-y soul, like Bowie, Roxy Music and Bill Withers. Things like TV On The Radio were also an influence as well, which is kind of more modern soul.

Had you listened to that kind of music much before – has it been constant in your life?

Yeah, I mean Bowie definitely. And I’m a big fan of TV On The Radio, I think they’re an amazing band. I just like the way they combine all those modern elements with being a rock band essentially. I saw them play in Spain actually at a festival, in the middle of the day.

They’re a very engaging band live.

Yeah, they were great. It was at three o’clock in the afternoon – it was a no bells and whistles kind of thing. It was just music. It was just them playing on a steamy afternoon in Bilbao, at this terrible festival. But they were great, they were really impressive. I just like the way they combine technology with being a rock band – because it’s pretty rock live. It’s really powerful, but they pull it off. So yeah, I was definitely influenced by that more modern stuff as well. Along with things like Fiona Apple, that don’t sound anything like what I’ve done.

You push your vocals up into falsetto at times as well, was this something you took from TV On The Radio as well?

Yeah, to a certain extent. I mean Tunde [Adebimpe] uses a lot of falsetto, but I like the way that it’s used. I suppose it did influence me, because I like falsetto but I hate when it gets overused. And I know that especially in the last few years – because there’s people like Bon Iver who are brilliant at it – it’s become more prevalent. But it’s not the first time I’ve done it.

You’ve spoken about it being a very happy record as well, how important was it for you to make a more upbeat album?

I actually really like the idea of having music that sounds and feels happy and energetic, but isn’t necessarily [sings] “shiny happy people…” I actually like when there is that kind of juxtaposition, when the lyrics are kind of melancholy. I mean I’ve always tended to write lyrics like that anyway, that’s just what appeals to me in writing.

What is the track ‘Battleships’ about?

It’s just about that black cloud that overtakes you when you realise you’ve fucked something up. And that there’s a tendency to really kind of wallow in that. But then you need to find something that brings you out of that, you know? And that’s what I trying to do by setting up the song as fairly depressing, but then there’s a big hopeful bridge.

Is that a theme that features heavily across the record or was there more going on in your life that you were taking inspiration from?

There was lots of things going on….

The name of the album Departures seems very literal, is it?

It is actually. It is. I’m always a little hesitant to be that obvious, but it just seemed like the best fit in the end. I mean, Powderfinger had split, I’d left Australia for the first time for an extended period. I moved to Madrid for a couple of years. And my Dad died right before we left.

That’s a big couple of years.

Yeah exactly. Dad had been ill for quite a while, so it wasn’t a great surprise or anything, but it was still your dad dying – it has a pretty big impact on you. And then we had a son when we were in Spain as well. So there were lots of things going on.

That is just about everything you can experience in life.

Yeah, all I need to do is get divorced as well.

Maybe leave that for the third solo album.

[Laughs] Yeah, Tea and Sympathy Two.

You went over to LA to record the album with producer Joe Chiccarelli [The Shins, Beck, U2] – how did that come about. Did you choose him or did he choose you?

He’ll kind of choose to work with you, eventually. I mean he’s pretty in demand. So we sent him some songs and he really liked them. We kind of just traded emails and had a few chats and he was into it.

Part of the reason I wanted to go to LA as well, was because of the access that Joe had to great musicians there. Because he’s a very well known producer there and he’s been doing work there for 30 years. That was part of it as well. I wanted to try and make a record where it was just me. Because when I did Tea and Sympathy I had [musician] John Bedggood with me, who played fiddle and mandolin and piano, and was there for the whole session as well. He was in my band for the Tea and Sympathy [tour] too. So, I wanted to just see what happened if I just did it all by myself.

“We will always be associated with one another, we will always be Powderfinger.”

And how did it feel being in that studio by yourself after all these years of being in Powderfinger?

It was great actually. I mean, I was really lucky. One of the things that I talked to Joe about before he was suggesting musicians [who could play on the recording], or before I was putting ideas to him, was that I wanted [the players we worked with] to be people that were fun. And that made it fun. I mean, what’s the point in making a record just because you could get Eddie Van Halen to play on it? That doesn’t mean it would necessarily be fun to make.

Kind of sounds like it might be, if it were Eddie…

[Laughs] Probably actually, probably a bad example! I was just lucky. The guys were awesome, they were just very friendly.

Did you ever feel that there was like an emotional disconnect – playing with a band that is “paid to play” rather than bandmates you’ve been playing with for two decades. And if so how did you overcome that?

Well not really, because the process was basically to sit there and listen to the demo. Before the session they’d all been sent a few of the songs, so they kind of had a heads up about what it was and what was coming. A few of them were aware of Powderfinger anyway. They were just a really easy bunch of people to be around, really fun and also my generation. The youngest of them was 33 or 34 and the oldest was 52, or something. So, it was all people who had played in bands ranging from Pearl Jam to Beck and John Mayer and Fiona Apple – people who have been making music at the same time that I have as well.

I imagine they would’ve had a lot of good stories between them all as well.

They did actually! They were great. And Joe had a lot of good stories. I mean just throughout the day you have conversations about all sorts of things, and especially about musicians and songs. And Joe has made hundreds of records, maybe thousands. I don’t know. But every time an artist came up he’d basically have a story about them. And mostly good, mostly positive and fun stories.

What was his best story about another musician?

He told me one about an Elton John tanty – when he was dressed head to toe in a hot pink suit and stormed out of the studio, and out onto Sunset Boulevard and flagged a cab for himself. Elton John standing in Los Angeles, which is the most taxi-less city in the world, standing in a pink double breasted suit flagging a cab.

In LA people probably wouldn’t have looked twice.

Yeah exactly, they probably thought it would have been an impersonator, I’m sure. Or they would’ve been so busy looking at themselves in the mirror as they were driving they probably wouldn’t have even noticed anyway [laughs].

Coming out of those sessions, was there a song that you were most attached to? Or that sums up what you’ve done on this record?

Not particularly. I was talking to Joe about this when we were in the studio. I would love to actually just have a record where you make it, and you make it how you want it. And then you present it to your label, or whoever the powers that be are that are dealing with the release side of it, and be proud enough of everything to be able to say, “Do whatever you want.” I mean there’s no everyday harsh-business reality to that idea, but the concept of it is great. It’s like “you guys work it out”, because I’ve done the best I can do in presenting the songs and [the label] and everyone else knows better than I do about what is possibly going to get on the radio or have some kind of popular appeal. Because to be honest I don’t listen to the radio very much and to be honest it is probably Radio National [laughs]. There is other ways of getting your music fill than on the radio.

And have you road-tested the songs on any of the Powderfinger guys yet?

Yeah, of course. They were the first ones I sent it to. Once it was complete I sent it to them straight away. And the feedback has been really good from all of them – they are all really into it and very encouraging, so I’m very pleased that I’ve pleased them. You know it’s a relief and I’m sure it’s a relief to them too. There is a tiny responsibility there; we will always be associated with one another, we will always be Powederfinger. In the same way that Jimmy Barnes had a solo career after Cold Chisel and the [other band members] may or may not have liked Freight Train Heart [laughs]. So there is always an association there. And by the same token, with the music that those guys make, I hope it something that I am proud of too and I’m sure it will be.

Have you heard much of what they are doing?

Well, Darren [Middleton] is making a record now and I’m going to sing some backing vocals on it. I’ve only heard one song and it’s great.

You have just announced a huge solo tour. How did you feel going out by yourself like this, especially given the last time you toured it was this epic stadium farewell shows?

Yeah really good. The circumstances are really different – this is kind of a “re-beginning” whereas that [last tour] was a farewell and it had every bell and whistle and streamer you could hope to attach to it. And this is kind of a different approach; it’s a theatre thing rather than tents and entertainment centres. But the whole idea of that Powderfinger show, the farewell tour, was that there are a lot of people who will go and only see one concert in a year [and for many that was it] and they should be able to walk away really happy and entertained. So the approach to this is really different… I’m planning to bore people to death [laughs]. No, no, no. I have a new band together; I wanted to refresh it a little bit. We start jamming next week, so I’m really excited.

Have you learnt the songs yet?

No, I’m still trying to work all that out. The new record is pretty different to Tea and Sympathy so I have to see how that will be approached, whether it is a two-headed beast or whether the albums come together more live. I’m not really sure.

You are playing Splendour In The Grass – do you have any special plans for that show? Would you play Powderfinger songs?

I’m not going to play Powderfinger songs on this tour, I just don’t think it makes any sense. But people keep asking me whether I will, and I really didn’t expect that. You know Powderfinger were asked to get back together to do a flood relief concert about two months after we had broken up, which we thought was absurd. It would have been pretty insulting to the people who came to our last show. So I don’t think so, but I will put that hold.

I guess it’s difficult as there are five of you, all possibly pursuing solo careers.

It would make sense if they were songs that I had written for Powderfinger that were entirely my own, I mean there is a few of them. So I’m not sure.

Departures_ is released June 7 through Dew Process/Universal

Bernard Fanning Departures tour with Big Scary and Vance Joy:

Sunday, July 14 – Nambour Civic Centre, Nambour

Tuesday, July 16 – Empire Theatre, Toowoomba (All Ages, Licensed)

Thursday, July 18 – The Tivoli, Brisbane

Friday, July 19 – Arts Theatre: The Arts Centre, Gold Coast

Saturday, July 27 – Splendour in the Grass

Tuesday, July 30 – Newcastle Civic Theatre, Newcastle (All Ages, Licensed)

Thursday, August 1 – Anita’s Theatre, Wollongong

Friday, August 2 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney (All Ages, Licensed)

Sunday, August 4 – Royal Theatre – National Convention Centre, Canberra (All Ages, Licensed)

Friday, August 9 – Palace Theatre, Melbourne

Saturday, August 10 – Geelong Performing Arts Centre – Costa Hall, Geelong (All Ages, Licensed)

Tuesday, August 13 – Wrest Point, Hobart

Thursday, August 15 – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide (All Ages, Licensed)

Saturday, August 17 – Kuranda Amphitheatre, Cairns (With additional special guests: The Rubens, The Medics and Snakadaktal) (All Ages, Licensed)

Sunday, August 18 – The Venue, Townsville

Tuesday, August 20 – Pilbeam Theatre, Rockhampton (All Ages, Licensed)

Wednesday, August 20 – Entertainment Convention Centre – Plenary Halls, Mackay

Sunday, August 25 – Astor Theatre, Perth

Tickets go on sale Friday, May 10 at Midday through