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Powderfinger's Bernard Fanning enjoying going solo

Oakland Tribune,  Aug 11, 2006  by Tom Lanham, CONTRIBUTOR

BERNARD Fanning -- frontman for stadium-filling Australian group Powderfinger -- didn't set out to script a fervent solo set about loss, heartbreak and life-affirming redemption.

"It was just one of those weird kind of flukes of history," the singer says of his new "Tea & Sympathy" (released on Lost Highway this week), an intimately acoustic outing that's already gone quadruple platinum Down Under.

First, he says, the bandmembers all agreed to take a year off. Some were having children, others just wanted a vacation from nonstop touring. Second? The planets actually seemed to line up against the man.

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Granted, you can't control fate. But Fanning's luck began to run unusually bad. His brother recently succumbed to cancer. The left- leaning artist watched helplessly as his country re-elected ultra- conservative John Howard two years ago. "And I suppose one of the issues in Australia at present is that there's no real opposition to him," he sighs.

The leading liberal contender, Mark Latham, "is well gone, mate. He went crazy. He was literally a bit mad, seriously crazy. And now it's a very strange world at the moment."

The Powderfinger respite, its leader thought, might give him time to air his views, alone in the studio. But his path took yet another cruel turn.

"I split up with my partner of 12 years just prior to the recording of the album, and during the writing process," admits the publicity-shy Fanning, who suddenly found himself the object of much tabloid scrutiny and speculation.

"And it was horrible, it was a horrible time. Undoubtedly the worst thing I've ever been through in my life. And to be honest, I haven't really talked much about it in context of what the record's about, because in a lot of ways, it's nobody's business. But I actually came out the other side, which is totally awesome."

The ultimate upside? With no kids of his own to anchor him, the now-single Fanning was free to pull up Brisbane stakes and -- with multi-instrumentalist pal John "Bedge" Bedggood, whom he'd met while filming a folk-musician role for the movie "Ned Kelly" -- jet off to Peter Gabriel's exotic Real World studios in Bath, England, where "Tea & Sympathy" commenced in earnest.

His country-edged reflections seem to sculpt the death throes of a doomed relationship, although many, he says, weren't intended that way. Dissonant six-string chords open the record on "The Thrill Is Gone," which hints at the lyrical darkness to come: "Sure was a hell of a mistake I made, but I sure am glad that I made it ... "

The story continues, almost chronologically, through "Wish You Well," "Which Way Home?" "Hope & Validation," "Yesterday's Gone" and the psalm-like closer "Watch Over Me." All sung in Fanning's smooth, smoke-tempered voice, and pulsing with Powderfinger's decade-old stock-in-trade: skewed, oblique hooks that sneak up on the listener from behind after a couple of spins.

What he was shooting for, musically, he says, were traditional kinds of structures, but very short songs: " ... I really liked that idea. The convention that a song should go on for 31/2, four minutes is bulls--. Why does it have to? It can go on for only a minute, or as long as you want it to. And as long as whoever's playing and whoever's listening to it wants to hear 15 more seconds of it, but they don't get it, then I think you've done your job."

Fanning, a former altar boy and currently lapsed Catholic, acknowledges there was a bit of a return to faith involved with "Tea." Yes, he says, he'd been listening to a lot of vintage Nashville music, and its religious phraseology kind of seeped in. He says, "But at this point in my life, I look at spirituality as love. But there's not necessarily enough language -- certainly not in my vocabulary, anyway -- to express what love means, or how it feels to you. And so you have to use all these analogies, historically religious analogies about love of God, which are really powerful. And broken love is ... I don't know ..."

Fanning falters for a minute. "It's like death. It has this final feeling to it, but in the same way that a lot of religions look at death -- with the hope for an afterlife."

And life has gone on for Fanning. After his cathartic Bath blast, he flew to Madrid, hooked up with an old galpal from V2 Records named Andrea, traveled the Spanish countryside with her (listening to Elbow's recent breakup-themed record "Leaders of the Free World" the whole way), and promptly fell in love again.

He sees it like this: "The reality is, if you split up with somebody, the entire focus of everything in your life changes. It's a very different feeling, and very isolating, at first. But it also becomes very liberating and fun. And it's a very weird situation to have been with someone for so long and then go so quickly into another relationship. But I'm happy, man, and that's all that really counts."

Tragedy, as they say, often makes the best art. And Fanning -- who's already reconvened with Powderfinger to flesh out their next release -- has forever preserved his darkest demons on "Tea & Sympathy," and made a breakup album for the ages in the process.