Psychology students could have a field day with Bernard Fanning's debut solo album 'Tea & Sympathy'. Across 14 tracks that mix rock, country flavours and folk traditions, the Powderfinger frontman is startlingly frank, revealing personal insights, emotions and experiences as he's never done before. Sitting in the sun-bathed courtyard of a Brisbane cafe, Fanning admits the album taps into a vein of writing he's largely left untouched.
"I tried to take a bit of a different approach this time. I was more turning back and looking in at myself rather than looking out all the time and... being so critical," he laughs. "I think that's probably more in that country or folk [tradition] of really having a hard look at what's happening inside."
The likes of Wish You Well, Not Finished Just Yet
and Yesterday's Gone find Fanning frankly prodding
and probing matters of the heart. A fiercely personal man, he
reluctantly admits that a good portion of the album was influenced
by the split from his long-term partner.
"I suppose so," he evasively answers. "Although I think there's a myth perpetuated by songwriters and journalists about exposing yourself, but that's a choice. You make that choice when you write and record the songs. If you don't want to broadcast that, then don't put it on your record. I don't think you're obliged to discuss it in detail and go into minute meaning of things, though, because part of the mystery for the listener is to put themselves in the songs.
"Lyrically, that's what drives country music - along with tasty playing - but that's the main thrust. I initially thought I'd try and make a country kind of record but then I realised that I was just a pretender, basically. I didn't want to do a disservice to music by making my country album - what's next, my reggae album?" he laughs. "I thought I'd use what I know of country and try and make it eclectic. It's not really that varied. There is that country element, the standard sweeping rock song and a more restrained kind of ballad than what Powderfinger would do. Also, Powderfinger's style is more akin to what mainstream Australia likes, and I wouldn't say that I consciously avoided it, but I certainly didn't want to go down that road.
"I understand if people don't get into [the album] but I want them to come along and see what they think. Powderfinger have always had a song that just kind of grabs you. I don't know if any of them on here are like that. I think maybe it takes a little more diligence to get into it. By that I don't mean that it's more complicated or intellectual or anything like that, but those skills that come with writing in Powderfinger, I don't have alone. That's a collective skill we have. And I wanted to get away from it for a while."
Fanning's willingness to 'get away' is reflected in the album's
opening track, Thrill Is Gone. "That really wasn't related
to my relationship. It was my relationship with rock'n'roll.
It was a bit of a joke; like a 'Dear John letter' saying 'I'm
sorry but I'm going to stop being a teenager and start trying
to being a man.'"
Another track which may be misconstrued as a relationship piece,
Watch Over Me, was Fanning's attempt at a hymn after
watching some of the Pope's funeral.
"I'm interested in spiritual music," he explains. "I love gospel music, in particular. I travelled to Italy last year and went and saw all that Renaissance art and architecture [and went to the Vatican]. I know people complain that the Catholic Church has all this money and blah blah blah... but it's part of culture and to see things done with so much dedication and love - art, in particular - is amazing.
Fanning recorded 'Tea & Sympathy' with esteemed co-producer Tchad Blake (Crowded House, Pearl Jam) at Real World Studios in the UK, where owner Peter Gabriel regularly made tea for the recording team. He admits to some guilt about recording in such salubrious surrounds sans Powderfinger, but the drive to record a solo album was great.
"I think there's a certain amount of ego in it - just in seeing if I could pull it all together. It's really helped me to comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of Powderfinger - more the strengths. For example, when a problem came up in the studio, especially guitar-wise, I've always had Darren [Middleton] and Ian [Haug] to call on. They could usually come up with something good. But I played all the guitar on it, and my abilities are fairly limited.
"Obviously I want it to do well but I certainly don't have Powderfinger-esque [sales] expectations. The reality is that Powderfinger is my real job and I'm looking forward to doing it again, but it's just great to have the chance to do something different. I suppose the ultimate barometer from me is what those guys think because we've shared more about music together than anyone else that I know. They all really like it and have been really supportive."
'Tea & Sympathy' out now on Dew Process/UMG and Bernard Fanning plays Her Majesty's Theatre on Fri 18 Nov.
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