‘Azzitgoinouttheorright?” It’s the first word most of us have heard from Bernard Fanning in a couple of years. The response raises the pressed tin ceiling of Bangalow’s A&I Hall, a hundred-year-old picture palace nestled 20 minutes into the lush, subtropical hinterland from Byron Bay. Around 500 people have swarmed in for the former Powderfinger frontman’s “hello neighbourhood show”, a friendly gesture to the shire he recently claimed as home, and the unofficial launch of a new phase comprising not one but two albums: Civil Dusk last week and Brutal Dawn, due early 2017.
We’ll hear some of his smash hits, too, in a minute. But before he strikes a note, his conversational preamble signals an intent to communicate on more intimate terms than his old band’s arena rock heyday. In fact, he says with a 1000-watt grin, “It would be great if you could shut the fuck up”, while he gets the first word in.
So everyone does.
“Unpicking A Puzzle” is a crestfallen murmur of fingerpicked guitar strings and skating organ. It’s a song about lifetime mistakes, abandoned promises and the road to ruin. “Chronic indecision and terminal delays and ragged superstition laid your future down to waste,” he sings to pin-drop silence.
The moment perfectly illustrates this mop-haired everyman troubadour’s particular gift. The picture he paints is of grand-scale political disillusionment, but the chorus hook – “Tell me how will you find space for my love?” – is crafted to make girls swoon and blokes fold them in their arms.
“I realised about halfway through recording,” he confides later, when the well-oiled tribe has long dispersed back into the jungle, “that most of the songs I’d written were looking at decisions and their consequences. That ties into the Civil Dusk/ Brutal Dawn titles, I guess.
“I love the idea of talking about problems that are almost modular: they’re personal but they’re also societal problems and global problems and you can talk about them through the prism of a song about a relationship. That metaphor of using difficulties in the way that people communicate with each other, that’s the substance of where these songs are coming from.”
For those tempted to draw more literal conclusions, Bernard Fanning’s domestic life appears outwardly blissful, to say the least. He’s resettled here between the undulating bush and sparkling blue ocean of Byron Shire after five years bouncing between Brisbane and Madrid with his Spanish wife, Andrea, and two young kids, Fred and Gabriela.
Perched on a glorious eastern hillside at the end of a winding dirt road, La Cueva studio is a joint venture between the singer-songwriter and long-time Powderfinger producer Nick DiDia, an American who made his own move to paradise after earning his name with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam back home.
“It goes to show what a shit education our generation got,” says Fanning. “It became so vocationally based and it forgot about how philosophy, art, science… all of those things go together to make a rounded society.”
Under the wide, sloping roof is the usual toy-store of guitars, curious old keyboards and shelves groaning with percussive oddities. Large abstract paintings line walls which, the producer notes, “are not quite sound studio quality, but then…” he finishes the sentence with a broad sweep of his arm.
Beyond the picture windows, the view is so breathtaking that he’s had to turn the mixing console to face an interior wall. Beyond a terraced sculpture garden, manicured lawn drops down over hectares of treetops swaying towards the glittering Pacific. Flecks of sea spray ring the Julian Rocks dead ahead and the iconic Byron lighthouse to the right. Most of Civil Dusk was recorded here, Fanning says, albeit bolted “Frankenstein”-fashion to GarageBand home demos brought in from Madrid, and later vestiges of full band sessions recorded last year at 301 Studios nearby.
“Most of that [band] stuff turned out to be too muscular,” he explains. “I said to Nick, ‘This is going to turn into a rock record’, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make it much more folky even than it turned out.
“What it sounded like was really important to us. Using timber, using acoustic guitars, using a piano, using real drums most of the time… just that idea of wood vibrating and knowing that the lyrics and the concept of decisions and consequences really resonated… that was important.”
He cites Jackson Browne’s 1974 masterpiece Late For the Sky as “an obsession” during the album’s long gestation. Both in its warm textures and deft matrix of personal and political, the parallel becomes clear as Civil Dusk descends through the studio speakers and over the sundrenched seascape.
“America was kind of on-the-brink at that point in time,” Fanning says. “The end of Vietnam, Nixon, all these cultural changes happening. That album really resonates with me in terms of what Australia is like now, and what the world is like: this supposed clash of civilisations.
“Even what’s going on in America now is such a perfect example of how polarised it has become. There’s no discussion now. It’s just an argument. No-one is even trying to find that middle ground.”
The one nakedly political tune on Civil Dusk is the last of its economical 10 tracks. “Belly of the Beast” is a strident call against complacency that rebukes the pathetic standard of our leadership, sure, but moreover questions our own responsibility for handing power to a political class bereft of vision and principles.
“It goes to show what a shit education our generation got,” Fanning says. “It became so vocationally based and it forgot about how philosophy, art, science… all of those things go together to make a rounded society. When I first went over to Spain in 2010, after Powderfinger finished, I became aware that here in Australia we have this culture of complaint that’s really at the forefront of our media and public utterances. Ignorance sounds like a really strong word, but it is ignorance of what real difficulty is, in a lot of cases.”
Don’t get him wrong. “I despise the smarmy-wise expat as much as anybody else. That’s really patronising and it’s not the mentality I take to it. It’s more like a question I’m asking. How did we get to this point now, where in politics and culture and the media there’s this triumvirate of lameness? And how do we get past that?”
Civil Dusk doesn’t claim to know. But its coded cry for meaningful dialogue is a call to arms that might, in a perfect world, given the everyman troubadour’s extraordinary mass appeal, ripple into consequences generations deep. Hey, Jackson Browne is still touring after all.
Meanwhile, the exact shape of Brutal Dawn is yet to be determined. “It’s supposed to be another 10 songs, but it might only be eight,” Fanning says. “It’s not totally finished at this point, which is kind of intentional.
“Nick and I were talking about the idea of having a record where you release it, and you look at people’s response to it, and then you have the opportunity to respond to that. It’s a little bit interactive, in a really old-fashioned way,” he says with another 1000-watt grin. Let the conversation begin.
From issue #778, available now.