Bernard Fanning, former singer of Powderfinger, is ruminating about decisions and consequences. The theme runs throughout his third, back-to-basics solo album Civil Dusk. Over the finger-picked guitar of Unpicking A Puzzle, he sings a song from the bottom of the bottle: “Where silences are gold and secrets will abound / The hostage in your conscience will have tape across his mouth.”
On the equally spare piano ballad Rush Of Blood, at the album’s centre, he is even more plain-spoken. “In a rush of blood I threw it all away, oh Lord what was I thinking of that day?” It would be easy to listen to lines like this and presume Civil Dusk is a confessional album. Put to him that it sounds like he’s got a lot going on, though, and he laughs.
“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps saying!” he says. “[But] hardly any of it’s about my life. It’s just talking about stuff I’ve observed. Some of it’s invented, and of course parts of it are me as well.” He’s not concerned about people mistaking the album for autobiography. “Once it’s out there you can’t control any of that anyway. I’ve got songs that I’ve never released that are way more personal.”
Fanning’s reality is considerably calmer, even ordinary. He and his Spanish wife Andrea have moved back to Australia, settling in New South Wales’ northern rivers region to put their two children, aged four and six, through school. Life is going rather well for the 46-year-old. “It’s probably a symptom of my age and my circumstances,” he says. “Having kids helps you to contextualise problems.”
It’s just that the type of songwriting on Civil Dusk – first-person, emotionally direct and, in his words, “unencumbered by coolness” – is what Fanning happens to do best. If that puts him squarely in the confessional singer-songwriter camp of the early 1970s – Jackson Browne, James Taylor et al – then that’s just fine with him. “Oh, fuckin’ James Taylor for sure,” he says enthusiastically.
“I’m gladly unhindered by the credibility meter. I don’t care about name-checking the right singers or anything like that … I was just actually debating with Andrea yesterday whether to introduce the kids to ABBA or not. I want to, but she doesn’t; she’s not an ABBA fan. I’m not really sure about that. I don’t know how you can’t be an ABBA fan.”
When Powderfinger were beginning their ascent in Brisbane in the early 1990s, there was a strong thread of folk music in the city as much as there was rock & roll. Essentially a post-grunge band, Powderfinger eventually were able to broaden their appeal to both camps, in their home city and beyond. Fanning’s last solo album, Departures, did everything as differently as possible; Civil Dusk sees him playing to his strengths.
“[The songs] could have been played in 1995 or 1975 or 2045; that’s kind of the way I approached it,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve gone in for a huge innovation music-wise. I just wanted to present the best work that I could do, and I was really comfortable just sitting around playing my guitar again, and the piano.”
Civil Dusk is actually the first part of what is effectively a themed double album: part two, Brutal Dawn, will follow in early 2017. Fanning and producer Nick DiDia were determined to make a 10-song record, but Fanning had a surplus of material, and splitting it up made sense. “It would be incredibly rare for people to listen to 20 songs by one artist in a row now. But there’s a chance they’ll listen to 10.”
Some of Civil Dusk, particularly harder-rocking numbers such as Change Of Pace, don’t sound that different to his old band, and guitarist Ian Haug (now playing with the Church) also appears on the album. But if there’s one thing we won’t be seeing any time soon, it’s a Powderfinger reunion. “Yeah, we do get asked it all the time,” Fanning says flatly. “And, no. There’s no plans to do that.”
Mostly, Fanning is just enjoying the greater control that goes with steering his own ship. Powderfinger were a very democratic band. “It’s certainly easier to have one or two people making decisions than seven [the five members of the band plus manager Paul Piticco, who is still with Fanning, and DiDia]. “In Powderfinger everyone was throwing ideas in.”
Not that he’s uncomfortable with his band’s legacy. “If you put my voice over a dirty guitar, then there’s a possibility that it’s going to sound like Powderfinger, but it would have been played and executed completely differently by them. I’m happy to embrace what we did in Powderfinger. I don’t adore all of it. But I think, on balance, we ended up at least 51 percent good, you know?”
First published in The Guardian, 5 August 2016