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Bernard Fanning stirs up "Tea & Sympathy"

By Brian Baker, October 2006

When the lead singer from a popular band decides it's time for the obligatory solo album, the proverbial double edged swords start flying about like props in a Jet Li movie.

On the one hand, the lead singer's voice is often the personality of the band, and that association often means immediate recognition and acceptance of the singer's bandless project. On the other hand, that recognition can just as easily translate to fans that refuse to see the frontman in any other role. One need look no further than the spectacularly unremarkable solo career of Mick Jagger for the proof of this musical theorem.

Bernard Fanning knows this all too well. He is well aware of the enormous advantages and disadvantages that come with the lead singer's position in the solo arena.

"It's hard in a lot of ways for a singer to get away from the sound of their band because of the tone of your voice and all that," says Fanning via phone from the porch of his home outside Brisbane, Australia. "Unless you're going to make a record purely in falsetto or something, which I had no interest in doing."

The interesting thing is that almost none of the above applies to Fanning. The band that he fronts, the hard rocking yet infinitely melodic Powderfinger, is a bona fide sensation in Australia, racking up platinum sales figures and big box office numbers generated by an adoring and loyal audience.

Outside of Australia, Powderfinger - which has been active for a decade and a half and a phenomenon since 1996 - is a cultishly followed band with a handful of minor radio hits and not much of a profile to speak of. All of this put Fanning in the enviable position of being able to do whatever he wanted to do with his debut solo album, "Tea & Sympathy"; his Australian fans would support him without question, and he's a virtual unknown quantity throughout the rest of the world, allowing him the freedom to create outside the constraints of expectation.

With this anything-goes manifesto firmly in mind, Fanning began creating the songs that would populate his first solo album just as Powderfinger was heading toward a much needed hiatus.

"We had a break for a year; we just wanted to have some time off, and people were having babies, so it was a good time to do (the solo album)," says Fanning. "Toward the end of that time with Powderfinger, we were just touring, and we weren't really doing any writing together, so I was just getting going on songs."

"But I just write songs, I don't go, 'This is going to be a Powderfinger song,' or 'This is going to be a Whitney Houston song.' They're just songs. Once I got into the rhythm of writing with that instrumentation in mind, a lot of songs came out quite quickly."

Anyone slightly familiar with Powderfinger's sonic fingerprint might think that Fanning's solo debut finding its American release on Lost Highway is something of a head scratcher, but from the very first song, the Led Zeppelin hoedown of "Thrill is Gone," it's clear that Fanning is channeling a serious '70s folk/country rock vibe.

And, truth be told, it's not so far removed from Powderfinger's sonic ethic.

"There's a lot of differences and a lot of similarities," says Fanning. "I just wanted to explore that side of writing a little bit more that didn't really present itself in Powderfinger. I'm glad that it fits on Lost Highway. It's really a songwriter's label, and I suppose that's what I was trying to do - make an album that had really good quality songs and no real gimmicks on it. I suppose for some people who are familiar with Powderfinger, maybe they think fiddles and mandolins are a little bit of a gimmick for me, but I just love that sound. I love the raw, emotional element of those instruments, and piano too."

The seeds of "Tea & Sympathy's" '70s country rock shimmer were sown in Fanning's childhood.

"I grew up listening to so much of that stuff," says Fanning. "I had a brother that was 10 years older than me. So, I would listen through the wall to a lot of what he was listening to, and he listened to a fair bit of that West Coast country stuff...I also loved the country blues side of bands I loved anyway, like the Stones and Led Zeppelin. I love especially the way Jimmy Page plays acoustic guitars. I love the way he makes them sound."

Although Fanning's love for '70s country rock was longstanding, he rarely found the chance to apply those influences to Powderfinger songs. If it had happened more often, there might never have been a reason for Fanning to do a solo record at all.

"The opportunity has never really presented itself," says Fanning. "We actually take quite awhile to write records. As time went on, we only really found our feet with our second record, 'Double Allergic,' which was quite awhile ago now, that was '96. Once we got a bit of momentum going, it was a very flourished period. We wrote anything and recorded it and ended up with 'The Internationalist,' which was pretty eclectic - still a rock album but with more differing styles."

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