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Bernard Fanning stirs up "Tea & Sympathy"

By Brian Baker, October 2006

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"By the time we made 'Odyssey Number Five,' we wanted to make an album-oriented album, where all the songs fitted together really well in a landscape type of way. Then we wanted to turn away from that when we made 'Vulture Street,' so that was a dry rock record, just a '70s rock sounding record. So the opportunity never presented itself with Powderfinger to make that kind of record. But given the tastes of everyone in the band, there wouldn't be a lot of mandolin and fiddle allowed anyway."

As Fanning conceived the songs that would ultimately make up "Tea & Sympathy," the structure of his songs began to change as well. The collaborative methods that he employs as a member of Powderfinger gave way to a more solitary approach.

"I wasn't relying on solos to be big features because I simply can't play them. That was never going to be an option," says Fanning with a laugh. "In that context, I was thinking, 'Well, maybe a fiddle solo could work here.' But I think you'll probably also notice that the songs are all quite short, and that's probably an indication of me not having four other people to finish my sentences."

On "Tea & Sympathy," Fanning utilized his musical influences in a slightly different context, but the inspirations for his songs remained fairly consistent.

"For me, writing songs comes from anywhere," says Fanning. "In general, I write from personal experience. I'd just split up from a long-term relationship right at the time I was writing the record and before I recorded it. So a lot of that stuff came out in there. But I did try to shift the perspective a little bit. I write in the first person almost always, but that first person isn't necessarily me talking all the time. I was trying to have a look back in from the outside."

Musically, Fanning drew on his early loves - Neil Young, the country personas of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, the SoCal warmth of folk rockers like Jackson Browne - which, filtered through his own sensibilities and experiences, came out flecked with the unmistakable pop melodocism of regional compatriots like Neil and Tim Finn of Crowded House fame.

As a result, "Tea & Sympathy" has the timeless qualities that embodied the best of the '70s singer/songwriters without the use of retro clichˇs and obvious references to the time to achieve that end. One of the most important elements of the album is the organic approach Fanning used to get the sound he was looking for.

"I wanted to have that spirit of letting stuff happen instead of it being regimented and organized all the time," Fanning notes. "I think, by virtue of the fact that when you demo and then record in the studio proper, you end up regimenting the songs anyway, purely for the convenience of everyone in the band so they have some idea of what's happening."

Fanning's physical approach to making the disc was significantly different as well.

"I was relying on myself to complete the songs and that sort of stuff," says Fanning. "Obviously, I had other people playing on the demos and on the record; four of the songs that are on the record are actually demos that we recorded here at home."

"But I just sat on my veranda and played my guitar, and that's what I did for a few months. Once I got an idea developed and got maybe half a song going, I'd go downstairs and make a really rough, scratch version of and see if it was worth pursuing. And that's different because with Powderfinger, I'm always considering what the other guys would be doing in a song."

"And also in Powderfinger, we make a lot more noise so vocally, I'm probably expected to do a fair bit more yelling, and that was one thing I wanted to take a break from as well. I just wanted to have a gentle approach and try to make things sound beautiful. Like Nick Drake records have this quality to them - no offense to Nick Drake - they send you to sleep because they've got so much air and space in them. With a song like 'Wash Me Clean,' that's what I was going for, I suppose, that real beauty and simplicity."

Fanning recorded "Tea & Sympathy" at Peter Gabriel's Real World studio in England with producer Tchad Blake, renowned for his work with Crowded House, Tom Waits and Los Lobos. Real World's spacious architecture lent its own fingerprint to the album's open and expansive sound, giving the impression that "Tea & Sympathy" was recorded in a church.

"It was phenomenal, it was so great to have the opportunity to go there," says Fanning. "It was too good an opportunity to pass up. It's such a great environment to make music over there, it's superbly set up and so obviously set up by a musician who's spent a lot of time in studios. It has huge, cavernous rooms."

"You could set a whole band up and play live in the control room. That makes for a good environment, being able to concentrate and eliminate the cabin fever of being cooped up in a studio. Especially for someone like me; right now, I'm sitting out on the back step because that's how we live in Australia. Half the time, we're out on the veranda. To be able to have that floor to ceiling glass the whole way round so you don't feel like you're stuck in a spaceship all the time."

Recording in Gabriel's house had its distractions as well.

"A couple of times when I was doing vocals, I'd be standing in there - and it's all glass in the studio rooms - and Peter Gabriel's walking past with a bag of washing or something," says Fanning with a laugh. "It was pretty weird. And I'm trying to sing and thinking, 'F--, I hope he can't hear this. I shouldn't have had so many Marlboro Lights last night.'"

In the end, Fanning had one overriding concern when making "Tea & Sympathy," from its inception through writing phase and into the recording - make it sound like home.

"What we called it when we were making it was 'porch music,'" says Fanning. "Which is like a jug band where you sit around the veranda and play it and fall in and out of songs. That was the approach we wanted. Obviously it's not a jug band, but that was the mentality we took into it, returning to that mongrel element as well, where it's not all beautiful and superbly produced and played."

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