Bernard Fanning stirs up "Tea & Sympathy"

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."

"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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •