FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN
While BERNARD FANNING’s new album stems from a feeling of unease, it blooms as one of the songwriter’s strongest releases. He talks to SAMUEL J. FELL
It’s a Monday afternoon. Late autumn and sunny. It’s crystal clear and the air is sharp, cool in the shade courtesy of a light breeze but warm in the sun, brightening the scene; makes the grass seem greener and the surrounding shrubs livelier despite the fact there’s been no rain for a month or so.
Bernard Fanning sits on a day bed, leaning against the wall of his small studio, up on a hill above Byron Bay. You can see it down below, spread along the coastline in among the trees against the water’s edge. Out in the bay itself is Julian Rocks. It’s so clear you can see the whitewater breaking around their base. The lighthouse sits atop Cape Byron, slightly to the south, the sunlight glinting off its tall, white walls, standing guard over the most easterly point in Australia.
Fanning sits taking it all in. It is, as I’d mentioned to him when I’d first arrived, a view you’d not get sick of. He agrees and during the couple of hours we spend sitting out here, we both periodically gaze out over it all. It’s calming. Serene. Seems to me to be a perfect place to put together a record.
Fanning, in light blue jeans and black jacket, hair hanging down to his shoulders, flipping across his face, grey stubble, pale skin, is in good spirits. He smiles a lot and his laugh rings out across the green, sloping garden, occasionally startling lorikeets playing in the trees hanging over the driveway to the side. I’m always wary prior to speaking to prominent rock stars, well aware they could be completely consumed by an inflated sense of self-importance, nothing more than preening posers.
But Bernard Fanning’s not like that. Sure, he’s a prominent rock star, he fronted one of the most iconic Australian bands of all time in Powderfinger. His solo debut, Tea & Sympathy, was incredibly successful, five-times platinum. But he’s just a guy with a wife and kids, sitting here having a chat about music, about the state of the world, life in general. Just shooting the breeze like any of us.
Inside the studio, producer Nick DiDia is tinkering. Occasionally, music drifts out from the open door around the corner, soundtracking certain parts of our conversation. “It’s shit, isn’t it,” Fanning says at one point as he looks out across the Pacific. He laughs again. I do too as I follow his gaze. “Yeah,” I say. “Terrible.”
Bernard Fanning’s new album, his third solo effort, is Civil Dusk. It’s the first in a two-part series, the next being Brutal Dawn, slated for release sometime next year. Civil Dusk was written in part in Kingscliff, a small coastal village a little further north, and partly in Madrid, Spain, where his wife is from. It was all recorded here, aside from the demos, in this little space on top of a hill overlooking Byron.
“Civil Dusk, the term actually comes from civil twilight, which is a photography term,” he tells me. “It’s when the sun has gone down beneath the horizon. Scientifically, I think it’s when the sun is six degrees below the horizon. But pretty much everything is still visible, but not in direct light. And it looks different. So that idea, that metaphor…”
He trails off at the end of that sentence and switches focus to the term brutal dawn, which we both agree is the perfect name for an album by a Norwegian death metal band, but the sentiment is clear. Civil Dusk is about things not being quite as they seem, or quite as you remember them, and they’re about to change. Perhaps to be revealed once more, in a different light later on, under a brutal dawn.
I ask him if, as a person, he’s a worrier, if he’s prone to anxiety. “Oh yeah, totally, I’m a real worrier,” he says candidly. The reason I ask this is because in the bio that accompanies the new record, he’s quoted as saying, “Each day, I wake with a feeling of unease.” It’s a line which ties in with the idea behind the record, the civil dusk preceding a brutal dawn.
“Yeah, doesn’t everyone?” he asks with a laugh when I read that quote back to him. “It sounds a little too depressing. I don’t mean… it’s unease, it’s not full-blown anxiety. It’s more like, I’ve got shit to do, lots to do. As an artist and a human being. Firstly as a dad, the basic stuff of making breakfast, getting school lunches ready, you know. Making sure everyone’s got two shoes on when they leave.
“[But] it’s a combination of everything. When I’m writing, I don’t sleep very much. I wake up a lot of times at night, and often with the last idea I had before I went to bed, kinda ringing in my head. And it’s pretty annoying, and pretty annoying for my wife. It’s hard to shake when you have an idea that you haven’t abandoned yet, that you haven’t managed to go, ‘I’m not gonna keep going’.
“And what I mean by that, that’s a completed song as well. It’s not like, ‘That song’s finished’, it’s ‘I’m not working on that anymore’. Because inevitably, a few months later, you’re gonna find holes in that idea and go, ‘Fuck, I wish I’d done that’.”
I venture that this is the lot of the artist, that no matter what you do, you’ll never really be satisfied. Or at least you’ll think you’re satisfied, only to realise a little while later that you no longer are. “Yeah, that’s exactly right. You have this momentary satisfaction,” he says. “Anyway, the anxiety thing, I don’t want to play that up too much… it’s more because I usually get up first in the house, at around 4:30, and I read the paper. And that usually starts that feeling of unease, just reading about the state of the world.
“And that impacts a lot on the way that I write.”
Despite this assertion, Civil Dusk isn’t a record populated with songs dealing with literal world events. It’s not an album that bemoans the state of the world, not in a direct sense anyway – Bernard Fanning, who in the past has been very vocal about, and supportive of, a number of pertinent social issues, isn’t setting out to preach to a world he sees as wrong, or broken. Civil Dusk seems to be more about a feeling and a state of being, as opposed to presenting like a list of injustices, set to song.
As well, these feelings are framed through a series of love songs, whether happy or sad, disguised somewhat – the meanings are visible, but not in direct light, the songs civil dusks in themselves.
Another strong thematic vein that runs through the record is the idea of decisions and their resulting consequences. “I guess that’s another symptom of age and being forty-something,” he muses. “Looking at decisions I made when I was in my 20s and things that I thought were a great idea at the time. I mean, I’m in the unfortunate position… of having a lot of the things I’ve said, recorded, when I was in my 20s and maybe not at my smartest.”
He laughs again. “So, things like that. But also looking at that in the wider sense, how are things like, even on a personal basis especially, Powderfinger breaking up, how that has impacted on me and other people around me, stuff like that.”
“I don’t really want to be drilling down into the detail of what the songs are about, because I don’t really like doing that,” he then says, changing position on the day bed. “I want people to have their own discovery of songs, they have that thing where they… it’s what I do, put myself in the position of the author, pretty much all the time, when I’m listening to music.
“If I can really relate to it, then I can sing that song with a real kind of verve, it resonates with me. Otherwise, it doesn’t really impact… I like people having the opportunity to do that themselves, without it being all explained and spelt out to them. I mean, you don’t really need to do it anyway.”
“The future's suffocating on an echo from the past.” A line from ‘Belly Of The Beast’, the final song on Civil Dusk. One could interpret that in myriad different ways. It’s a strong line though, one of the strongest on the album. It sums up the civil dusk, the decisions and resulting consequence. It’s powerful.
Fanning laughs again, and I sip from my cup of coffee which is cold now, and light a cigarette, moving over to a sunny patch on the grass. We both look out over the ocean and we’re silent for a bit.