“This feels like new ground. The production doesn’t reveal itself on the first listen – that was very intentional. I see this album as simply a collection of songs I’ve written at one point in time; I’m not going for some big ‘reinvention’. It’s more a reset.”
Loops, horn breaks, sax solos, stories written across the globe and thoughts of home: Departures is the highly anticipated new solo album from Bernard Fanning. Eight years since the release of the ARIA and APRA-winning Tea & Sympathy, Departures is 10 tracks and 40 minutes of synth overdubs, complicated rhythms, crackling beats, and newfound energy. From the first seconds of immediate opener “Tell Me How It Ends” it’s clear: this is Bernard Fanning having fun.
Track one is all dirty synths and soul, a tale of modern guilt and the constant drive for success. Fast-paced first single “Battleships” opens straight into its chorus, layers of harmonies building up over a dark refrain. Double riffing guitars and Bowie-influenced funk pumps up “Zero Sum Game”; the upbeat, looping “Limbo Stick” takes a throbbing bassline and turns expectations on its head; the semi-nasty “Drake” pits a relationship conflict against a singalong chorus; “Inside Track” is a straight-up, no nonsense “blues denim rock song”; while closer and acoustic ballad “Departures (Blue Toowong Skies)” sees Fanning open up on death, love and loss.
Recorded in Oct/Nov 2012 at Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound (the birthplace of legendary hits from Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Neil Young and more), Fanning was joined by producer Joe Chiccarelli (The Raconteurs, Augie March, My Morning Jacket) and some of LA’s top session musicians. That includes drummer Matt Chamberlain (Regina Spektor, Kanye West), bassist Sean Hurley (John Mayer), guitarist Lyle Workman (Sting, Beck), and keyboard whiz Zac Rae (Fiona Apple, Lana Del Ray).
“Joe’s made lot of great records,” says Fanning. “I thought, ‘Here’s a guy who I’ll learn from’; I realised I’d benefit a lot more by someone really experienced, who could help guide where the record went.” Fanning was determined to step into the unknown, and with Joe’s help enlisted a world-class group of musicians he’d never played with before. “There’s so much fear surrounding session musos, mainly because meddling artists don’t allow them to fully express themselves,” he points out. “In a way, because I’d spent so long writing this record I wanted to hand it over. To let those dudes make a real contribution. No one is sitting there phoning it in.”
Tea & Sympathy II this is not. The songs for Departures were written in Madrid, where the ex-Powderfinger frontman had moved his family to in March 2011. The lead-up to the move was tumultuous: the much loved, multi-platinum selling five-piece played their final shows in November 2010. In early 2011, after a long illness Fanning’s father died. In Spain, by May 2012 Fanning began to write.
“I wanted to learn to write differently, not just on a guitar or piano, so for six months I taught myself how to use loops, made demos on Garageband,” he explains. “I was doing stuff in a really laborious way, placing every single beat… which took a really long time! But I wanted to learn the old-fashioned way.” The loop for “Drake” was born from a bassline and a sample of The Clash’s “Train In Vain”. Fanning (plus a few pals from home countries old and new) spent a week demoing in a farmhouse-turned-studio in Spain’s political Basque country – an eye-opening experience. “I’d been in machine mode, using computers and loops. Having real people playing the songs didn’t work out quite how I expected.”
And so, Fanning went back to work. With Joe, the pair discussed the singer’s plans: to make a record based on rhythms, rather than just melodies and lyrics. Joe made suggestions – “Limbo Stick” needed a chorus – while Fanning immersed himself in plastic soul: Roxy Music, mid-‘70s Bowie… the rock side of disco. “In Powderfinger it was always tight jeans rather than satin flares,” he laughs. “I’d never written anything like that before.”
Fanning headed to LA a few weeks early to also try his hand at co-writing for the very first time. “Tell Me How It Ends” is a collaboration with Beck/R.E.M. drummer Joey Waronker, while Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Dr Dre) helped to pen a future b-side. “I wanted to see what the whole caper was like,” says Fanning. “I was very aware of the fact that if I wrote Tea & Sympathy II I’d just be put in a box – that’s what would be expected of me forever.”
The music came first, but lyrical themes are here: death, the future, home. Losing his father, having a second child, the end of the ‘Finger, being away from Brisbane… Departures is a release. Learning a new language also helped. “When you’re unable to communicate it teaches you to observe. You realise how much can be communicated without knowing the exact significance of words. And so I concentrated on moods, textures. My demos were actually much smaller, and I’d grown quite attached to them, but I love how muscular this record ended up. It’s a really big sound.”
“Getting older,” Fanning continues, “you realise that finding answers is a much more dedicated process than you think it is when you’re 21. That whole thing of wanting to defy expectations? I don’t have stars in my eyes.” Recording Departures was the hardest vocal session the singer had ever done – “all the backing vocals alone took a week and a half.”
Departures best moments deliver intimacy, energy and soul. Widescreen in scope and closely felt, this is an album worth waiting for.