JUSTIN BERNASCONI talks to Cameron Gunnoe for Folking.com

Justin Bernasconi
Photograph by Sean Kirkwood

The Melbourne songwriter dives deep on writing, family, and influences for his new album Sleeping Like A Maniac and underlines the value in getting comfortable with complicated feelings.

Singer/songwriter Justin Bernasconi has been gearing up for the release of his newest LP Sleeping Like A Maniac which is set to hit the shelves September 23rd. For over a decade Bernasconi has garnered acclaim in alt-country trio The Stillsons along with partner and frequent collaborator Cat Canteri. But more recently he has carved out a niche of his own, through a style he calls folk impressionism, with his solo debut, 2014’s Winter Pick, as well as the 2017 followup Barefoot Wonderland. He is now looking to expand upon that sound with his latest collection of tunes, Sleeping Like A Maniac, which is due for release later this month. We caught up with the guitarist to discuss how his new record came together.

CG: Congratulations on your fantastic new record! How are you these days? It’s been a tough couple of years, particularly for gigging musicians.

JB: “Thank you for such a great review, it’s a really good feeling to finally have the LP coming out and for it to be receiving such positive responses. Yes, the pandemic has been really tough for musicians. [It] highlights the lack of income from online streaming for a start, and having live music wiped out has been devastating. It’s a good reminder though of how much energy a series of gigs can [create to] power the promotion of a new release. I was planning on heading over to the UK to play some dates, luckily I didn’t, [otherwise] I wouldn’t have gotten back into Australia”.

CG: Your guitar playing anchors the sound of Sleeping Like A Maniac, but a band is sparsely utilized throughout the record to great dynamic effect. Did you give the musicians specific direction as to how you wanted them to play, or was it a more collaborative process with them feeling the tracks out for themselves?

JB: “I have a long history with most of the musicians on this album. So once I decide that I’m ready to record, I’ll book a few rehearsals and let the musicians use their instincts before suggesting anything, as I think musicians play better like this. Most of the band tracks were done live and I think we may have had two rehearsals at most. My partner Cat Canteri plays drums on three tracks. Ben Franz and I have been playing together in various outfits for over 10 years now. ‘Blank Page’ was slightly different, it was tracked starting with the guitar. I asked Justin Olsson to come up with a jazz drum solo that lasted the duration of the track, almost like having two different songs being played simultaneously. I wanted the tension running throughout the whole track, like the drum rolls in the film Birdman… turmoil. Does the tension resolve? Readers will have to check out “Blank Page” to find out!”

CG: The double bass on ‘Blank Page’ is a fantastic addition. Did you have that in mind when you wrote the song or was it something that came about during recording?

JB: “That’s quite ironic as double bass was the last instrument to be recorded on that track, and initially we didn’t think it needed bass. But it certainly gels the jazz drumming and fast finger-picking together, as does the cello of Anita Hillman”.

CG: Your affinity for the guitar is well documented, and you have gone in depth about the players who have influenced you. Lyrically, who are some of the songwriters who have had an impact on your work?

JB: “When writing for this album I had a deep dive into The Tallest Man On Earth, whose music I really connected with. I also really like listening to local songwriters on the scene in Australia. It’s fascinating to hear someone else writing about the community, and there are so many great writers… Michael Waugh, Jed Rowe, Liz Stringer, John Flanagan, Cat Canteri, William Crighton to mention a few. For this album, I also asked a few songwriters who are friends, to give me feedback on the lyrics, asking them to critique them, it’s quite confronting and empowering at the same time as you really question what you write and have to commit to your ideas”.

CG: In the past you’ve acknowledged how exposure to classical music has influenced your writing. Is there a particular composer, or composers, who have had a significant effect on the way you yourself compose?

JB: “I studied classical guitar aged 9 at a very basic level, and at 17 I was playing Country Clubs and USA Airbases in East Anglia. But it wasn’t until I studied an Advanced Diploma of Music at Anglia Polytechnic in Cambridge that I was exposed to dissonance in music, like Stravinsky, Messian and so forth. Even though I don’t play classical at all, the dynamics and use of free-time had a profound effect on me since then. I find a lot of those dynamics have a lot in common with rural country blues artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell, who of course are at the opposite end of the musical spectrum. With this album I was listening to a lot of Satie, Joseph Tawadros (oud), Martin Simpson and Ala Farka Toure”.

CG: You’ve had this album in the can for some time, and it seems to have been informed by a very specific period in your life. Does it feel peculiar discussing the feelings and motivations of a previous version of yourself to whom you may or may not still relate?

JB: “I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I hadn’t written those songs. Sounds corny, but it’s a part of processing for artists, to get comfortable with difficult and complicated feelings, so yes, I still relate to them! And I do feel very vulnerable with this collection of songs. But if it helps you repair by writing songs at night, that’s got to be good, no? ‘Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright’ to quote John Lennon”.

CG: I wanted to congratulate you on another major development since sessions for the album wrapped up, that being the birth of your daughter! How has that affected your perspective?

JB: “Thank you, we also have a son now that is just two months old! Two babies under twenty months, [it’s a] good time to be in lockdown as I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. For me, I can’t understand anyone who says becoming a parent doesn’t change them. I certainly want the world to be a better place, and I think it’s positive knowing that people can change, because I have. I can’t wait to start taking our kids to folk festivals and [to] watch them grow in that community. They might hate it, think it’s all very A Mighty Wind and turn into folk haters”.

CG: What are your plans going forward? Might there be a follow-up already in the works?

JB: “It’s hard to know what moving forward is now. Melbourne has been in lockdown for over 220 days in the past year or so… All I need to think about is starting with 5 mins on the guitar every night, and that’s doable with two kids. I mean, there’s always time to get on news apps and social media, right? It’s the lyrics which I find [to be] the hard thing to do”.

CG: Thank you so much for having a chat with us. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to impart to the Folking readers?

JB: “I really appreciated the time and thought you put into reviewing my album, so thank you Cameron. Also thanks to Folking for giving me some time when there’s so much great musical content in the world. Hopefully I can return back to the UK and perform some dates. Stay safe and well!”

Cameron Gunnoe

Artist’s website: https://www.justinbernasconi.com/

‘Blank Page’ – official video: