On May 19th, Justin Bernasconi releases Barefoot Wonderland, his second and fine new album of folk guitar music that explores bluegrass, country, the American Primitive style, folk and the blues. It’s a wonderful blend of English and American styles and a showcase for his exemplary playing – full of colour, control and tone, mixed with strong songwriting and storytelling that combines whimsy and emotionality. The songs with vocals appear intermittently, from amid the flashing and intricate fretboard instrumentals and the lyrical six string incantations Barefoot Wonderland is a transportive listening experience for all seasons.
Bernasconi is heading up the highway from Melbourne to launch his album at the Petersham Bowling Club on Sunday, May 21st from 3pm. Ahead of that he kindly took the time to be grilled for the PTW Six Strings Q&A:
What was the album that first led you down the dusty path of Americana music?
Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. I was 9 years old, wanting to learn AC/DC riffs from my classical guitar tutor. He taught me Simon and Garfunkel as a compromise.
Describe your latest release…
Many of the tunes on Barefoot Wonderland reflect the lifestyle changes I’ve had in the past few years. I had all sorts of problems with sleep, depression… My doctor said I had early stages of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. To get creative with composing I used different genres on to express different moods…. Ragtime on ‘Restless Legs Rag’; Bluegrass on ‘Zeeha’s Party Picnic’, slide on ‘Puppy Blues’ and ‘Speed Camera’. I had an amazing team together for the album, all old friends I’ve enjoyed long musical relationships with… Ben Franz on double bass, Pete Fidler on dobro, Cat Canteri guitar and vocals, Jeff Lang recording the tracks. I’m really happy with how the album turned out.
What’s been the most memorable gig you’ve played and why?
Most memorable gig I’ve played was a fund raiser for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre called These Machines Cut Razor Wire at The Thornbury Theatre back in 2012. I was a part of the house band with Kimberley Wheeler on bass and Ash Davies on drums. The guests were all top-notch Australian music legends: Charles Jenkins, Chris Wilson, Jeff Lang, Suzannah Espie, Bill Jackson, Jed Rowe. I had a great jam with Jeff (Lang) on guitar and Chris (Wilson) on harp.
How did you learn to play your instrument?
When I first started out it took me a while until I found the right teacher, because it’s important to have the same musical reference points so you get the right guidance and instruction. I learnt song forms from records and other players, and used to sit in at gigs with anyone that would have me back in Cambridgeshire. You never stop learning – if I hear something cool, I still want to know how to play it.
What do you consider the finest song you’ve written and why?
The song I feel hit the mark is ‘Charity and Ghosts (Where’s Your Mama Gone)’, which is from The Stillsons debut album Circus (2009). I adapted a famous pop chorus line and wrote a song to tell the story of 10-year-old British Child Migrant that was taken from his family and brought to Western Australia under ‘White Australia Policy’. My older brother is Australian and when we were kids he would hum the melody of this song around the house. I had assumed it was the melody to an Australian folk song he’d learnt as a kid, but turns out it was the chorus from a pop hit. I think it’s my best song because it’s historically significant.
If you could sit-in with one other musician (living or dead) who would it be?
Doc Watson. A terrifying musician, but he looked like a total gentleman. I could probably oblige him to have a jam with me, even if I couldn’t keep up with him.
Do you feel there is a strong folk/country music community in Australia and if so, what does it need to keep growing?
Yes, there’s an extremely strong folk/country scene in Australia. There’s a strong community spirit online, and on community radio stations, but the best way of the experiencing music is still at live gigs. For the folk/country community to keep growing I think it’s important for everyone to introduce the ‘gig culture’ to their friends and family. Whether you’re a musician yourself, a punter, a photographer or a writer, gig culture is a really special and inclusive environment. I think a lot of people who love music would like to go to live music gigs but often don’t know where to start. There are so many bands and venues to choose from, it’s almost overwhelming. Once you discover a local band you like, it quickly expands to ten or twenty.
What can we expect from your upcoming album release shows?
I haven’t played at the Petersham Bowling Club before, but I’m really looking forward to it. People can expect a relaxed but engaging Sunday afternoon show of eclectic folk music. Plenty of slide guitar, plenty of finger-picking, flat-picking and vocal harmonies, as well story telling, laughs, tears, personal anecdotes. Cat Canteri will be opening the set and accompanying me as well.
What’s been your favourite Americana release over the last year?
Ohhh, there’s a few! I really love the latest releases from The Weeping Willows and Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson. My absolute favourite would be Nigel Wearne’s Drawing Circles double album. That blew me away, it’s intense.
What are your musical plans over the next 12 months?
I’ll be touring Australia from May until September, with a little break in the middle for some gigs in England. I’m about to head into the studio with my partner Cat Canteri to record her next album, that’s really exciting. I’ll be playing a few festivals later in the year and I’m already working on material for album number 3!