“I grew up in the Cambridgeshire Fens,” says British-born, Australian-residing guitarist, singer and songwriter Justin Bernasconi. “It is full of amazing history and folklore – Viking invasions, the life and death of witches, World War II airfields – and, of course, Oliver Cromwell. As a young musician, I latched onto the deep, disturbing history of my surroundings as fodder for my first songs.
“When I was kid, I was into heavy rock and used to see heaps of bands around town. When I was a little older, I heard Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions in a local record store. His guitarist, Scotty Moore, blew my mind. From then on, I got into finger-picking styles of Richard Thompson, Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell. They paved the way for me to appreciate the great folk scene around East Anglia, including the Cambridge Folk Festival.”
A lifetime of stories and experiences detail all of Bernasconi's music – which, of late, he's been performing under his own name, away from his longtime folk-country band The Stillsons. This month sees Bernasconi release his second solo album, entitled Barefoot Wonderland. It's a work that stemmed from some life-altering events a few years back, which in turn would dictate the creative process. “In 2015, my doctor told me I had early stages of chronic fatigue syndrome, and that I had to slow down my lifestyle,” says Bernasconi.
“I was pretty burnt out. The Stillsons had been touring for four years, and I’d just put out my first solo album [2014's Winter Pick]. I took up gardening to switch off from the daily grind of life. As my energy returned, I spent lots of time in the garden playing guitar, composing bits and pieces and feeling reinvigorated about music, life and performing. Come 2016, I booked some solo gigs at a tiny country pub in the Victorian Goldfields called The Guildford Family Hotel. It was great to get out of the city, and onto a small stage to workshop my new songs to a live audience without any pressure of having my musical peers around.
“Soon after, I called up Jeff Lang to see if he was interested in co-producing my album. Once I knew he was on board, I got in touch with Ben Franz [bass] and Pete Fidler [dobro/mandolin] to book time in the studio. Between Jeff, Ben, Pete and myself, it was hard to find time where we could all get together for rehearsal/pre-production. We wound up finalising most of the arrangements and parts in the recording session.”
Lang is an acclaimed musician in his own right, standing as one of the country's most prolific blues artists. Having taken a shining to Bernasconi, Lang has played an important part in the shaping of both of his solo records. “One of the great things I’ve learnt from working with Jeff is that in order keep yourself relevant in the music industry you need to be true to what you do,” he says. “Find your own voice and style of expression. The music scene can be both dynamic and fickle – don’t over think your music, or try to follow or conform to trends.”
While Bernasconi does sing on a few tracks on the album, many of its key songs are entirely instrumental; with a full band enlisted to complete the arrangement. At the centre of it all is his guitar playing, which resonates clearly with its own identity regardless of what type of guitar he's playing. “For this album I bought a 1960s Harmony Sovereign H1260 for only $550 from the US,” he says. “I did, however, have to spend $700 on having the neck re-set, so the guitar was playable. It sounds incredible for slide, and I used it for a few tracks on the record. I also bought a Martin HD28, and added a 7th string (an extra 3rd string) to create a drone. I worked this drone texture into a few ideas I was developing, which turned into songs. I also used a 1938 Gibson HG00. Being almost 80 years old, the wood has dried out. It feels like a box of leaves, and rings like a bell.
“I’m drawn to acoustic guitars that immediately make me want to sit in a dark room on my own and write music,” says Bernasconi. “The guitars are usually lightweight, have thick V necks and have a resonant, open-sounding tone. Every guitar is different, and no guitar is perfect. They all have their quirks and their different tonal qualities – which is why I can’t stop myself from wanting more of them.”
Barefoot Wonderland by Justin Bernasconi will be released on Friday May 19, and he will be touring nationally from May with details available at justinbernasconi.com.