Justin Bernasconi, an entrancing guitar wizard, and folk-noir trio The Maggie Darlings are getting is set to launch their albums Sleeping Like a Maniac and The Wishing Well together at The Brunswick Ballroom on Saturday, 4 June. It’s been a long time coming, so I spoke to Justin about the rich backstory of how he found his own style on this album and his immensely talented friends — Mandy Connell, Alysia Manceau and Layla Fibbins — who’ll be joining him on the day.
This album is quite a new musical place for you to be coming from. How did you get there and what was the inspiration for this record?
It’s always a hard one to say how you got somewhere when there’s so many sort of journeys that you do. As a musician, I feel like this particular album is more my style or myself more than any of the other albums I’ve ever done. I feel like all the previous albums that I’ve done have been me messing around with genres and, and learning different techniques and having fun. Trying to go from Delta Blues to Bluegrass to English folk, to Avant Garde. With this one, I wanted to try and steer clear of those my main stylistic genres in and try and go back to where I came from, which is British folk. Even though it sounds a little bit pretentious, trying to transcend that style into something that sounds like me. And so for instance, when you hear in a guitar, you’re not hearing a scale being played or some sort of flashy thing; you’re actually hearing a personality, or some sort of character. I want to my instrument and my voice to serve some sort of pain that is on this album. And, and yeah, it’s some of the some of the songs and some of the tunes on this album definitely have concepts to them.
What would you say are the main concepts that hold it all together?
Well, there are a few. On this album, harmonically, I’m using a lot of dissonance, or more distance of what I’ve used previously, and I think on the title track Sleeping Like a Maniac I use it a lot. I think anybody on first impression hearing that track would possibly think that it’s a little bit random, but what it is, is about somebody who suffers from terrible sleep, which I have done for most of my life; you’re falling asleep in a very troubled state. And the mind is wandering and then all sudden, just as you’re falling asleep, that almost startle reflex happens and that’s when the dissonance come in, because then you get an uncomfortable thought. And then the brain starts rattling around and then all sudden they start falling asleep again, but this time it’s from exhaustion, from being sleep deprived. The next thing, startle reflex kicks in again, where you’re just not feeling safe and you just keep waking up and then all of a sudden, you fall asleep from exhaustion. And then on the second part of the track you have this very fast triplet, cascading melody that’s about a nightmare coming or a night terror resulting in being wide awake. I worked on that tune a lot.
I find it interesting that so much of the voice and emotion of this album is conveyed through your guitars. Do you have a framework for how you like your guitar and your voice to sit in relation to one another?
Well, I read this quote by Mark Knopfler and he was describing the old blues where the slide guitar or the resonator guitar sometimes says things that the voice can’t say or expresses things that the voice or the lyrics can’t say. And sometimes the lyric or tail off on a guitar will just slide in. I’ve always kind of liked that blues feel and the space there is in blues. I don’t really like lots of notes, even though there are a lot of notes on my album. I don’t feel like I’m trying to be flash when I’m doing them; I feel like it’s serving a purpose. But I do like that Blues sensibility even though I’m not trying to do Blues on this album, where the voice and the guitar work hand in hand to deliver a song just like when you would hear somebody like Robert Johnson play Love in Vain or Come in My Kitchen. To try and even get anywhere near that sort of perfection is a really, really long road. I felt like I’ve just started. [Laughs]
I remember you explaining to me in an early lesson that the thumb is like the rhythm section of a band and a lot of fingerstyle guitar harkens back to Ragtime piano. There’s a one-man band going on in your playing. Are you primarily concerned with making your songs work in that capacity, or do you have a mind to larger arrangements?
Well, other than loving Blues, I studied classical music for a few years. I used to study how composers would write on a piano and then orchestrated it. I feel like pretty much everything is there on the guitar, especially with tools like capos and alternate tuning and other things I’m trying to do like adding a seven string to an ordinary guitar, trying to create different sounds that create different triggers in people’s minds. I do like to hear something that’s completely self sufficient on the guitar. Although, after performing at Port Fairy [Folk Festival] with the group, all of a sudden I heard a lot of my songs in technicolor I hadn’t heard before so I think possibly on my next album, I will possibly be using a band a lot more but that’s still after. All the tunes can be performed on solo guitar. There’s such a freedom playing solo guitar. You can do riffs. You can just go off on tangents; you can improvise you; you’re not beholden to anybody. So you really are in complete control; as long as that thumb doesn’t drop the beat, you’re going to be okay.
Tell us a bit about the other musicians you’ve roped in and how you feel they’ve influenced the sounds and textures of this album.
Well, I’ve always wanted to work with [drummer] Justin Olsson on my own music. I saw Justin, play many, many years ago when he was studying at the VCA. I came in one time to see Cat [Canteri] perform a recital and he was also performing. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that that guy is fantastic.’ He’s just so musical. And of course, I’ve done a lot of playing with him through Cat; we’ve been on tour a lot together. Justin is equally comfortable with taking the lead and just doing whatever or having an instruction. He performed on two tracks on this album, I’m Still Here and Blank Page. The only instruction I gave him was that I liked the drumming on the films Birdman and Whiplash because the drums went beyond the instrument to this psychological narrative that was going on in Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman; you can hear his mind ticking from the drums, but the drumming is so subtle and so brilliant that it transcends the music to being a psychological moment. I said ‘I want psychological moments on here; I want you to have free form on here to do whatever you need to do. And I don’t care if what you’re doing sounds like a completely different track or actually I would probably like that very much.’ So it’s almost like that Frank Zappa tune on Sheik Yerbouti where he got the drums and the bass guitar from two different tracks and just put them together and all sudden he had a new track, and it was, completely unrelated. I kind of liked that sort of random things.
We’ve had conversations about you being somewhat nervous in a studio setting. What’s the difference to you, between recording and playing a live show?
I think there’s a big difference. For me, I think when I’m performing in the studio, I will tend to go inwards, and try and keep the energy there … contained. And you kind of want that tension there. I always just imagine that I’m playing to two speakers. I know it sounds really silly, but that’s what they’re going to be coming out of and hopefully somebody will be at the end of those speakers listening intently. When I’m performing live it’s not about being precise; it’s kind of playing to the energy of the room and playing to how your energy in that room is. You could be really tired from driving three or four hours to a gig and you could just be playing a bit sluggish but it still could sit really, really well. For another time, you could be very, very nervous and have a bit of angst and be playing a little bit on top of the beat. That could also be really quite useful because people can respond to that energy. I think, when it’s been committed to record it’s got to sit right; it’s just got to sit right for that song and it’s good to have a producer like Jeff Lang to help you find that balance.
And you’ve got your launch happening at the Brunswick Ballroom on Saturday the 4th of June where you will be joined by the Maggie Darlings. Can you fill us in on some of your friendships and musical connections with them?
Yeah, I’ve known Alysia Manceau from Smith Street since probably 2008. She was working in an Internet cafe for one of my friends and I came in one time. We got chatting because a venue, The Wesley Anne, had double booked The Stillsons’ first launch there with her band. So we had a good chuckle about that. And we’ve just stayed friends ever since. Alysia is a really good friend and I’ve known Mandy Connell for well over 10 years from meeting her at the Lomond and Newstead Folk Festival, of course, and every other festival. She’s just an amazing energy and performer and songwriter and all around spirit. And Layla Fibbins I’ve just gotten to know over the past three or four years and every time I see her she’s a rock and roll Queen. She’s great company, and very, very talented. So I’ve known them all individually. Mandy gave me a copy of the Maggie Darlings album about two years ago before the pandemic and I put the album in the car [stereo] and I just couldn’t believe how good it sounded and how good the songs are and the performances. I asked Mandy ‘I’ve never even heard of you guys playing together? And how come I haven’t heard any of this one?’ She goes ‘Oh no, this is our latest album. We’re not too sure what we’re gonna do with it.’ Then of course after the pandemic finished and it was third time lucky for the launch I got in touch with them and said ‘I really really love this album. I’d really love to hear it live. How about we do a launch together? That would be a lot of fun. At least I will be there to see the see you perform the outcome.’ They all said yes. So I’m pretty I’m a pretty happy man!