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Having served a good stint as an underground indie rock artist, Craig Finn suddenly made a name for himself as a chronicler of teenage successes, failures and excesses over a series of critically acclaimed albums with the Hold Steady in the mid 2000s. Their reputation was established as ‘America’s greatest bar band’ with 2005’s ‘Separation Sunday’, but then the universal appeal and E-Street Band ambitions of their two acclaimed and commercially successful follow ups ensured the band wouldn’t be playing any of those bars ever again.
In 2012, Finn used a break from Hold Steady duties to record a solo album, ‘Clear Heart Full Eyes’. Conceived deliberately as an experiment and a step into the unknown, Finn took himself to Nashville and recorded with a group of session musicians he’d never before met. The album served as an interesting counterpoint to his band’s work – imagining an alternative reality where his songs were set against country-blues rather than stadium riffs and punk rock rhythms.
While the Hold Steady remain very much a going concern (a series of ten year anniversary shows celebrated their landmark ‘Boys and Girls in America’ album late last year), Finn has been even more active as a solo songwriter. On 24th March, he releases ‘We All Want the Same Things’, which sees him replicate the qualities of the Hold Steady’s best work in a new setting.
Gone are the crunching guitars (although his Hold Steady comrade Tad Kubler does crop up as a guest) and in their place are subtle nods to country, blues, folk and garage rock. The teenage references that he used to rely on have been replaced with a cast of fictional 40-somethings – navigating relationships that are less intense than those of the stars of his Hold Steady, but come with tougher choices and harder responsibilities. Finn has retained his unique knack of finding the universal within specific, detailed narratives – and his half-spoken singing style remains compelling.
Pennyblackmusic spoke to him midway through a February tour with Japandroids, a band who very much seem his kindred spirits, as he prepared for the release of ‘We All Want the Same Things’.
PB: You have a new album coming out very soon – just under a month today, in fact. Tell me about the recording and what you were hoping to achieve from the record.
CF: I see this as a companion piece to my last solo record (‘Faith in the Future’, released in 2015) and that’s what I was intending it to be. I began working on it almost straight after the last album. I ended up doing two solo albums back to back, and I liked the idea of that.
But, as we recording it, we built on what was there on ‘Faith in the Future’. We had a lot more people playing on this one and the recordings were more spontaneous. It makes it a much more musical album. I wanted the last one to be very stripped back, but I was more comfortable going beyond that this time.
PB: You made this album with producer Josh Kaufman again, who also recorded ‘Faith in the Future’ with you. Was the intention to recreate the process that worked on that earlier album, or were there things you changed?
CF: It was made in the same way as how we made ‘Faith in the Future’. It felt like it was a band coming back to the studio to make their second album. It was the same kind of interaction and language, and that allowed me to be a bit more in control. We knew what to expect to get the songs to a certain point.
I saw the songs as a jumping off points. I would get them to certain point and then bring them to Josh and Joe Russo (who plays drums and percussion on the record). We’d talk through what they were hearing and suggests ways the songs could be better.
This time, we also wanted to bring the songs to more people. We were in the New York situation, you know, so there were plenty of people who could play on the songs. What we talked about was bringing the right people in for the right song, but then seeing what they could being to it.
The difference between doing a solo album and being in a band is that you don’t have to find a role for everyone on each song. You don’t need to have drums on every track. I was really looking for a smaller sound on the last album, but it was good to bring the songs to new people this time.
PB: You talk about your set-up with Josh and Joe as if it was almost like another band. How did you first meet them?
CF: We met for the first time not long before ‘Faith in the Future’. So on that album, we were still getting used to each other. I had done a version of ‘Sweetheart Like You’ for a Bob Dylan tribute album and Joe had played with me on that. I really liked what he did on that song. It felt like he was playing to the lyrics.
I met Josh for the first time in the UK, actually. I did a tour where I played with Patterson Hood and Will Johnson, and I met him while we were doing that tour. He suggested then that we should work together.
PB: Looking back to your first solo album, ‘Clear Heart Full Eyes’, it felt then that you were viewing it as a bit of an experiment, for the break between Hold Steady albums. Is it fair to say that you are now very comfortable with the idea of releasing music under your own name?
CF: Yes. Obviously you can’t tell what will be happening a decade from now. There may be new opportunities that open up and different people you want to work with. But I can definitely see myself keeping making ‘Craig Finn’ records for a long time to come.
This is when I can have the most control over what I do. People sometimes forget that I am only one fifth or one sixth of the Hold Steady – it’s important that everyone gets to contribute.
PB: Lots of the songs on these record are character studies, but they feel like they are your contemporaries. But the song you’ve put out as a taster for the album, ‘Preludes’, is a song based on your own life twenty years ago. How does that fit in?
CF: I think this album is a reflection of where my head is at the moment and a reflection of how I feel. But that song is the only one that is directly autobiographical. I have written a few songs like that before, from ‘Stay Positive’ (Hold Steady 2008) album onwards there were a few Hold Steady songs that were about me personally.
That song goes back to a time when I was trying to find my place in the world. There was a lot of uncertainty. The things I was going through seem to fit in with what the characters in these songs were experiencing. So, although it’s a song set some time ago, I think it fits in with the theme.
I wrote the album over Lent, a song a day. It’s something I have done a few times – I used to think that the best time to write was when I was hungover, but over Lent now I give up drinking and set myself a challenge. Not all those songs make it through, but there was a core of songs that had a cohesiveness that would make a good record.
PB: I found a phrase you used quite often when you were promoting your last album quite interesting – you talked about wanting to do something that was “age appropriate”. Is that still something you are aiming for.
CF: I am definitely more interested now in writing songs about adult characters. These songs are about normal people and the things they go through just trying to move forward in their lives. I’m also looking for more elegance in the music.
Some of the artists who most interest me embraced writing about the different stages of adulthood in their music. People like Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon really embraced writing songs about the struggles of older characters. That is something I really want to be able to do.
PB: Does that also apply to your live show. I saw you play a solo show in London on 2015, and it was very different to the Hold Steady shows. But even with an audience who are very quiet, it felt like you were looking for an opportunity to rock out and get us going…
CF: It’s still fun to have an energetic audience. I still think it’s appropriate for the moment to still be looking for a live show like that. I’ve been opening for the Japandroids on this tour, and that’s exactly where their audience is.
But in January, I did a ‘living room tour’ which was very different. There were small audiences, maybe thirty or forty people, and the setting meant people were sitting down. There was silence and people were listening really closely. My very first solo tour had been like that as well.
PB: You mentioned earlier the tour you did with Patterson Hood and Will Johnson – it felt when I saw you on that tour that you really embraced the opportunity to perform in a very different setting and have much more minimal arrangements for the songs. The focus was very much on the words and the melodies.
CF: That was a really fun tour. To play with them was amazing, especially as the Drive-By Truckers had been such a big influence on me when I first formed the Hold Steady and how the band developed. It definitely gave me confidence in the solo songs – I have such adoration for their music, so when one them says it’s good, you can feel like it is a pretty good song.
PB: Once the album is released and the tour you are doing now is over, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
CF: We have this tour and then we will be a looking to do some more shows – we have a handful of things already booked for the summer. There will also hopefully be a chance to do some Hold Steady shows. I don’t think we’d be looking to do a long haul, but I would like to do some shows that we can make really special – finishing with a big show in New York. I would like to do some different songs, ones we haven’t played in a while. That makes preparing for the shows harder, but I’d like to do something that keeps the shows special.
PB: The album officially comes out on 24th March, but as with ‘Faith in the Future’, there is also the option to do a pre-order through Pledge Music. How does that change the process of releasing albums for you?
CF: Well, both these solo albums are still being recorded and released through a traditional label, so in many ways it hasn’t changed. But Pledge Music has worked really well as a store and a way to connect with people directly.
In the Hold Steady, we had a fan club and we did a covers EP that you could only get through that. That’s about having a community and keeping that connection with people there.
On ‘Faith in the Future’ we were experimenting with new ways of building that direct community. It was really fun, but some of it became really hard to co-ordinate. Like there was the option for people to come to a baseball game with me, which was really fun, but the logistics were hard – finding a game that actually fitted with when they were available and when I was going to be in town.
So, we are not doing quite as much of that this time. We are definitely using it more as a store and keeping it to things that we are more able to control.
PB: What is your impression of the audiences you are getting as a solo artist? Is it fair to say that people still know you mainly as the singer with Hold Steady and it’s the same people listening to both?
CF: Over the last few years, we’ve done some really good touring – we did a lot of shows with Jason Isbell and now with Japandroids. So, I think we’ve done a lot to get the word out and let people hear these songs.
But I think most of the people who will buy this album are people who like the Hold Steady. And that’s totally fine. Of course you always want new fans. In time, you’d hope that this music will appeal to people who were maybe too young to be fans of the Hold Steady.
PB: I think there’s clear thread from the Hold Steady to your solo work – there’s no reason why a Hold Steady fan wouldn’t like it. You’ve already mentioned that you take more control of the process on the solo records. How would you describe the differences in how you work in the Hold Steady?
CF: The main difference is that, in the Hold Steady, I don’t write the music. Tad (Kubler, guitarist) will come with guitar riffs and I will then work the lyrics around those. We work out how the songs should fit in the room.
When I have brought stuff that was a little further down the line, where maybe I had worked out a melody, to the guys in the Hold Steady, it hasn’t really worked as well. They’ve not really had that enthusiasm for that.
So, doing the solo albums means I have maybe taken the songs a little bit further on my own first. There is still lots more to do to turn them into finished songs that sound right, and that’s where Josh comes in. Josh and I will talk about what he’s hearing, what else could be done to the songs – which means they still may end up quite different from how they seemed at first.
PB: The songs on this album are a series of different character sketches. What are the themes that hold those different people and different stories together?
CF: Apart from the autobiographical song that we talked about earlier, these are all intended to be character sketches of people that are around in 2017. These are strange times. A lot of people are just trying to keep their heads above water. These songs are for those people – I think they are characters in situations that we can all relate to.
PB: And that’s where the title comes from, ‘We All Want the Same Things’. That’s a title that has taken on quite a bit more resonance since you first recorded these songs – the album comes out at a time when we all seem more and more divided.
CF: Yeah, the title now takes on an element of black humour, but I do really believe that deep down we do all want the same thing.
We all make different choices. And I think there are some of the characters in these songs that would not vote the same way that I do. But I wanted these songs to show where there is common ground between all of us. I am acknowledging that we are all human, we all have original sin, we all get scared, we all get sad.
On both sides of the Atlantic, there have been political changes that make people feel like they don’t understand each other – but I really do believe that we can seek to understand each other, that we really do all want the same things fundamentally.
PB: Final question – were there any other bands or artists in particular that were influential in how you made this album?
CF: There were two in particular. The first is the Velvet Underground’s ‘Loaded’ album. We listened to that a lot when we were recording the album. Josh said that one of the songs reminded him of the first track on ‘Loaded’ (‘Who Loves the Sun’), a really groovy thing and we were aiming for the same kind of feel – I don’t know how much of it came through to the finished recordings, but that was a big part of how we wanted the arrangements to sound.
Then the other would be Ezra Furman. I really love his music, how he is doing his own thing but always with that strong reference to classic rock and roll. I was listening to his music, and it really made me want to do that more on this record – I thought, I have to get more piano and horns on the album, that classic sound.
PB: Thank you.
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Craig Finn, the front man with the much acclaimed the Hold Steady, speaks to Benjamin Howarth about his third solo album, ‘We All Want the Same Things’
Craig Finn:Slaughtered Lamb, London, 15/9/2015
Ben Howarth watches Craig Finn, more used to playing with a booming rock band behind him, perform an intimate solo set in front of an enthralled crowd in the basement room of London’s Slaughtered Lamb pub
Andy Cassidy chats to Craig Finn from critically acclaimed New York-based garage rockers the Hold Steady about his just released first solo album, 'Clear Heart Full Eyes'
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