There’s a lush, green exotic-ness to Neil Finn’s songs, as if they were created in some kind of hothouse rain forest where only the most beautiful flowers get pollinated. Ever since he turned out ‘Message to My Girl’ and ‘One Step Ahead’ as a member of Split Enz, Finn’s songs have had a special and somewhat other-wordly feel to them.
Could be because Finn is a Kiwi, mate, born and bred in New Zealand, the third rock from Australia and a place so far from the United States that just about everything with its stamp seems odd, exotic and attractive.
Or maybe it’s that Neil Finn is just a damn fine songwriter, a man who has that rare gift of turning the everyday moment – or the everyday abstraction – into a sublime pop song. Over the course of four albums with Crowded House, Neil Finn was a melody machine, each sweeter and more delicious than the one before. Crowded House only had one hit in the States, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, but it isn’t a stretch to say none of their records, or shows, ever received a bad review. Why Crowded House had to go to England or their homeland to get treated like pop stars, well, that’s a mystery.
Finn has just released Try Whistling This, his first solo album, on which he experiments with different instruments and sonic textures, always coming back to the source: gorgeous melody. The album entered the Australian chart and No 1, and was Top Ten in Britain its first week.
We caught up with him in Orlando, Fla., just before his very first American show as a solo artist.
Goldmine: You told me there’s a certain stigma to ‘going solo.’ Are you feeling that intensely?
Neil Finn: Not really. It’s got a touch of the Spinal Tap to it, doesn’t it, going solo? It’s like we’ll find out we’ve got a hit in Japan and re-form and do another tour. There’s nothing wrong with going solo, it just has a sound to it that’s slightly disturbing. But I’m quite well-adjusted to it.
You were so faithful to the band for so long. Is there a sense of, I broke up a marriage?
I don’t really feel that guilty about it. I sometimes think ‘What if?’ It carries with it certain risks, and commercially speaking, it’s probably harder. Maybe not quite so much in America, where Crowded House’s fortunes had slipped, anyway. But certainly in England, Australia and New Zealand where things were going very well, it would’ve made commercial sense to continue. But none of that seemed to be central in my thinking at the time.
So here you are on the precipice of a whole new thing. Is it daunting?
It’s only daunting when you allow yourself to get caught up in judging your worth by chart positions, or whether you can get on this radio station, or that radio station. That’s the trap sometimes when you’re in the midst of it.
But most of time when you’re traveling with a good bunch of people, as I am, you’re pouring yourself into gigs, and you have an innate feeling of worth, anyway. And it’s really not daunting at all, it’s actually exciting to go from town to town and play.
When I think about the first 10 shows I did with Crowded House, they were very small little pubs in the backlots of Australia. And with about 200 people or something. This tour’s going to theaters with audiences of 2-3,000. So that’s upped the ante quite a bit for the beginning of this band’s career.
At the end of the day, though, it’s not like Crowded House. You’re the artist. These guys work for you.
Yeah, but in some ways there’s only a subtle difference. Certainly in terms of recording, with Crowded House I would end up doing most of it myself, anyways.
So in a way, the musicians (on the solo record) were a different cast of characters, that was the main difference. And I didn’t have to consult people to make other decisions – where the touring would go, what sort of promotion we would do, what we would be wearing in the video clips.
I spent a long time thinking about whether I should break the band up. It was in my mind a lot. Once Paul had left, the internal chemistry was altered, and it didn’t feel the same, anyway. It didn’t feel as good. Although we could’ve made a good record.
I got to the point where I needed the space, and didn’t want to have the responsibility for so many people in my life. And the band didn’t feel like it was really progressing.
Do you still run into people who are pissed off that you broke up Crowded House?
I think some people are like ‘You guys were poised on the edge, you could’ve been the biggest band in the world, your music was great, why break up?’ I got that a lot in Europe, actually. And some people only got switched onto it on the Best Of, and then all of a sudden we weren’t around any more.
Try Whistling This sounds like a continuation of Together Alone, the final Crowded House album, or Finn, the album you made with your brother Tim. The arrangements are more ambient, less structured.
I think it’s definitely a continuation, and I suppose in a way it’s obvious that it would be, because as much as I try to re-define myself…I did actually embark on some pretty lateral and radical things in the course of making the record, but as much as they were thrilling in their different-ness, they didn’t have an emotional impact for me.
So I’d come back to certain familiar and reassuring things, in terms of looking for chord sequences and melodies that can really resonate for me. In some cases I pulled songs back to a more familiar context so I could actually attach myself to them a bit more.
Wait a minute…Could that Spinal Tap thing happen?
I certainly wouldn’t put the band back together because my solo career had failed. I think I’m too stubborn to do that.
I’ll just make another record. I think I’d be disappointed if it didn’t find an audience…it’ll find an audience of some sort, because even the Finn record, which has probably sold the least amount of records, it’s the record I’m probably the most proud of. I’m still really, really fond of that record.
I think there’s a sensibility about that it which is really un-fussy, and very open. There’s no double-guessing on that record. It was all done in a free-spirited way and without any thought as to the end result, really. We just enjoyed the process so much.
And I think it’s quite an exotic record. It occupies its own space. The songs are still kind of un-formed in a way; they’re not overly worked at all.
There’s a certain freedom about the new arrangements…no conformity.
There’s also the matter of being forced into new angles because there wasn’t the comfort zone of a bass player or drummer there to pick up the songs and make them sound like Crowded House. So I had endless options – that’s not always necessarily a good thing, it can lead you into confusion – but the freedom to be able to start songs off in any manner and actually get out of those patterns and habits.
‘She Will Have Her Way’, the first single, has that melodic Crowded House thing going, but then again it doesn’t. What’s different about it?
I think it’s an economy in the rhythm track that Crowded House might’ve been tempted to color up a bit more. A willingness to stick with one atmosphere. We would’ve tended to make the bridge break down, or introduce some really new colors into the thing. I think that one has got a certain attachment to the core, all the way.
You recently left Australia after 12 years and moved back to Auckland, not far from your hometown. Do you draw inspiration from that area?
It inspires me to be there. I don’t know how direct the relationship is, but it feels to me like it’s very good for what I do. I suppose you could argue that I don’t have to go that far away – it might be a lot easier for me if I got myself a house out in Connecticut or something. It would still be beautiful.
But there’s something about where you grow up, and the smell, and the lights, the way the shadows fall on the hills, all those things, there’s a very deep connection with them. So I’ve chosen to live amongst it, and I’m hoping that it will continue to influence me.
In the northern hemisphere there’s a certain urgency to the way that things are operated, in a musical sense and otherwise. So it tends to up the pace and the ante of what you’re doing. I think that’s good – in New Zealand, you can drift quite happily for a long time, good lifestyle, and nothing seems that urgent.
Your writing is almost uniformly bitter-sweet. People always talk about how dark your songs are…
I don’t think that the songs are ultimately that dark. There’s melancholy at the core of most or them, a lot of them. I think that images resonate when there’s a context of yearning.
It’s a difficult thing to sum up, really, because certain lines come out without any forethought, and then I kind of fill in the blanks. I usually imagine a guy in a room, and I imagine what the room or space is before I know I’ve actually written the song. It has to occupy some kind of place.
I find the most intriguing moments to evoke in songs are the moments of doubt, anguish, when you’re castigating yourself or the person you’re with, the cracks in relationships with people. The sort of difficult areas, that’s the area that I’m intrigued by, and so I suppose that’s what I write about.
And you’ve said over and over again that very few of them are first-person songs.
I’m actually quite content at this point in my life. The angst that I’ve had over the years has not really been to do with my relationships. It’s been more to do with the lifestyle that I’ve been involved in, and bands and stuff.
In fact, when I’m down, I don’t write songs. I write songs when I’m feeling pretty good. But they can describe moments… sometimes even fractions of time that happen in the middle of the night, when you wake up and there’s an anxiety there, or a deep concern. By the morning, it’s all fine again, but the song can deal with those sort of moments.
How do you do that? Tell me, and I’ll do it too.
For me, the early stages of the songs are always sounds and words that just form. They come with a melody, married to the melody. Then I start singing nonsense and all of a sudden a line’ll pop out of the nonsense and it’ll seem to have some kind of resonance. I’ll write it down, and then another couple will turn up. On rare, beautiful occasions I’ll get the whole thing in one fell swoop, without really thinking about it. But most of the time I have to fill in the gaps.
Every now and again I’ll sit down and have an idea about what I’m gonna write about, but most of the time it just falls out.
A song I like on the new record is ‘Sinner’. You were raised a Catholic, and the shadowy figure of God appears in many of your songs. I like the line about not being able to see my faith until I let it go.
An untested faith is not a faith at all, it’s kind of a suspension of disbelief. Whatever you end up with after you’ve rejected everything is probably what’s close to your truth, or your value system. And so I suppose the song’s about that.
And I’m not like a churchgoing man at all; I have a kind of a loose attachment to all of that stuff, still. I rejected it all at some point in my life, too. But it’s ingrained still. You don’t lose it.
There’s a web site for people to discuss your lyrics. Have you had a look at it?
I’ve kind of kept away, not because I don’t like the fact that they’re talking about it. I’m kind of flattered that people like them enough to do that. But I actually get a little bit claustrophobic reading about people’s impressions of it sometimes. That kind of thing might intimidate me from writing.
Since we have this opportunity, let’s take a few of your better-known songs, and I’ll ask you maybe not what they mean, but how they formed. ‘World Where You Live’.
I was staying in my manager in L.A.’s house, and there was a woman that lived next door to him who always seemed to be having wild sex at about 6 in the morning. It used to wake me up. And I had no idea anything about her, except that she was really rampantly enjoying the thrash-around.
I think that’s where I got the lines “I don’t know where you go, do you climb into space, to the world where you live,” just speculating about this mystery life that was going on next door.
‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’.
I wrote that on my brother’s piano. I’m not sure if I remember what the context was, exactly, but it was just about on the one hand feeling kind of lost, and on the other hand sort of urging myself on: Don’t dream it’s over. That one actually fell out literally, without me thinking about it too much.
‘Hole in the River’.
That actually was a rare occasion where I sat down and had a story to tell. I’d just been told over the phone by my father that his sister had committed suicide. I was playing the tune on the piano before he rang me, and then he rang me and I just repeated it, basically, to the melody.
‘When You Come’.
I’d done it a couple of times before, but that was the first time I was conscious of a real stream-of-consciousness lyric. Images just fell out one on top of another. I didn’t, at the time, think it was all that connected – but actually, now, it seems like quite a coherent statement. I was just juxtaposing the natural world with a personal…pledge, really, I suppose.
The first few lines of it related to being in a motel in New Zealand. There was a rugby team there, and a netball team – netball’s like women’s basketball. And they were having a really big night in the bar together while I was playing my guitar. And one by one a lot of them paired off.
I went back to my room, and just before I went to sleep I heard a knock on the door next door, and I kind of thought it was my door. I went out to open it, and as I did, one of these netball players was knocking on this guy’s door. They both sort of saw me and went “Ooops!” and he ushered her in. And then they proceeded to get it on in the room.
Those were the first few lines: “You opened up your door, I couldn’t believe my luck.” I was kind of speculating about this guy’s reaction to it.
These probably sound strange, but this is actually the origin of a lot of stuff. You get them from weird places.
The chorus was to do with L.A., really. When there was a big earthquake there, and people were espousing the theory that it was punishment from God for all of L.A.’s excess and sin. So it was “Into temptation, knowing full well the earth will rebel.”
That was the origin of it. It became a song written in the first person, so it related like a personal experience. But really the origin was actually different.
How about ‘Weather With You’. Is there really a 57 Mount Pleasant Street?
There’s actually lots of them. My sister used to live in Mount Pleasant Road in Auckland, but it wasn’t Number 57. The number she was at didn’t sound very musical.
Tim had the lines “Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you” and also “Walking round the room singing ‘Stormy Weather’” and that was the extent of it, really. We just imagined the scenario. That was a classic case of imagining a room that a thing was taking place in, and a guy with a bit of ennui, having lost somebody, you know?
‘She Goes On’.
That was actually written for a friend of ours lost her mother. I think she asked me if I had anything they could play at the funeral as a kind of tribute. And I actually wrote that and made a little demo and sent it to her. They played it at the funeral, and I realized later that it was actually a pretty good song.
‘How Will You Go’.
Tim had heard that this engineer guy he knew called Timmy Kramer had died in New Orleans or something, in quite unfortunate, indulgent circumstances. And we started thinking about him in the context of the song, so it became focused towards that. It’s just angled at somebody who’s leading a troubled life, and can’t resolve their dilemmas.