Craig Finn’s lyrics lead their listener down on a linguistic journey similar to Kerouac’s decadent detour in realist fiction. While Jack always wrote with a beat in mind, Finn writes with a beat to back him. His songs are extensive and wordy, but are carefully chosen Finn’s rapid rants reflect the passion that Kerouac was able to put to his typewriter with those amphetamine-fueled fingers and the immediacy he emphasized with all those ellipses, but they leave just enough holes in the story to provide a strategic mystery in each episode.
Using uncommon word choices, witty double entendres, and the juxtaposition of modern day jargon with scholarly diction, Craig Finn writes each song as if they well-composed short stories set to music. With tragic tales of addicted acquaintances and fallen friends, Finn provides a certain sentimental reverie for those beautifully bleak, dark days many of us can relate to.
Best known as the frontman and lyricist for the Hold Steady, Finn is taking a brief hiatus from the band and heading out on his own. His solo record “Clear Heart Full Eyes” came out last month and short tour ensued. The following interview was originally published to support his Northeast shows. This unedited version might eventually contain audio clips of unreleased tracks from his show at Great Scott. But for now…
NG: How’s everything going on the solo tour?
CF: Good. I’m in Portland, Oregon on tour. We play tonight. We’re enjoying a nice morning walk around.
NG: How are you enjoying doing your solo thing versus the Hold Steady as far as live shows are concerned?
CF: It’s cool. At first it was tough because even though it was a full band, it’s much quieter. It takes some getting used to. At first I was like, are they enjoying this. People just seem to be looking at me. I’m trying to bring an intensity to the performance. I have really good players and it seems to be getting better. We’ve had some really amazing shows.
NG: Who are the players and are they the same as the album?
CF: No, one is– Ricky Ray Jackson plays pedal steel and slide guitar and he was on the record and is playing live. The other guys are all Austin people. I made the record in Austin and most of the people weren’t able to do the touring so they recommended people for me to tour with in each case. There’s a guy named Alex Livingstone on bass, Falcon Valdez on drums and James Stevens in playing the other guitar.
NG: What prompted you to relocate and record in Austin?
CF: We made the record down there and the guy I wanted to work with had a studio down there. When we talked, he told me he’d put together the band and he put together the guys he thought would be best to play on it. I went down there for the month of July. It kinda felt like a spirit journey when I went down there. I committed early to wanting to hire Austin musicians.
NG: What promoted you to step away from the Hold Steady and make a solo record?
CF: Well, there were a couple of things. One is we just needed a break. We decided to take a 4 or 5 month break and I needed something to do. Also, I had made 5 records in 7 years with the Hold Steady and figured I would step outside and get some perspective and that’s the best way to grow artistically. This was something new. I’m a big fan of pushing forward to the point of discomfort. I wanted to make this record. I was really intimidated. I’m not a super strong musician, but I got it done and I was happy with it so I got some newfound happiness. I took new approaches with this one that would benefit me and the Hold Steady.
NG: Was there any contention among the band that you were venturing off on your own?
CF: No, we were on break and I know they knew I wanted to do something that was a little quieter. The Hold Steady is a loud band and as a lyricist, I wanted a project driven by the vocals. But we’re writing another Hold Steady record now, and we’re probably halfway done. The Hold Steady is alive and well and busy and I hope to have a Hold Steady record out this year, but it’s not entirely up to me. We’re hoping to record in the early summer.
CF: Most of them weren’t around that long. I had “Wrecks and Ruin” for a couple of years, but the others– I had this thing where I was trying to write a song each day and a lot of them came from that. I’d write a song every day and throw a bunch of them out, but I would work on some of them. That’s how a lot of these songs came about.
NG: How do you view your approach in songwriting in this project versus the band?
CF: Well, it’s quite different. With the band I only write the vocals and the lyrics. This one is all about me making a song with an acoustic guitar, but making it as good as I could make it with guitar and vocals. I made some demos and then sent them off to the producer. I think the fact that Tad and I try to make more fully formed songs is the big difference.
NG: You are very good at bringing back recurring characters in Hold Steady songs and this time around you have some different characters. Was it intended to be that way? And I’ve always been curious to what degree the characters in your songs are real.
CF: Well, they’re composites of people I know and people whose stories I’ve heard. There’s no 1-to-1 relationship, so I guess that makes them fictitious. But I guess at the same time, some of the people I knew when I was younger. Yeah, it’s hard to know how much these characters will recur, because it’s solo stuff. But I try to use characters and it lets you do more stuff. It’s easier to tell a story with high highs and low lows with the characters. This record is a possibly a little more personal… probably a little more personal. The characters on this record probably serve the same purpose and I still like them and I like to tell a story with the songs and I think the characters are able to give that frame of mind.
NG: You also tend to have recurring settings, but the settings are different on this record…
CF: Yeah. For much of this record, I had this idea of a bar called the Wagon Wheel and in this world the characters come in and out of that place a little bit. I enjoy having a sense of place and having recurring characters or places offer people a bit of a reward if they listen closely. Maybe people will remember that person from another song. I listen to music and growing up I’d listen to music like that in a special way where I was listening for clues. In some ways you think of music you’d want to hear and in some ways that’s kind of my notch of my own fandom in music.
CF: I think it lacks some of the optimism that the Hold Steady has. The Hold Steady is positive and there’s a celebrated nature to the music. I chose to take a little break from that. I think the responsibility of tying things up with the responsibility of having a positive message is something I love about the Hold Steady. These [solo] songs kind of started bleak and stayed bleak. Ultimately there is some dark humor in there too, but it allowed me to do things in a different way.
NG: So you went to BC, how important was Boston for character development in your stories?
CF: Well, I was certainly at a time in my life where I started meeting a bunch of people. When you go to school you start meeting a bunch of people from a bunch of places. I’ve always been of the nature of songwriting where specific lyrics are about cities or street names. But as far as Boston is concerned, I went out a lot. A lot of the stuff was my own world. I would go to shows a lot.
NG: Do you enjoy coming back? Do you still have an affinity for Boston and are there places you always go back to when you’re in town?
CF: Well, I was born at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton. I definitely enjoy Boston. I’m from there and I think the Hold Steady connects to a lot of people there and the Hold Steady always has good shows there. I’m looking forward to doing my solo thing there. I don’t really go back to any places so much, it’s all about seeing old friends. I mean ten years ago Great Scott was a BC bar and there were Grateful Dead cover bands, so it’s funny to be back at Great Scott. It used to mean something totally different in the 1990’s. So that’s kind of cool. Everything has changed. When I go back somewhere it’s more about catching up with old friends.