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10 Questions for musician Craig Finn | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for musician Craig Finn

10 Questions for musician Craig Finn

Hold Steady frontman on his "more vulnerable" solo work and mental health on the road

Craig Finn writes about "people trying to do the right thing, but still having a hard time keeping their head above water"

As frontman and lyricist of US rockers The Hold Steady, Craig Finn specialises in vivid storytelling featuring larger than life characters. It’s a writing style that he has carried with him into his solo work too even if, as he says, the stories are “more vulnerable and maybe a little more personal” than fans of his other band may be used to.

It’s been a busy year for Finn. Fourth solo album I Need A New War, released in April, completed what he has described as a trilogy of records with producer Josh Kaufman. It’s musically spacious and lyrically dense, its bright spots of harmonica and saxophone appropriate accompaniments to tales of ordinary, troubled people searching for a little magic. This summer, The Hold Steady released their first album in five years and their first with a new six-piece lineup. The band now opts for semi-regular runs of shows in larger cities (including London) rather than touring, which has reignited the collaborative creative fires as well as allowing time for the band members to “do the rest of their lives.

Finn is currently touring Europe in support of I Need A New War with his band, the Uptown Controllers. I caught up with him in Glasgow.

LIS FERLA: You’ve described the last three solo records as an unintentional trilogy of albums. What is it that links them together, and how did you know you were done?

CRAIG FINN: Well, I don’t know is the answer [to the second part]. I made these records with Josh Kaufman, the producer and a multi-instrumentalist who plays a lot of the instruments, and Joe Russo who plays the percussion. We made the first record, [2015’s] Faith in the Future, and it went so well that we just kept recording. So we were recording the next record before the first record even came out, and we kind of just continued that way until we released three records. So it’s a trilogy because we sort of never stopped recording.

My head was also in a certain place. My mother died before Faith in the Future, and it led me to a place that’s much more empathetic as a songwriter.

With The Hold Steady, I write so many songs about people making bad decisions and pursuing them belligerently to their logical conclusion. With the solo work, I think a lot more times I’m writing about people who are trying to do the right thing but still having a hard time keeping their head above water, and I see a lot of people around in that boat, so to speak. The Hold Steady, I’m always writing lyrics to these big sounds, big riffs, so the songs are big and cinematic. With this, I kind of put a microscope on something and make it more vulnerable and maybe a little more personal too.

I think one of the things I really love about your solo work is that it’s very obviously not The Hold Steady…

Yeah. I mean, I feel like I have a great rock band in my life already, so I’m not looking for that. When I’m doing solo records, I’m looking to flex a different muscle. I’ve got a pretty big band with me tonight, but it still feels quite different. It doesn’t get as big as The Hold Steady. There’s probably less occasion to throw beer in the air. But it can still bring the dynamics.

Craig Finn black and whiteDo you see the characters in these songs as inhabiting the same universe as in The Hold Steady’s songs?

I feel like The Hold Steady’s characters exist at 110 to 125 percent of real life, you know what I mean? They’re almost super real - hyper-real - where I think these characters are very much grounded in real life. Someone who goes through all the things that a Hold Steady character goes through wouldn’t still be standing, you know? And these people I think are living more normal lives in some way.

Your songs often feel like short stories. Do you ever see yourself writing fiction?

I would really like to. I read fiction all the time, so it’s sort of a goal of mine to not leave this earth before I have a novel or something. But what happens is, I think of a story and it turns into a song - so I’d need to break that habit. And also, I’m a very social person, so I like the camaraderie of playing music with people. And I think writing is a very solitary pursuit.

How much do you enjoy getting to play smaller venues again, rather than the big marquee shows you’re doing with The Hold Steady?

I still like touring a lot. I love playing these shows - they can get really intimate. With The Hold Steady, when you’re playing big rock, it works better in a bigger room: we can kind of overwhelm a PA in a small room like this, and the vocals don’t cut through. But for something like this, where it can be pretty quiet at times, having a small audience is really nice because you really can connect in that way.

How do you keep yourself sane and healthy on the road?

I try doing exercise when I can, just sweating a little bit. And walking around. I’m a big fan of knowing where I am, which sounds weird, but when you’re on tour you can go from the venue to the bus and never know. Even if you know there’s a pharmacy around the corner, another good-looking bar or something - at least know what’s on the next street. There’s some sanity in that.

I’m not the first to say that the tour bus is like a submarine, but it is: it’s not underwater but you don’t see where you’re going, you just arrive at these places, and that’s very disorientating and I think can be bad for mental health. So walking, eating healthy, have a good time but don’t overdo it. It’s a conversation that musicians are having more than ever, because it feels like we’ve lost a lot of people in the past few years. It’s like pushing a boulder uphill: if you aren’t actively pushing it up, it’s rolling down. I think you have to work at it.

You contributed a cover of my favourite Frightened Rabbit song to Tiny Changes, the celebration of The Midnight Organ Fight album.

It’s [my favourite] too, probably. It’s funny, Scott [Hutchison, the Frightened Rabbit songwriter who died by suicide last year] said “you should sing with us sometime, and we should probably do that song since you talk about Jesus all the time”. When that compilation came up, it was Scott who asked me to do it, Scott and [bassist] Billy [Kennedy]. He was very much alive when I recorded that track. And we did it kind of breezy, and I don’t think I would have been able to do it that breezy after he died. But I’m glad we did, because it was maybe a testament to how much fun I thought he was, and how much I enjoyed being around him. Even before he passed, I was happy to be asked, and they’re still one of my favourite bands and I’m glad to be a part of it even more so now that he’s gone.

The next time you’re in Glasgow, you’re going to be appearing in a Bruce Springsteen celebration at Celtic Connections. How did that come about?

[Glasgow songwriter] Roddy Hart is putting it together. I’m not super familiar with him. He just asked on email, or got in touch with management… It combines a few things I like, Springsteen and Glasgow, so I said “if I have the time for you I’ll come” and sure enough I have the time to come along and I’m excited about it. I haven’t figured out what I’m doing yet, but there’s a little time. It looks like a good lineup and I’m excited to be a part of it.

It’s been a really busy year for you, with a new Hold Steady album too. Are you finding it easier to balance all the different things that you’re wanting to do now The Hold Steady doesn’t tour as much?

One of the things we’ve done with The Hold Steady, the weekends and the way we release music, we’ve made it very efficient in the sense that we do what we want to do. The parts that we like we do, the parts that we don’t we don’t. And it allows for everyone to do the rest of their lives. And in a pure business sense - which I don’t always like to talk about - for a long time we’d be playing city X, Chicago, say, to pay for some of the smaller ones around it. It’s like, after 15 years maybe we just do the one that makes sense business-wise, and fan-wise, and try to make it a fun weekend where people can come to us.

And I really think it’s been great for the band - a kind of creative explosion within the band - just because it’s all fun. And there’s so much more time to work on music. When we’re together it’s never like “it’s late, let’s set up the equipment again”. It’s like “hey, I have this idea, we should go over to soundcheck”. And then look, we released a record that’s really fun and that’s been maybe the unintended benefit. I didn’t see how much it would affect the creativity but it has really just put the creativity through the roof.

That really came across on the album - it sounded like you were having fun.

I’m glad. The producer we hooked up with, Josh, who produced my last three records, I felt that we’d really have fun with him and I was right. It was a gamble, and I’m glad. We were able to capture that fun and I’m really proud of it. The Hold Steady feels great, we just did four weekends this summer and it’s feeling fantastic. And also, I think I’m really happy because I get to do this [solo material] too, and I think that makes me approach The Hold Steady differently, helps me to appreciate the awesome parts about The Hold Steady and really dig into those strengths.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I’m listening to the new Nick Cave a lot, the newest Lana Del Rey and the new Ezra Furman - I like all his stuff. My favourite record of the year is The Fontaines DC, from Dublin. I think that band was genetically engineered to please me - it’s got big guitars and poetry. And I saw this band, The Murder Capital, also from Dublin, on Thursday when I was in London - they’re great too.

  • I Need A New War is out now. Craig Finn performs at the Roaming Roots Revue 70th birthday tribute to Bruce Springsteen, part of Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival, on 26 January 2020.

Below: hear "Blankets" from I Need A New War

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