Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rock Candy Interview: Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

Craig Finn (Photo by Mark Seliger)
Normally when Craig Finn steps up to the mic, the crowd raises cups of beer, sings along about characters like Sal Paradise and girls that predict winning horses and belts out lyrics such as “we’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night.”

But Friday night will be different. Finn will be without his celebrator, raucous and literate rock band The Hold Steady and instead will perform songs from his debut solo album, “Clear Heart, Full Eyes.”

The songs are more intimate than anything we’ve heard from The Hold Steady. “Honolulu Blues” mentions a wavering faith in Jesus, how we’re all good and evil and how troubles still follow when you’re trying to get away from it all.

[Listen to "Honolulu Blues." ]


Intimate and personal? Yes. And still rocking without the soaring riffs of The Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler? Definitely.

We called Finn in Brooklyn as he geared up to head to Europe and then strike out on tour in the U.S.

Q. What should fans expect from your new album compared to The Hold Steady?

A. It’s quieter for sure. That’s the first and simplest answer. It’s also a little more narrative. It’s able to be a little more intimate and vulnerable.

With The Hold Steady, there’s high highs and low lows. My writing for that tends to be more cinematic. The solo stuff has more to do with the everyday and the mundane and those human moments.

Also in The Hold Steady, I really don’t write much music, if at all. Rarely do I contribute anything. With this, I come up with everything including lyrics and chords and melodies.

Q. Have you enjoyed doing things a little differently?

A. Yeah. I wouldn’t say they’re bad habits, but there are habits and ways you get of doing things. There’s a level of comfort there. One of the goals for me as an artist was to break out of those. To plug in with some other people and see if I could get somewhere with them.

Q. And you have never worked with this band before?

A. They were people I hadn’t met before. I remember the night before I left, I was really scared. I’m far from an accomplished musician. These guys, I had to shake their hands and then try to make a record with them. I learned a lot from it.

They’re all staring back at you and writing notes down. “This is the song in its most basic form. Where can we go from here? What is everyone hearing?”

It was nerve-wracking. It still was like you’re halfway through the song and you’re thinking, “Do they hate this?”

The producer (Mike McCarthy), he really produced the record in the true sense. He was sort of the leader, and he hand-picked some of the musicians.

Q. How did you end up working with Mike McCarthy?

A. We met through a friend. It must have been 18 months ago. I had a drink with him and he said some things that stuck with me. Also Britt (Daniel) from Spoon, he said a lot of the ways they made some of those Spoon records were very one-on-one.

I called him and talked about what I was thinking and played him some rough demos. I’m not a great musician and he said, “If you can sing me the song over the phone, like if you have a vocal, lyrics and melody, the rest of it can be my problem.” That was a really liberating thing to be said.

Q. Was it weird to be with a whole group of people you’d never worked with before and also to be recording in Austin instead of New York?

A. That was part of the whole concept; tying myself to a new concept and new people. It would have gotten weird if I was hiring people in New York or even Minneapolis. It was nice to separate and plug in down there.

Q. Is it the same band touring that was on the album?

A. Some of them. The touring lineup. I hired all Austin people because, spiritually, they live (in the mind set of these songs).

Q. Obviously, these shows have quite a different feel from what people may be used to seeing with you.

A. It’s more subdued, I’d say. There’s something about The Hold Steady that’s very celebratory. This record is sort of a break from being celebratory. There’s hours in the day where you don’t feel like that. This taps into a different part of my own human nature.

Q. How do you usually write? Do you sit down with a guitar or do you jot in a notebook?

A. It can go a lot of different ways. A lot of times, it’s the first line of the song or a phrase.

With this solo project, I really tried to write every day and write a song every day. I have a friend who wrote for Letterman. He’d say, “I don’t really have time to have writer’s block. We write a show and then we try to make it good.”

You probably know something about this feeling.

I though, “Maybe that’s a new way to approach songwriting.”

So, I started out with a song. A lot of them were terrible. But I gave them time and went back to them and got an idea of what was good and what wasn’t. Maybe the first verse was alright and then I’d build from there.

I liked putting a little more craftsmanship to it and punching the clock every day.

Q. And you recorded a lot of it live, right?

A. Even the vocals were recorded live, which is pretty unique. That’s one thing that I love about it. The musicians were in the room watching me sing. So when I step up to the mic, they back away, even imperceptibly. It’s the kind of thing you don’t get from overdubbing. I like the way it breathes.

Q. Do you think you’d ever do that with The Hold Steady?

A. It definitely makes me think of it. The volume that we operate at may not make that possible. (Laughs)

Q. Have you played much of this stuff live?

A. We just did one in Austin. It’s funny. When I got offstage, I felt like I hadn’t played a show yet — compared to what I’m used to. It’s mellower. I wasn’t tired and I wasn’t sweating and all wet.

Q. Is it tougher to keep people’s attention? It’s gotta feel different.

A. The audience energy is different. No one’s climbing on top of each other and throwing beer. It’s subdued material but it’s also keeping people’s attention. That’s a nice challenge to face. It’s a different one. It’s kind of cool.

Q. Will you be sticking to the solo stuff?

A. We won’t do any Hold Steady songs. We have 15 songs so far and we’ll be picking stuff up along the way. There’s 11 songs that made the record plus four outtakes. I might do a few songs alone without the band. I kind of want to keep things fresh. There’ll be plenty of material.

I don’t think it would feel right to play Hold Steady stuff. That doesn’t feel right to do.

Q. How many songs did you write for this album?

A. I have a lot of song that I wrote. I gave McCarthy 23 songs and he narrowed it down to 14. There’s plenty of songs. There’s more than that even. It’s just a matter of the band picking them up.
And they learn very, very quick.

Q. We’ve talked in past interviews about how you’ve taken up running a lot. Are you able to do it on tour?

A. I do. It’s actually a wonderful thing. It’s become completely necessary. I’ve got one of those iPod things that tells you how long you’ve run. There’s something about setting off on a run and not knowing where you’re going that helps me stay sane and focused and healthy.

I get kind of lethargic if I don’t run a few times a week.

Q. And you’ve talked about doing another Hold Steady record soon. What’s going on with that?

A. We have Steve Selvidge (on guitar) and we’re really committed to writing with him for this record. It takes a little extra planning because he lives out of town, but he’s coming to New York for all of next week.

I’d love to say that we’re in the studio in the end of the spring. I’d like to get back to the U.K. for the solo thing and then it’s back to The Hold Steady.

I’d love to have a record out in 2012. But that’s not always within our grasp. A lot of people have different things to say about that.

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