Catching Up With Neil Finn

Music Features Neil Finn
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Ever since the fresh-faced Neil Finn joined his brother Tim in the New Zealand institution Split Enz back in 1977, he’s been cranking out his own songs and can now be looked at as one of the great popsmiths of the last three decades (Split Enz’s “I Got You” is about as perfect a pop song as you’ll hear).

Of course, Finn really came into his own as frontman of Crowded House in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with a spotless run of singles including “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Weather With You.” His collaborations with Johnny Marr, Eddie Vedder and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien for his 7 Worlds Collide projects opened his music up to a whole new set of ears.

Of course, within all of that Finn has also recorded a handful of solo records, including his latest, Dizzy Heights, his first proper solo effort since 2001’s One Nil. Dizzy Heights finds Finn delving a little deeper into darker ambient sounds while still allowing a sunny hook to sneak through.

Paste caught up with Finn, who was spending the afternoon on the press circuit from his home studio in Auckland, to talk about the craft of songwriting, collaboration and being a bit of a recluse.

Paste: The first thing that stands out to me on Dizzy Heights is the song “Divebomber.” It’s a little more ambient and not necessarily catchy. What was the influence for writing it?
Neil Finn: I did make it available as the first track to people because I was kind of interested in expressing the differences on the record aside from the things that might be familiar. I really didn’t think it would be anything that would be played on the radio. I had a video to go with it that I was quite keen on playing as well. I just think it’s new ways of writing. I’m always looking for new ways of getting started, and the whole song was written around the rise and fall of engine noise. And it brought something different out. I’m also singing in a different voice than I normally employ, and it’s an interesting arrangement that turned out real well. There’s a strangeness to it, which seemed slightly compelling, and I was happy that people heard that first.

Paste: Lyrically, “Better Than TV” and “Recluse” were interesting to me…
Finn: Well “Better Than TV” is…I mean, I’m kind of interested in the whole idea of not settling into habits and being numb as you get older. [It’s also about] getting closer to what you dream of, instead of settling for what’s familiar and comfortable. It’s actually a love song about somebody you’ve been with a long time to rise despite and beyond what even you might have expectations of to achieve what they really want, and not leave anything on the floor. And with “Recluse” I’m musing on different notions of what it is to be a recluse, because I’m very much in the mode of staying at home. I think there are a lot of people who are shut away indirectly from the world by the Internet or TV. I’m not entirely criticizing it. I’m just interested by it. Trying to keep up with the entire world at once in a slightly detached, non-direct kind of way is a modern syndrome. It’s a form of reclusiveness.

Paste: You seem to have embraced Twitter. Do you feel that it’s a useful thing, or at the end of the day just a time-waster?
Finn: I like it because I don’t feel obliged. I don’t think it’s possible for me to reply and have a lot of conversations. That would really take a lot of time, and it also opens you up to one person going, “Well, you replied to her, why aren’t you wishing me a happy birthday?” I never got into it to do that, that whole shout-out kind of mentality. It was more about being able to put random thoughts out there, which are hopefully entertaining and occasionally maybe provocative. But generally it’s designed to entertain me and get a laugh out of people, and maybe add a little insight here and there about things I’m interested in.

Paste: What separates a Crowded House song from a Neil Finn song these days?
Finn: It’s mostly just the collaborative aspect of it. The process of writing songs, getting them ready and fully absorbing myself into the recording process is very similar. When you’ve got a band, you have parameters set for you, in the way people play stuff. In some ways it speeds the process up because it sounds the way it sounds. The solo thing you have a full range of option, and I quite like the approach of starting with a germ or a spark of an idea and then slightly destroying it and reassembling it so you really find out what’s important about it.

Paste: Do you compartmentalize your songs—Split Enz, Crowded House, solo work? Or do you look at it as one body of work?
Finn: I look at it more as one body of work. I know people have feelings about it—some people have preferences to one or the other. I understand that collaborations define to some degree what you do, but I also find it a little mysterious because I think on any given record there are always shades of things that sound familiar to me.

Paste: Speaking of collaborations, I interviewed Johnny Marr a couple years ago and he said he felt pretty fortunate to work with you and many others. You’ve done the same with projects like 7 Worlds Collide. How has that influenced your songwriting?
Finn: Well, I think it keeps you hungry. And you see the way other people work, and it’s reassuring and challenging. You see a certain amount of obsessiveness in someone like Johnny, the way he works, and it makes me feel better about being obsessive myself. I think you can get inspired and interested in music watching someone else do it. I don’t know that there’s many times you can point out the direct influence, like the song sounds like Johnny Marr. The influences are more broad, coming in touch with people who are driven really hard to make music all the time and seemingly never satisfied and hungry for new experiences makes me feel better about that and less like a freak [laughs].

Paste: I heard in an interview that you’ve become more obsessed with the process. Why do you think that is?
Finn: I have a pretty functioning studio that’s been building slowly from my glorified shed. Not that I’d particularly choose to always do it, because it can get in the way of performance—you’re looking at wave-forms on a screen. It’s like anything, you know, once you jump in the water you pump up a swim. It’s hard work and a struggle for a while, but then you start getting into a rhythm, and then you’re empowered. And I feel like I’m now able to have an idea and get a good representation of it quickly on my own without relying on too many people. That’s a good feeling.

Paste: I know Liam [Finn, Neil’s son] records a lot of his own songs. Has he kind of sparked that in you as well?
Finn: Oh yes, for sure. I’m really a big fan of his work.

Paste: I am too.
Finn: That’s nice to know. He’s got a new record coming out as well. But he’s inspiring to me. He really is in command—both as a guitar player and a songwriter. He’s a very good recording engineer now and really interested in that whole process. In terms of production his work is going to be pretty impressive to watch in the next few years.

Paste: I’ve always found it interesting that—especially in a smaller country like New Zealand—there’s always been this separation between Flying Nun bands like The Clean and Tall Dwarves and the stuff you’ve been involved in. I mean, I sort of get it.
Finn: I think back in the day when Flying Nun was establishing itself as a label and spreading out in a very underground way around the world, we were the mainstream at the time. I don’t think we were the enemy so much, but in New Zealand we were enjoying pop success. I just think there’s a different mentality at work, and they just felt that outsider status quite strongly. I think nowadays, there’s less of a divide and the sense that people can assemble those records side by side and say, “Well, this is what was happening back in the day,” and that some of it was getting noticed in that sphere and some of it was getting noticed somewhere else. I’ve had contact with a lot of those people and, in fact, I’m sort of involved a little bit in trying to re-establish Flying Nun as a happening concern at the moment. My interest is strong in that music, and there’s a mutual respect there. I think maybe as the years have gone on, people realize that people were just trying to do it in their own way.

Paste: What’s next for you? Do you see yourself doing another Crowded House record?
Finn: I don’t know what’s next. I’m really keen to get on to something quickly. I’ve got a bunch of songs brewing at the moment, including a few songs that Crowded House began. I don’t know what the eventual outcome will be, but I’m feeling a sense of urgency about making records at the moment. Plus, the bridge into being able to operate myself, I’m eager to apply my skills.