Pollen season seems to be getting the best of Neil Finn when Boulder Weekly catches him on a day off at home in Auckland, periodically interrupting a 20-minute interview with sneezes and sniffles. It’s late autumn in New Zealand, and Finn is preparing to trade in the cool ocean breezes of the Southern Ocean for a few days of hot and dry Colorado late spring; a main stage appearance at Telluride, and two nights at Boulder Theater.
“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. We did a tour of the U.S. last year when my last solo record (Dizzy Heights) came out. And we didn’t get to Colorado, which is a real shame, because it’s always been a really good place for me throughout the years, even back to the Split Enz days,” Finn says. “So I’m glad we’re covering it in pretty fine style, with a really good festival and two nights in one of my favorite places, Boulder.
“It will be a nice opportunity to play a wide range of songs from the whole of the last 30 years.”
When Finn released Dizzy Heights in 2014 most critics rightly pointed out that while it was his first solo record in 12 years, the man had been busy: several Crowded House album cycles, collaborations with his brother Tim and Aussie-songwriting legend Paul Kelly, a duo project with his wife Sharon called Pajama Club, a Split Enz live release, his multi-songwriter 7 Worlds project and even penning “Song of the Lonely Mountain,” the credit-roll closing song to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. For most artists, the solo album thing is the point — Finn actually had to make some time for it.
And it was anything but a convenient valise for shelved songs. Worked over by producer and Mercury Rev veteran Dave Fridmann (Sparklehorse, Sleater-Kinney, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), Dizzy Heights luxuriates in various swoons of girl-chorus vocal meringue (“Impressions,” “Divebomber”), city-dreaming string pads (“Dizzy Heights”), colliding airborne sonic fragments (“White Lies and Alibis,” probably the album’s best track) and airtight crafted pop-perfection (“In My Blood,” the album’s other best track).
Crowded House fans (or for that matter, even late-era Split Enz diehards) will recognize Finn’s uncanny knack for coaxing depth from lyrical economy. The record seduces the listener into piecing the whole cinematic trip together as a kind of concept album, its thematic artery pulsing beneath Fridmann’s buffet of sumptuous sonic gravies.
Not the record that Neil Finn fans probably expected, which, as Finn points out, is kind of the point.
“Some of the songs were relatively intact from the way I envisioned them, but some of them went through a large transition because of Dave’s presence,” he says. “He made a few big calls on a few of them, and I sort of welcome a strong presence in the studio. You sort of leave expectations behind — and it doesn’t always work out, sometimes your original ideas still stand up well.
“I think [what is] good for making your music feel more open and inviting is to have somebody else bring their own aesthetic. It makes more cracks for the light to come through somehow.”
At the time, Finn was reading the biography of Neil Young, relating to an anecdote about how different people wanted different things out of Young’s music. Some only wanted him to do acoustic, others only his “jammy” stuff. Hesitant to compare himself to Young, Finn can relate.
“Sometimes people get a little flummoxed by the production aspects, if it’s not what they’re expecting. They have an idea of how they would like to hear my songs presented,” he says. “There’s still people who think — rightly or wrongly — it’s only stuff I do with Split Enz or Crowded House, or stuff I do with my brother, people who only want to listen to solo work. I think there’s misapprehension sometimes about what the name on the record means. Really, I see it as a continuous body of work.”
Finn brings his current touring band to Colorado, which includes his wife Sharon on bass and son Liam on guitar. Hardly the first well-tenured musician to enlist his family as a backing band, we still wonder if the process was a relatively natural evolution.
“It’s been an easy transition in some ways,” Finn says, “because we didn’t push it. Liam had his own thing going so we don’t get to do it often, but we’ve been working on some music together so the timing is good. And we discovered by accident that my wife Sharon and I could play music together (late bloomers!).
“I kinda love it,” Finn adds. “It feels entirely natural and the music feels really good playing together. And a chance to hang out, while being conscious of not allowing it to become… y’know, weird sensitivities and things with family members. It encourages me to get zen about the process of rehearsing and so on.”
Finn also obliquely teases out some news about Crowded House; he told the Guardian a couple of years ago that there may be some news about the on-again off-again band, and he reiterated that to us.
“There is going to be some good news for the Crowded House hardcore by the end of the year; some re-issues and some quite cool things coming out that would fall into the category of ‘rare buried treasures,’ but there may be some songs along with that,” he says. “I’m just trying to make sure that everything comes out is of good quality and has a reason to exist, and it isn’t just a rehash of something or inferior versions of stuff that’s already out there.”
Finn’s stateside history extends all the way back the early 1980s, when Split Enz was trying to beat the clock breaking into the U.S. radio market before the band fell apart (and didn’t quite make it). He brings his troupe to the high country this coming week at the cusp of an election year. In the best of times, it’s a cheerfully dysfunctional yearlong fugue of TV ad dollars sloshing up against the craggy shores of ideological hellscapes. This year it promises a national tantrum of epoch-bruising proportion, the Future of Humanity and the Dignity of All Men teetering uncomfortably somewhere between a remorselessly nondescript pantsuit and the weather-resistant arch of a peach-hued hairpiece, a fallen angel’s truncated wing.
Finn is as erudite an interview as he is a punctual and incisive songwriter, so we couldn’t resist asking him to riff on American culture. We’re Americans; deep down, we really do care what foreigners think of us.
“I mean, got a lot of things I love about American culture and being a musician, music would be right on the top of the list. But certainly in terms of its contribution to the way that the world listens to music and relates to art … film, drama … all of that, has had an incredible contribution. And still does.
“I think the main thing, coming in from the outside … the [American] media is so focused in on sculpting news for individuals more as a form of entertainment. There’s a lack of perspective in America to what the rest of the world is like and to what America is in terms of its place in the world.”
Can we thank Rupert Murdoch for Donald Trump?
“I think they’re mining the same thing; playing to lowest common denominator all the time. They see that as a very powerful position to be [in], and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is certainly based in a large part on that. I think Trump’s playing to the same audience; they’re probably enjoying each other’s company, I’d say.
“I still believe that the dust will settle at some point, when it comes down to a decision about how the people will want to be represented, there will be … some sense that will prevail.
“But that’s just my opinion.”