Sunday, February 24, 2013

TWO FOR THE ROAD: An interview with Tim Finn

In Melbourne to play both the Between the Bays and Port Fairy Folk Festivals, TIM FINN fills ANDY HAZEL in on songwriting, success and siblings.

“Well, just because I was asked really,” explains Tim Finn, hesitantly, when asked what is bringing him to Australia. With 2011’s The View is Worth the Climb album and several New Zealand-based projects worked on in 2012, Finn is relishing the opportunity to play live free from the ‘record-release-promote’ circle. “There is something about doing a show in a beautiful space that’s really rewarding,” he says of the forthcoming shows and his extensive experience playing live with Crowded House. “We played outdoor shows like the Victorian Bushfire show and the Wave Relief tsunami appeal, Sydney Opera House - we’ve done all sorts of big things, but I’ll happily play to a hundred people, and I often do here in New Zealand. Sometimes those shows are the best ones.”

Veteran of massively successful 1970s-80s band Split Enz, sometime member of 1980-90s band Crowded House and more recently part of short-lived bands ALT and The Finn Brothers, Tim Finn is the handsome, affable, relaxed, intelligent troubadour you’d love to have as an uncle; the George Clooney of the Australasian music industry if you will. Fresh from releasing his fourth solo album, he has no qualms about playing a set full of classics, quite divorced from the music he’s making at the moment “I had an anthology released a few years ago, and I toured Australia and New Zealand, and played every song that people would recognise and it was great. When I play festivals, the songs I play tend to be the hits.” This separation between performer and composer is something he sits comfortably with. “When I perform, I’m interested in what’s the best thing for this crowd and how can we feel great and feel that uplift. But as soon as I leave the stage I’m wondering about this song that I’m working on and back in the world of writing again.”

It is in this world that Finn is happiest; working at his own pace, free of the pressure familiar to so many signed bands. “It just goes on, the song-writing part of it is endlessly fascinating, challenging and rewarding,” he says breezily. “I still love writing songs, though in a band it’s like all-for-one-and-one-for-all, every band wants to feel they’re connected to the other bands who have inspired them and achieve greatness for themselves. Now, my motivation is the pure aesthetic pursuit of a great song. When I go on stage it’s more what can I do for the crowd as people, maybe get them through a bad time and make them feel great for a while.”

Renown for his deft way with a pop song, Finn has written or co-written such classics as Weather With You, Fraction Too Much Friction, I Got You, Six Months in a Leaky Boat and the ode to Melbourne Four Seasons in One Day. “There is a fair bit of music that goes unrecorded,” he says of the process he works to these days. “Some demos are really good and better than the finished thing, other things come together in surprising ways in the studio.” His love for collaboration is something that has coloured his work in the past. From the supergroup of sorts ALT (with Irish songwriter Andy White and Hothouse Flowers’ front-man Liam Ó Maonlai) via Peter Gabriel on Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball album to his more recent works on his own album The Conversation, Finn’s selection process is constantly surprising. “Sometimes I’ll consciously seek someone out, sometimes it’s by chance,” he explains. “I like the idea of keeping it small and doing more than one thing with the collaborator rather than finding new people, but a lot of the collaborations I have are quite random.” 

One less random is his on-again-off-again work with sibling and founder of Crowded House Neil Finn. “Neil and I are brothers and we have family things that go on,” Finn says considering his words carefully.  “But when we work together it’s quite…formal. We go into a project in a structured way we don’t…share music. That sort of approach seems to work better for us; pulling a project together in a more defined environment. We have no plans to work together at the moment,” he says, anticipating my next question.
Since leaving Crowded House, Finn has released a string of acclaimed solo albums, all hits in his native New Zealand and examples of a writer finding no shortage of inspiration. “The last twelve years I’ve made four albums and really liked them all. I feel there’s a consistency of quality that is as good as anything I’ve ever done. The songs still trickle along and people come to them in their own time. Maybe one day people will rediscover them in a major way, I can’t ever predict what is going to happen. I’m still inspired and love what I do, but I don’t depend on commercial success.”

Success of a more personal and unexpected form has come to Finn through his time as a songwriter. “Music is great for healing and helping,” he explains. “I’ve had letters and comments over the years with people who have been open and honest about the way my songs have helped them. I suffered from anxiety attacks myself, and I wrote the [Split Enz] song Dirty Creature about that, which helped enormously. Other people have interpreted Dirty Creature as being about depression, something I’ve never suffered from. People say that it’s helped them and that’s an amazing feeling for a songwriter. I don’t think music has a public health service or responsibility - I think it’s better when music is free of any governmental or bureaucratic influence - but music is very important to people as years go by, and in ways you can’t predict. I realise that more and more as I get older and I never forget that.”

Whatever personal connection people bring to Finn’s songs, it’s clear that there are a lot of people with a lot of long-standing connections to his music, despite changes in the way people access it. “Record sales are not what they used to be and it’s so hard to compete for crowds these days,” he says, sounding tired. “I don’t go out with any huge expectations, but I did the Falls Festivals last summer and when I played songs like Six Month In A Leaky Boat or I See Red, they acted in the same excited way they did thirty years ago. There’s recognition there but it means something different now. It’s weird and I love it, but I never take that for granted.”

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