ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 9, 1998
After making the agonizing decision in 1996 to break up his world-famous Kiwi pop combo Crowded House, Neil Finn wasn’t exactly sure what to do next. An Aussie artist-musician friend of his suggested Finn try painting, so he spent two weeks at a beachside location doing just that. No Mona Lisas were produced, but that wasn’t the point.
“It was just a good way to indulge in something creative that I wasn’t very good at,” says Finn from a New York hotel, “in order to remind myself that I’m better at music. But it was a nice reminder of just the pure enjoyment of being creative with no agenda.”
The time Finn spent with paintbrush in hand also allowed some new musical ideas to “creep in the back door”, and set the groundwork for his current CD, Try Whistling This. The mainly self-produced effort—which Finn will focus on when he plays the Vogue Theatre on Friday (August 7)—includes three tunes cowritten by Jim Moginie, guitarist for Australian politico-rockers Midnight Oil.
“We ran into the Oils many times over the years,” says Finn of his Crowded House days, “and Jim and I always figured that there was a little bit of simpatico there. We had a similar taste in music, and although the bands were totally different, we had a feeling something good would come. So we had a week at the beach and wrote a bunch of stuff and just had a good time jamming and talking music.”
Also a contributor to Finn’s maiden solo flight was Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, who was suggested by Try Whistling This mixer Tchad Blake. The fact that Soul Coughing’s music is worlds away from that which Finn is noted for didn’t enter into the equation. “I was attracted to working with people from different sides of the tracks,” notes Finn, “and actually what you find out is that people are not that one-dimensional. Everybody has another side to them—that’s what’s good about music, and that’s why it always amazed me that radio stations are so tightly formatted. Most of the people I know listen to more than one sort of music, and to pigeonhole things so much seems a shame.”
Although there are some recognizable names in the credits to Finn’s new CD, it’s his moniker alone that graces the cover. But after decades as a band member in Split Enz, Crowded House, and the Finn Brothers, the 42-year-old songsmith doesn’t find the solo route daunting. “Certain aspects are a little unfamiliar,” he admits. “Doing the promotional side of things on my own is quite hard work, because with a band you can a) divide it up, and b) send it up. But the rest of it’s all fine, and certainly onstage I’ve got a band with me that are all friends, and quite characterful, so it doesn’t feel any less a collaborative thing.”
Although it features some typically hummable Finn material, Try Whistling This is, overall, more moody and reflective than his previous work. Several recent reviews point out that the CD takes some getting used to, but Finn doesn’t view that observation in a negative light. “People have generally said that about this record,” he notes, “but they have said that about past records as well. I mean, even the one that everybody now thinks was really immediate and obvious, the first Crowded House record, took seven or eight months to unfold.
“But I think things always sound immediate after you’ve listened to them about six times,” he adds. “I think on this record there’s quite a variety of textures and different atmospheres, so in a way it can take a while to kind of find the songs. But they’re there.”
One new tune that didn’t take more than one run-through to get its infectious hooks into this scribbler is the Beatlesque “She Will Have Her Way”, which hints at the keen melodic craftsmanship Finn plied to stunning effect on Crowded House’s first single, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. Although he can’t recall what inspired that heart-wrenching 1986 hit, Finn does know that he wrote “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at his brother Tim’s house, on his elder sibling’s piano. “Actually, at the time Paul [former Crowded House drummer Paul Hester] was living there, and I just remember that there were some other people that had come over to visit. I didn’t much feel very sociable that day, and I went to the piano and it came out, though I’m not sure why.
“But I’m very fond of that song,” he adds, “and it’s endured really well for me. I’m actually singing it quite a bit at the moment in the context of the solo show, just on my own with an acoustic guitar, and I’m really enjoying that.”