Neil Finn knows why "Don't Dream It's Over" feels "almost ridiculously pertinent" now: "Particularly with Donald Trump talking about building walls"

Salon talks to the prolific songwriter about 30 years of Crowded House, his vault, re-releases and his new work

Published June 9, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Neil Finn   (Matt Hoggett)
Neil Finn (Matt Hoggett)

Neil Finn's shapeshifting body of work is nearly impossible to summarize. He's been part of two beloved, influential bands with deep catalogs: eclectic new wavers Split Enz and the ornate pop-rock act Crowded House. (The latter's self-titled debut, featuring the No. 2 Billboard hit "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong," came out 30 years ago this month.) Finn's also recorded several albums with brother/Split Enz bandmate Tim under the Finn Brothers moniker; formed the band Pajama Club with his wife, Sharon; released a spate of solo albums; and spearheaded the charity-minded 7 Worlds Collide project, a fluid endeavor which has featured collaborations with people such as Johnny Marr, Eddie Vedder, and members of Radiohead and Wilco.

In short, Finn's never been one to rest on his laurels — and he's always up for finding musical inspirations (and challenges) in places both familiar and unorthodox. That's helped keep his music endure and evolve, and kept Finn in the limelight, especially in recent years. His third solo album, "Dizzy Heights," arrived in 2014, while in late 2015, Omnivore Records released a domestic version of "Goin’ Your Way," a double live album documenting the Sydney, Australia, date of Finn and Paul Kelly's 2013 dual tour.

Finn talked to Salon while at home in Auckland, New Zealand, several weeks before heading to the U.S. for a few select appearances, including gigs at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Ravinia Music Festival and Milwaukee's Summerfest. These dates will be a full-band (and full-family) affair. "Liam [Finn's son] will be coming out," he says. "And for a lot of the shows, our other son Elroy will be playing drums and my wife Sharon playing bass. We have two other good friends coming along. It's a full band—and it's a hot band, I gotta say. It doesn't always happen that the family gets to play together, but when we do, it's a really good band. I couldn't really hope for better, energized renditions of my music then when the family gets ahold of them."

Finn also says this troupe may perform "a couple of new songs," which dovetails nicely with his other plans while he's in the States: recording. "Amongst other things, I've been recording with Liam, and we're finishing off some songs while I'm there, finishing vocals," he says. "We've made a record, essentially. ...We had a choice of making [the summer tour dates] a fully fledged tour, but we chose to have some gaps so we could do some work on the recordings. Liam is living in Los Angeles at the moment, so we're going to be coming and going and finishing off some stuff and enjoying getting to a few festivals I've never done before."

Is the stuff you're recording—is that for your solo record? Is it Liam doing a record? What's the new music?

I'm writing and recording on a few different fronts at the moment, and I'm not quite sure how it's all going to settle in terms of the sequence of events. I've had an outpouring of songs, really, in the last year, and I'm just trying to do the right thing by them all and get them recorded as well as I can. Some of them I've got going on my own with exotic arrangements. There's a number of songs I've written with Liam, which we're excited about and almost finished. So, yeah, just haven't figured out how it's all going to be presented at the moment. Stand by!

What's caused the inspiration? Was there any particular tipping point or anything that spurred you on regarding the spate of songs that you’ve come up with in the last year or so?

Ah, yeah. I've just become more and more ensconced, and I've got a great situation in my room that I work in. I've built a combo station with the ability to work my machines. And having all the right things at my fingertips, I've found it's been extremely good for productivity. I just go in there every day. It's a practice, you know, a process that you get rewards if you apply yourself on a daily basis. Not that every day is productive, but if you put some of the hours together… I mean, of course, maybe I've abandoned any idea of getting good at anything else other than hopefully being a good, kindly human being most of the time. And that would be nice to think I could maintain that and family and a bit of swimming in the ocean, but beyond that, I just want to work and play music.

That's good, though: The more you work, you get warmed up. It's like you're in that groove.

Exactly. I'm not the first person to notice that a daily practice and hours…spending hours is a very good thing. Endurance, all those good qualities. Inspiration is always important, obviously, but it only comes around once you start working.

Is the record coming out this year?

I don't think anything will make it out this year. There might be a song or two, you never know. The whole strategy for putting records out seems so different now. There's opportunities and also reservations about traditional ways of releasing stuff. I'm not kidding myself that me laying a surprise album on people is going to have the impact of somebody like Beyoncé, but there is something appealing about just throwing it out there. The immediacy of that's quite appealing. It depends. If we get it finished, I'd say early next year is pretty likely.

When you and Paul Kelly did shows together in 2013, what sort of inspiration did you draw from learning each other's material and performing together?

Well, it was a rare opportunity to step inside another songwriter's process. You know, and as far as learning songs--all of us assume, I think, that when we listen to other people's music who we admire, that it sounds kind of easy or effortless, in a way, because that's the joy of a good song and the art of making a good song. You can obscure the work and the intricacies of it. But in the process of learning stuff, you appreciate the quirks and the nuances of the work, and get an idea of how maybe it was put together and some of the differences.

Paul is particularly a very good lyricist, and it was good for me to examine his words. Having to learn his words gave me a little bit of idea of flow and content for my own. We have different approaches—there are exceptions, but he's quite good at narrative. And I'm not a narrative writer, essentially [I'm] more impressionistic. That's a generous way of describing it. [Laughs.] Abstract is another way. But on the other hand, I believe that words can open doorways for people if you don't allow meaning to be too obstructive.

Are there any particular inspirations that are you inspiring you as a songwriter or lyricist these days?

Oh, there's always interesting work going on. A lot of it under the surface, the mainstream surface. I don't follow necessarily what's going on in the charts. I think there is a proliferation of music which I can admire, and I think it's put together extremely well, but it seems a little bit disconnected to what I like to listen to. It can be something old or something new on any given day. I get inspired often by the people around me. It could be people that my son Liam has introduced me to in some cases, new artists like Mac DeMarco and Connan Mockasin. Not necessarily specifically from the lyrical point of view. There are some fine lyricists out there. That was what was nice about seeing the success of my fellow countrywoman Lorde, is that she writes a good lyric, you know? It's not required as an essential item in pop music, but it's always welcome when it comes along.

And Lorde uses words so evocatively, as sort of like another instrument, almost, or another color to her music.

Yeah. It's definitely a strength for her, and it sets her apart a little bit in the music business. The tunes are great, obviously, but the fact the lyrics [are] evocative and they’ve got some depth is a real bonus.

I saw from your website we're a couple days removed from the [anniversary of the] first Crowded House gig. What do you remember most about that night?

[Laughs.] I don't even know if I remember what the first one was. Somebody needs to remind me. I'm not sure what one they're giving credit to.

Let me see—I guess you were opening for yourself. It was opening for Split Enz…


[pauses, searches for post]

I should know, shouldn't I? I saw it come up recently, somebody wrote a note about it. And I thought, "Oh, I wonder what show they're actually referring to?"

All right, May 31, 1986—[reads site] "On this day thirty years ago, Neil, Nick, and Paul (with Eddie) performed their first gig as Crowded House! The concert at Middle Park Hotel in Melbourne was dubbed 'Split-House' as their act was followed by Split Enz, specially reunited for the night." And there's a picture of you guys, although I'm not sure if it's from that night.

Wow. You know… [Laughs.] I probably shouldn't admit to it. Isn't that terrible? I have no memory of it. Not specific, anyway. You'd think I should! Maybe it's because I was extracting myself from one band and starting another one that it had a slightly blurry quality to it. But, you know, there is a number of anniversaries coming up this year, not the least being 20 years since we played what was supposed to be a farewell concert on the steps of the Opera House in Sydney. Which is a crazy statistic as well.

There's a number of re-releases happening soon. They haven't been announced formally, but will be happening towards the end of the year, slightly to coincide with that. I'm very happy to see I think all the albums will be reissued on vinyl, and we have found a number of little treasures that I've been editing down and editing down, lest I release anything sub-standard. There's a sort of homage being paid to the anniversary, but we're not embarking on a major anniversary tour or something like that.

On your website, you would always have random songs that it seems like you dug up out of the vaults that would pop up occasionally. How much stuff do you have in the vaults? Like, Andy Partridge, for example, is notorious for having a vault—Prince, too. What sorts of stuff is in your vault?

There's a lot of stuff. It's always a strategy in terms of, "Well, do you release snippets and echoes and first ideas?" because some of them do have an incredible charm, and for those who are interested in my work, I think—well, I enjoy listening to them, anyway, because they have a sense of atmosphere and time and place. Or do you carefully make sure only the stuff you've worked hard and fought for is curated and out there for the world? I'm not sure I know the answer to that. There's something about enigma and mystery that's worth preserving as well.

The guy who's been archiving all of my stuff, he's found so many snippets of things that are very atmospheric. I would say largely my own home demos are the things I listen back on and go, "You know, there's something in the atmosphere of those that is really relevant and, in some ways, more essential than the way they ended up on the record, in some cases."

And that's so interesting. I've talked to several musicians that have had the same effect. They've listened to the demos and they're like, "There's really something there." Whatever the first instinct or first take is.

Yeah, first ideas. I think it's a very common thing. To try and chase the demo in the recording studio is a very common predicament for myself. There's always something about the methods and the intellect that’s been applied to an early demo that is very appealing. But they're usually not quite formed enough to really consider using as the final thing. Usually, you transcend it with the recorded version, if you do well. Sometimes you don't—you never get anything that's actually as appealing as what your early ideas were. Now enough time has passed, I'm okay about exposing some of those to the light.

The reissues—is it just Crowded House stuff? Is it your solo stuff too?

It's at the moment just based around Crowded House re-releases, so it'll cover those years. It's a blurry line, it really is, because a lot of the demos that I make, I make on my own, obviously. And some of the songs veer off to the side of what we were doing with Crowded House. If they span those years, it's hard just to [look at] music at any period of my musical life and say, "That was clearly a Crowded House work" and "This is clearly a Neil Finn work." The circumstances bring up music in much the same way. I sit around and dream up things—and sometimes with my brother [Tim Finn], which has a significant effect on things. But when I'm making music myself writing songs, the process is very similar, whether I'm working for Crowded House or working for my own end. And then your collaborators become the defining — they have an effect on the way the music sounds. If you're making good music with Crowded House, Wendy and Lisa, or Lisa Germano—different people have different effects on the way the music ends up.

It's like Superman and Clark Kent, in a way.

Ahhh. [Laughs.] I would never have thought of myself as Superman—I'm a weedy guy.

But you wrestled with Liam, however, in the video for his song "Wrestle With Dad"

I did—oh yeah, I did. For better or worse, we did wrestle in our underpants. I thought that was the abandonment of any sense of decorum or vanity, at this point. It's good to jettison that energy at some point in your life, I think.

You're lucky neither of you guys strained a muscle.

It was pretty intense, I gotta say. I think I was overcompensating because I was the older one, and I went a little harder than I should. Liam ended up with a few scrapes. He was going easy on me because I was dad. That was a lot of fun to do, actually.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Crowded House's self-titled debut LP being released. Looking back now, what are your most vivid memories of making the album, or the aftermath?

It was an exciting time in a lot of ways because it was a new venture. We were working in L.A. with Mitchell Froom making the record. It was the first time I had actually worked with a producer that had so much valuable insight and input into the way the songs were put together. And also some influences that were American influences I had never really taken on board before–even the use of the Hammond organ, an R&B bassline here and there. Musically, [there were] some exciting developments going on. I was enjoying the company of my bandmates, Nick [Seymour] and Paul [Hester], both very entertaining. We were becoming a band. You know, there was a lot to learn at that point, though. The record took a long time to come on and succeed. So it was just all kind of forging ahead, stumbling along, no great master plan, just a lot of willfulness.

I read in books you were doing a lot of busking, you particularly, to get in front of people, to say, "Here we are."

We did a couple of stripped-back shows, busking-style, at a couple of parties in Melbourne. We realized that we really had a good thing going with it. We learned how to sing together as a result. I think there was a lot of energy—Paul standing and playing his snare drum had a lot of energy in the way he approached [it]. It had a certain power.

I think it really, in a way, contributed quite strongly to the fact we got noticed. We would play at these parties and promotional things in that capacity and give everyone a hell of a good time. And it was funny and loose. At the time, music was pretty produced—there was a big veneer over most things, so I think the fact we were willing to strip it back…And we could go anywhere—in the BBC, Paul would play a rubbish bin or whatever. It was a versatile lineup as well.

The songs came across well. I do think it had a lot of impact at the time. Now, it's pretty commonplace that people play acoustic guitars in radio studios or do stripped-back versions of their own songs. I think that was a good development in some ways—but it’s almost a pain in the ass now. [Laughs.] Back then, it wasn't happening very much, so it made more of a difference.

Especially in America, "Don't Dream It's Over" has been covered so many times—Miley Cyrus even covered it last year. Why do you think that song, out of all your songs, has continued to resonate so much?

There's a mystery in any successful song like that, really. It has performed amazingly well and traveled incredible distances and seems to be an important song for a lot of people, so we’re just totally grateful for it. I can't really attribute it to much other than I think occasionally with my writing—and it's not entirely clear what every line's about in that song, either. But I think certain doorways get opened, like I was saying—it has a universality about it.

I was noticing this today about it, that it has current—it seems to be current still. Particularly with Donald Trump talking about building walls, the line in the chorus "To build a wall between us/We know they won't win" seems almost ridiculously pertinent to modern times. Universal, timeless quality—but you're not shooting for that when you're writing it. Some things end up resonating for longer than you think.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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