The last Craig Finn concert I saw wasn't in a club, a festival or a theater. He’s fresh off a reunion mini-tour of the Hold Steady's breakthrough album "Boys and Girls in America," which joined the hyper-literate indie rockers and their obsessive fans with keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who departed in 2010. The band's frontman switched gears in January to perform a cross-country solo tour of private homes and other nontraditional spaces. Finn transformed what's usually a loud, kinetic, high-energy rock show into an experience that was much more intimate.
Sitting on the floor in a stranger's living room somewhere in Cincinnati while Finn played acoustic guitar and told stories between numbers, I felt the usual distance between audience and performer melt away. The experience was both very adult — I've never thought to reach for a coaster at a bar — and emotionally reminiscent of being a teenager, when nontraditional spaces for live music were often the only ones available. In other words, it was still a Craig Finn/Hold Steady kind of experience, even if the room was less rowdy and the floor stayed blissfully clean of spills.
"The idea of opening your house up to 30, 35 strangers is just really cool," said Finn. "In times like these it’s even, I don’t know, it just felt like a political revolution at some level, to be opening your house to people you don’t know, for the sake of music."
House concerts are having a moment. These days some mid-career musicians are ditching the club circuit when it makes sense in favor of private living rooms and other noncommercial spaces. Fans open their homes and host small crowds for ticketed shows. It's a win-win for both artist and fan: The musicians get attentive audiences who really want to hear the songs, and in return the audience gets more personalized levels of interaction with artists they admire.
Finn used his living room tour (you can watch the film on his YouTube channel) as a preview launch for his new solo album, "We All Want the Same Things," due out March 24 on Partisan Records. (NPR previewed the song "Preludes" last month.) In the Cincinnati living room, Finn played the new album and songs from his catalog in stripped-down, acoustic form, answering questions from the packed room and sprinkling details and backstory between numbers. Included: this charming revelation about the new song "God In Chicago," in which the characters put a boom box in the back seat of the car and cue up a road trip soundtrack.
"The lyric was originally, 'Let It Be' into 'Led Zeppelin III,' referencing the Replacements album," said Finn. "But Prince died the day we recorded it, and I needed him in there. So we made it "'1999' into 'Led Zeppelin III.'”
Details like that make sitting on the floor in a stranger's house worth it. I spoke with Finn last week by phone about the tour, the new album, and what's next for the Hold Steady. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you decide to pre-launch this record with a mini-tour for what I can only assume are pretty hardcore fans?
We were planning a little radio tour first. I’d done that for the last record, “Faith in the Future,” and I thought it was kind of lonely at night, you know, because radio usually happens in the morning or afternoon and I thought [the living room tour] could be a cool way to do something like this.
Also, I’m debuting new material and my songs are very wordy and I’m trying to get the stories across. Going into a rock club, while there’s some awesomeness to a rock show, delivering lyrics is not probably the best part of it. So when people are hearing these songs before the album came out, I thought it was a way people could actually, you know, attach to the songs. That ended up being very much the case. People go to rock clubs for all kinds of reasons, but if you’re sitting on some stranger’s floor in their living room, you kind of want to hear the songs.
I’ve never sat down while you were singing before. How does that kind of energy change things for you as a performer?
It’s less exhausting, but it’s a different energy for sure. You’re trying to draw [the audience] in with words and a different emotion. You’re not going to bludgeon them. But at the same time, it’s a little scarier. You don’t have your guys around you. And if people lose interest while you’re playing at that low volume and they start talking, then it’s really discouraging. And that’s never going to happen at a Hold Steady show — no one’s going to be able to talk over us. But you can do different emotional things and I think you can talk very honestly at the smaller, quieter [shows].
I think in some ways that is reflective of the difference between my solo work and the Hold Steady — the Hold Steady stuff kind of ends up being bigger. Even in the words — bigger things happen to the characters in the songs. The solo stuff allows me to do more vulnerable and maybe more personal, more relatable things; maybe reflect on the mundane a little bit more. The living room just seemed a really nice place for that. When it was working — which was pretty much every night, really — it felt really cool. People were listening really closely.
It’s funny because people can bring beer and stuff [into the living room shows] but it was [always] a very measured and reasonable crowd. One thing I was laughing about when I got home – I was telling my girlfriend about this — the Venn diagram between people who go to and host house shows and craft beer drinkers is like 100 percent. A marketing person would really love this.
It’s a very grown-up experience. We can afford better beer now, we’re not out at the club, and our friends want to be done at a reasonable hour tonight, so we’ll be wrapped up by 9:30 or 10 o’clock.
It felt good to me to be going onstage at 8:05 — I say “stage” loosely — but to start the show at 8:00 and play until about 9:20 or so. Sell some merch, say hi to people and then be wrapped up by ten. I enjoy that, and I think the crowd really enjoys that. You know, my audience is largely getting to be about my age, or somewhere near that, and [is] generally pretty employed. So I think it’s kind of nice to offer entertainment in a way that people can enjoy and not be, like, decimated at work the next day.
So your third solo album comes out in March. “Clear Heart Full Eyes” is your divorce album, and “Faith in the Future” was written in the wake of your mother’s death. Was there a unifying theme or impulse that drove the writing of “We All Want The Same Thing?”
I don’t know if I sat down to write an album about modern love, but a lot of these songs I feel like are about modern love. Almost all of the songs are about two people. Like “Jester and June,” “God In Chicago,” “Rescued Blues,” “Ninety Bucks,” “Tangletown,” a lot of these songs are about people who aren’t in the Disney version of love.
You know, when you’re 28, you have that summer you go to nine weddings? When you’re 45, like I am now, some of those marriages are unraveling. But when you talk to your friends, they’re always like, “Oh, but we’re such a good team. We get the kids to school on time. We put dinner on the table. We’re a really good team, we’re a good partnership.” And I think there’s beauty in that.
I’m not trying to say it’s a cynical version of love, because I think people partnering up and making teams to get through is beautiful. But, you know, there are sacrifices and there are less-than-perfect — or less than storybook — arrangements.
I would say you’re probably one of the least cynical songwriters working today. I don’t know if everyone would agree with that.
I write about darkness a lot, but I’m kind of always trying to find the hope in there. I sometimes feel like a song isn’t finished until I can find hope in it.
Your songs at least leave the door open for the possibility of faith or love or something like it saving whichever person is most in need of saving in the song. It feels like a very essential and necessary and difficult thing to do right now — I think a lot of people would call their 2017 album, “We’re All Angry and Anxious and Oh God We’re All Going to Die” instead, given the mood surrounding us. So how do you stay in touch with that fundamental level of optimism?
I think it’s like the album title, “We All Want the Same Things” — there’s a dark comedy to it, but it’s also a reminder to myself and hopefully to other people that it’s sort of true. I mean, we all want freedom, we all want security, we all want safety, we all want, food and nourishment. Remembering that is important.
With this record, while not overtly political, I think about the people in my songs and I don’t think they would all vote the same way I would. I do think that they would be affected in any changes in our health care. These are not fancy people; they are unremarkable people trying to get by. And so I guess it’s about trying to sketch out these people and understand where they are and how they are and remember that they have families, they have love, they have grief, they have all the things that I have, even if they’re across the aisle, so to speak. We live in divided times, but I do believe that people are inherently good.
Weirdly enough, that feels like a controversial stance in February 2017.
Believe me, I don’t spend 100 percent of my day in that headspace. There are times I’m punching the wall — or just shaking my head, at least. It’s fairly easy for me, when I see some blue egg [Twitter avatar] saying something racist, to consider that person less human in some way, because they aren’t even presenting themselves as a human. They’re just anonymous. Honestly, if I see someone online who has their photo and like a picture of their house and their kids or something, I take them more seriously.
On the living room tour you performed stripped-down acoustic versions of songs from the new album. That’s usually not the first listen that a fan gets of new work: Those are the versions of the songs that come out later, of the B-side variety, or when the band gets tired of playing a certain song a certain way every night.
I started listening to the new album and it’s a completely different experience from what I heard in that live set, even though the songs are fundamentally the same. Why did you want to share these songs in a stripped-down way first?
I wanted people to focus on the stories first. I also thought it kind of gives people a look into how these songs start and how a record gets made. I bring [these acoustic versions] to Josh Kaufman, the producer, and I ask him what are you hearing? “Well, I’m hearing some piano and I’m hearing some bells, I’m hearing some synth, I’m hearing a saxophone.”
I knew once people heard the actual record, they’re going to hear something that’s very lush, you know, especially for my career. It’s a really musical album. I thought it was cool to be able to let people hear the stories first.
From the first track, “Jester and June,” you know the sound of this album is going to be different. The arrangement of “Jester and June” really plays off of the story being told: it’s a jaunty, optimistic sound contrasting with the melancholy downward spiral the characters are caught in. How did you guys approach that song in the studio, and how did you build it up into what it is?
That song was the first song we recorded. Josh and Joe Russo and myself, we were playing and grooving on it and Josh said, “This is like a Velvet Underground ‘Loaded’ song.”
But we ended up somewhere completely different. That’s kind of a look into making the whole record — we’d start someplace and end up someplace way different.
[Note: The "Loaded" influence is definitely still discernible on the album. When you hear the intro to "Ninety Bucks," tell me you don't half expect to hear the late Lou Reed pop up to say "heeeyyyyyy..."]
I write them in my apartment on an acoustic guitar that usually only has five strings on it, because I just haven’t replaced [the sixth]. I’m not sure when it last had six strings — long before I started writing this record. I’ll write it simply, and work on the stories and the melodies, and then I’ll bring it to Josh and Josh will talk through what we’re hearing and how it could be better.
Josh and Joe Russo, the percussionist, and I had made the majority of my last record, “Faith in the Future,” together, so in some ways this was like a band making its second record.
Our communication was good, but at the same time we put a lot more people in the room [this time]. The way Josh and I talked about it is getting really good people, people who we like the way they play, putting them in the room, playing the song for them, and then seeing what comes out.
So it’s in that sense I think a more musical record because there are more bodies around. There’s more human interaction.
Does what happens in the room open up a door for more surprises for you as a songwriter?
Absolutely. Yeah, you can say, “Wow, that’s working; let’s go more in that direction.” And on a solo album you can make different decisions and you’re not worried about keeping everyone occupied. If you decide you don’t want drums on a song, it’s easier to tell the drummer ‘cause it’s like, “Hey man, you’re still getting paid but there’s no drums on this song.” But if you’re in a band that’s a harder conversation to have.
I was drawn to the movement in “Birds Trapped in the Airport,” how it starts really soft and then builds. I was delightfully surprised when the song started growing bigger and bigger as it went.
We were working on the rhythm and it kind of has, for a lack of a better term, a New Age kind of feel. We kept adding things and building onto it, and Tad [Kubler] from the Hold Steady came in and did sort of this swooshing guitar-swell thing.
Sometimes adding things doesn’t make things bigger, but when you find the right things . . . So that was the first very inspired thing that [made me think], “Wow, now it’s swelling and it’s getting huge.”
But then Josh had the idea of calling Caithlin De Marrais, who sang for Rainer Maria, who I’d never met but I was a fan of her singing. I think he really heard the [second vocal] part.
He played it back for me and I was like, “Wow.” I think her vocal performance on that just makes it soar.
So you guys did a great run of reunion shows last year, with Franz returning to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of “Boys and Girls in America.” What was that like to revisit that album, to bring friends back, to kind of get that part of that sound back again on stage?
It was amazing. I mean obviously Franz returning was huge. I hadn’t hung out with him that much in the years he’s not been in the band, but it came back easy. At the first rehearsal we said, “All right, let’s play ‘Boys and Girls,’” and the first song is “Stuck Between Stations.” It gets to the piano break and he plays it and it was like, “Oh yeah, thank God, it’s back.” So that felt great.
But you know what else felt great is that when he left, [guitarist] Steve Selvidge came in and has become such an important member of the Hold Steady — spiritually, musically, emotionally, all of it. So for me to play those shows and look to stage right and see Franz and Steve there it was like, “Oh, this is spectacular.” I think this is the best lineup we’ve ever had.
I am going to agree. So is Franz back with the band in a formal way?
Yeah, I mean, we don’t have shows lined up, but we’re looking for them. When we did it, I just said, “Franz, are you interested in doing more as things come up?” He said, “Yeah.” But we’re looking. I don’t think we’re looking for six-week tours, driving around in a van; we’re looking to do things that are special and exciting and probably less frequent. You know, along the lines of what we’ve done over the past year; the Brooklyn shows were great. I really like that model where we go somewhere and play a few shows because you’re able to settle in, you’re able to make it really special, you’re able to play a bunch of different songs over a few nights. I think we’d like to do more of that. We’re definitely looking for shows; it just has to make sense for six guys in their 40s.
Did you guys get any of that let’s-write-some-new-songs feeling from those shows?
The way we write songs in the Hold Steady is mainly getting in a room all together and playing through it, and it’s fairly time consuming. I think it’d be cool to have new songs, but with people living in different cities, it would require a certain amount of effort. I think right now I’d just like to play some more shows.
"We All Want the Same Things" is out March 24 from Partisan Records. Finn is on tour now with Japandroids.