OnMilwaukee.com – Craig Finn Feature
A conversation with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn
By Joshua M. Miller, Special to OnMilwaukee.com
Published Oct. 21, 2015 at 9:16 a.m.
Craig Finn may be best known as the lead singer of the indie rock band The Hold Steady, but in the past few years, he’s shown that was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his songwriting talents.
As a solo artist, he’s gotten to showcase a more personal and intimate side of his songwriting. His lyrics are full of honesty and insight, and the stripped down arrangements for his songs put his voice and lyrical messages at the forefront. He made the jump to solo artist with 2012’s “Clear Heart Full Eyes” and continued with this year’s “Faith in the Future,” released last month on Partisan Records. “Faith In The Future” was produced by Josh Kaufman, best known for his work with acts like Josh Ritter and The National, at Woodstock’s The Isokon recording studio.
Prior to his performance at the Cactus Club on Friday night, I talked with him about The Hold Steady opening for one of his favorite bands The Replacements, his growing confidence as a solo artist and why Milwaukee is a special place for him.
OnMilwaukee: What was it like getting to open for The Replacements?
Craig Finn: It was pretty great. They’re my favorite band of all time. They’re so important because they’re the band that for sure made me want to play music. Because I love them so much and they’re from my hometown Minneapolis, so they made me believe it was all possible. So it was a real honor to get asked to play those shows. We did one in St. Paul and one in New York. It pretty much was a dream come true. And honored, since it was their first two headlining shows. To be asked to be part of it was pretty amazing, really.
I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t get super nervous anymore. Not often anyways. But I was pretty nervous for those because they meant so much to me.
OnMilwaukee: Any interesting stories in particular?
Finn: You know, I wouldn’t say that just because they’re a big band and they had their own space and we had our own space. I didn’t get to hang out that much but it was just cool to be there – especially the New York show at the Forest Hills Stadium where they used to play the U.S. Open of tennis. It was a really cool venue and a beautiful night. A great thing to be part of.
OnMilwaukee: It’s pretty cool that Tommy is starting to produce records for some new bands, including Milwaukee’s own Midnight Reruns.
Finn: Yeah, he’s a really talented guy and certainly knows a lot about what a great rock song sounds like. So it seems like it would be a natural fit for him to be producing more as well as releasing his own records which are very cool. He’s had an amazing run as a musician being in Guns N’ Roses and The Replacements. He also seems to really love rock and roll which is encouraging.
OnMilwaukee: Do you think you’d ever want to work with him?
Finn: Possibly. I’m friends with him, and we like the same thing, so it could happen. It could be a cool thing. But only a certainly percentage of it is making the records, and then there’s all the touring. The record I just made was with a producer I really like, Josh Kaufman. I think for at least the next one I’d like to make it with him again. We’ll see. I’m always welcoming with working with other people.
OnMilwaukee: What was the biggest way Josh influenced this album?
Finn: We talked a lot about the songs before we recorded. I’d go over there and play the songs just with an acoustic guitar. He was interested in hearing me play them instead of hearing demos, being in the room with it. I get why he likes to do that because I like doing things face to face too.
So we get together, and I play him the song on acoustic guitar, and we talked a lot about it. I mean more so than any other record I made. We talked about the songs without making a lot of noise plugging in amps. We really talked about it in an abstract way of what they were trying to accomplish and what the message was for each song, what the story was. But what we really decided ultimately was that we wanted the stories to really get through and for people to hear the stories of these songs. Because of that, we made a lot of decisions about the way the record sounded sonically that kind of pushed that.
It’s a fairly sparse record. We didn’t pile things on. And even the drums, there’s barely any cymbals on the record. And that’s because cymbals often times get in the way of the vocals. They kind of occupy some of the same space. So we made a lot of decisions based on the narrative we wanted to come through on this stuff. It really affected the sound of the record and in a really good way. I’m really proud of it.
OnMilwaukee: Many songs and the album have a theme of hope and redemption. Can you talk about where that came from?
Finn: Yeah. Well for one, the record was largely written in a period after my mom passed away two years ago. I was going into a space writing songs as I wanted something to do. I thought it was important to work and treated it like work. I was writing songs every day just to have something to do to try to get through the period where I was suffering a lot of grief. And when I came out of it and looked over the songs I had written – I had written about 25 songs – I said, “Well, none of these songs are anything about my mother passing away, but a lot of them do seem to be about persevering through tragedy or change.” Some of the stuff you think you know what you’re writing about. Some of it ends up revealing itself to you later.
So I found that there were a lot of songs about persevering. From the get-go, Josh and I talked about doing a record that I wanted to be elegant and hopeful. Those were the two words I used to him. And by elegant, I really meant age appropriate, something I felt good about singing and performing at 44 years old and reflective of who I am at this age. But hopeful because I think that’s one of the things we look for music for, is to find hope and find some of those things available to us. That was important to me, and I wanted it to be part of the record.
OnMilwaukee: I recently interviewed Grace Potter who released her first solo album, and to me, there’s some interesting parallels with you, in that going solo to achieve sounds you couldn’t with your main band.
Finn: Yeah. You know, what’s interesting with the band thing is … some of the decision making in a solo record becomes very easy as you don’t have a committee to decide if this is the album cover or don’t have to talk or worry about it. And you miss some of the camaraderie of the band, and the rock band is better than the sum of its parts. At the same time, the solo thing is kind of freeing.
For instance, in the song “Christine,” there’s no drums. We decided to take the drums out. That’s one decision that becomes a lot tougher if you’re in a band and have a drummer hanging out and tell him, “You’re not going to play on this song.” So you have to worry about fairness and that sort of thing when you have a band. So there’s some things you’re able to easier on the solo thing. And there’s some things you miss the band too.
OnMilwaukee: It sounds from what I’ve read like you had more confidence as a solo artist going into this album. Did you feel you could take some more risks?
Finn: I think so. I think doing the first solo album really gave me a lot of confidence because it was the first time in a long time that I played with other musicians. And musicians I didn’t know really well. I was able to go in there and hold my own in a way that really excited me and made me feel good about myself. As much as I like the band, playing with other people at some point is where you get better. Getting out of your comfort zone and pushing those kinds of things is how you’re going to improve as a musician and as a songwriter. So I did gain a lot of confidence from that and think I was able to take more risks, and Josh was able to get me take more risks in some of the tones and delivery and the presentation of the songs.
OnMilwaukee: How has living in Midwest influenced your songwriting on this album?
Finn: Well, that’s a good question. I think one way my Midwest roots influenced all my songs, and definitely including this record, is sort of having honesty as a real goal. I think there’s massive power in honesty. And not necessarily honesty in the details but honesty to the human condition. You want the songs to ring true to other humans. And I think people in this day and age there’s a lot of power in honesty especially with the way we interact a lot online and people can create their persona, create an image or manage an image their social media presence. So I think being really honest in this day and age is very powerful thing, and I think that’s one thing I learned from growing up in the Midwest.
OnMilwaukee: How do you feel about getting to play a smaller venue like the Cactus Club?
Finn: It’s cool. I played the Cactus Club last in 2000 with my old band Lifter Puller so I’m looking forward to going back. I remember that being fun. And it’s just cool to be able to play smaller places. The bands that I have for these shows play at a quieter volume. So we’re able to connect with these smaller groups of people at a lower volume. It’s a different way of connecting than the big powerful Hold Steady shows. It allows me to be a little more personal and a little more vulnerable.
OnMilwaukee: Any other favorite Milwaukee memories?
Finn: Well, I’ve had a lot of good times in Milwaukee. I turned 40 in Milwaukee, and we had a party at Landmark Lanes. So that was a good one. Galen (Polivka) from The Hold Steady is from Milwaukee so a lot of times when we’ve played there we’ve stayed with his mother, over by the lake. And we’ve had a lot of great memories in Milwaukee over the years. It’s one of my favorite cities to visit. We also did New Year’s Eve there one time. It’s a great city.
OnMilwaukee: The video for your song “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son” features video clips from many of your fans. Can you talk about that?
Finn: We asked our fans to send in little clips. It’s amazing the technology that we all have access to now, and it’s really cool for them to turn in things about what they think the song’s about. A lot of people gave us stuff just reading the lyrics and hadn’t even heard the song yet. Because some of them came before we released the song to people. It was a cool collaborative thing.
I really do feel that the community is an important part of music now more than ever. The community around the music is one of the most important things to me. So I was really excited to make the video that way. To go full circle, we sent the footage to Caroline Jaecks, and she’s from Milwaukee. And she helped us organize it and create the video out of all the clips. We were able to use almost all the clips that were sent in.
OnMilwaukee: Anything else you’re looking forward to on this tour and beyond?
Finn: Playing my hometown Minneapolis and St. Paul is always exciting. I’m a huge baseball fan so I’m excited that the four teams that are left – Toronto, Kansas City, Chicago and New York – are all stops on our tour. So hopefully we’ll see baseball around some excited fans. I imagine that’ll flavor the tour somewhat.