Flying with Finn
Musician of Crowded House fame still has fans soaring
Don't be surprised if the shared houses and studio apartments of Portland's east side empty out when Neil Finn comes to town as the city's aspiring singer-songwriters flock to meet their master.
The former Crowded House man has a reputation for indulging the hopes of bedroom strummers everywhere. When he performs, freshly burned demo CDs skitter across the stage and paper airplanes with requests written on them routinely fly past his ears.
Last July in New York, when an eager young woman urged her demo upon him, he played it over the PA system, then invited her on stage for a duet on one of his own songs.
Touring on behalf of his latest CD, 'One All' (Nettwerk Records), Finn Ñ who still calls New Zealand home Ñ told the Tribune he is looking forward to playing here.
'Portland reminds me of Auckland a bit, the light and the way the houses fit into the hills and mountains,' he says.
'Also, our drummer, Scott McPherson (who played with Elliott Smith and the band Sense Field), lives in Portland, so there's a connection for him.'
Finn is known for his crafted, personal songs, which employ imagery with a delicacy that is rare in pop. His fans love him for his complex musical arrangements and rhythms.
He made his mark in the 1970s and early '80s playing with his older brother, Tim, in Split Enz. For a decade ending in the mid-'90s he carved out MTV and pop-festival residencies with his band Crowded House. Even people who had no idea who the group was would find themselves singing along: 'Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you.' Since then he has had his own band, whose present incarnation, including crew and gear, fits on one bus and trailer.
'The good thing about touring is the audience has been following my music for a long time,' he says. 'At some of these shows you could hear a pin drop between the songs.'
He still experiments with collaborations. The 44-year-old is unafraid to play with Pearl Jam and whippersnappers from Radiohead.
'Collaborative work opens you up to new experience,' he says. 'I think collaborative painting is the next big thing, two guys working on a single canvas.' He's only half-joking Ñ it's a mental riff from someone who adores touring, bringing his wife and kids with him when he can, but who also pines for the peace and quiet of his studio on the other side of the world.
As the Rolling Stones continue to push the envelope for rock 'n' roll life expectancy Ñ witness Sting playing the recent Super Bowl halftime show Ñ musicians have more time to produce their art.
Finn is a master of the catchy chorus. He says he 'doodles' on his guitar till he drifts into the right 'zone.' The words and music to a good chorus arrive at the same time. If it's still circling five minutes later, he takes more notice of it. But interruptions can cause him to lose it. Now, as his memory gets less reliable, he keeps the tape running as he jams so he can go back and find interesting things.
'Ideally it starts with the lyric and melody simultaneously,' he says. 'You're looking for sounds to sing. Then you look at what you wrote (and) wonder what it means. Then I'll write as many things as I can in that same phrasing, loosely attached to that notion. And I'll have a small demo within 30 minutes.'
It's not easy: 'A lot of time it's a matter of believing in your writing. On a bad day you'd look at what you've done and go, 'That's crap,' and never get beyond the first line.'
As he crisscrosses the country, the possible war in Iraq is on Finn's mind. Yet he doesn't think he'll be singing protest songs in the manner of Ñ say, Billy Bragg Ñ whom he admires. Again, it's because the meaning of such songs is too literal. He prefers to leave some gray areas on which people can project their own feelings.
'I'm content to write in a personal idiom, because I think it's more like a little voice in your ear stirring something up than somebody barking at you,' he says. 'I often leave things fairly open-ended. It's 50 percent deliberate and 50 percent accidental what comes out.'
That sounds like an invitation to collaborate if ever there was one. Start folding those paper planes.