C'est Finn

As he sets off on his solo career, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn chats to Emily Mullen about Lenten songwriting, growing up with your characters, and his friend Jesus

Softly spoken and disconcertingly polite, Craig Finn, a forty-year-old vegan Christian, is the surprising lungs behind a renowned post-punk outfit. He looks like a man who works in an IT department, who categorises his vinyl collections by their thematic relevance and leaves the house only when the DFS winter sale is on. Yet Finn is living proof as to why no one should ever make a judgement based purely on their optical senses – catapulting his band, the Hold Steady, into famedom through his lyrically dense storytelling and his manic onstage dancing. The release of his debut solo album marks a turning point in Finn’s career, taking a break from the loud recording room of the full band and embarking on a project that seemed to have been a necessity to him. After the lukewarm reception afforded to the Hold Steady’s last record Heaven is Whenever, a change was required, and for Finn it was his solo enterprise, entitled Clear Heart, Full Eyes.

With four well-received albums under his belt, Finn is a man who knows what he is doing in terms of music releases. Yet his debut solo album has shifted away from all that has gone before, making this album, given his religious associations, a leap of faith. This transition from rock and roll star to singer-songwriter was achieved with remarkable fluidity. Previous album sales and media interest affirmed Finn’s desire to produce the record, although he misses the reassurance of his band. “You don’t have the guys around and the camaraderie of, like, ‘Hey, this is going great!’”

This record is “a little more personal and intimate”, yet for a solo album, it holds quite a distance from its composer. It is sung with immediacy but still carries through the Hold Steady’s use of fictional characters. A first person perspective is lacking, and this creates a gaping hole in an otherwise impeccable album. Recurring characters, locales and themes serve as subterfuge for Finn. “I set out to make a record that has not just my voice, but has characters in the songs.”

The origin of Clear Heart stems from an unconventional mix of processes and rituals. “I had this thing where I tried to write a song a day for a while” Finn explains. “It was sort of a challenge for me, every year I quit drinking for Lent, and it sort of coincided with this period. I wrote fifty songs, most of them weren’t that good, but by keeping up with that process I was able to get to places I wouldn’t have been able to get to otherwise. Of course, some of them were terrible, but others you can look back on them and say ‘well, what was good about this one and what was bad about it,’ and try to make it better.”

Over the course of the Hold Steady’s records, Finn has sung the lines of teenage debauchery and twenty-something tedium through a scattering of details that make up the lives of average, unremarkable people yearning for the chance to be anything but that. As Finn has aged, so too has his alternative universe. To him, the new record’s characters are “a little bit more adult, and maybe a little older and dealing with more adult frustrations.” These frustrations seem to become more fixed as Finn and his characters become older. “You get to the stage where as an adult you can be smart enough to know what your problems are, but still unable to change them.”

Finn has always been very open concerning his faith and his convictions, describing a fellowship with Christ during his song ‘My Friend Jesus’. “I was raised Catholic, and I’m Catholic to the extent that I go to church sometimes. I think about Jesus Christ and the church and my faith a lot, especially when it comes to topics like forgiveness and redemption, which I think are beautiful topics no matter what you believe, but also thinking about sacrifice and struggle.” He speaks of his associations with Jesus on a more symbolic level than a spiritual one. “It’s easy to look to Christ on the cross and think about how all of us have to carry a cross, but in our own lives we all have sacrifices and struggles and things that we have to do that might not seem like the most fun thing, but we kind of persevere. That’s interesting to me and that’s something that makes me think about my own faith a lot.”

As Finn has aged, he has mellowed; both he and his music have become less concerned with the other holy trinity of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Above all else, his latest album marks a philosophical awakening, as he recognises what is truly important in his life. As he puts it, “at forty years old you start to realise that these things can really affect you and do affect us.”

Craig Finn will be supporting The Felice Brothers at the Academy on March 5th. Tickets are priced at €20. Clear Heart, Full Eyes i