Craig Finn introduced himself long ago with Twin City rock group Lifter Puller, and spent the past 10 years fronting the Hold Steady. A gimlet-eyed lyricist, he’s capable of crafting entire universes in his lyrics, full of sordid characters: Ne’er do wells, abusers, antagonistic youths. American losers, if you will.
In 2012 he released his solo debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes (yes, a play on your favorite Friday Night Lights saying). With acoustic backing and a country-rock lean, it let the hyper-literate Finn’s wordsmithing shine. On Friday, he’ll release his second solo effort, Faith in the Future.
Finn’s moved away from the sonic twang and shuffle he experimented with on Clear Heart Full Eyes and into his most sparse production and fully-realized set of characters yet. They’re grown-ups, but then at 44, so is Finn. Most of them, you’ve met. There’s Maggie looking back on her life, searching for closure, Christine trying to get out of her rut, and Sarah who’s found herself tangled up with the wrong sort of man. There is also the guy stuck loving, leaving, or pining for each of the three. There’s the fella’ that holes up in your local bar at noon and even St. Peter meeting his doom. Like we said, whole universes to play in.
EW caught up with Finn to discuss songwriting, religion, and his unique sense of optimism.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Since your debut solo effort, Clear Heart Full Eyes dropped, you released another Hold Steady record and toured all of 2014. When did Faith in the Future start coming together?
Craig Finn: It was before we recorded the last Hold Steady record, actually. My mother passed away in April 2013 and I came back to Brooklyn and I was just a little stuck. I needed to get to work on something to power through it so I just went to the space every day and wrote songs. That’s where most of these songs come from.
Did you know you were writing for another solo record?
With the Hold Steady, we’ve come to a place where I just write the lyrics. Tad [Kubler] writes the music and then I sort of page through my notebooks and find lyrics to match with it. So in writing the music at the same time as the lyrics, I automatically know I’m not writing a Hold Steady song.
There’s a pretty big shift sonically here from Clear Heart Full Eyes.
We did Clear Heart Full Eyes down in Texas and the producer put together a Texas band and you felt it on every song — there were certainly country elements to it. For this one, the producer, Josh Kaufman, and I got together early and we talked a lot about wanting to do something that was elegant and hopeful. And by elegant I meant age-appropriate, if you will [laughs]. I wanted to do something that felt good for being 44 years old. And we really wanted to let the narratives come through; so it’s still pretty sparse. We made a lot of decisions like, “Does this song need drums? Does this song need bass?” And these are decisions that are harder to make when you have a full rock band.
Because with a full band you have a drummer and a bass player in the room?
Yeah, You have people standing around and you’re like, “Yeah you’re actually not going to play on this one.” Making the record, it was just me, Josh, and Joe Russo on drums and percussion. We were kind of able to hang what I oftentimes felt was the least amount of stuff on a song to make it work.
So, should we consider your meditation on misspent youth over?
At 44, I feel like it’s hard for me to look back to 20 but I can kind of look at 30. So yeah, I think so. And I think a lot of the greatest songwriters — Springsteen comes to mind — start to write songs about adults, and that’s very interesting to me.
And when you say you wanted the record to be hopeful, how do you mean?
I wanted it to be optimistic in some way.
Do you feel you succeeded?
We certainly tipped our hand that way by naming it Faith In The Future [laughs]. And none of the songs ended up being about my mom, even though she was the influence at the start, when I began writing. But a lot of them are about persevering after tragedy or change. I thought that was kind of cool, actually.
There were times on the record when I wondered if Faith in the Future weren’t ironic.
[Laughs] Well, it’s kind of like the Hold Steady record Stay Positive — you only say “stay positive” when things are not real positive. So “faith in the future” is in some way that, about how we all go through stuff and the belief that things will get better.
Catholicism has been a long-running theme in your writing. Do you believe that this current world and life will get better or is this an after-life you’re holding out for?
You know how single people leave the house hoping to find love? I do believe this faith in the future is in finding love and that love can kind of conquer all. But on the side of that, I’m in a committed relationship, so there’s “Going to a Show” that is the same way for me. I go to these shows all the time and I’m hoping to see something that’s revelatory and just gets me out of my skin and is amazing. And you don’t always get there but I keep going and going. It’s kind of those movements in our lives, about just getting out there and hoping things get better or making things better for ourselves.
9/11 shows up in multiple songs on the record, most explicitly in “Newmyer’s Roof” where you describe actually watching the World Trade Towers fall. What about 2015 makes it the time to talk about 2001?
It kind of goes back to persevering after tragedy and change. I moved to New York in late 2000 so it was just under a year that 9/11 happened. I had just turned 30 and I was married at the time. In some ways it set off waves that led to things like divorce happening and the Hold Steady happening, going all around the world with them and then finding someone else and falling in love again — being spit out on the other side of 15 years and being like, “Whoa.” There is something to being able to see something clearly in the distance. I can kind of process 9/11 better now and than I could in 2002. There was a hangover from 9/11 that lasted some amount of years — definitely in New York but maybe all over America as well. There was an overall anxiety that I was trying to think back to.
Many of your characters are women and while they’re fully realized, I wonder if you’re ever nervous about how women, or anyone really, will react to them?
Terrified. I’m a 44-year-old white male and if you look at the Hold Steady’s audience, it’s very male. So it could go horribly, horribly wrong. So I’m nervous and I work hard at it. I feel like to bring a girl into that we have to make her very, very human and very believable.
Are these women real women? Do you know them?
A lot of times when I’m writing a song, they help me tell the story. I start with two people, oftentimes a man and a woman — so for the first song on the record, “Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son,” you don’t really learn that much about Maggie but he’s opening up to her. So through that he gets to tell a story. A lot of the male narrators are stuck in orbit around these women. The women have the power.
Hold Steady songs famously have recurring characters. Are you attached enough to any of these people to keep them around? I want to know what happens to Sarah from “Sarah, Calling from a Hotel.”
Yeah, something on the next record would be fun. I haven’t written them yet but there would be — now I have this kind of universe of characters in the solo stuff that I could potentially start playing with them, introducing them to each other. It’s kind of like when you’re writing a novel, you’re supposed to start by writing what you know about each character.
When someone in a long-running band starts doing solo work, I think the obvious assumption drawn is that there’s something in the band or about that band that isn’t meeting a creative-need. Do you feel more rewarded by solo work than the band at this point?
Well, with the Hold Steady it’s, like I said, where I only write the lyrics and there is a part, when you’re playing some small clubs and the P.A. isn’t that loud and you’ve been on tour for a month and you’re like, “No one is hearing a god damn thing I’m saying.” And if I’m only doing the lyrics, it would be nice if the narrative is what it’s all about. So that’s rewarding to me. Plus, sometimes I feel kind of mellow. Hold Steady music is not mellow. It’s not always, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, stay positive.”
Says the man who wants to tell us about his optimistic record.
[Laughs] Well, it’s optimistic in more of a reserved way I guess. It’s like when you see a guy help a woman help her get her baby stroller up the stairs — you see how nice that small thing is. That’s more my kind of optimism.