For Craig Finn, it’s better to have a bad song than a blank page
by Luke Ottenhof
March 16, 2017
We talked to the Hold Steady's Craig Finn about performing for parents, his new solo album, and the black comedy of writing hungover.
“I remember thinking at that time, ‘The one thing I can’t do is drink and drive.’”
Craig Finn recalls moving home to Minneapolis in 1994 with a gentle clarity and ambivalence. Finn, having just wrapped up college in Massachusetts, was thrust into the sort of post-post-secondary state not so much filled with needling misery as a blurry sense of displacement, an arguably more confusing situation: “What’s the blues when you’ve got the greys?” “I didn’t know how to spend my day,” Finn confesses. “You’re just kind of not yet in this world that you thought you were being prepared for, so it’s unsettling and disorienting.
“At the same time, I think it’s very natural. I think a lot of people have that experience.”
Finn wrote about those experiences on his forthcoming record, We All Want The Same Things. The Minnesota-born songwriter has long since made a name for himself as one of the great modern lyricists, a title bestowed on the likes of those who, like Finn, have an acute knack (and perhaps need) for connecting with people. Finn’s work in beloved Twin City outfit Lifter Puller forwarded him as a Midwestern Springsteen, relaying an iteration of underdog fatalism and substance-addled romance that eventually followed him to Brooklyn, where he and Lifter Puller bandmate Tad Kubler would take the narrative to bigger platforms with The Hold Steady. The band paired Finn’s unreserved wordplay with a soon-to-be signature bar-rock grandiosity, and it’s no exaggeration to say they honed a striking mastery of that format. A quick listen through 2006’s Boys And Girls In America would cement that statement. In 2012, Finn set his hand to a solo record, the pensive, profound Clear Eyes Full Heart (although I’ll always read that phrase in a molasses-thick Kyle Chandler voice). It was a more restrained, less dramatic affair than The Hold Steady’s usual bombast, and while marked by the same quality, Finn adopted a quieter tone, leaning into tighter, less story-oriented songs.
“Hold Steady’s music is so big that I always feel like the words, the stories, the lyrics have to be big, too. There has to be big stuff happening,” he explains. “In the quieter music that the solo stuff exists on, it can be a little more vulnerable. The stories can take place more in the mundane.” It seems that bit by bit, Finn is letting these songs become more living-room diary-entry than rock-hall romance. “Allowing myself to creep in a little bit,” he accentuates, hence the inward thrust on lead single “Preludes.” “I came back to St. Paul and things had progressed and got strange,” he sings in his throaty, baritone drawl.
Finn tells me he likes to write while he’s hungover. “I think there’s a certain black comedy that comes out of a hangover that’s kind of useful,” his voice grins. “But I don’t want to be hungover all the time.” He’s figured out how to write outside of that state, as much for his health’s sake as for his writing’s. He’ll jot notes about things like breakfast or a cat; not exactly “Stuck Between Stations” material yet, but maybe it can be spun into it. “It’s better to have a bad song than a blank page.”
We All Want The Same Things, like most other Finn-titled projects, takes it’s name from a lyric on the record, nestled on the track “God In Chicago” (what could be more appropriate for a Finn record than marrying those two monolithic American images in pointed, uneasy harmony). “It obviously rings a little strange,” Finn chuckles, acknowledging the heated stratification embedded in current America (“It’s a pretty divided scene right now,” he says sourly). He’s quick to unpack the “dark humour” the title carries. “There’s also some truth to it,” he remarks gravely. “I do believe that on some level, we all want the same things. So it’s kind of a way of reminding myself of that.” Like on other Hold Steady records, like on Springsteen records, like in real life, “there’s a lot of characters in the songs that are just trying to survive, just trying to keep their head above water… so it felt apropos.”
Finn is more than a breathy peddler of everyman-platitudes, though, and his understanding of that perpetual struggle for survival runs deeper than his music. In January, Finn embarked on “The Living Room Tour,” which is as advertised: he played his acoustic guitar and sang in living rooms across America, to small, cramped rooms of fans. It wasn’t just a novel idea; it was a service. “I’m 45. A lot of the people who want to come see me are roughly somewhere in that age bracket, so a lot of people have jobs and kids.” So Finn would start the music at 8PM and his listeners could get home by 10. “The Minutemen used to put on ‘after-work’ shows, because they were like, ‘These people have jobs, they can’t be going out at 11PM on a Monday night.’”
Finn’s tone and pace are bright and floral discussing this tour; it means a lot to him to bring people together, to make them feel at ease. “It feels a little bit political or a little bit revolutionary to have someone invite 35 strangers into their living room to see music,” he suggests humbly. He saw it as a counterproposal to the division marking his country: “It felt a little bit like an antidote to that.”
That through-line of survival is beige and bleak and relatable. Finn has long dealt in minutiae; the banal and the universally accessible truths that they carry. “They punch my card at the coffee shop/I’m pretty sure we’re all gonna die,” he muttered on Clear Hearts’ “No Future,” detailing a ramshackle, post-break-up monotony. On the new record, Finn is riding city buses, too drunk to drive back to suburban Edina, scared to risk a fine (“I barely had enough to make rent”) and license revocation. “I was drinking a lot, but I saw how it affected people. I’d see these guys riding their bikes to the market, and I realized it’s because they don’t have licenses,” Finn says, taking me with him back to 1994 Minneapolis again.
I began to feel like I could visit Minneapolis and feel familiar with it, the same way Finn feels familiar with Winnipeg thanks to John K. Samson and his explicitly local, yet at the same time universal, writing. “You don’t know the certain corner they’re talking about or where Portage Avenue is,” he pauses. “But then, you also do know.”