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Indie Lyricist Craig Finn Tells Close-to-Home Tales From Woodstock's Isokon Studios

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Craig Finn is indie rock’s greatest lyricist, bar none. Starting in the late 90s with the great Lifter Puller, his detail-heavy songs have followed a cast of recurring characters through debauched nights, desolate mornings, and afternoons of realization. Finn’s tales of burn-outs and soon-to-be-burnouts brought him fame as the frontman of the Hold Steady, mingling religious imagery and punk touchstones on classic albums like Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America.

Finn’s solo work, beginning with 2015’s Faith in the Future, has found him in a more contemplative mode, with deeper insights and smaller stories that yield profoundly humane insights into people who, in Finn’s words, “are just trying to do the best they can.” His latest album, I Need a New War, out April 26, follows characters who can’t quite escape their pasts, from the trapped girlfriend on Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today to the story, on Blankets, of a man searching for lost love at the end of his life.

Finn recorded both solo albums, as well as 2016’s career highlight We All Want the Same Things, at Woodstock’s Isokon Studios. He spoke with Hudson Valley Magazine about recording in the area, forming creative relationships, and the subtle politics that inform his storytelling.

 

How did you hear about the Isokon?

The first record I made with [producer] Josh Kaufman was 2015’s Faith in the Future, and Josh had a relationship with Dan Goodwin who is the owner and engineer up [at the Isokon], and he thought it would be a good place to record. He’d worked there a lot, and continues to, and we went up there to start that record. The first time we went up there was kind of an amazing — we went up there just after New Years in 2014 and at some point it became obvious that we were going to get snowed in. We were running through the grocery store stocking up and barely made it up to the studio, got in there, and got snowed in for three days, which was a great way to kick off the relationship.

The Isokon is really a house with a lot of gear in it. It doesn’t feel like a traditional studio and I really like that about it. It has a comfort to it, you don’t always feel like the clock is ticking, and you aren’t always dealing with a sterile studio space, it’s very much a house. Especially for these records, that feels really nice.

 

Why did you record the other two solo records there?

Dan is the number one answer for that, I love working with him as an engineer and mixer and whatnot. But there’s a comfort to it, and we know it works, we know it’s gotten great — I’m really happy with what we’ve done up there. It’s also a geographic thing of being close to the city but you’re getting out of the city quickly and feeling like you’re removed from it, you’re focused on the task at hand and won’t get called back into doing things at your own house, but it’s still close. It’s a nice vibe to be in the woods but there’s enough of New York City in it to make you feel at home too.

 

What’s changed as you’ve worked there over time?

The records have been made with me, Josh, Dan, and Joe Russo playing drums and percussion. And that’s been the crew fro the most part for these three records. I think the relationships have changed for the most part in those five years and I very much feel that a comfort has been obtained. Maybe in that first session when we were all snowed in someone wouldn’t say ‘nah, that song sucks,’ but now they would, and we’re better for it. It feels in some ways like a band that’s three records in, and there’s a comfort and a communication that happens very easily, and an honest.

If someone says, ‘I don’t really think that’s your best song’ I can take that, and say, ‘Let’s try another one,’ rather than, ‘What does he know about my best song?’ So that’s the big thing. We’ve all grown as people. Since we started making these records both Josh and Joe have had children and it’s been a five year period of creating friendship. The Isokon is ground zero for that. I even brought the Hold Steady up there to do some work, that’s how much I like it.

 

 

You’ve described this album as being a part of a trilogy. What makes them all come together?

It’s a couple things. First and foremost it’s the three people I worked with. I certainly didn’t start Faith in the Future thinking I would make a trilogy. We basically just kept recording. The way we’ve been making these records isn’t by going in and doing 12 songs at once, it’s by doing 4 or 5 songs and then coming back a month or two later and doing another 4 or 5 songs.

In some cases we’re recording new songs before the last album comes out. When we were waiting for Faith in the Future to come out we were already recording We All Want the Same Things. It’s felt like five years of straight recording, in steady bursts. So in that way it feels like a trilogy. Another big thing is thematically. In the Hold Steady, because I mainly write the lyrics and not the music, the music can be very big and I really tend to write about bigger things, more dramatic events, people are actively misbehaving and doing wrong things, people are being shot and falling off buildings and things like that.

These three solo records have been a lot more about everyday people trying to do their best, trying to survive in the modern world. Maybe it’s a smaller scope, a little bit more vulnerable, a little bit more personal, but people are generally trying to do the right things in these songs. The Hold Steady songs often take place at midnight, but these songs take place in the afternoon. A lot of people trying to do their best and trying to make sense of this modern world. And lastly, I’ve used the same photographer for all three record covers, so they feel all of a piece.

 

What’s been the attraction to writing those smaller-scale stories?

It’s more where my head’s at right now, more the type of thing that I’m noticing and thinking about. There’s certainly been political stuff that has been influential. A lot of the songs on this new record are about people who maybe aren’t moving as fast as the modern world is changing, and are being left behind or are stuck. And that’s a theme. Reactions to that phenomenon are what dominate our news in some way. And a lot of it is being perceptive and looking around, especially when I’m on tour, looking around and trying to figure out what’s going on out there, eavesdropping and just coming up with stories. At some point I just became attracted to stories that move a little slower and might be putting a microscope on a smaller thing.

 

Do you tend to build your characters from those observations, from the outside-in?

I do. I tend to get a little thing, a thread, and start pulling at it, investigating it. A lot of the time they’re composites, little bits of people I know or things I’ve dealt with. They’re built up from some morsel or something, that I key in on.

 

When I saw you debut the album over the winter you introduced Carmen Isn’t Coming In Today by saying you had once written a lot of songs about “fuck-ups,” but were now more interested in the people who have to deal with those fuck-ups. What was the initial attraction?

I think fuck-ups are kind of exciting because they live dramatic lives and things happen quickly. The way we manufacture our own highs and lows and pursue things has always been fascinating to me. As an observer more than a participant, maybe. The high highs and low lows make for good stories often. But I think as you get a little older — there’s that TV show, Intervention, and as you watch it you notice a real formula.

There’s always someone enabling them, their grandma is giving them all this money to buy drugs or something. [Laughs] And you’re like, ‘what the hell?’ How is that person doing that? But that became the more interesting part of the story for me at some point. Who’s signing a check for $200 every day? Or the girlfriend in the Carmen case, someone who is supporting someone who’s not doing well and is unsure why she’s doing it, and trying to make sense of that.

 

Why are those stories more interesting now?

Maybe because I’ve written a lot of the first kind in my career. But I guess when you notice that the fuck-up can’t survive without the enabler, you get a little more clued in on the enabler and what’s in it for them is a more fascinating question, right now, than what’s in it for the addict or whoever.

 

 

What draws you to the stories you’re interested in now?

The two things I was thinking about on this record were: that the modern world is changing, getting smaller, and people are moving around easier and technology has made us comfortable doing things, and there’s both an embracing of it and a resistance to it, a hard nostalgia for ‘making things great again’ or making things how they used to be, or better. But at the same time there are many songs on this record about people who have something in their past that they can’t get beyond, that’s holding them back.

There’s a lot of New York City on this record. If you’re talking about a place that’s changing quickly, where people can’t keep up, New York seems like a microcosm of that. When I go away on tour and come back, there’s three storefronts that are different stores now. Things are moving and you can’t be complacent. That felt like a microcosm for that kind of change. And speaking of nostalgia, even sonically, the way we made this record, we had this phrase, Josh and I, “dazed on by,” and it was an idea of wistfulness. Some of the music we created was meant to nod at something that was both modern and with a tinge of nostalgia. And some of that was foreboding nostalgia, nostalgia that might not be entirely healthy.

 

Are there any lyrical or literary touchstones that you’ve come to appreciate more now than earlier in your career?

It’s always evolving. The thing that I’m very interested in as a music fan right now that I’m 47 years old and still making records, are people who have been lifetime artists. I think that creating a big body of work, I mean there are people like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, but there’s also Nick Cave, who has made fascinating music for many, many years now and also things that are age-appropriate, if you will. Like Nick Cave is never embarrassing to himself, Paul Simon is never embarrassing, he makes records and makes music that he looks very natural and comfortable doing. And that’s a consideration as you get older and something that you admire in other artists.

 

Do you ever feel like there are certain topics — like politics — or themes you feel a pressure to address?

I think I am in my own way. I think that in some what it’s about the people in our country who are most affected by policies and people who, like I said, are trying to do the right thing but are still having a hard time keeping their head above water, which is different than a Hold Steady song where people are actively pursuing bad decisions and maybe getting busted or blowing out in some way. I think a lot of the songs are about people who are doing their best to survive, and in that sense I think it is a reaction to things in 2016 and beyond and before, where we’re at with capitalism, etcetera. And I think it’s my own reaction to this life we’re living in 2019.

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