Neil Finn: Songwriter

From Split Enz and Crowded House to 7 Worlds Collide

Published in PM November 2009
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
From Split Enz to 7 Worlds Collide, Neil Finn’s songwriting career has been as varied as it has been prolific. Best known for his work with Crowded House, he can count Paul McCartney among his fans and is often described as one of the best songwriters of his generation.
Paul Tingen
While many write melodic rock songs in the tradition of the Beatles, very few manage to do so with the degree of inventiveness and originality that hallmarks Finn’s work. This is so obvious to anyone with ears that stories of McCartney saying he wished he could write music like Neil Finn and praising Finn as “the greatest songwriter alive” seem entirely credible, even if confirmation is impossible to find.
Neil Finn’s work is held in unusually high regard by music lovers around the world, and their only complaint may be that the New Zealander has not been overly prolific during the last decade. There was his second solo album, One Nil, in 2001; an album with his brother, Tim, Everyone Is Here, in 2004; and a sixth Crowded House studio album, Time On Earth, appeared in 2007 following the surprise re-forming of the band a year earlier (they had broken up in 1996, and after former drummer Paul Hester took his own life in 2005 fans feared that a reunion would never occur). However, just like the proverbial three buses passing at once, the good news is that by early 2010 music lovers will be spoilt by the presence of three recently released CDs with new Neil Finn material. A new Crowded House album will see the light around then, while last September saw the release of a double CD by Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide charity project, called The Sun Came Out, with all proceeds going to Oxfam.
The bad news, relatively speaking, is that it’s an exaggeration to give the impression of three recent CDs with new Neil Finn material, as The Sun Came Out contains only one new song written by the man himself and three others that he has co-written. The rest of the album is filled by new songs penned by other participants, among them Johnny Marr, KT Tunstall, Jeff Tweedy, Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway of Radiohead, Tim Finn and many others. The whirlwind of creative activity that resulted in the The Sun Came Out was initiated and overseen by Neil Finn and took place in his studio in Auckland, Roundhead, during three weeks at the end of 2008. Despite the disparate nature of the musicians, there’s a common spirit and songwriting aesthetic that echoes Finn’s own work and binds all tracks together. It’s as if the contributors were trying to outdo Finn on his own catchy, left-field, melodic-rock/pop turf. One UK reviewer rightly noted, “What is odd is how much it sounds like a Crowded House record,” despite the fact that Finn only (co-)sings five out of 24 tracks.
Intimidating qualities
Neil Finn performing with Split Enz in 1980.
Neil Finn performing with Split Enz in 1980.
Photo: Lisa Haun / Retna
Finn has described the 7 Worlds Collide sessions at Roundhead as “one of the highlights” of his life. On the phone from the studio, he explains, “I built this studio here in Auckland. It’s a lovely building with beautiful light, and I had this fantasy of filling it up with friends and musicians and having a happening. I was dreaming of wandering the hallways and hearing music coming from every space in the building. That’s exactly what happened, and the quality of the music that was created surpassed my expectations. It really was quite unique in that we became a big collective community and it didn’t feel like anybody was bound up in self-consciousness, even though the company was extraordinary and we might easily have been intimidated by the people present. Everyone realised that it comes down to supporting good ideas and seeing them through. We did not have the time to be precious; we just had to get the music out.”
Finn, who happily admits to having “a tendency to sometimes polish too much, given time,” dryly notes, “I’ve never recorded an album in three weeks. But deadlines are a musician’s best friend.” As a result, many of the performances on the album are first takes, giving it a slightly rough-and-ready feel. That it doesn’t sound ramshackle is a testimony to the impressive — or intimidating, as Finn suggests —qualities of the artists involved. Much of the motley crew that assembled at Roundhead had actually met before, for the first incarnation of 7 Worlds Collide (a phrase taken from the Crowded House song ‘Distant Sun’), who played a series of live concerts in Auckland in 2001, resulting in an album and a DVD. At the time, however, the company performed mostly already existing songs. When Finn called around to assemble his more recent team, he asked them to bring, at most, half-finished ideas. The Sun Came Out, says Finn, therefore contains “only a couple of songs that were written in full beforehand. At least half the album was written from scratch at that time, and I think that gave the album a sense of place and of cohesion.”
With regards to the songs that Finn himself was involved in writing, the excellent ‘Hazel Black’ sounds like a KT Tunstall song to which Finn contributed, while he also seemed to play a lesser role in ‘Learn To Crawl’, which was co-written with Ed O’Brien, Johnny Marr, and Finn’s son, Liam. From a Neil Finn perspective, the most significant songs he came up with are ‘All Comedians Suffer’, which he wrote alone, and ‘Little By Little’, which he co-wrote with his wife, Sharon. She also sang and played bass on the track.
“I had the chorus of ‘All Comedians Suffer’ before the sessions, as well as some of the verse,” says Finn. “The rest of the verse was pieced together during the sessions, and the end section was a big, sprawling jam that we added after we found this very cool riff for the outro. The main gist of the song is the very simple notion that there is often darkness attached to people who are funny. I have known people like that in my life in very obvious ways. Paul Hester was a classic example of someone who was the funniest person I have ever known and who created so much joy for people, but really had a very troubled soul underneath it.
“’Little By Little’ had been half-written by Sharon and I before the project. We started jamming last year because we had more time on our hands after our boys, Liam and Elroy, had left home. I would play drums and she would play bass, so we were both about as good as each other. We found those pretty solid grooves, and ‘Little By Little’ came out of one of those. We knew that the song was dedicated to the idea of letting go of family and parenthood. The origin of the opening lines, ‘I’m a walking machine / See the world flashing by / I’m a black balloon / Floating high in the sky,’ came from the fact that we have a walking machine, even though I always thought that they were ridiculous things. But it was a rainy day and I was on the machine, looking out of the window, where I saw a black balloon in the sky. This led me to speculate about what it would look like from up there, and about the free-floating nature of our youngsters going out in the world and letting them go.”
Besotted by music
Crowded House performing at the Masonic Temple, New York City, in 2007.
Crowded House performing at the Masonic Temple, New York City, in 2007.
Photo: Bryan Bedder / Getty Images
Neil Finn’s journey through life began on 27th May 1958, in Te Awamutu on New Zealand’s North Island. His musical journey started when he began playing piano as a young boy. He got as far as passing his Grade 8 piano exam, which, he says, “should indicate that I’m a better classical pianist than I am!” But even at that early age he was “more inclined to play by ear” and he found it “very difficult to sight-read.” Finn’s creative spirit clearly was already geared towards creating music rather than playing it from a page. He began writing songs around 10 or 11 years of age, inspired by the example of his brother, Tim, who is six years older.
“I was always completely besotted with music, even when I was a boy,” recalls Finn. “I think the very first time I wrote anything was when I took a poem from the back of a Donovan record and wrote some music for it. Within the next two or three years, I started to make little tunes, mostly on piano. The next spark came in 1974 when my brother was touring New Zealand with Split Enz. He asked me if I wanted to open up for the band and said, ‘You should write some songs for the tour.’ I guess I was 14 or 15 when I wrote my first three really proper songs. One of the songs was called ‘Late In Rome’, and I performed that a few times on stage with Split Enz. I have even played it in recent times on one-off occasions, solo on piano.”
Finn is mainly known as a guitarist/singer and actually has considerable chops on the electric guitar, so it is a little surprising to hear him emphasise his origins in playing the piano. He began playing acoustic in his mid teens, and apparently embarked on playing the electric guitar when he was asked to join Split Enz in 1977. “I love guitars,” he remarks, “but I am actually still a little more natural on the piano. By now, I have written about the same amount of songs on the acoustic guitar as on the piano. They each have their particular qualities, but my first love remains the piano.”
Tim Finn must have had increasingly mixed feelings about his upstart little brother joining his band. Tim was the main songwriter in Split Enz, and after not allowing his younger brother’s songs on the first two albums after his joining, at the third time of asking two of Neil’s songs were included on True Colours (1980). One of these, ‘I Got You’, immediately went to number one in New Zealand and Australia, and was also the first Split Enz single to chart in the UK and the US. It propelled the album to similar chart success, breaking the band internationally. Neil’s remarkable songwriting talents began to overshadow those of his older brother, and he wrote almost all of the songs on Conflicting Emotions (1983), by which time Tim had read the signs on the wall and begun a solo career.
Finn was alone at the helm of Split Enz for the band’s swansong, See Ya ‘Round (1984). A year later he formed Crowded House, and a year after that the band’s eponymously titled debut album was released. Its lead single, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, was a major hit in the US and the UK in 1987. The follow-up album, Temple Of Low Men (1988), wasn’t as commercially successful, but Woodface (1991), which saw Tim temporarily join the band, marked the height of their success in the UK and in Europe and included its greatest hit in the UK, ‘Weather With You’, as well as classics like ‘Chocolate Cake’, ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ and ‘Fall At Your Feet’. Together Alone (1993) was the band’s final album, apart from a posthumous release of out-takes and rarities, Afterglow (1999). After the band split in 1996, Finn continued with a moderately successful solo career, releasing only Try Whistling This (1998) and One Nil (2001). He also recorded two albums with his brother: Finn (1995) and Everyone Is Here (2004).
Dedicated time
“I love guitars, but I am actually still a little more natural on the piano.”
“I love guitars, but I am actually still a little more natural on the piano.”
Photo: Tom Birkett / Retna
Starting with ‘I Got You’, Neil Finn’s songs have regularly reached the upper echelons of the international hit parades and in other ways become known and endeared themselves to a large audience. It has led many to call Finn a ‘genius’, and one wonders whether he has a method or a secret, or whether his songwriting prowess is just a matter of pure, God-given inspiration. As so often, it turns out to be a bit of both. Finn seems eager to elaborate on what he calls his process, his method and his tools.
“My process hasn’t really changed. Even from age of 15, when I began writing songs, it is that I’m doodling on a guitar and/or a piano, playing chords and singing nonsense, making up little tunes, almost like a kid does. It is rare that I would like an idea if there isn’t some aspect of the way that the chords move that is interesting or provides some feeling for me. The chords are very important.
“I sometimes have an idea of what I want to sing about, but far more often in the course of just dreaming away on a piano or a guitar, words will appear, as a subconscious thing. Sometimes they make no sense whatsoever, and probably at least half the time they are not very good, but there may be a short line in there that will make me go, ‘That’s an interesting thought!’ It will spark a notion for what feeling the song can have. If I am in the right zone, things flow easily from one idea to the next, but on other days it is a struggle and I don’t believe in what I’m doing and talk myself out of it. A lot of the writing process is about believing that you are doing something worthwhile and following the thread.”
Finn adds that he needs to create the right circumstances to be creative. “It is very easy for my brain to drift, and so I figured out quite early on that I need to take care of any little nagging anxieties before I can write. I clear the decks, even to the point that the room is relatively tidy and clear and I have all my things laid out, and then I put in a few days in a row. Another method is to sit down to write in between a lot of things without giving myself the chance to think, so I trick myself into being able to concentrate by just jumping in.
“There have been moments when inspiration hits me unexpectedly and I immediately get to work. This may be because I’ve had a fantastic evening or a memorable afternoon somewhere, and I will sit down with an instrument and it will just flow. Those are the cases in which pure inspiration is involved. But generally speaking, especially as I’ve gotten older and more and more distractions have entered my life, with various things I have to cope with and with having kids, I have to carve out some dedicated time and turn up every day and just do some writing. If an idea is average, I don’t worry about it too much, because every third idea may be a good one. Just the fact that I’m in work mode means that I will follow ideas through. What sometimes starts as a very banal idea will suddenly transform into something interesting just by doing it.”
Physical attraction
The process described above has been a constant during Neil Finn’s three decades as a songwriter. So what, then, about the aspects that have changed over the years? “The only thing that has changed in my method happened the moment I had something that I could multitrack on,” explains Finn. “I got my first recordable cassette player when I was about 16 or 17. It was one of the original blaster boxes, a stereo Sony thing, with condenser microphones. When I was in Split Enz and went to live in England with Noel Crombie — who was the costume-designing, spoon-playing, strange, arty one in the band — it turned out that he had exactly the same machine. So we used to do these little demos, recording on one machine, playing that back and playing along with it, and recording that onto the other. They would have a very strange sound about them after three or four overdubs, which was about as many as we could do. It was primitive overdubbing, and it was where I got a liking for that process.
“When the four-track cassette Portastudios came out about four or five years later, I was absolutely hooked. They were a total revelation, and the writing process that came out of that is still important to me. After the Portastudio, I got an eight-track, reel-to-reel, all-in-one, Tascam thing, and I had that right through until about eight years ago when I started using my computer. I now have this great little digital stereo Edirol thing. It is like a recordable pro Walkman that I had when it was cassettes, but is smaller and easier to use. I use it for recording initial ideas and then dump these into my computer via USB. I work on them in either Garage Band or, more recently, Pro Tools.”
Finn can’t remember the exact model number of his Edirol, but is probably referring to the R09. So how exactly have these tools affected his process? “In the first instance, I’m making things up just like before, playing guitar or piano and la-la-la-ing, and I’ll record myself. I will do a demo of two or three minutes, and there may be 20 or 30 seconds that will strike a chord when I listen back. I will try to use those 20 or 30 seconds as the basis for the next demo, trying to record it in a slightly more fulsome manner. I stretch it out a little bit, without being worried about beginnings and endings, and just record a rough version of it. I’ll overdub things; maybe a couple of guitar passes, a couple of harmonies, even if I am singing nonsense. I’ll maybe get a few more lines that just fall out of my mouth and I’ll write them down, and will then record yet another demo. It is almost like I try and imagine the record, even if in many cases the record turns out sounding completely different.
“It is not uncommon for me to make about four or five demos in a day of a developing idea! There are moments where there is a transformation and suddenly the song leaps into the frame. One little twist, a couple of words that just feel really good to sing, and it becomes like an attraction — like a physical attraction almost. These little recordings have an amazing atmosphere that is very compelling for me and I get great pleasure out of them. At the end of the day, I will happily listen to the last version of a song demo a dozen times.”
The reward
Neil Finn’s demos for a particular song are usually recorded on the same day, as part of one flowing impulse. After that, like all songwriters, he goes back to sift the wheat from the chaff, edit, create structure, and fill in the holes. “The initial process helps me to bring the song out into the light, and at that stage I don’t criticise what I am doing. Later on, I examine it and decide whether it is a good one or a bad one, and will sculpt the song in more of a crafting process. What really helps is to play my initial idea with other musicians. Even with a half-realised idea, it allows me to very quickly find what its nature is.
“Sometimes the band does not naturally get the feeling of a song right, and that can be quite discouraging at times. I remember the first time Crowded House played ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ in rehearsal. It really did not sound good at all, and in a normal situation I would have thought, ‘Oh, the song is s**t.’ In this case, I had enough people telling me that it was a great song, and I’d made a little demo of that song in my normal fashion that I thought was really good. So I didn’t give up on the song, but I did have a moment of doubt when the band played it so s**t.”
The vast majority of Finn’s output appears on band albums, and from his description, it’s easy to understand why. So how does he actually complete a song after the band have played through one of his half-finished ideas? “When I know that there is something good about a song idea, I go away and work it out. The songs will often go through quite big transformations every time I play them with the band. On the new record, a couple of songs that have been around the longest have gone through massive transformations. For example, ‘Twice If You’re Lucky’ started off as a very simple song. We played it live and I thought it was too simple, and I discovered this whole other verse section that made it a much more complex song, and I thought a more substantial song. We recorded it a few times in that way, but I still felt that we hadn’t nailed it. Then three weeks ago, I took it back to the simple form that it had at the very beginning, and it is now way better for it.”
Finn reveals that the forthcoming Crowded House album, for which he doesn’t yet have a title, will be more of a band album than its predecessor, Time On Earth. Originally begun as a solo album, the death of Paul Hester appeared to paradoxically have spurred Finn on to re-forming the band. By consequence, only some of the songs went through the band wringer process. “The new album contains a really interesting, exotic mix of songs,” says Finn. “We started it together as a band, rehearsed it together, and played it live before we recorded it, so I think that it will have a more cohesive feeling about it than the previous one, which had a slightly schizophrenic nature.
“It gets harder to write as you get older, because you are more conscious of not repeating yourself. Lyrically, it is challenging to write songs that are coming from the right place of the 51-year-old that I am, but that are not too serious and earnest and adult either. Retaining one’s sense of humour is a challenging thing. At the same time, when the songs come, they come easily. My method in trying to fashion the perfect song is a roundabout pathway, and how it works is no clearer to me now than back in the day. Not that any song is perfect, but you are chasing it. I have an unusual amount of determination to construct and then dismantle in order to get something that feels right, and I think that there is some reward for that.” Many would wholeheartedly and enthusiastically agree.  0

Writing lyrics — song by song
In the main article Neil Finn describes how words often come to him subconsciously. He explains further, “I tend to trust the things that come subconsciously more, even if they are difficult to explain. Sometimes it is a harrowing process because you are trying to fashion them into something that isn’t too absurd or obscure. You are trying to give them a meaning, but also to leave them open enough so they might trigger a subconscious reaction in the listener, in a similar way as the words did in me. It is a troublesome process at times because there is always a danger that the lyric is formless or has an element of bluff involved. I do admire writers who are able to convey a narrative in a more literary way. Having said that, and in my own defence, I grew up listening to music and really not caring to a large extent what the message of the song was. It was far more about the sounds of the words and the way that the individual lines made me feel. I think it is perfectly valid to approach songs like that.
“The great joy of music is that you can drift off and let your brain work in a more mysterious manner. The best songs often come from a slightly unconscious process of drawing from what is actually in the room with you or imagining a space and a time. For me, it is not so important that there is a clear narrative. The best songs I have written have a sense of a time and place and some concrete images, along with the kind of slightly more yearning and empathetic aspects of the way that human beings feel. It is always best when there are concrete images, and they don’t have to relate necessarily to the emotional landscape, even if they help to create a sense of time and place.”
‘Mansion In The Slums’ (Temple Of Low Men, 1988)
“I’d much rather have a caravan in the hills / Than a mansion in the slums / The taste of success only lasts you / Half an hour or less.”
“We were in the Hollywood hills recording the first album when I got the first line of that song. There was this caravan parked in this little field in the hills, and it just looked really appealing. The song is in the rhythm of a walk. I did not get the whole song at the same time. Later on, as we were getting successful, the line resonated for me as I was contemplating what success means, and that sparked a lot of the other lines in the song.”
‘When She Comes’ (Temple Of Low Men) and ‘Fingers of Love’ (Together Alone, 1993)
“When you come to cover me with your kisses / Fresh like a daisy chained up in a lion’s den.”
“And I can’t look up / Fingers of love move down / And I won’t be hit / Fingers of love move everywhere.”
“I would be naive to think that people wouldn’t read erotic imagery into the lyrics of those two songs! I am conscious of that, but ‘When She Comes’ also has an element of cosmic events, the birth of star systems, great natural occurrences. I was trying to tie those thoughts together. It is not just about your girlfriend having an orgasm!
“Similarly, the actual expression ‘fingers of love’ came from being in Jamaica on holiday. I was sitting watching the sun go down by the beach and — as you do in Jamaica — having a big spliff and playing my guitar. Then the sun burst through the clouds and what a friend of mine calls ‘God rays’ came down, like fingers from the sky. That’s where the title came from. It was not specifically about the sexual act. I am not going to discourage anybody from thinking that, because I always like it when a song carries different interpretations. But the origins of words are often not what people would imagine.”
‘Chocolate Cake’ (Woodface, 1991)
“The excess fat on your American bones / Will cushion the impact as you sink like a stone / Can I have another piece of chocolate cake?”
“It was probably not a smart marketing move to put that song out as the first single in America! We were always quite prone to blunders like that [laughs]. This song was written with Tim. We decided that it was high time we wrote together.
“Tim had the line ‘Can I have another piece of chocolate cake?’ It came from seeing this very overweight woman in a New York restaurant who, having eaten this massive piece of chocolate cake, said to her husband, ‘I don’t know, honey, shall I have another piece of chocolate cake or shall we get the cheque?’ We wrote it down and started having fun with the idea of the over-consumption of particularly Americans, but in a way of the whole Western world. We just happened to find that line about the ‘The excess fat on your American bones’, and it sounded too good to deny. It was tongue-in-cheek.”
‘Four Seasons In One Day’ (Woodface)
“The sun shines on the black clouds / Hanging over the domain / Even when you’re feeling warm / The temperature could drop away.”
“That line was inspired by being in Melbourne, where it can be super-hot and sunny and it is quite common for big dark clouds to suddenly roll in and the temperature to drop by about 20 degrees. It’s always a magnificent sight, with the sun still shining, and there is a stretch of beautiful botanical garden in Melbourne that’s called the Domain. It was a very direct image of the wonder of that particular event and the contradictory weather events going on.”
‘Weather With You’ (Woodface)
“Walking ‘round the room singing Stormy Weather / At 57 Mt Pleasant St / Now it’s the same room but everything’s different / You can fight the sleep but not the dream Everywhere you go / Always take the weather with you.”
“Tim had the first line. We started doing the strum that you hear at the beginning of the song, I came up with the little guitar figure, and the rest of the song fell from there. We were trying to imagine a time and a place, and the line ‘Walking ‘round the room singing Stormy Weather’ helped us get into some atmosphere of somebody troubled who is always on their own in a room. We were trying to find lines that described the scene, like the ‘small boat made of china’, and that feeling of ennui or languishing that permeates the song. Ultimately, the theme of the song is, of course, that you are creating your own weather, you are making your own environment, always.”
‘Don’t Stop Now’ (Time On Earth, 2007)
“Another pleasant day in the countryside / Has ended up in tears on a stormy night / You can’t follow my directions home / But don’t stop now / God knows where the satellite’s taking us / Can’t tell what is right in front of us.”
“We were living in England and my wife was driving around the countryside, horribly lost, because she had a sat nav system that was not set right. And it was pouring with rain and getting dark. So she rang me to try to be rescued. I was actually in the middle of writing when she was having her dilemma, and so some of the conversations we had directly influenced the development of the song I was working on. Later, I made the lyrics a little less specific and a bit more open-ended — that would always be my inclination in a situation like that. So this song had clear reference points to a real event. But sometimes the real event is imagined! [Laughs].”

Published in PM November 2009