Neil Finn interview: Scaling new heights

By Lydia Jenkin

Neil Finn talks to Lydia Jenkin about his ambitious new album.

Neil Finn. You might have heard of him. Tomorrow he releases his third solo album, Dizzy Heights, his first solo outing since 2001's One Nil - though there's been records from a reunited Crowded House, the Finn Brothers, and Pajama Club too. The new set doesn't really sound like any of those, so Lydia Jenkin talks to him about what it does sound like.

Congratulations firstly, it's a fantastic album.

Thank you. You never know how it's going to strike people, but people seem to be appreciating it, which is nice.

Do you still get nervous when you release an album? I guess you've been sharing a few of the songs in various webcasts, and streams, but this is the official release.

I'm actually just really excited that it's coming out. It's been ages since I finished it, and Christmas kind of got in the way. There are good things about waiting a while because you get time to get a few other things worked out, like videos and so on. But it seems like a long time, so I'm relieved it's coming out, and I don't know whether I'm more or less nervous than normal, but it feels like I'm pretty relaxed about it, because I kind of know that I did everything I could to make it as good as I could.

So there's a certain acceptance that comes from that. I think if you have any lingering doubts about what you've done, or could have done differently, then you might be more nervous, but I feel like, for better or worse, it's what I wanted it to be, so I'll live with it.

How did you meet Dave Fridmann [Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev], and why did you decide to work with him as a producer this time around?

Well, I've really admired a lot of the records he's made, they have a kind of boldness of vision, and you know, I'm not alone there. I actually did a tour, years ago with my brother, in Australia, and Mercury Rev opened for us, and we got to know them a little bit on the tour, and there was talk of a collaboration, and Dave's name came up. And that was going to be at my studio, so we talked it up, and it didn't happen for one reason and another, but I kept in touch with Dave, and he came to see Crowded House play last time we were coming through Buffalo, and you know, we just always had it in our heads that it would be good to work together I think. So a little window opened up, and it wasn't that I thought this particular bunch of songs were right for Dave Fridmann, it was just that the time came around, and I thought, well, he'll do some nice messing around with this stuff, and throw some odd shapes in it, and I'm all in favour of that.

Click here to buy Dizzy Heights on CD or Vinyl.

Right, it's still very much a Neil Finn album, and there's classic Neil songs, but he has had an impact on it, thrown a few curves, and some unconventional production ideas at them.

Which I'm very glad of. He's actually a very straight forward, personable guy to talk to, you wouldn't know he's got the inner freak in there if you just met him randomly, but he's really always looking forward to bending something out of shape. And he's not precious at all about little things that I get precious about, so it's a good combination. Having someone with different priorities, but who still respects you, and you respect them, and respect their opinion, because it stops everything from revolving in such a small self-conscious way with your own insecurities. He's good like that.

Were you surprised by the way any of the tracks turned out in the end, you know, they started in one place and ended up somewhere completely different?

Yeah, many of them did actually, but none more so than White Lies and Alibis. That started its life sounding like an Olympic opening anthem, haha, and you know, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not necessarily how I would've wanted it to turn out. It had that sort of stirring sports game feeling about it.

And in the end, we had a big sprawling, 15 or 20 minute jam on it, and then edited it. So more or less what you hear - without the extra string arrangements or vocals that we added - is us jamming, but we just chopped it up and made it into a more concise version.

And it's completely unlike any other time we'd played it before than, and I haven't really learnt how to play it like that yet either, that might be quite challenging. I've done it a few different ways now, just with an acoustic guitar, and with the string section, and there seem to be lots of other angles to it, but the album version is going to be very interesting to learn.

The version that you did for the Guardian webcast was so different, just you and the acoustic. It brings out quite different things in the song. Did it start out as an acoustic track?

Kind of, I think. I do little demos when I come up with ideas now, in order that they immediately have some kind of atmosphere that I can attach myself to. It just wills me on, so rather than just an acoustic guitar, or piano, and vocals, which I still occasionally do, more often I might have a little beat going, and some BVs, and a little trippy guitar line in the background or something, and then it draws me into it, and I kind of want to explore it more. It's just a way of committing myself to it. But really in the end, they should all be able to be rendered on an acoustic or piano, but they will sometimes create a completely different impression. With White Lies I also did a version in the webcast from here (Roundhead) with a nine piece string section, with just the strings, vocal, and piano, and it actually really works great in that context, and if people heard that first, I'm sure the album version might catch them by surprise. The album version is more tense I think, it's got a sort of tension underlying it, which in a way, is more appropriate for the subject material, it's a little darker.

I read that you wrote it after a chance meeting with one of the West Memphis Three, while you were in Wellington.

Yeah it was the night I first got down there to sort of take on working on the Hobbit song, and went out to dinner, and Damien Echols was there, one of the Memphis Three, with his wife Lorri, and I was just really impressed by them. And over the next few days, got to know them a little bit, and saw the film that Peter [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] made (West of Memphis), and then read his book, so kind of had a bit of an absorption with the story, and was really taken by it.

So that influenced the lyrics of that song, although I would hope the song has a slightly more general, universal, open ended feeling about it, because it's also about captivity, and some of the guilty ones that should be in prison, and some of the ones that are in prison are wholly innocent. It's not often that I delve into areas like that, or put myself into a character, and I would not presume to know anything really about what it's truly like, but I think it's valid for an artist to step into that slightly risky place. I'm happy to find new angles in what I can write about, but I wouldn't have expected to write anything along those lines, so it was nice.

And I sent Damien and Lorri the song a few weeks ago, and was anxious about how they would find it, and they love it, so I'm really happy about that.

There's lots of really interesting lyrical material across the album, a lot of upward imagery, heights, elevation, flying, and so on. Do you like flying?

I love flying in my dreams. I haven't done that for a while, but I've had a lot of flying dreams over the years , and it's just such a great, inspiring thing to wake up from. But elevation in general I like the feeling of, mentally and physically, you know, getting up hills, and getting a good view, and all that sort of stuff, and I suppose the nature of living in New Zealand means I'm always flying, so maybe there are a lot of different connections to that concept.

It's a loose connection of thoughts, that I seem to recognise in the album, that were to do with states of elevation, seeking great heights, and the dangers and risks of that, isolation and disappointment.

There's no one central idea, and I'm not moralising about anything, they're just things that I'm interested in - what compels me to get so crazy and obsessive about trying to write great songs, and sometimes you question whether it's a worthy pursuit when it's not going well, or when you're behaving badly as a result of it, and I find that a really interesting proposition these days as I watch people, whether they're wanting to be famous overnight, or experience the dizzying sensation of being really successful, really famous, and how there's something compulsive about it.

I was also reminded about that sort of thrill that young kids have, when they're jumping off a rock into the ocean, which I was watching when we were on holiday last year, and just thinking about that kind of exhilaration of taking a risk and leaping off.

They're not exactly risking their lives, but there's that slight feeling of danger which human beings seem compelled to seek, as we scales heights and jump off high places, both physically and metaphorically.

We have these instincts and desires to do it in many different ways, and there's both positive and negatives to it. There's people who live very simple existences with known parameters in their lives, and achieve great serenity, peace, and wisdom, and have fulfilling lives, so I don't know if there's a compulsive need for humans to try and hit the dizzy heights, I just find it interesting that a lot of people do. It all rolls into a pretty interesting thread, that seems to run through the record.

This might seem like a random question, but given its mention in your track Recluse, do you watch Game of Thrones?

I have done, but I've never really followed it enough to get to know all the characters. But it was one quite a bit one way or another, while I was writing, and obviously a lot of people I knew were watching it. And when people first heard that line, they went 'what's wrong with that?', they thought I was giving them shit, but I'm not really, it was more about people living life vicariously through TV or internet, and retreating from your own life. It was a series of musings about that, and the reference just had to be current. And it sang well!

Speaking of TV, another favourite track is Better Than TV, because it has such a lovely a sentiment, wanting to make sure someone you love is making the most of life.

I like it too. I like the groove of it actually, it's one I haven't done before, and there's a few new grooves on the record which I'm pleased about. But I like the fact that it's a fairly simple track, or a simple sentiment. It's a love song, but it's a love song that's written by someone or for someone you've known for a long time, or you know really well. It's not an early days type love song.

But it's about not settling in to a kind of slumber state, which I'm a little obsessed with by nature. There's a form of contentment that's not really contentment, it's just not wanting to stretch things because habits form, and it becomes easy to get up and do the same thing every day, and not take chances, and avoid anything, and I'm just kind of saying don't let any chances go by, "don't die wondering" as the songs says, if there's something something.

It's the oldest philosophical standpoint in the world really, you know, make the most of every day, which is incredibly hard to achieve, and possibly, when you're living in an affluent environment, that creates the easiest kind of state to simply let days drift by, and not really live your life, because you're lulled into a detached viewpoint because of all the distractions, all the entertainment and food, which are wonderful to enjoy, but I think you can actually start to get into a numb state where there are no surprises or risks in your life.

I'm tying up these loose ends a bit much, I don't want to tell people what they should take from it, but you're drawing me out.

Haha, fair enough, well lets talk about the music instead of the lyrics. You mentioned grooves before, and the album seems quite groove based this time.

Yeah, I think there are a lot of songs that started with feels, and with jams. Flying In The Face Of Love for instance came from a jam we had in London with Sean Donnelly and Sharon and I, it was kind of post Pajama Club. But yeah, I like the fact that when you start with a groove, you already feel like you know what the record sounds like in some ways, and it might seem slightly back to front, but it's a nice way round.

So that's not your normal creative approach?

It's become more normal as the years have gone on I guess, but it wasn't really, no. Now though, I often start with a feel, and then already, your lyrics and melodies relate to a feel in ways that allow you to be a little bit more crisp with the rhythm perhaps, you've got that really good drum beat, the hits are in the right place, and its got some momentum.

It's probably a reasonably modern way of approaching it, that's become more popular because beats are so able to be manipulated and added without having to record a live drummer, initially. You can go quite a long way in your bedroom with a few drum machines, and it's a fun way to start. You can listen to something that's just rhythm, with a little bit of bass line or a backing vocal, and it can be really enjoyable to listen to straight away. It helps to get rid of the blank page dilemma.

Another interesting musical aspect of the album is how there are little motifs or chord progressions, or vocal inflections that somehow just sound like you.

They have a hint of what's been already, yeah. Music is so mysterious that it's impossible to say definitively what it is that triggers an emotional response in people, but often partly it's a familiarity, because you can tap into nostalgia in the same way that a scent from your childhood will make you feel something, and give you a hint of memory that's a lot deeper than just people and places, it taps into the way you felt.

And that is tapped into a lot in the music business these days with little retro and nostalgic throws in songs, and stylistically even, someone like Mark Ronson making records that have incredible authenticity, like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, he's managed to study that nostalgia for the 60s and 70s and figured out how to tap into that.

And that alone might not be all that interesting, but it is amazing that when you hear certain combinations, it evokes something quite strongly. You know a melody line, or the way a chord sequence rises and falls might have some inherent melancholy or hopefulness, there's just so many aspects to what makes it work, and what makes it so endlessly fascinating. I'll be fascinated until the day I die with the whole thing, and I think it will always be a mystery.

You've announced some Australian tour dates, will there be any New Zealand shows this year?

I'm a bit sheepish about the fact that they won't be until later in the year, but definitely going to play some shows here. We're just putting it together at the moment, but I'd say middle of the year there's likely to be some shows, and this time I definitely going to get to Christchurch.

I want to play in the Waitomo Caves too. I've got to try and set that up. I don't know if you could put a rock band in there, but maybe a nine-piece string section version of the record might be quite nice. I'm going to sow that seed.

And you'll be playing with your new band during the tour?

Yeah, a very new band. We had our first show in Sydney last week, which was on TV, so a high pressure way to begin, but yeah, we're an all Kiwi band, and spanning young to old like me. It's Jesse Sheehan on guitar and vocals, Lisa Tomlins on backing vocals, Alistair Deverick on drums, Andrew Everding, who's an honorary Kiwi because he's living here at the moment on keys, Sharon on bass, and me on the rest of it.

Who: Neil Finn
What: New album Dizzy Heights out tomorrow
Where and when: Australian tour dates have been announced, New Zealand tour dates will be forthcoming.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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