Tim Finn gathering his mental notes

By Alan Perrott

The first "Hi Tim" sets off a chain reaction that smiles its way around the small Devonport cafe in seconds. Well, it is a local caff for local people, and even if Tim Finn is a tad more of an "institution" than anyone else within earshot, he's still a local. So, with niceties completed, everyone gets back to their coffee and leaves him be.

"That's one of the things I love about living back in New Zealand," says Finn pondering his own steaming long black. "The people are cruisey. They know who you are, but they don't want to show it. I guess it's part of our egalitarianism and it's respectful in a funny kind of way."

Just as well, because that's exactly how the 54-year-old likes it, thanks very much. For a guy who has dedicated himself to earning a living from one of the most publicly exposing industries, he's happy to be a fairly private, intellectual, hippy kind of pop star.

"I struggle with that all the time. But for me, songwriting is the key - that's when I'm at peace. I'm also very fortunate to have met the right woman at last. We've had a couple of kids, so most of the time now I'm busy being a dad.

"I don't hang my life on the marketplace and my expectations are more under control, but there is still some pressure. Every time you come out, you prove yourself again, so here I am, about to start up the circus once again."

And it hasn't been long since the last one packed up its tent and went home. Since marrying the "right woman", former MTV host Marie Azcona in September 1997 - "an astonishing person, phenomenal" - Tim has released two well-received solo albums and completed two years of touring with the younger Finn, Neil, in support of their collaborative Everyone is Here album.

"It still is a curious path," says Tim. "One minute we're playing in front of 20,000 people in Sydney, the next it's a solo gig to 100 people in Wanganui, and then I'll be completely domestic for a while, maybe writing a bit and being with the kids. But I accept that now, after doing this for so long, it feels kind of normal for me."

The next circus will star Tim as ringmaster of a quickly cobbled-together band to promote his new, seventh solo effort Imaginary Kingdom. The album takes its name from what might be considered Finn's happy place: " ... my imagination, the place where I create".

Which is appropriate as, after years of post-Split Enz travelling, he seems to have settled on the view found inside his head as his favourite.

"When I was about 8 or 11, I used to go to Mass to find that moment of silence within myself. I used to long for that: oneness and silence. Then later on, I remember I was working at a freezing works, before I became a vegetarian - maybe it pushed me over the edge - and we were all sitting in the lunchroom in our blood-stained, white overalls and white hats, eating our pies or whatever, and I had this odd experience.

"I stepped out of time. I was feeling this lovely sense of emptiness, a calm feeling, and it lasted quite a few minutes before I stepped back in again. I always remember those moments, when time almost seems to stop. It's a place I try to find through meditation, but, as always, the trick is not to try too hard."

Internal retreats appear hardwired into Finn's lifestyle. He began practising Tibetan Buddhism two years ago, a philosophy which dovetails with the more earthly meditation of tracking along the black line at the bottom of the nearest swimming pool - "it's almost a quietening down for me" he says.

And when he's scrutinising his latest songwriting efforts, Finn prefers to do so alone inside the car in his garage rather than a studio.

Which could account for the perma-stubbled mystical look, with his free-ranging hair having reached just the right shade of grey to match his eyes. Off stage, the balladeering, class-clown persona switches to an introspective, antipodean druid with a passion for making music, something he's trying to pass to his children, Harper, 8, and 3-year-old Elliot.

Finn returned from a trip to Nashville with a pair of Peewee guitars - a flying V and a Les Paul copy - so he could jam with his kids. He says they are rocking up a mighty "fresh feeling" racket, which has flowed through into his own work and in a roundabout way contributed to the quiet dropping of his initial plan for a Best Of album and book.

Instead, he's gearing up for his first, solo worldwide release in 15 years and the tour which kicked off at Sky City on Friday last week. And to think he almost jacked it in 10 years ago.

Split Enz was a distant memory, the early solo albums aroused less interest than he'd hoped, there were battles with depression, a marriage breakup, a record label breakup, then a failed relationship with actor Greta Scacchi.

That record has been flipped over on to a fresh groove; he's even launched his thoughts into the new world of Myspace, while his Halloween yarn shares a rock'n'roll website already boasting Patti Smith's handy hints for treating fridge mould.

"I really started slowing down in my early 40s. I was thinking 'does anyone care? Is anyone even listening?' But I don't have that struggle any more.

"Every time I came off the road during that last tour, I'd write a song. I wasn't trying to write an album, it was just there. So it was just, 'Let's go, then'. If you push through all the humps, you can come out the other side into a better place. A lot of bands don't get through that and they drop away, but, well, I guess I found the right partner, and I'm a dogged character really."

Then with a cheery chorus of, "Bye Tim" trailing after him, he's off, a contented troubadour making his way quietly under a matching grey sky.

LOWDOWN

Who: Brian Timothy "Tim" Finn OBE
Born: June 25, 1952 Te Awamutu.
Solo albums: Escapade (1983), Big Canoe (1985), Tim Finn (1989), Before & After (1993), Say It Is So (2000), Feeding The Gods (2001), Imaginary Kingdom (2006)

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