Mar 20, 2017
The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn Gives Us an Album of Personal (and Political) Realism We Need
On a recent Tuesday afternoon in Dumbo, Craig Finn was at his producer’s studio, learning how to play his own song. “This is kind of indicative of how things sometimes go,” he announces, after asking his producer, Josh Kaufman, to show him the surprisingly complicated guitar part to “Preludes,” a new song off Finn’s excellent new album We All Want The Same Things.
“I got stuck in a snow bank / I was too drunk to drive to Edina,” the singer mumbles while Kaufman strums the song’s ascending rhythmic progression, and Finn films the chord changes on his iPhone for reference. “Right there is proof of my faith that God watches us.”
Finn first wrote the song in the Spring of 2015 during a period in which the mostly-lapsed Catholic songwriter decided to try and write one song for each day of Lent. “Preludes” is one of the most plainly autobiographical songs Finn has ever written, an account of his life in 1994, aged twenty-three, when he had just moved back home to the Twin Cities after attending college on the East Coast.
When Finn, 45, first brought the tune to Kaufman, it was a quiet country-folk song, just him by himself on guitar singing wistfully about drunkenly stumbling through a lonely Minnesota winter. Kaufman, the mastermind New York producer and multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with Josh Ritter and the National, changed up the rhythm and tone by draping the song in a rich arrangement that featured horns and a prominent flute riff. Before long, “Preludes” had so fully transformed that Finn, three days before heading to rehearsals in Nashville for his upcoming tour with Japandroids, is no longer entirely certain of how to play it himself.
Finn’s impromptu guitar lesson with Kaufman is largely illustrative of how the Hold Steady frontman makes music these days. He’ll write a song by himself on an acoustic guitar, usually with open tunings, often with a capo, almost always “pretty folky,” as he puts it, and will generally leave it to whatever producer and studio band he’s working with at the time to turn the song into a fully fleshed-out recording. After spending the better part of two decades playing in bands, first with Minneapolis’s Lifter Puller, and then, more prominently, with the New York-based Hold Steady, Finn has come to realize in the past few years exactly what it means to make music under his own name.
“When I was making my first solo record [2012’s Clear Heart, Full Eyes] I was talking to my producer, Mike McCarthy, I was very apologetic about my musicianship,” says Finn. “I was like, ‘I can only play simple chords,’ and Mike was just like, ‘man, if you can sing me a song over the phone, meaning you have words and a melody, I’ll worry about the rest.’”
But We All Want The Same Things is more accomplished. It is an understated portrait of unsexy, middle-aged relationship dynamics and Midwestern class politics set to a lush sound that ranges from New Wave rock, to mournful piano balladry, to atmospheric mid-tempo pop.
“We really wanted this one to be more musical,” says Finn. Kaufman and drummer Joey Russo, who Finn first worked with when recording 2015’s Faith in Future, again formed the backbone of the new album. But to achieve a richer musical “exuberance,” Finn recruited a larger studio band that included a slew of background singers as well as the Hold Steady’s Tad Kubler.
The basic premise of Finn’s new record remains the same as it’s always been: setting heavy and dark subject matter to joyful music. We All Want The Same Things, which contains both some of the most despairing characters Finn has ever thought up, as well as the first songs he’s ever recorded that could, under any circumstances, be considered “danceable,” is his first solo album that establishes this guiding tension just as forcefully, and as pointedly, as the Hold Steady have managed in their greatest moments.
Finn has been coming to Dumbo to make music ever since he moved to Brooklyn in 2000. Like anyone who’s called New York home for more than a couple of years, when Finn walks around Dumbo, he’s compelled to point out the drastic differences compared to the time he first arrived. He recalls the special password he once needed to illegally buy beer from a nearby bodega when recording portions of the Hold Steady’s first three records. The grocery store Peas & Pickles was already around, but Finn remembers the hardcore kids he hung out with at the time preferred to call it the “Prickly Pickle” to make it sound more punk. When he would hang out there in the shaky months following 9/11, Finn would be freaked out by the reverberations from subways traveling over the Manhattan Bridge.
After a decade of touring and recording nonstop with the Hold Steady, it felt safe to assume, when Finn released his own music in 2012, that his solo gig was a side project reserved for downtime between Hold Steady albums. And indeed, to date, The Hold Steady has very much not broken up: In December, the group celebrated the tenth anniversary of their breakthrough album Boys and Girls in America with four blowout shows at Brooklyn Bowl, and Finn says the group will remain on hiatus for the foreseeable future.
But now, his solo career is his primary focus. He’s released music under his own name each of the past three years, and also notes that We All Want The Same Things represents the first time the Minnesota native has released two consecutive LP’s under his own name without a Hold Steady record release in between.
Many of the characters on We All Want the Same Things—the waitress enjoying “the finer things” that her seemingly wealthy boyfriend has to offer on “Tangletown,” the grieving woman who cozies up to her late brother’s friend on a weekend road trip—find simple comfort and utility, if not capital “L” Love, in this kind of companionship.
“A lot of these songs have to do with people making partnerships with each other to try to get through some sort of slightly unromantic version of love, some type of modern love that’s not a Disney princess version of love, but is probably more realistic,” says Finn. “When I moved to New York, it was almost comical how quickly people moved in together because rent is so high. There was a summer I went to nine weddings when I was 28, and now I’m at 45 and some of those relationships are kind of unraveling. But one of the things you do always hear is, ‘We’re such a good team. We get the kids to school on time, we get dinner cooked on time.’ There’s a sort of teamwork there that has its own beauty to it.”
Finn chose the album’s title, a lyric from its spoken-word centerpiece “God in Chicago,” as a way of illustrating the dynamics of that same companionship and teamwork. And while it was also chosen well before the election, it has since become a bolder statement for different reasons: Depending on the day, it can feel like a comforting truism, or a wildly naive myth. Still, Finn believes it more than ever. “I do think it’s true on some level, and that it’s important to remember. We do all want the same things: safety for our children, and food and shelter and freedom. But we obviously differ on how we think we get there,” Finn says, before going on to describe the political universe his characters occupy.
“I hear the people on my record, and I don’t think they’re all quote unquote coastal elites. The guy on ‘Rescue Blues’ is probably not a Bernie bro. The people in “God in Chicago” are probably not political, although Wayne from Winnetka might be a Trump voter. He might not like the inheritance tax.”
Finn is emblematic of the historically non-political, white male artist who has, over the past several months, begun to carefully negotiate his own role as a public figure with a platform. Getting together with a group of strangers to hear live music in public has never felt more revolutionary, or necessary, for the singer, whose new album shines a spotlight on the types of lower-middle class jobs—bartenders, waitresses, fast food servers—that are still largely rendered invisible in national political discourse. “The people in my songs,” Finn says, “have always been trying to get ahead and trying to survive and move forward in a world that doesn’t always have a huge amount of space for them.”
On his new album, Finn renders those types of unglamorous voices with a sensitivity that can feel almost radical. On the final song of the album, “Be Honest,” Finn transforms one of his character’s creeping middle age into a scene of socio-political tragedy, arriving at a conclusion he’s been stumbling towards for years: “Her body was an outpost of ideas that didn’t work / A nation failed and broken,” he sings. “And the crumbles and ashes that settled in her purse / Were the ruins of an empire and the people we once were.”
All photos by Julie Goldstone Koch