The Hold Steady frontman releases his poignant third solo effort We All Want The Same Things
By Brian F. Johnson
The continually unfolding plot of Craig Finn’s literary world seems boundless. Preaching at the altar of The Hold Steady, Finn has taken listeners on a multi-decade journey with tragically lovable characters like Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon, among others, and picked apart adolescent punk scenes, sketchy drug houses and life of the downtrodden in the large midwestern cities. His sharp, pointed fiction packs more character development into a five minute rock song than many of the great epic novel trilogies.
If his Hold Steady catalog is the full franchise, then Finn’s solo work serves as the spin-off — one that is similar in its plot lines and storytelling, but altogether a separate entity — and the latest chapter in that is his newest album We All Want The Same Things, Finn’s third solo effort, which will be released on March 24.
“The solo stuff burns a little slower,” Finn said, during a recent interview with The Marquee. “It’s not as bombastic and I think it allows me to tell stories that are a little more vulnerable and a little more, I guess, personal and certainly more intimate. I certainly explore slightly more mundane — not in a bad way — but just smaller stories. The Hold Steady is so bombastic, there’s some pressure where I have to have the characters be doing bigger things in The Hold Steady.”
Finn explained in a press release that preceded the album’s release that We All Want The Same Things is a story about “normal people trying to help themselves move forward, and in some cases trying just to survive.”
“These are unremarkable people,” Finn told The Marquee in his nasally, almost nerdy voice, “people who are struggling in some way or just trying to keep their head above water and some of the stuff will effect them very much. So in some ways the record title is a dark comedy, but I also believe it to be true. I think these people, these characters on the record, I don’t think all of them would vote the same way as I do and I think they’re people that would really in some cases be very affected by policy. The album was made before the election, but during the campaign, and I think that on some level, safety, security, freedom, those are all things we all want, we just really disagree on how to get there.”
Finn holds true to his standard themes throughout the album, but he also ventures into territory that he hasn’t touched on before, most notably in the delivery of the narrative “God In Chicago,” over a heartbreaking minor-chord progression played on piano. Finn, who jokes that he’s always been called a bit “talky” as a singer is known to speak-sing many of his lyrics, but for this track, Finn focused on straight, poignant story telling with the almost-entirely spoken word song, about a guy who overdoses, and his sister and his friend working together to take care of the unfinished business “roughly the size of a baseball” that he left behind. “The song started as I was just reading the paper about the opiate crisis in America,” Finn said. “I was thinking about all of these ODs and the statistics and about how it would effect people close to a young person who ODs. But the song is also about the idea of going on a trip when you’re a little younger that kind of puts you out of your comfort zone.”
Finn went on to explain that the song, and in fact his writing in general, is a similar escape. “You know there’s this really great essay that Jonathan Francis wrote that I read a while back about how fiction is a form of meditation — reading fiction. And I think writing fiction is in some way too. If you can get into that world; if you’re out of your own and that is cool. I could really see that couple [from the song]. I knew what they looked like. I could see them and I liked them and I wanted them to have a good adventure.”
The track was the last song that Finn brought to the record — not the last song recorded, but the last song brought into the collection of 10 tracks. Finn had originally envisioned it as a more traditional song, but his producer and creative confidant Josh Kaufman saw it differently. “Josh has become a very important collaborator with me and he just said ‘No. No. No. You’re on to something here, let’s just sort of talk it out a little more.’ I’ve always been a talky singer, but I’ve never gone full on into that spoken word kind of thing and it’s cool. I really like it. It’s my favorite song on the record,” he said.
Finn bravely unveiled the album’s material in a series of 11 house concerts scattered around the Upper Midwest and Northeast in January. The up-close and personal performances ended up being “super rewarding” for Finn, who also fielded questions from the audiences at each stop. “I think there’s an energy to inviting 35 strangers into your house to see a live music show. At times like these it feels mildly political or revolutionary. There was a cool energy. For playing new songs I think it was really nice because people could hear the stories and the words. People go to rock clubs for all different reasons, but if you’re in someone’s living room, sitting on the floor of a stranger’s living room, you really want to hear the music,” he said.
Finn recorded the album mostly in Rhinebeck, N.Y. with Kaufman and a cast of musicians that included Joe Russo on drums, keyboardist Sam Kassirer, vocalist Caithlin De Marrais of Rainer Maria, singer/songwriter Annie Nero, horn master Stuart Bogie, John Shaw, Jordan McLean, Matt Barrick and Finn’s longtime partner in The Hold Steady, guitarist Tad Kubler.
For the tour however, Finn will be joined by the “more road friendly” Uptown Controllers, a four piece including Finn, Arun Bali on guitar, Will Berman on bass and Falcon Valdez on drums. The group is hilariously named after an eventually debunked Craigslist post from “Uptown” Minneapolis for a Playstation 4 “controller” for sale for $300 that had allegedly been used by Finn at an after-show party.
In addition to this solo tour, Finn and his Hold Steady counterparts will also play some dates this year, but he explained that the band is exploring a “smart-touring” model, which has them going out for shorter, but more special jaunts. “We just did four shows at the Brooklyn Bowl and I’d like to see that be our model — pick an American city and put three or so shows on sale and make it really special; change up the setlist each night. I think it’s better for everyone than for us to roll into your town on a random Monday.”
Gothic Theatre | March 7
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