“It’s been a very productive, creative time for me the last five years.” That’s Craig Finn describing the period which is about to culminate with the release of I Need A New War on April 26, his third straight stellar solo album, all while recording and touring still with The Hold Steady. Finn talked to American Songwriter recently about this stretch, how his solo work differs from his band’s, and why New York has partially replaced Minnesota as the location of his muse. He’s also premiering a live video for the song “A Bathtub In The Kitchen,” which you can watch below.
When did you first realize you were making a trilogy with these albums?
Truthfully, maybe not until we were heading into the third one. The first one was a bit of an experiment. I hooked up with two guys I didn’t know super-well, Josh Kaufman, the producer and multi-instrumentalist, and Joe Russo, the percussionist. We made Faith In The Future, and it went so well that I immediately said, “Let’s keep recording.” In that sense, it feels like a trilogy to me because it almost feels like a constant work with these people that started with Faith In The Future.
Do you compartmentalize the music that you write into Hold Steady songs and solo material?
With The Hold Steady, a lot of the music comes from the other band members, Tad (Kubler) or Steve (Selvidge) or Franz (Nicolay). And there are usually big riffs, so I’m immediately drawn to bigger stories: people getting shot, people driving off the road. With my solo work, it’s more about people, oftentimes my own age, who might feel stuck in their life, or like the world’s changing quicker than they can, or are trying to keep their heads above water. Stuff that’s more personal or vulnerable for me.
This album is more musically adventurous than the others. Was that a product of the comfort level of working with this group of people?
Definitely. As we rounded the corner to this third one, it was, “Let’s try some different things.” I think one of the things that defines it are the different backup vocals, two women (Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins) on one microphone. There’s a bit of a call and response. And Stuart Bogie has become a good friend and a leader of the horns. His involvement has continued to define it and really peaked on this third record.
How do you decide which parts of your characters’ lives the audience needs to know?
I feel like that’s songwriting. It’s like a Raymond Carver story where he tells you some of it, but he also removes enough so that there’s tension. I’ve always loved the idea of an unreliable narrator. I think that there’s a lot of tension in these songs. There’s stuff unsaid that not only makes the story have some intrigue but also hopefully lets the listener put their own hopes and dreams in there too.
The album title is a lyric in the song “Grant At Galena.” Where did you come up with that metaphor?
I was out to dinner with a friend and he said it. He mentioned it in relationship to Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night where the main character’s wife says she hopes it’s a “Grant at Galena moment.” I just find it darkly humorous. Because even if you are going to rise again after a setback, most likely you aren’t going to end up President of the United States. It’s this idea of being down and yet, hopefully, to rise again.
Your songs have moved away from Minnesota to New York and other parts of the country.
I’m physically separated from Minneapolis. While my heart is still there, I can’t give you a great restaurant recommendation anymore. As I live my life, I’ve seen a lot of other places and my stories start to happen other places. I always feel when I’m writingI’m looking back with some distance at parts of my life and finding out what’s interesting or sad or funny about those parts. When I look back 15 years from today, I’m living in New York. That’s why more of this record ended up being set there. That’s where I’ve been for a while.
A lot of songs on this record deal with people who are unhappy with a relationship. What strikes you about that dynamic?
I think that there’s something really comforting about having a partner, someone else on the team. But being stuck is the most tragic thing. Being scared to pursue something that may be better than let go of something that’s not working. There’s a lot of examination of that, because it happens a lot.
Your songs give voice to characters that might be pigeonholed by society. Is it about trying to lend some dignity to these people who might be put down by others?
I’m trying to find dignity and grace in everyone. That’s always been the part of Catholicism that’s been interesting to me: Jesus finding grace and dignity in poor people and prostitutes and beggars, etc. This idea that no one’s too far gone. You hope that it is a Grant at Galena moment for them.