In recent years, as the pace of new releases from The Hold Steady has slowed, Craig Finn has increasingly channeled his songs into sonically adventurous albums like We All Want The Same Things, his third solo LP in five years which is due out this Friday. On previous records like 2012’s Clear Heart Full Eyes and 2015’s Faith In The Future, Finn searched for a new musical identity removed from the riff-heavy arena-rock of The Hold Steady. But after dabbling in singer-songwriter folk and experimental indie-pop, Finn re-emerges on We All Want The Same Things with a mature rock sound that best suits his character-based story songs.
After constructing an elaborate mythology over the course of several albums in The Hold Steady, starring characters such as Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne, Finn has set about creating new worlds on his solo albums. The characters who populate the songs on We All Want The Same Things — the couple in “Jester & June,” the erstwhile drug dealers in “God In Chicago,” the rootless midwesterners in “Preludes,” the lovers in the process of breaking up in “It Hits When It Hits” — are generally older and wearier than the typical protagonist in a Hold Steady song. They’re just trying to make it in Trump’s America, fighting back cultural malaise while trying to re-discover the special parts of themselves that have been lost in the process of growing up. If Hold Steady songs are about the party, Craig Finn songs are about what happens to the people at the party 20 years later. Read our conversation below.
The title for this record comes from a lyric in the song “God In Chicago.” But there’s also a vaguely political connotation to it. We all do want the same things — and yet we’ve never been more divided. Was it your intent to comment on the current moment?
I usually like to pull titles from lyrics. We got the songs done, we decided what’s going to be on the record, and I’m looking through the lyrics, and I kind of laughed to myself. Because we are in very divided times, and this record was named before the elections but during the campaign. It wasn’t like the election was some bombshell that we all want the same things. It’s been very obvious over the past year. We want safety, we want security, we want freedom. We just disagree on how to get there. I feel like it’s important to remember that. I’m constantly reminding myself that that’s true. Also, going further, I think that the characters on this record are … they’re not fancy people. They’re unremarkable people. A lot of them, I think if we looked, if these were real people, some of them wouldn’t necessarily vote the same way I do, and certainly a lot of them would be affected if you took away Affordable Care Act. So, it is stories about people who are out there, and are affected by all this stuff.
Is it fair to call this album a song cycle? It does seem to follow the arc of a relationship.
It’s weird because “Preludes,” the second song, is more autobiographical. It’s about me coming back to the Twin Cities after being away at college, and trying to fit in and figure out what my place in this world is, and having some hard times with it. That one sort of sticks out — even though I love the song, it maybe doesn’t fall in with the rest. The others are usually about two people and exploring modern love as a series of sacrifices — or as I say, uneasy alliances. People partnering up and teaming up to push through and try to make their way in the world. I mean that not as a cynical look at modern love, [because] I find some beauty in that. At 28 you have that year where you go to nine weddings, and then at 45, where I am now, those weddings unravel. You always hear people saying, ‘We’re such a good team, though. We get the kids to school on time. We put dinner on the table.’ You realize there is a beauty to being a good team. It just might not match our Walt Disney fairytale version of love, and that’s where I think some of these songs are.
With “Preludes” I remember when I got back… I mention this because you live in the Twin Cities. When I got back from Boston, from school, and was trying to build a life in the Twin Cities, I just remember thinking the whole trick of this is going to be, ‘I can’t get a DUI'” A lot of that song is about having that specter over you. There’s guys riding bikes that I realized aren’t riding bikes for exercise. I think about for someone who had $600 in his bank account on a good day, if you get a DUI, you see the signs on the billboards it’s going to cost you $10,000. It’s like, ‘Wow, for a normal person that’s really something to be avoided,’ and of course it’s something to be avoided. It’s very dangerous, and people get killed by drunk drivers. But I just thought about what a specter that was over the scene.
You’ve lived in Brooklyn for more than 15 years now. Why do you keep writing about the midwest?
I know where the streets are laid out. I have a handle on the people. I feel like when you’re in New York at my level, you’re living in the shadow of the city. There’s people on Page Six that are maybe living in the center of the city, going to the biggest and best parties. I’m just here. In Minneapolis, when I lived there, I felt like I was more inserted in the mainstream of the city. I might be at the best party that was in the city that night.
Does this album have a narrative arc? The first song, “Jester & June,” introduces one couple. Is that the same couple in “It Hits When It Hits”?
No, it’s not that big. These are different stories. With Separation Sunday, I did [an overarching narrative] with Gideon and Holly. With this record, I’m more interested in dropping into things individually. I’m trying to build my own world with the solo stuff, but I think there’s a freedom in writing about new people in each song. I just did this living room tour, and someone asked me, “Do you think you’ll ever write about Charlemagne and Holly and Gideon again?” I didn’t mean it to sound like an asshole, [but] I’m like, “No, because you want to avoid Crocodile Dundee III.” At some point you have to add the cute little kid, like Scrappy Doo, if you keep using them.
How do you start a song? Does it start with the characters?
Usually I start with the characters, but honestly when I write a song, most often I write the first line first. I sort of see where it goes. Talking with novelists, I’m surprised by how often people tell me that they don’t know where the books going to go. There aren’t these massive outlines. That makes me feel better. I think about on the first record, like “Jackson” — “Jackson was an actor / At least he was when he was well.” I didn’t know where that song was going to go, but I knew that was a good start. I could kind of see Jackson now. What do we know about this guy? Who were his friends? Let’s put one of his friends in here and see what they do.
When I interviewed Jason Isbell, he also talked about the importance of how you start a song. Isbell will often start songs in the middle of the story, which forces listeners to snap to attention and catch up.
Funny enough, that’s one of the things Josh Kaufman, who has produced my last two records, has had strong opinions about. He doesn’t rewrite lyrics with me, but he will say, ‘Let’s start with that second verse.’ Sometimes I write something that sets up the story, and he’s like, ‘No, we’ve got to start in the story, and people can figure it out from there.”
In The Hold Steady, you have famously written a lot of songs about parties and drugs and the lifestyles of teens and twenty-somethings. In your solo work, you’ve shifted to writing about adults who are trying to make their way in the adult world. That’s a transition that many artists make, and it’s not always easy. What’s that been like for you?
I love it. That’s what’s most interesting to me. I think a lot of these people are kind of stuck, or trying to figure out how to move forward, and that’s very interesting to me just because of where I’m at, where my peers at, the conversations I have in my daily life. I really admire artists — Springsteen comes to mind — that are able to write adult songs that are good because at 45, writing about a 19-year-old in a convertible with wind blowing through his or her hair just doesn’t seem as honest to me.
Sonically, the three records you’ve made on your own are generally quieter, more experimental, and less rocking than The Hold Steady. Are there certain textures that are off-limits for you because you don’t want to disrespect your bandmates? Do you consciously think, ‘I can’t write a Zeppelin-esque riff for this song because that’s Tad Kubler’s territory?’
I think that it’s conscious, but also at least 50 percent of that comes from Josh, my producer. I’m very interested in the producer as a collaborator. I don’t take all of the suggestions, but I’m pretty ready to say, ‘Yeah, we’re doing this together.’ And his aesthetics are not big riffs. That’s part of it. It would be strange to just try to make something that sounded like The Hold Steady when The Hold Steady is still playing shows.
I remember in the Journey episode of Behind The Music that the guys in that band were pissed at Steve Perry for having a hit with “Oh Sherry,” which sounds exactly like Journey. And Keith Richards got mad at Mick Jagger for doing Stones songs on his solo tours.
I’m not going to go out with the live band at closing and play “Stuck Between Stations” — because I’m not sure I can, [and] it would be disrespectful in some way, I think. Especially since I don’t write all The Hold Steady stuff. I just pretty much write the lyrics. At the same time, yeah, it absolutely enters my mind to sort of maintain respect. The Hold Steady guys are my best friends, so I wouldn’t want to upset them or leave them home to do this. This was something separate in my mind.
You’ve now made three solo records in the last five years, so you’ve been pretty prolific. Do you consider your solo career to be the focal point at this point versus The Hold Steady?
Well, in the past few years, The Hold Steady hasn’t been really busy. I am working on the solo stuff a lot more. We played four Hold Steady shows in December, and three in September. I do think, and I hope, that we will continue to do so. The one thing that comes up in interviews — and I think conversations, too — is The Hold Steady not being busy is not necessarily my decision. It’s five or six people’s decision. I’m sitting at home, and I don’t have kids. I have time in my life to work on art, to work on my stuff, and so I do. It’s like, ‘Well, I’ve got these songs. I’m going to go record them.’
Is that frustrating at all with The Hold Steady? Do you wish you were doing more there?
I guess I’d like to do more, but at the same time, we’re all older. I think that us getting in a van and driving around for six weeks and playing Kansas City on a Monday night is probably not the best place for us to be. But putting two or three shows up in a great American city, and playing them, and trying to make them special is really cool. That’s what I hope we’ll do more of. The fact is that, as a lead singer, you get a little more glory, and I think that that’s one of the things that, with The Hold Steady, maybe I burn out a little less on.
You still seem to love touring.
I don’t think a lot of people like it as much as I do. I like to travel. I like walking around. Artistically I get very inspired by just walking around stage places where I don’t know anyone. My mind goes places. I really enjoy all parts of the touring. This tour, it’s funny, with the Japandroids, we’re in a van. Obviously I’ve done a lot of touring on a bus, and I’m really liking it. When you’re on a tour bus, you often sleep late because the bunk is super dark, and you go to bed late. You get up at noon, and you kind of stumble around in the bus for a while, and then you open the door, and the sun’s blaring, and you’re kind of disoriented, and you’re walking out of a dark state, like a submarine into daylight, and everyone’s already been up and about for four or five hours and people are on their lunch break at work. This van tour is kind of cool because you see where you’re going, you are on a normal person’s schedule. You’re waking up at 9 or so, and then driving at 10. You can stop where you want for lunch. Whatever. There’s some freedom to it that I didn’t realize how much I missed.
We All Want The Same Things is out 3/24 via Partisan Records. Get it here.