NEIL FINN sounds relieved. “The new songs have been going down very well,” he says. “We get to play eight new tracks a night on our current tour. That’s great. You don’t just want to be doing the nostalgia thing.”
For the past 30 years the New Zealand singer has presented a fascinating study in contradictions. With his band Crowded House, he perfected a winning blend of rock and pop. However, as a solo artist he adores experimentation: recorded with Flaming Lips producer David Fridmann, his new album Dizzy Heights cycles between psychedelia, confessional rock and avant garde instrumentation.
“It’s possible some people have a simplistic view of what my music is about,” he says, not quite sighing. “I understand that, short of digging a little deeper, they won’t get past the obvious stuff. If you simply know me from the songs played on the radio… well, you will think it’s all about classic pop, tunes with hooky choruses. And yes, I love all that — but that side of my music has been presented to the world in many different ways over the years. I want to do something different, every now and then. Nobody enjoys repeating themselves.”
Dizzy Heights is Finn’s first solo record since 2001. This doesn’t feel like any sort of milestone. Whether writing with Crowded House, collaborating with elder brother Tim (with whom he played in Split Enz) or composing soundtracks, the 55-year-old regards his music as part of a continuum.
“I don’t go into a different headspace, depending on what I’m doing,” he says. “The business of starting a song and finishing it is really part of one overall process. Nowadays, I sometimes trick myself into writing by creating an atmosphere — evoking a groove that gets me going. I’m always looking for new angles. Familiarity is a friend I want to take a break away from.”
Crowded House were New Zealand’s biggest rock band, with hits ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and ‘Weather With You’ (the former is in his current setlist). However, endless touring started to take a toll and the band went into a spiral when drummer Paul Hester abruptly departed in 1994. They gave a farewell concert to the steps of Sydney Opera House in November 1996, before a crowd of over 100,000 (for which Hester rejoined the group).
After that, Finn was happy to leave Crowded House behind and focus on a solo career. His view changed after Hester, who had a history of depression, committed suicide in 2005 at age 46.
“Crowded House did not get back together for normal reasons,” he says. “While I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, the truth of the matter is we wanted to give the story a happy ending.”
In fact, the band’s comeback record, 2007’s Time On Earth, started as a Finn solo album. “It was nearly finished,” he recalls. “We wanted to ‘heal’ our feelings for the whole thing. So it morphed into a band project and we toured the world as Crowded House and have done so ever since.”
For many years, Finn had to bear the burden of being New Zealand’s major cultural export. The country has always had a vibrant rock scene but, due to geographic remoteness, many of its best bands were doomed to remain unheard by the wider world. Lately, the pressure has eased, with Lorde becoming an international star. Though glad a fellow Kiwi is doing well, he cautions against reading too much into her background.
“Would she sound different if she was from somewhere other than New Zealand?” he wonders. “Maybe a bit. Lorde would have become successful wherever in the world she had come from. She is a very talented artist.”
Her success is a reminder of how much the world has changed. Lorde and her producer Joel Little have been able to stay New Zealand-based whereas, early on, Crowded House had to leave their homeland. They recorded their debut in Los Angeles and eventually established a base in Melbourne, Australia.
“The internet has altered things in so far as geography doesn’t matter as much,” says Finn.
“It is perhaps easier to reach audiences nowadays. New Zealand doesn’t feel as remote as it used to.”
Crowded House fans were surprised when it was announced Finn’s new LP would be overseen by Fridmann, known for his dense, otherworldly sounds.
The idea of a pop craftsman and a committed avant-gardist working together struck some as ludicrous. In fact, Dizzy Heights draws on both their strengths: it features Finn’s trademark melodicism yet there’s a mood of restless experimentalism throughout.
“He was a fan of some of my albums. And I’m definitely a fan of his bold approach to record making,” says Finn.
“He’s a straightforward guy to get on with, despite perceptions that he’s a kind of freak. Dave has worked with unusual artists. Sure, he definitely has an ‘inner freak’. When making a record he is looking for the unusual angle — he has a suspicion of anything excessively polished, which is good as I’m aware I can polish too much. It worked out very well.”
* Dizzy Heights is out now. Neil Finn plays Cork Opera House tonight