Before an October solo performance at City Winery, I spoke with Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn about his latest solo album We All Want The Same Things, connecting with an audience despite divisive times, Chicago as a recurring character/setting in his work and much more. As we look back on a turbulent year and ahead to a new one, Finn's observations on characters simply trying their best to get by, and the positive message at the core of We All Want The Same Things, seem like a fitting way to close 2017...
On his third solo album, We All Want The Same Things, Craig Finn's always fascinating character studies take on a more mature tone, focusing on people doing their best to make it through every day middle class life, and the relationships and partnerships it sometimes takes to achieve that.
We look back with "Jester and June," while contemporary issues like the opioid crisis and more are also addressed on the album. And while the songs were written prior to the 2016 election, the focus on avoiding division has taken on a renewed relevance.
It's an idea Finn's taken a step further on tour this year emphasizing repeatedly each night on stage that, regardless of the divisive times we find ourselves in, there are ways in which we're not that unalike. At the end of the day, we do all want the same things: basic necessities like an income and dwelling.
In an era rife with references to fake news, Finn focuses on the importance of honesty. "Be Honest" closes We All Want The Same Things and, onstage in October at City Winery, it was a message that served as the very core of Finn's performance - a simple request that we tell each other the truth.
Chicago itself has acted as the backdrop for Hold Steady tracks like "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" but never in the way it does on We All Want The Same Things.
"In the song 'God in Chicago,' on my new record, people are actually making that pilgrimage to a big city," said Finn of the album's first single and most powerful track. "And, honestly, some of the best shows The Hold Steady has ever played have been in Chicago... these Thalia Hall shows that we did this summer were spectacular and just drove the point home that Chicago is an important place for us."
As we reflect on 2017, and hope for better in 2018, one of Finn's most frequent requests seems appropriate: "Stay positive."
I spoke with Craig Finn about the importance of creating a community via the performance of live music, the impact of the Midwest on the characters he's created on We All Want The Same Things and his approach to the ideas of empathy and love on his latest solo album. A lightly edited transcript of that phone conversation follows below...
Q. Whether it's solo or with The Hold Steady, you tour quite a bit. I think, at its best, music plays the role of escape for a lot of people. And it could certainly be argued that in this world, that idea of escape is as important to people as it's ever been. How important is it to be out performing live right now?
Craig Finn: The show we’re doing, it’s the tour for We All Want The Same Things, which was meant to be a very empathetic record - sort of talking about how, on some levels, we do want the same things. Even though it may not seem like that. It may seem like that title is dramatic or ironic or darkly comedic. But I think it’s important, more than ever, to get people together, get people in a room.
Politics aside, we spend so much time online – although I think that is connected to politics – but we spend so much time online now that to just get people in a room together seems like an act of small revolution. That’s something I’m very interested in kind of pursuing: what it means to create a community.
Q. In terms of the characters in your songs, there’s not really much crossover between The Hold Steady and your solo work. But one recurring character now has kind of become the city of Chicago. And Chicago is almost kind of the centerpiece of your latest album. What makes it a good character or a good setting?
CF: I grew up in Minneapolis so Chicago was the closest actual big city. In the song “God in Chicago,” on my new record, people are actually making that pilgrimage to a big city. Which, Chicago feels – I’m driving in – much different than the Twin Cities – in size and scope and internationalness, etc.
But it’s also the center of the Midwest. And as someone who grew up in Minneapolis – I’m here now – and lived the last seventeen years in New York, and started the band I’m most well known for, The Hold Steady, in New York, Chicago seems like a sweet spot in some way of an urban place that has its roots in the Midwest.
And, honestly, some of the best shows The Hold Steady has ever played have been in Chicago. And that continued even this summer. So it’s always somewhere I look forward to playing.
Q. When you think about those great Chicago shows, what are some that stick out?
CF: There was a Randolph Street block party one that sticks out to me. I think we did two but the first one I think was the best one. Pitchfork fest in ’08 I think was a big one. Lollapalooza. The Hideout Block Party was a really good one.
We did a live record there too at Metro [A Positive Rage]. We did Metro Halloween in, I guess it would’ve been ’07.
But these Thalia Hall shows that we did this summer were spectacular and just drove the point home that Chicago is an important place for us. Which was never in question!
Q. You mentioned the Midwest. And the characters you write about on this album are kind of marginal characters in a lot of ways – they’re struggling to get by. Did growing up in the Midwest inform the experiences those characters encounter?
CF: Yeah, somewhat growing up in the Midwest... but also just driving around. Being in the van and driving around and stopping in places for lunch or whatever and seeing these big sort of parking lots that we have now and these stores you see everywhere – driving into the combination Petco, Home Depot, Dollar Tree or whatever and seeing a lot of people walking around.
I think the thing is on this record, a lot of these people - more so than especially on the early Hold Steady stuff - these people aren’t necessarily participating in deviant acts. They aren’t necessarily partying too hard or they aren’t pursuing any kind of lifestyle, they’re really just trying to keep their head above water. And I think that’s probably a function of me getting older and noticing different things. But I think that there’s a lot of that, the country.
I was more interested in people who are trying to do the right thing, not blowing off things and just going crazy, but really just trying to keep up. And those people populate this record a lot more.
Q. I've heard you refer to We All Want The Same Things as “the modern love album.” And, certainly, this time around, a lot of the stories are focused on cultivating a relationship - or maybe even the better word is partnership - in kind of uncertain times maybe at a slightly older age. What’s the approach to love on this album?
CF: It’s one of those things that kind of revealed itself to me. I wrote a bunch of songs and then I realized a lot of them were about these things. And I think I guess I was thinking of how people kind of partner up and make these teams to get through the world, to get through life.
And, in a lot of cases, it doesn’t look like a Disney version of love – prince and princess. I don’t want to be so cynical to say convenience but a sort of necessary partnering and team work so to speak. As I reflected on it, and as I kind of developed the songs, I was definitely finding beauty in that concept. I didn’t want to say like, “Oh, this is ridiculous. People are using each other,” because I don’t necessarily see it as that. I see it as a very normal, human way of reaction to this modern world.
Q. Most writers have hundreds of pages in which to fully develop a character. You’ve got about three minutes in a song. What’s the key for you to fully developing a character in a song?
CF: I think you have to see them. And I think that it’s a constant tinkering to make sure that I’m including enough details to make this person human or relatable. But also taking things away to build some mystery and also someplace for the listener to insert their own kind of hopes and dreams.
It’s a process. It’s kind of like a short story: it’s sort of what you put in but also what you leave out. And my process is this kind of constant tinkering with those details.
Q. Last December, you did a residency with Seth Meyers’ house band on Late Night With Seth Meyers. The general feeling seems to be that he’s responded to the current state of the world about as well as anyone in late night television. What was that experience like for you and do you think that experience will manifest itself somehow in future stories or songs?
CF: To me that was an amazing week. I was reunited with my friend Fred Armisen who I’ve known for a long time. And I have a number of friends in that band. I’ve known Seth a little bit, I’m friendly with him. I’m kind of just sort of in awe slash proud of him for the way he’s kind of handled the last year. I think he’s spectacular.
I don’t know that it effected my artistic process. For one, these songs were already written. But two, I was sort of concentrating on not messing up on TV.
But it is very amazing to see how he’s used this very powerful position of being on live, network TV nightly to address some of the concerns that a lot of people have.
I was there just before Christmas and I think there were even more tourists in the audience than usual. Which means he wasn’t speaking to a just New York audience, even in the room. And that takes bravery.
The other artists I keep thinking of in these times are the Drive-By Truckers. I think that they released a record [American Band] that is divisive to their fanbase. And, in some ways, I think that if I said the same things, it might be less divisive to my fan base just because being that [the Drive-By Truckers] are southern. And I know that they’ve taken a little bit of heat from it and that makes it even more important and braver.
I think some of the artists that have taken that I’m very impressed with. I think it’s sort of our duty, in some ways, to speak to that.
Q. Well, especially in terms of your solo work, you’ve been awfully prolific in the past few years. What does the future hold?
CF: I’m always working on new music. I’ll be recording right after the New Year. Always working on stuff.
My idea is that in this day and age you’ve got to kind of keep it moving. People consume, just from a pure professional standpoint, people consume new music quickly. And there’s a lot of stuff out there.
So I think if you have people’s attention, if you have an audience, I think you need to deliver stuff.
- Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )