Interviews

The Hold Steady's Craig Finn Going Small on Solo Journey

Dan Hyman
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

How does Craig Finn determine what’s a Hold Steady song versus a solo one?

For more than a decade, as lead singer of Brooklyn indie-rockers the Hold Steady, Craig Finn has sung massive songs. On any given night, showered in a stream of sprayed beer by the group’s notoriously raucous crowds, the bespectacled singer weaves tales of big love and even bigger heartbreak, adolescent ecstasy and wallowing sorrow.

Finn, 45, says he’s always enjoyed this exercise in outsize expression. But as he says on a recent morning, when calling from his Brooklyn apartment, he finds himself these days increasingly drawn to exploring the “smaller, more regular, more mundane” aspects of life. It’s why, Finn says, for the past five years he’s been writing and releasing solo albums. “I definitely feel like sonically and spiritually these songs feel more like how I feel on a day-to-day basis,” he says of “We All Want the Same Things,” his third solo LP, due March 24 via Partisan Records.

Recorded with producer Josh Kaufman (who helmed 2015’s “Faith in the Future”), Finn’s latest album doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics, most notably co-dependency in relationships and how we often use one another to get through life. It’s a topic he mediates on explicitly in songs such as “Ninety Bucks” and “Rescue Blues.”

“I didn’t want to be cynical but I feel like there’s a version of modern love that’s mutually beneficial but maybe not perfect,” says Finn, who was divorced at age 28 and is currently in a long-term relationship. He mentions how he’s started to see many of his friends’ marriages dissipate. “People team up and at times even use each other to get through this world and life. These people in most cases are trying to keep their head above water, survive on some level.” They might not always love each other, he adds, but often “they make a good team.”

On the album’s magnificent centerpiece, “God in Chicago,” Finn explores what might be one solution for a couple in dire straits: full-throated escape from normalcy. A road trip yarn of redemption and revitalization, the song was in many ways a creative breakthrough for Finn. Despite acknowledging to long being a “talky” singer, “God in Chicago” sees the Minneapolis native going a step further and reciting what could be viewed as an extended poem over five minutes of somber piano chords. “I’m interested to see how people take it,” Finn says. “The critics might say ‘It’s not even a song. Why isn’t this just a story?’ Putting words on music. … I’m just interested in how those things go together. It’s what I do. I’m always trying to find new ways to tell stories with music and I think this is the furthest in that direction I’ve gone.”

Despite injecting chaos into the lives of the characters in his songs, in his own Finn has gotten more buttoned-up and workmanlike. When not on tour, he typically carves out about two hours every day to write songs. It’s a process he started in 2015 for Lent, and one Finn says prevents the pain of procrastination and keeps his creative wheels turning.

“I won’t wait to be inspired,” he says. “You can write a song about your cat and then you can change the name later. I’ve gotten to the point where I know if I write 20 songs and throw out 10 of them then Josh (Kaufman) will probably throw out five more. And then we have five songs to work on. Which isn’t to say that those don’t get reworked a lot: they get massaged and poked and prodded and rewritten and all that. But at least it gives you a jumping-off point.”

And how does Finn determine what’s a Hold Steady song versus a solo one? In the Hold Steady he only writes lyrics after guitarist Tad Kubler presents him with music, for his solo work he mans the entire songwriting ship. “So by me writing the whole song it pretty much automatically becomes a solo song per se,” he says. “Which isn’t to say the Hold Steady wouldn’t try them, but when I’ve written things that are that far along and brought it to the band we haven’t really been to Hold Stead-ify it if you will.”

In speaking with Finn one gets the sense of a musician content with his place in the world. To that end, and for someone whose recent album titles convey an explicit sense of optimism, does Finn have high hopes for the Trump years?

“I believe that people are good but obviously we have our work cut out for us,” he says. He describes a recent East Coast tour in which he literally performed in people’s living rooms. “I believe on some level we do all want the same things,” Finn says, not-so-subtly invoking the title of his latest project. “But we just vastly differ on how we’re going to get there.”

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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